I frequently tell people that my favorite foraged goodie is devil’s club (Echinopanax horridum). The smell of newly picked devil’s club buds – fresh, piney, citrus, gin and ginseng, and so so green – is one of my favorite things in the world.
Found throughout Southeast and South Central Alaska, devil’s club can grow to be 8-9 feet tall with stalks covered in large prickles. When fully flushed out, the leaves of devil’s club look like giant maple leaves covered in spikes. Most of the year this plant is the bane of any forager’s existence, as you inevitably spend at least one or two foraging trips a year fighting through a giant patch of these snake-like clubs and come home with hopefully only one or two devil’s club splinters lodged in a thumb. The splinters are incredibly hard to get out and typically result in a blister.
The only part of the plant which I consume is the leaf buds right after they emerge, typically late spring (mid April to mid May depending on how warm the winter was). Each club will have one large bud on the tippy top of the stalk and potentially one or two smaller buds lower on the stalk. For this short period of time the leaves’ spines have not fully developed and are soft. Once the spines grow larger and become at all painful – don’t harvest! Because of this, I pick my buds with a bare hand, carefully feeling the bud to ensure that none of the spines are yet prickly. When they’re the right age for picking, you won’t feel a thing. As soon as they’re too old you’ll feel the prick of the spines, but you won’t get any splinters dislodging into your fingers.
I use a full leather glove on my right hand to firmly grasp the stalk of the devil’s club, then with my left I gently hold the bud and twist it back to break. Easy peasy! For cleaning I simply put the buds in a bowl of water, swish them around, and then sort the buds under running water. Discard any debris, including any leaf sheaths you accidentally picked.
Even More Devil’s Club Picking Tips
- Be careful where you step! Devil’s club stalks will frequently grow along the forest floor before bending towards the sky, meaning it’s easy to trip over them or step on one, inadvertently releasing a swinging club as soon as you move your foot. Believe me, picking devil’s club spines out of your lip is no fun.
- Don’t pick more than one bud from one stalk and don’t clean out a whole area. Because of the limited number of buds per stalk, it will also be obvious to you if someone else has gathered buds, be cognizant of this and move on to avoid over-picking.
- Pick nice tight buds to avoid potentially grabbing a bud that’s too old (and thus spiny). 1-2 inches is the sweet spot.
- Devil’s club buds grow very quickly! If you notice that the devil’s club in one part of town is overgrown, try and think of colder places (shadier, more elevated, etc.) where the buds might not be quite as far along.
- Use full leather gloves – those gardening gloves with the mesh in the back are just asking for trouble. Full leather gloves are also the ideal for picking nettles (which have stung me through gardening gloves before).
Devils’ Club Uses
Devil’s club is a traditional Tlingit and Haida medicinal plant, typically used in either a tea or a salve, although I believe those uses are based on harvesting devil’s club roots. I strictly harvest the buds, so I have no experience in this kind of use, although I do know that devil’s club is in the same family as ginseng.
Breaded and deep fried, devil’s club buds are a treat, but at home I typically blanch them and then puree them for a variety of uses. My favorite way to use devil’s club is as pesto – my standard recipe is here – which can then be either frozen or used in a variety of ways. I recently made this simple devil’s club pesto pasta for a party:
Devil’s Club & Twisted Stalk Pesto Pasta
- 2 boxes of spiral pasta (12 oz boxes)
- 1 cup devil’s club pesto
- 1 cup packed twisted stalk (rough chopped)
Once pasta is cooked, drain and cool. Toss everything together and liberally season with salt and pepper. Quick, easy, and enough for 16+ side portions. I made this dish in less than a half hour (including making the pesto).
Since twisted stalk typically grows in the same area as devil’s club, and at the same time, it’s easy to gather both at the same time. It also gives me nerdy joy to eat a dish with two plants that grow next to each other and are both picked fresh in the same season.