Scientific Name(s): Oplopanax horridus (Sm.) Miq.
Common Name(s): Cukilanarpak (native Alaskan for "large plant with needles"), Devil's club
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 19, 2021.
Devil's club has been traditionally used to treat a variety of conditions including influenza, measles, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and rheumatism. Research focuses on antimicrobial, anticancer, and hypoglycemic applications; however, there is a lack of clinical studies to support these uses.
None well documented.
None well documented.
Use is best avoided because of lack of clinical studies.
None well documented.
None well documented.
A 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 purgative and emetic suggests potential toxicity.
- Araliaceae (the ginseng family)
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. Synonyms include Echinopanax horridus and Fatsia horrida.(Smith 1983, USDA 2021) This species is not to be confused with Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens).
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 the treatment of respiratory ailments (eg, cold, cough, sore throat, chest pain, tuberculosis) and GI complaints (eg, stomach pain, ulcers, gallstones, indigestion, constipation).(Bloxton 2002, Russell 1991, Smith 1983)
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.(Bloxton 2002, Russell 1991, Smith 1983)
Ethnobotanical 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 also been used as a purgative, emetic, and as a cathartic in higher doses.(Bloxton 2002, McCutcheon 1995, Smith 1983)
Four known sesquiterpenes have been identified: alpha-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 beta-sitosterol also have been identified. Trans-nerolidol is the major constituent found 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.(Bloxton 2002, Calway 2012, Huang 2015, Huang 2014, Huang 2014, Sun 2010, Wang 2010, Wang 2013) A natural bioactive polyacetylene, namely 9,17-octadecadiene-12,14-diyne-1,11,16-triol,1-acetate, was also isolated from devil's club.(Cheung 2019)
Uses and Pharmacology
A screening of a methanol extract from 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.(Calway 2012, Kobaisy 1997, McCutcheon 1997, Qiu 2013)
Animal and in vitro data
A number of researchers have reported on the effect of extracts of Oplopanax horridus and related species on a range of human cancer cell lines and tumors.(Jin 2014, Li 2010, McGill 2014, Meng 2015, Sun 2010, Tai 2014, Wang 2013, Zhang 2014) Polyacetylenes with a terminal double bond, such as 9,17-octadecadiene-12,14-diyne-1,11,16-triol,1-acetate, are potent inhibitors of pancreatic cancer cell proliferation.(Cheung 2019) The potential structural activity relationship of polyynes on anticancer effects is often highlighted.(Wu 2018)
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. However, further investigations were unable to verify this hypoglycemic effect in rabbits.(Large1938, Piccoli 1940, Stuhr 1944)
No pharmacologically active component could be identified in the plant. A report of a case study in which 2 patients were given extracts of the plant in conjunction with a glucose tolerance test found no hypoglycemic effects that could be attributed to devil's club.(Calway 2012, Smith 1983, Stuhr 1944)
Leaf extracts contain gallic acid, protocatechuic acid, chlorogenic acid and maltol. These findings suggest that the leaf extract could be utilized as a functional food material because of its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory activities.(Jang 2017)
None well documented.
Pregnancy / Lactation
Use is best avoided because of a lack of clinical studies. The dried roots and stalk have been reported to inhibit the effects of pregnant mare serum on the growth of ovaries from a 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.(Graham 1955)
None well documented. Although the hypoglycemic effect has not been confirmed, the continued traditional use of this plant for the management of diabetes suggests that some individuals may be sensitive to the hypoglycemic effects of devil's club and should use the plant with caution.Calway 2012
None well documented. The spiny covering of the stem can cause painful irritation and scratches upon contact. A case report exists of a collapsed anterior chamber consequent to ocular injury by the plant thorn.Mader 2008
Although no cases of significant toxicity have been reported, several points should be kept in mind regarding devil's club. The use of devil's club extract as an emetic and purgative are reflective of potential toxicity from the use of the plant.
- Echinopanax horridum (Sm.) Decne. & Planch.
- Echinopanax horridus
- Fatsia horrida
- Fatsia horrida (Sm.) Benth. & Hook
- Harpagophytum procumbens
- Panax horridum Sm.
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