In search of devil’s club, long used as medicine by Northwest tribes

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BREMERTON — Deep in the forests of the northwest, a peculiar shrub with palm-like leaves and stingers on its spines holds within it medicines that have been used by local tribes for thousands of years.

Azure Bouré is specially trained to pierce the prickly defenses of devil’s club, peeling the outer layers of its stems to find a remedy inside that’s been used to treat everything from arthritis to indigestion.

“It is one of our most powerful medicines,” said Bouré, the Suquamish Tribe’s traditional food and medicine coordinator for the Suquamish Tribe. “One of the oldest that we can remember in our family.”

Bouré searches local forests for Oplopanax horridus, carrying on a tribal tradition that includes gathering a variety of native plants to make salves, teas and remedies. Devil’s club, like nettles and other plants with skin-piercing barbs, developed defenses to protect its precious medicinal powers, she said.

“Plants get things like thorns and spines because they’re so high in nutrients — that if they didn’t, they’d be decimated by animals,” said Bouré, fresh off a trek through the woods of Ueland Tree Farm in Bremerton, where she was invited in late June to harvest devil’s club.

The Suquamish Tribe, like others around the Salish Sea, has long relied upon devil’s club, a cousin of ginseng, according to the US Forest Service. But the passing of the knowledge of harvesting and using the plant grew precarious during the 19th and 20th centuries, as the federal government attempted to assimilate Native Americans. Boarding schools aimed to strip Indigenous children of their heritage and passed-down teachings.

Bouré is a part of cultural restoration efforts within her tribe.

It was only natural for Bouré, who recalled as a child attending a camp where an instructor offered her berries from salal. “You can eat that?” she recalls replying.

“As a kid, I was always outside in the mountains, looking for salamanders,” she said.

Clumps of devil’s club weren’t hard to find at Ueland, the shrubs especially fond of sunny spots near creeks. After snipping the stems, Bouré took the shears of her clippers to strip away spikey outer bark. Once inside, “you can peel it like a banana,” she said.

Filling a basket, Bouré took her haul back to make more of a popular arthritis salve. She mashes it with willow, sunflower oil, beeswax and essential oil of rosemary, offering it to the tribe’s elders for pain relief. She also combines it with huckleberry leaves and berries and cinnamon to make what she calls “huckleberry helper” tea. At times, her products can be found at the Suquamish Museum.

Bouré hopes one day that she will be able to drop the “traditional” from her title — that her people’s ways of life and healing will be well-known.

“I’m just trying to learn it all,” she said. “So I can pass it on to the next generation.”

​​​​​​Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military and Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, or on Twitter at @joshfarley.