Worth the Pain: Harvesting Devil’s Club Shoots
Many Alaskans have cursed the spiny Devil’s club leaf and stalk while bush-whacking through the Great Land. But on the flip side, Echinopanax horridum is a rich source of food and medicine. Medicinal properties of its bark and roots are well-documented in Janice J. Schofield’s “Discovering Wild Plants” and other resources on Pacific Northwest flora, including everything from bark infusions for colds, gall stones and constipation to chewing the root and packing it around a painful tooth, but eating its leaf shoots before they unfurl and grow sharp spines is still a new experience for most Alaskans.
Some describe the taste of this raw spring green as “kind of like pine nuts,” “bitter,” or “interestingly fresh.” Harvesting Devil’s club shoots requires patience and leather gloves—patience to step carefully through a prickly patch so you don’t get poked and leather gloves to protect your fingertips while grasping the shoot and snapping it off. If you ever played the game Twister as a kid, you’ll already be acquainted with the right contortions for maneuvering through a bunch of Devil’s club, some of which can grow to several feet tall and veer this way and that. Picking the greens is as much performance art as it is subsistence activity.
Given that spring arrives at different locations and elevations at various times each year, harvesters should keep an eye on their favorite patches and be ready to start plucking as soon as the shoots are about one or two inches long. If they’ve started to open, it’s too late, for the spines will already be hardening. Thin brown sheaths grow from the base; they can either be eaten or discarded. I’ve harvested in Southcentral Alaska as early as April 23 (in 2016) and as late as May 31 (in 2013). If you miss the window of opportunity—which only lasts a day or two for each group of stalks—try looking farther north or move your search to higher ground.
While fresh, Devil’s club shoots make excellent additions to soups, salads, casseroles and many other meals. They are also delicious sautéed in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. To freeze for later, blanch about one minute, plunge into ice-cold water to cool, and then drain, squeeze out excess water and place in small zip-top bags. Unlike delicate leafy greens, Devil’s club shoots shrink very little once cooked.
One more merit of picking these tasty spring treats? It’s possible to fill up a gallon pail of them in a mere 20 minutes.