In May 2020, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) announced the publication of a combined monograph and therapeutic compendium for devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus, Araliaceae) bark of decumbent stem, root, and lower stem.1 According to AHP, this is the first pharmacopeial monograph developed for this North American botanical and the 41st published by the organization.
AHP monographs establish authenticity, purity, and quality standards for raw materials and finished preparations. The therapeutic compendia provide a comprehensive review of pharmacological and safety data, including medical indications, modern and traditional uses, structure and function claims, dosages, interactions, side effects, contraindications, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, toxicology, and more. This information can be used by individuals in the herbal community, from consumers and practitioners to quality control personnel and dietary supplement manufacturers.
Devil’s club grows in well-drained soil in old-growth forests and adjacent to marshy areas and streambanks.2 Erect stems can be three meters (10 feet) tall with spines up to three centimeters (one inch) in length, with broad, palmate leaves and a sprawling growth habit as a result of its shallow root system. Its tall growth and formidable spiny stems are likely the source of the plant’s common name “devil’s club.” It reproduces by vegetative layering, which generally is caused when stems are weighed down by snow. Vegetative layering occurs when new shoots anchor the stem to the forest floor and, when covered with soil, eventually form new roots and rhizomes. Sustainable harvesting of devil’s club is an ongoing concern because the medicinal parts used most often are the root and lower stems, which impact the plant’s ability to regenerate. Habitat loss is also a concern. The plant does not thrive in clear-cut areas without tree cover. Cultivation efforts have produced few successes, as devil’s club does not transplant easily outside of its native habitat, and seed germination is poor.
Devil’s club is relatively unknown in the global market, but in its native growing area, which includes most of the Pacific Northwest, it is a significant part of the medicinal and spiritual practices of Native American and First Nations peoples. Historically, the bark was chewed, decocted, or infused into oil as an appetite stimulant, a counterirritant for arthritis and rheumatism, an emetic, and for conditions such as fever, stomach pain, and respiratory ailments. It also was used for the management of diabetes and tuberculosis. As a spiritual aid, devil’s club was considered protective, and the wood and bark were fashioned into luck charms and amulets to ward off witchcraft and bad weather or infused into ritual baths for purification and protection. The species is not related to the similarly named devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri, Pedaliaceae).
Naturopathic physician Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), president of Heron Botanicals, uses devil’s club preparations often in his practice. Yarnell underwrote the creation of the monograph and therapeutic compendium through his company. “I felt it was important to share some of the herbal wealth of the Pacific Northwest more widely,” he wrote (email, June 9, 2020). “I use [devil’s club] primarily as an immunomodulating adaptogen with a lung affinity. I think this wonderful herb has really been oversimplified as just an antidiabetic remedy, and it is time [for people] to realize it has much wider actions.”
In modern Western herbal practice, devil’s club primarily is used in tincture or decoction form to support digestive health and mitigate minor gastrointestinal upset. However, in large doses, it is an emetic. It is also used for its antitussive effects to soothe coughs and sore throat. Though human clinical trials are lacking, some constituents of devil’s club bark have shown cytotoxic and antituberculosis activity in vitro. Specifically, polyynes in devil’s club have shown activities against numerous cancer cell lines, including breast, colorectal, leukemia, lung, ovarian, and pancreatic.
According to AHP Executive Director Roy Upton, RH, DipAyu, who edited the devil’s club monograph and therapeutic compendium: “We love giving attention to botanicals that are native to North America and have not been monographed anywhere else in the world. Giving these botanicals some focused attention provides a unique contribution to the botanical medicine literature that otherwise may not happen” (email, May 27, 2020).
American Botanical Council (ABC) Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner, PhD, commented: “One of the unique aspects of AHP monographs is that they combine quality parameters and therapeutic and safety information in one document. Roy Upton and his team have been great at producing monographs on plants with a longstanding history of medicinal use but that lack a comprehensive review of all available data. Devil’s club is no exception, and I congratulate AHP for another highly informative and beautifully illustrated monograph” (email, June 1, 2020).
The publication was a collaboration between AHP and Yarnell. Special contributions were made by faculty members at Bastyr University and the authors of an extensive review of devil’s club published in HerbalGram issue 62: Trevor Lantz, PhD; Kristina Swerhun, PhD; and Nancy Turner, PhD.3 Twenty-four co-authors from around the world contributed to the monograph and therapeutic compendium, and researchers at the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Flora Research Laboratories, LLC, performed original research on the plant’s cytotoxic and anti-tuberculosis effects and purity standards for the publication.
The monograph and therapeutic compendium document is available for purchase through AHP’s website. The monograph was made possible by the generous support of EuroPharma, Heron Botanicals, Mountain Rose Herbs, NOW Foods, Planetary Herbals, and Traditional Medicinals.
- Devil’s Club: Bark of Decumbent Stem, Root, and Lower Stem. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia website. Available at: https://herbal-ahp.com/collections/frontpage/products/devils-club-bark-bark-of-decumbent-stem-root-and-lower-stem. Accessed May 28, 2020.
- Upton R, Yarnell E, Bauer I, et al. Devil’s Club: Bark of Decumbent Stem, Root, and Lower Stem: Standards of Identity, Analysis, and Quality Control. Scotts Valley, CA: American Herbal Pharmacopoeia; 2020.
- Lantz TC, Swerhun K, Turner N. Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus): An Ethnobotanical Review. HerbalGram. 2004;62:33-48. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/62/table-of-contents/article2697/. Accessed May 28, 2020.