Devil’s Club’s Adaptogenic Effects for Trauma

I walk through the woods searching for a good place to harvest Devil’s Club, Oplopanax horridum. I investigate the root connections looking for a spot where the stems have grown tall and fallen over making new root junctions. If you can find a mature root in between two well-rooted nodes, you can take the central piece while doing minimal harm to the above-ground portions of the plant. I make prayers and offerings and ask for permission to harvest. As I am cleaning and clipping the roots I’ve removed from the stand, I have a sense that something is not right. I know that something is going to happen. All of my senses activate. I move into a state of complete alertness. Devil’s Club has been teaching me many things about protecting my boundaries and about having a keen awareness of my surroundings. When I am with him I am able to work with a 360 degree view sonically, energetically, and visually, and though I feel strongly that something or someone is near, I am not able to hone in on just what it is that is attracting my attention. I just know that something is up.

I pop in and out of this state a few more times as I carefully and quickly finish trimming and cleaning the roots and begin walking out of the woods and back towards the road that brought me here. As I approach the road, I am stopped again. My senses are on high alert. A moment later the calm of the forest, the chirping of birds and buzzing of insects, is broken by a sharp cracking. Time stands still. A groaning breaks the silence. Directly in my path, no more than twenty feet ahead, a large rotted tree falls, crashing to and shaking the ground.

I too am shaken. The tree has fallen directly on the path that I was walking on, and while I might not have been killed by it, I would have certainly been badly injured. I pause for a moment, giving thanks for the warning, but continue on, stepping over the tree’s rotted husk. My feet sink into the wet, spongy, decaying wood. I continue along the road in search of Dogwood. Two minutes later a large branch from a Redcedar tree falls onto the path in front of me. This really gets my attention. I stop and check in with my internal guides. Yes, it is time to go back. Today will not be the day to meet Dogwood. More importantly, it seems that Devil’s Club has a lesson for me.

On the way back, still deeply in the Devil’s Club state, I tune in and ask him what he is trying to show me. “You need to trust me. Stop worrying. If there is something that you need to know about, I will let you know.”

I feel in my body the places where I hold the tension of worrying. The parts of me that are always on guard waiting for something “bad” to happen. Most distinctly I feel it right below my ribcage, in the place that Ligusticum called the “root of all evil.” This place that I have found to be so intimately tied to thought forms and over thinking. It is an over exertion of the will that radiates out from the solar plexus.

I never have understood why it was so important for me to not continue on in search of Dogwood, though when I was finally able to make my connection with her it was at just the “right” time. Maybe the sick apprentice who went back to the car early really needed my attention. None of this really matters. The important thing for me was gaining a deeper understanding of the adaptogenic aspects of Oplopanax. Adoptogenic herbs work by moderating our responses to stress. Each one has an affinity for relieving different types of stressors. At this point in time, I am personally only familiar with our two native Ginseng family members: Oplopanax and Aralia (California Spikenard).

I have found that the places where each of these plants grow are a signature for the best application of their healing properties. Both plants always grow near water, but the character of these places is very different. Aralia who most often grows near tranquil streams can (among her many virtues) help to relieve the stresses of everyday life. There seems to be a light breeze blowing through the creeks where she grows. There is a sense of movement in these places. Her medicine is much about watery flow and getting into the flow of one’s life. If you are struggling against the current of your life, she can help.

Devil’s Club, on the other hand, seems to be about relieving stresses related to the darknesses of life. He usually grows in creeks that have a dark feel to them. Or better yet, you will find a stand growing in a stagnant, marshy area in the flood plain of the creek or down a steep slope where the water seeps down the hillside. There can be a stagnancy to the air. You wouldn’t want to go in there alone on a dark night. These places echo the places inside ourselves where our deepest traumas reside. The traumas that have wounded us so deeply that they leave us worrying (whether it be fully at the surface or in the background) about what other horrors might be inflicted upon us. By helping to relax this state of always being on guard, Devil’s Club can free up much needlessly wasted energy, and we can have increased vigor for actually living our lives. Devil’s Club, like many (if not all) of the other plants teaches us to transform the negative aspects of our psyche into positive. I am reminded of a beautiful image Devil’s club offered to me:

I was connecting with this part of myself always on guard and allowed my body to move freely to express this part of myself. First my body crouched down in a posture of fear as if I were backed into a corner and trying to protect myself. I again felt all of the places of tension and worry. I could feel that the energy was not flowing freely through my body. My inner being was terrified. Then the image shifted. My posture shifted slightly as well. I was crouched in a state of awareness. The first image was of my past way of being. This other way was of my future. There was no tension in my body; everything flowed smoothly. I had the sense that nothing could harm me in this state. That I was ready for anything. Then the two states began to edge closer in my vision. I could feel them superimposed on each other, infusing each other. These two energetic processes exist simultaneously outside of linear time within me. The future me could not exist without the past me. And as my being transforms and is more able to hold the energetic of the former, the past me is healed and relaxes and is able to trust more and more that the things that happened in the past will never happen again in the same way.

In my vision, these two opposing ways of began to merge within my psyche and I received the impression of what it would be like when I could fully embody the two and hold them simultaneously. Our greatest strengths truly are derived from the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. Trying to deny their existence or push them into the corner does us no good. We must embrace them so that they can transform and bring us into our highest potentials. In the case of Devil’s Club, this includes these states of awareness that I have spoken of that lead to less stress on the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.