Devil's Club

Scientific Name(s): Oplopanax horridus (Sm.) Miq. Family: Araliaceae (the ginseng family)

Common Name(s):Devil's club, cukilanarpak (native Alaskan for “large plant with needles”)

Uses

Devil's club has been traditionally made into decoctions and poultices for treatment of respiratory ailments (eg, cold, cough, sore throat, chest pain, tuberculosis) and GI complaints (eg, stomach pain, ulcers, gallstones, indigestion, constipation). Ethnobotanic data indicate the extracts of the inner bark appear to have antipyretic, antitussive, and antibacterial properties. The plant has been used internally to treat a variety of conditions including influenza, measles, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and rheumatism. Devil's club has been used as a purgative, emetic, and cathartic in higher doses. However, there is a lack of clinical studies to support these uses.

Dosing

None well documented.

Contraindications

None well documented.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Use is best avoided because of lack of clinical studies.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

None well documented.

Toxicology

Review of the scientific literature reveals little to no evidence evaluating the toxicology of the plant, although the berries are considered to be toxic by some. Traditional use as a hypoglycemic, purgative, and emetic suggests potential toxicity.

Botany

This hardy plant grows in moist ravines and well-drained soils along much of the Alaskan coast and adjacent regions of Canada and the northwestern United States; it can be found up to 100 miles inland, forming nearly impenetrable thickets. The plants attain heights of 5 m, and the densely thorned stem can reach 3 cm in diameter. Greenish-white flowers appear in June, producing scarlet berries in late summer. Devil's club is also referred to as Panax horridum Sm., Echinopanax horridum (Sm.) Decne. & Planch., Fatsia horrida (Sm.) Benth. & Hook. 1

History

This plant has a long tradition of use by the native tribes of Alaska and British Columbia for centuries and other populations in the Northwestern regions of the United States and Canada. The plant has been used internally by drinking an aqueous extract of the root or stem bark for treatment of respiratory ailments (eg, cold, cough, sore throat, chest pain, tuberculosis) and GI complaints (eg, stomach pain, ulcers, gallstones, indigestion, constipation). 1 , 2 , 3

Externally the prickly outer bark sometimes is scraped from the stem, leaving the cambium for use in the preparation of decoctions and poultices; however, others use both the cambium and stem together. Poultices were applied to sores and wounds to prevent or reduce swelling and infection. The cambium sometimes is softened by chewing prior to being placed on a cut or burn as an emergency analgesic and local antiseptic. In many cultures, the plant is believed to possess “magical” powers that impart great strength. 1 , 2 , 3

Ethnobotanic data indicate that the extracts of the inner bark appear to have antipyretic, antitussive, antibacterial, and hypoglycemic properties. The plant has been used internally to treat a variety of conditions including influenza, measles, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and rheumatism. Devil's club has been used as a purgative, emetic, and cathartic in higher doses. 1 , 3 , 4

Chemistry

Four known sesquiterpenes have been identified: α-cubebene, trans-nerolidol, spathulenol, and oplopanone. Lignan 1,3 benzodioxole, 5,5′-tetrahydro-1H,3H-furo[3,4-c]furan-1,4-diyl)bis, stearic acid, stigmasterol, and β-sitosterol also have been identified. Trans-nerolidol is the major constituent in the root bark. One study documents the absence of alkaloids and gallic acid, and the presence of oleic and unsaturated fatty acids, saponins, glycerides, and tannins. An ether extract of the root yielded 2 oils, equinopanacene (a sesquiterpene) and equinopanacol (a sesquiterpene alcohol). Oplopanone has antipyretic and antitussive activity. Stigmasterol and β-sitosterol are associated with antirheumatic and anticholesteremic activity. 3 , 5 , 6

Uses and Pharmacology

Hypoglycemic activity
Animal data

Several animal investigations were conducted in the 1930s and 1940s in an attempt to characterize the pharmacologic activity associated with the traditional uses of devil's club. Following reports that patients with diabetes could be managed successfully using water extracts of the root bark, animal-based investigations suggested that the extract had hypoglycemic activity in the hare and that the plant was not associated with toxicity. Further investigations were unable to verify the hypoglycemic effect in rabbits. 5 , 7 , 8

Clinical data

No pharmacologically active component could be identified in the plant. A report of a case study of two patients given extracts of the plant in conjunction with a glucose tolerance test found no hypoglycemic effects that could be attributed to devil's club. 1 , 5

Inhibition of gonadotropin
Animal data

The dried roots and stalk have been reported to inhibit the effects of pregnant mare serum on the growth of the ovaries of the white rat. The ovaries of control rats weighed more than 8 times those of test animals that received the serum together with 40 mg of dried plant per dose. 9

Clinical data

Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of devil's root for inhibition of gonadotropin.

Anti-infective activity
In-vitro data

A recent screening of a methanol extract of the inner bark of O. horridus showed partial inhibition against the respiratory syncytial virus. Previous screenings of O. horridus extracts exhibited antimicrobial and antifungal activities. The polyynes of the plant exhibited anti-Candida activity; and, in a disk diffusion assay, antimycobacterial activity, by killing Mycobacterium tuberculosis and isoniazid-resistant Mycobacterium avium at 10 mcg/disk. 10 , 11

Dosage

None well documented.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Use is best avoided because of lack of clinical studies.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

None well documented.

Toxicology

Although no cases of significant toxicity have been reported, several points should be kept in mind regarding devil's club. The spiny covering of the stem can cause painful irritation and scratches upon contact. The use of devil's club extract as an emetic and purgative are reflective of potential toxicity from use of the plant. Although the hypoglycemic effect has not been confirmed, the continued traditional use of this plant for the management of diabetes suggests that some persons may be sensitive to the hypoglycemic effects of devil's club and should use the plant with caution.

Bibliography

1. Smith GW. Arctic pharmacognosia II. Devil's club, Oplopanax horridus . J Ethnopharmacol . 1983;7:313-320.
2. Russell PN. English Bay and Port Graham Alutiq Plantlore . Homer, AK: Pratt Museum, 1991.
3. Bloxton J, DerMarderosian A, Gibbs R. Bioactive constituents of Alaskan devil's root ( Oplopanax horridus , Araliaceae). Economic Botany . 2002;56:285-287.
4. McCutcheon AR, Roberts TE, Gibbons E, et al. Antiviral screening of British Columbian medicinal plants. J Ethnopharmacol . 1995;49:101-110.
5. Stuhr ET, Henry FB. An investigation of the root bark of Fatsia horrida . Pharmaceutical Arch . 1944;15:9.
6. Kariyone T, Morotomi SJ. The essential oil of Echinopanax horridus . J Pharm Soc Japan . 1927;546:671.
7. Large RG, Brocklesby HN. A hypoglycemic substance from the roots of devil's club. Can Med J Assoc . 1938;39:32.
8. Piccoli LJ, Spinapolice BS, Hecht M. A pharmacologic study of devil's club root. J Am Pharm Assoc . 1940;29:11.
9. Graham RCB, Noble RL. Comparison of in vitro activity of various species of Lithospermum and other plants to inactivate gonadotrophin. Endocrinology . 1955;56:239.
10. Kobaisy M, Abramowski Z, Lermer L, et al. Antimycobacterial polyyenes of Devil's club ( Oplopanax horridus ), a North American native medicinal plant. J Nat Prod . 1997;60:1210-1213.
11. McCutcheon AR, Stokes R, Thorson L, Ellis S, Hancock R, Towers G. Antimycobacterial screenings of British Columbian medicinal plants. International Journal of Pharmacognosy . 1997;35:77-83.

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