Anyone who has ventured into the fringes between fields and swamp or woods has seen this one. Devil’s Walking stick, (Aralia spinosa) also known as Hercules Club, prickly elder or prickly ash is a plant you’ll never forget. If you’ve ever grabbed hold of one the experience is lasting. Stout stems are armed with sharp prickles. Prickles are most dense near where leaves are attached.
This ginseng and English ivy relative generally grows less than 15 feet tall. Huge multi-divided feather-like leaves armed with spines are clustered at the tips of central stems. This arrangement makes the plants look like big umbrellas. Fall foliage color is yellow to reddish orange.
Emerging above these leaves are large clusters of tiny creamy white flowers. These flowers have a lemony smell and bloom in August and September. Nectar from flowers is a big food source for many butterflies including the tiger swallowtail.
Black pea-sized fruits develop on bright pink fruiting stalks later in the fall. Fruits provide food to birds and other wildlife. They’re edible to humans in small quantities if mature, but their bitterness deters most who would try them. Unripe or uncooked fruits are poisonous. Bark is poisonous also and even touching sap from the plants can be a skin irritant to some.
Devil’s walking stick is commonly found throughout the southeast. It’s also found in pockets throughout most of the eastern states since it tolerates -20F temperatures. It’s usually found on moist soils, but plants tolerate drought well. Plants spread by seeds and underground stems.
Young leaves can be eaten before prickles harden. They are more palatable cooked than fresh, but I regard this plant strictly as a survival species. Medicinally, it has been used for many ailments, but the only one modern herbalists agree on is toothache pain. Some herbalists call this plant the toothache tree. They recommend a tea from the inner bark and/or berries.
There is another tree found around here that is also called toothache tree or prickly ash and it is not related to Devil’s walking stick at all. It is related to oranges. Fruits ripen in summer and exude an orange-like aroma. These fruits are highly prized by wildlife.
True prickly ash leaves are much smaller and have far fewer leaflets. They don’t look anything at all like the ones from Devil’s walking stick. Also, when these leaves are crushed they smell like lemons. Yellowish flowers also appear before leaves emerge.
Prickles on the stem look different too. They are scattered on the stems, thicker and shorter than those on the Ginseng relative. Still, many people confuse the two species. I’m not just talking about your average Joe’s either. I’ve read postings from herbalists where the two unrelated species have been used interchangeably.
Medicinal uses for the two species overlap, too. Numerous sources list the same merits for both. For this reason I don’t recommend either. I haven’t found any drug interactions that might pose a concern, but whenever there is any question about positive species identification, I get nervous.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.