How to Harvest and Use Devil’s Club

Devil's Club in Southeast Alaska

Devil's Club Towering Over Teeny MetcalfeTreadwell Mine, Douglas, Alaska/Photograph by Ray Brudie

Devil’s club leaf shoots are the ultimate seasonal treat – they’re edible for only a few days a year and taste wonderful. They have a resiny, almost piney, odor when first picked that is tamed, but doesn’t dissipate entirely, when heated. Cooked devil’s club shoots have a uniquely energizing and complex flavor that tastes like nothing else I’ve ever eaten.

In spring, I check the devil’s club on our property daily, anxious lest I miss the narrow harvesting window. Once they’re ready, we immediately head out with bags and baskets to pick our fill of this unusual spring green. When I mention how good devil’s club shoots taste, I often get looks of disbelief from those who’ve fallen victim to the spines that cover its stalks and undersides of leaves.

Devil’s club (Echinopanax horridum, also known as Oplopanax horridus) is the bane of hikers and bushwhackers in coastal forests from southcentral Alaska to northern California and east to Montana. It’s also found on a few islands in Lake Superior.

Devil’s club’s sharp spines painfully puncture skin and can be difficult to dislodge. If you get attacked by devil’s club, the best way to remove spines is with tweezers. Because it’s such a large plant and grows in wide swaths, devil’s club can render impassable areas where it’s found in abundance.

In spring, before it has leaves, patches of devil’s club look like dried brown sticks, covered from top to bottom with nasty spines. When the leaf buds first appear, they’re cloaked in a thin brown sheath.

New Devil's Club Buds Have Soft Green Spines

Close up of Devil's Club leaf spines before they harden

Once the leaf buds break through their inedible sheaths, and are 1” – 2” long, they’re edible. At this stage, their leaf spines are soft and pliable. When the spines harden, leaf shoots can no longer be eaten.

Harvesting devil’s club shoots can be tricky because you must carefully pick your way through large patches of prickly stalks, often on uneven, moist terrain. Be careful not to grab the stalks for support or fall among the painful spines.

It’s also important to wear sturdy clothes when harvesting devil’s club. If you brush against one of its stalks, the spines can embed themselves in your clothing and work their way through to your skin. When you’re done harvesting, check your clothes over carefully and remove any lurking spines, or they’ll stab you the next time you wear the clothes or sit down in your car.

Devil's Club Leaf Bud

How to Harvest Devil’s Club Shoots

Carefully grasp green leaf bud, bend it down, twist, and the bud will snap off. Be careful how you do this, as you can easily drive the surrounding spines into your hand as you’re breaking off the bud. I learned this lesson the hard way; and more than once.

Blanched Devils Club Shoots

Blanched Devil's Club Shoots

How to Prepare Devil’s Club Shoots for Use in Recipes

Carefully pick through devil’s club shoots and discard any twigs, leaves, spines, damaged shoots, or leaf sheaths. Wash twice in cold water to remove all extraneous debris. Fill clean sink or large bowl with cold water. Blanch cleaned shoots in large pot of boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain shoots and immediately plunge them into cold water. Drain well. The devil’s club shoots are now ready to use in recipes, and may be frozen for later use.

Unless I plan on finely chopping or puréeing the buds, I separate the multiple leaf shoots that make up a single devil’s club leaf bud. There are both male and female leaf buds; females have a tiny green cone in the center that eventually will flower. Both types of leaf buds are edible.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:


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