Spooky Native Plants: Devil’s Club

By Bonnie Grant | November 7, 2021
Image by John Pennell
by Bonnie Grant
November 7, 2021

It is no secret that Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love all things scary, including spooky plants. We have no shortage of native plants that fit in that category, such as the cannibalistic pitcher plants, but one of my favorites is the Devil’s Club. In my region, a walk in the rainforests may introduce you to this prickly, moisture loving plant. 

Our indigenous plant population is diverse and important. Native plants must be protected and revered, since they are part of the cycle of life in our forests, plains, and even cities. The Devil’s Club is Oplopanax horridus, a fitting name for a startling plant. This member of Pacific Northwest flora has a long history of use in the First Nation groups, using it as medicine, as well as using the barbs for fishing hooks and even tattoo needles. 

Devil’s Club

I first encountered the plant about 15 years ago. It was a specimen we introduced onto a woodsy estate I worked at as part of encouraging natural flora in the surrounding forests. This is a fun plant. It can get 3-9 feet (1-3 m.) tall or it may be a shorter, more spreading specimen. The leaves are similar to giant maple leaves, deeply lobed and green. The stems are thick and covered in ferocious looking yellow spines, but the plant doesn’t stop there. Even the leaves sport spines. These spines are very sharp and piercing, 0.5 inches (2 cm.) long . A casual walk in the forests should see the hiker exercise caution to avoid these native plants. 

These unusual plants are found from B.C. up into Alaska, and down into Montana and Idaho, with some occurring in the Yukon and near Lake Superior. They prefer moist woody locations with dappled light, and are frequently found along streams and wetlands. 

Flowers and Berries

These native plants have more interesting attributes. The spooky plants produce small white flowers in triangular clusters, which turn into berries. The berries have a decidedly eyeball-ish appearance. They are blood red when ripe. Bears love these berries and spread the plant from seed in their scat. The plant also spreads through layering of stems or from division. Devil’s Club is deeply rooted and long lived, but very sensitive to environmental changes. 

Despite its formidable appearance, Devil’s Club is quite striking and would make an interesting landscape plant in a semi-shady, moist, but well draining location that’s not in a common pathway. Those spines would make gardening nearby a bit hazardous, so garbing up in thick gloves, pants and long sleeved shirt is necessary. 

I love this plant for its importance to wildlife, its long history of use in medicine, and as a useful native flora. It doesn’t hurt that Devil’s Club is one of nature’s quirky attempts at developing something so useful but also with amazing visual interest. 

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