Residents learn to craft devil's club salve
August 9, 2018
Most Alaskans and others in the Pacific Northwest know to avoid the sharp spines and massive leaves of devil's club when tromping through forests, but some flock to the plant for its medicinal and practical uses.
A dozen Haines residents attended a workshop by local devil's club expert Sierra Hinkle at the library Saturday and left knowing how to make devil's club salve.
Devil's club, also known as devil's walking stick, is a plant related to American ginseng often found among shrubs on the floor of arboreal rainforests from Southcentral Alaska to western Montana, Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Exposure to devil's club spines, found on the plant's woody stem and under its leaves, can cause an allergic reaction in some people, including irritated skin, eyes and nose.
Hinkle said devil's club has many uses from salves, ointments, lip balms, juices and tinctures to jewelry, drum sticks, walking sticks, artwork, and a Native Alaskan method of warding off evil.
When rubbed on the skin, devil's club salve is said to alleviate symptoms of arthritis, stiff neck, eczema, insect bites, sunburn, poison ivy or sumac, psoriasis, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, muscle aches and pains, minor cuts and burns and more.
"Devil's club juice is consumed to help ensure health and also to help heal an already ailing body. It has an unknown amount of uses," Hinkle said. "Growing up I was raised to believe this juice is a 'cure all' and works best when the user truly believes in its healing powers." Hinkle grew up in Angoon, where she said family and neighbors instilled in her an appreciation for the earth.
She said she often makes large batches of devil's club salve to gift at Tlingit 40-day and pay-off parties, ceremonies held after someone dies.
Hinkle said devil's club was culturally and traditionally used by Tlingit medicine men. Today, Tlingit people still believe that an unpeeled stalk, if placed above doors and windows or hung over a bed, will ward off evil spirits and prevent nightmares.
Haines SEARHC clinic administrator Pat Hefley said although devil's club hasn't been adopted by western medicine as a prescribable medication, he's observed patients who claim it has helped them. "I think the medical and health industry has been more open to the uses of pharmaceutical products from nature. Devil's club hasn't gone through the rigorous scientific and clinical trials of western medicine, but providers have experienced people who say 'this works for me.'" Hefley said in addition to clinically tested medicine, medical providers can suggest to patients that devil's club may be something worth trying.
Hinkle said there are many different ways to make devil's club salve. The first step in the method she learned was to score the plant by making a few cuts on the stalk just above where it comes off the ground about 12 to 24 hours before harvest. Injuring the plant will cause it to send juices up the stalk to heal itself. Hinkle said sometimes the plant will heal so fast that it's difficult to find the score marks the next day.
Next, cut off the stalk just below the score marks and cut off the leaves. Use thick gloves and a knife, rock or other available utensil to rub off the spines from the bark. Then use the knife to slice down the length of the stalk and peel the bark and green "meaty" layer off the woody stem. Once those layers are removed, then peel the bark off the green layer, which is used for the salve.
Hinkle cuts the green layer into approximately one-inch pieces and heats them in vegetable or olive oil. Although she was never taught to measure, Hinkle said there should be approximately one cup of devil's club to two or two-and-a-half cups of oil. Add two to three drops of tea tree oil for preservative, and beeswax to thicken.
Pour into glass jars and let cool. Hinkle said the salve can last about a year. Library education coordinator Jolanta Ryan said she thinks the workshop was a big success, and hopes to host more workshops next summer about how to harvest and use local plants.