On Devil's Club, and Why We're No Longer Using it in Our Skincare
Devil’s Club / Sʼáxtʼ / Oplopanax horridus
Native to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, Devil’s Club makes its home among the understory of this region’s wet old growth forests. Cruising through the trees you’ll often find Devil’s Club’s gnarled spikey stalks, broad flat leaves, and bright red berries thickly lining the banks of creeks and streams; and you’ll quickly key in to the plant’s pungent earthy aroma as you near a healthy stand.
Devil’s Club, Sʼáxtʼ in the Tlingit language, is one of Southeast Alaska’s most potent native herbs, due to its unique combination of phytochemicals – the biologically active compounds found in plants. It’s list of medicinal and healing applications is long and varied, and modern medical researchers have begun to evaluate the plant’s phytochemicals for applications in cancer treatments.
Devil’s Club is known to be adaptogenic – meaning the plant’s compounds help our bodies adapt to and manage various stressors. This plant is also pain relieving, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, among many other medicinal actions.
The spiny stalks and developing bud of Sʼáxtʼ in springtime
For these reasons the inner bark and root of Devil’s Club have been used traditionally for centuries by Pacific Northwest indigenous cultures both internally and externally as a treatment for a wide range of conditions including skin and wound care, immune support, cold, flu, and respiratory infection, and joint pain relief. The early spring shoots of the Devil’s Club plant have also traditionally been collected and enjoyed as a food source.
Devil’s Club is deeply woven, both medicinally and spiritually, into the culture of so many indigenous communities who have lived in union with the lands and waters of this region for centuries. The foreboding spikes of this powerful plant have been believed to ward off evil spirits, and Devil’s Club’s bare woody stalks have been used in the making of protective charms, body adornments, walking sticks, and fishing lures.
This is a highly powerful, culturally relevant, and sacred plant to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. And for this reason, we will no longer be working with Devil’s Club in our body care formulations.
As a non-indigenous formulator and owner of this business, it is not my place to commodify such a highly sacred and culturally important plant. To remove the cultural and spiritual contexts and narrative of this plant and focus solely on it’s chemical compounds is a form of cultural appropriation and erasure, and only serves to perpetuate the wounds of colonization in this region. Historical trauma that began with the seizure of these traditional lands, and the outlawing of indigenous cultural practices by white settlers (more on this AK history here and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act here).
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ refers to “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
The more I’ve learned around ethno-botany, cultural connections to certain plants, and the subtleties of cultural appropriation in the realms of herbalism and the wellness industry, the more deeply I’ve felt that it is not my place, as a non-native woman, to sell a product made with such a sacred element of Native Alaskan culture, a culture that is not my own. Especially when not so long ago the practice of that very culture by its bearers was deemed illegal and consequently nearly eliminated entirely.
With the launch of our new brand, I’ll be introducing a new formula for our crowd favorite Fisherman's Balm - developed to support hard working hands, with herbs that offer relief from pain and joint stiffness, help to heal and repair damaged skin, and replenish moisture and nutrients as hands (and other areas) become cracked and dry.
In place of the Devil’s Club previously used in our Fisherman’s Balm, you’ll now find a whole-plant infusion of Plantain leaf. Plantain grows wild and prolifically across the globe, and you’ve likely stepped over it in your own neighborhood. The soft, broad leaves of this plant offer a range of healing compounds that support the skin in repairing and regenerating. Anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antiseptic, emollient, and astringent, humble Plantain offers many of the medicinal qualities we need in a salve made to support hands that do it all, in the harshest of elements.
Gathering Plantain leaf
If you feel called to use the Devil’s Club plant in your personal wellness practice, whether topically for skin care or internally via tea or tincture, please seek out and purchase from indigenous-owned businesses that offer this medicine. In this way you can ensure the plant is harvested and prepared with respect to traditional culture, and you are directly investing in the proliferation of Alaska native culture. Planet Alaska in Juneau, AK offers topical and tinctured Devil’s Club. Dei L’e.aan & Tlingit Botanicals based in Hoonah, AK offers a range of salves, balms, and topical skincare goods.
If you seek to harvest and work with this plant on your own, consider researching, listening to, and learning from indigenous teachers and healers to understand the full cultural context around the plant, as well as respectful, appropriate harvest and preparation techniques used to ensure the plant is safe for consumption and can continue to grow and thrive in its natural habitat.
The subtleties of cultural appropriation are layered and complex, and require us to examine our own beliefs, values, and practices with an open mind, open heart, and open ears. It’s important to acknowledge and honor the historical roots of the information, goods, and practices we consume. Herbalism itself has deep roots with the indigenous peoples of this continent – who first carried and shared the foundation of knowledge that informs our work with plant allies today.
If you’d like to dig deeper and educate yourself further about plant-culture connections and cultural appropriation in the herbal/wellness space here are a few resources to get started: