Devil’s Walkingstick is known as The Toothache Tree
“The cascading, four foot, doubly-compound leaves of devil’s walking stick, bunched near the end of long crooked thorny stems reaching as tall as 20 feet, give this plant a decidedly tropical look — it’s a plant that might fit in nicely on the set of Jurassic Park.
In fact, its leaves are the largest of any in the continental United States. Masses of small white flowers are borne above the leaves in equally impressive terminal panicles, developing into a profusion of dark purple fruits … so heavy that the plant at times droops to the ground.”
— James T. Costa, Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide (2012).
Several years ago, in late summer, I was with a group botanizing the Big Laurel (Alarka Laurel) section of the Cowee Mountain Range just south of Bryson City where Swain County adjoins Macon and Jackson counties.
Walking along the Spruce Trail at about 4,000 feet (where the southernmost stand of red spruce in North America is located), we came to the old Nancy Green homesite, which she maintained in this ethereal setting into the 1930s. (I wish I knew more about Nancy Green and would appreciate hearing from anyone who does.)
Apple trees, periwinkle and other domesticated plants common to such sites were in evidence. But the most curious item by far was a stand of shrubby trees armed with prickly spines on their bare trunks and topped with enormous plumes of black fruit. Although it’s a fairly frequent species throughout the region below 3,500 feet, Aralia spinosa is often overlooked despite its curious growth strategies and human associations.
Like some people, some plants make such a vivid first impression that you never forget them. My first encounter with the plant, years ago, was memorable. Working my way down a steep slope, I was reaching out, grabbing saplings for balance when I unwittingly seized upon A. spinosa. The toxic thorns that circle the trunk sank into my hand giving me a shock that was almost electric.
Back in earlier times — when the average citizen was more keenly aware of the natural world than is the case today — every plant was tested for its potential use as an implement, food or medicine. Those that had actual or supposed medicinal properties were esteemed and sometimes cultivated so as to be nearby when required. This is no doubt why we found the plant persisting at 4,000 feet in the Cowees at Nancy Green’s old homeplace.
A. spinosa was one of those easily cultivated items that had a wonderful use. When you’ve got a toothache and no dentist, you’ll try anything, including popping the tooth out with pliers if it gets that bad.
According to Le Page du Praz in his History of Louisana (1758), as quoted in Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees (1950), “the inner bark has the property of curing the toothache. The patient rolls it up the size of a bean, puts it upon the aching tooth.”
Steven Foster and James A. Duke suggest in A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants (1990) that a “tincture of berries was also used for toothaches.”
The white settlers learned these applications from the Cherokees and other Indian tribes of the region. Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey in Cherokee Plants: Their Uses — A 400 Year History (1975), state that the plant was not only used for “ache of decaying teeth” but as a root-salve for old sores or as a root tea for a variety of ailments.
Let’s bring this A. spinosa treatise to a conclusion by quoting Peattie yet again on another of A. spinosa’s curious associations: “Back in the last century when trees were cultivated for their very grotesqueness, this strange, clumsy, disproportionate, at once pretentious and yet somehow insignificant little tree or tall shrub was in fashion. With the cast-iron mastiff on the lawn, the wooden gingerbread on the eaves, or — if the mansion were stone — the castellations on the roof, a fine, flourishing, horrendous specimen of [devil’s walkingstick] produced an effect which might wake envy in the bosoms of less fortunate neighbors.”
Unlike Peattie, I find A.spinosa to be a handsome (if somewhat strange) plant with uncommonly interesting botanical aspects and folk connections. As Tim Spira notes in his Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians (2011) it is “an attractive plant in woodland borders.”