Common Name: Devil’s Walking Stick, Hercules’ club, Prickly ash, Angelica tree, Toothache tree, Prickly elder, Pigeon tree, Pick tree, Mississippi hoe handle, Shotbush – the stem of the plant is unbranched and simple, like a walking stick; it is covered with large prickly thorns that would metaphorically be associated with the devil.
Scientific Name: Aralia spinosa – The generic name is a Latinized form of the name of the plant in French-Canada, which is of presumably American Indian provenance; spinosus is the Latin word for full of thorns, an appropriate descriptor for the thorny stem of the plant.
Potpourri: The Devil’s Walking Stick propagates with a rhizomatous root system that extends just below the ground to create a cluster of plants in loose congregation. The individual stems are ramets, or clones, of the singular parent. These younger plants consist of unbranched and solitary stems that are covered with thorns; the overall effect is of a prickly, impassable stockade. As the plant matures, it can develop into a shrub or even a small tree; the record is over fifty feet in height with a stalk, actually a trunk, of up to eight inches in diameter. It is a native of eastern North America, predominantly growing in forest openings that range in size from 750 to 1,000 square meters; it fares comparatively poorly in areas that are either more or less open.
The diversity and incongruous collection of common names ascribed to A. spinosa is partly due to mistaken identity; it is often confused with Zanthoxylum clava-herculis. As the Latin species name attests, this is the real Hercules’ club; the trunk is covered with raised, corky protuberances that characterize the archetypical club. The name Toothache tree is also more attributable to Z. clava-herculis; the tree was used by Native Americans in myriad medicinal applications, including the bark for gonorrhea, the roots to induce perspiration, and the wood for toothaches. After foliation, the plants are readily distinguished; the Devil’s Walking Stick has bipinnate (twice divided) leaves, those of Hercules’ club are pinnate.
A. spinosa was also used for medicinal purposes by the Native Americans and their Colonial American successors. Its potential as a palliative is not without expectation; it is a member of the Ginseng family (Araliaceae). A decoction of the bark was used to break a fever by increasing perspiration. Bark was also used directly for intestinal discomfort due to its demonstrated emetic and purgative properties. The roots were mashed and cooked to make a poultice that was applied as a vulnerary for boils and other skin eruptions. Colonial Americans, notably those of African descent, extended the use of root poultices to the treatment of snakebite. The water used to boil the roots was collected for the treatment of eye irritations.
The Devil’s Walking Stick is readily identified in both the spring and in the fall by the presence of large clusters of small white flowers that succeed to purple to black berries. The esthetics of the clustered flowers and berries has lent it some visual appeal when planted at the edge of a wooded area. It was planted as an ornamental in English gardens during the late 19th Century as a contrarious gesture to conformity. The raw berries are one of major food sources for a variety of songbirds, black bears, and other wildlife; Deer browse on the twigs and leaves.
In keeping with its namesake, the Devil’s Walking Stick is mildly toxic, not uncommon for plants that have medicinal properties. Raw berries can cause gastrointestinal distress if ingested in sufficient quantities. The toxins are concentrated in the seeds of the berries, which, if chewed, can result in poisoning. There is some suspicion that A. spinosa has been the cause of livestock poisoning. In spite of the softness and weakness of the wood, it has been used in a number of applications, including button boxes, photograph frames, pen racks and the arms of rocking chairs. The stems were cut in the early spring, stripped of their thorny external skin and made into plant stakes and, perhaps ironically, (devil’s) walking sticks.