What does the Herbalist need to know about Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) before incorporating this plant into the materia medica?
A review of the traditional and scientific literature, commercial claims and ethical considerations.
by Amanda Howe
Thesis submitted to the University of Wales and awarded MSc Herbal Medicine with distinction.
Please find below the abstract that will give you a brief outline of conclusions reached in the thesis.
The gathering of information about Devil's Club was, to say the least, a labour of love. It is an extensive review of information about this powerful plant. The Table in Appendix 1 gives an extensive review of First Nations Traditional Use of Devil's Club and I hope that my fellow herbalists will enjoy it. The review of the scientific information about the plant was interesting but most of it was not done on humans and so has little relevance to clinical practice. The ethics around commercialisation of this sacred plant are questions that I hope will be answered with integrity.
It may come as a surprise to some that there is no tradition of using this plant as a tincture and therefore no evidence of safety for such a preparation. And even suggestion that it is indeed not safe as a tincture. Traditional use of the plant involved lengthy decoction in open pots thereby reducing the volatile oil content of the plant significantly. There is also absolutely no evidence of its long term use as an adaptogen - most use traditionally has been short term only, which is at odds with the way most people think of using adaptogens. There is also no evidence that it will lower blood sugar. In fact many of the claims made commercially for this plant are based on no evidence whatsoever and many of the types of preparations being sold are quite possibly not even safe if they do not involve decoction of the plant.
All these points are discussed fully in the report. Please feel free to email me for the full thesis if you are interested.
Ethnobotanical and western scientific literature, commercial claims and ethical considerations about devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) are reviewed and analysed in an effort to give the herbalist information necessary to make a decision about addition of this plant to the materia medica.
The ethnobotanical literature reviewed shows documented, long traditional use in a wide range of infections including tuberculosis, in rheumatism and arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, and pain relief. Strong purgative and emetic properties are also well documented.
An exhaustive review of the scientific literature shows in-vitro activity of the plant against bacteria, viruses, mycobacteria and fungi.
Scientific investigations conducted to assess the hypoglycemic effects of devils club are reviewed and found to be inconclusive.
The treatment of diabetes with devil’s club is discussed in traditional, scientific and historical context, and finds insufficient evidence to support claims of a hypoglycaemic action.
The traditional use in treating tuberculosis and the subsequent scientific investigations showing the plant’s significant in-vitro activity against drug resistant Mycobacterium avium is analysed and discussed.
Various commercial claims for devil’s club are reviewed. Sufficient evidence was not found in the literature to support use in diabetes, hyperglycaemia, cancer, or as a ginseng substitute. However further investigations for use in diabetes and cancer are warranted.
Numerous traditional preparations of devils club are reviewed. No evidence of traditional use of devils club in tincture or capsule form is found in the literature, nor is evidence found to support safety or efficacy of these types of preparation.
Finally the author reviews ethical considerations, and concludes that it would be unethical to use this plant unless there are sustainable harvesting and management practices, permission from First Nations people to use traditional knowledge and to commercialise this sacred plant, and benefit sharing with First Nations people according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.