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A Floridata Plant Profile #872 Aralia spinosa
Common Names: devil's walking stick, prickly ash, prickly elder, angelica tree, pigeon tree, shotbush
Family: Araliaceae (ginseng Family)
Wallpaper Gallery (1 images)

tree  Shrub  Attracts Birds Drought Tolerant Has Ornamental (non-edible) Fruit Has Medicinal Uses Has Unusual or Interesting Foliage

devil's walking stick
It's early October in southeastern Ohio so this colony of devil's walking stick is beginning to set itself ablaze in red foliage.
Devil's walking stick is really more like a giant perennial than a tree or shrub. It sends up a loose colony of spiny ash gray stems from a rhizomatous root system. Mature specimens may grow to 20 ft (6.1 m) or more and develop a few branches, but younger plants have just a single naked stem with all the leaves clustered at the top. The stems are ringed with distinctive semicircular leaf scars which are lined with sharp toothlike spines - like a cartoon bulldog's collar. The exotic ferny-looking bi- or tripinnate leaves may be 3-6 ft (0.9-1.8 m) long. They are borne on long prickly stems and are themselves spiny along the ribs. The 2-4 in (5-10 cm) oval leaflets have pointed tips and toothed edges. They are dark green on top and whitish underneath, turning burgundy in the fall.

Devil's walking stick's foliage turns attractive shades of maroon in autumn.
Huge clusters of little white flowers appear at the ends of the branches in mid to late summer. In early to mid fall, they are followed by showy masses of 1/4 in (0.6 cm) purple black berries on burgundy stems. This species is often confused with Hercules club or toothache tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), which is more treelike and usually larger. Its leaves are only once compound like those of a hickory, not lacy like the Aralia's. And the fatter spines on the Hercules club trunk give older plants a more knobby than prickly texture. Aralia edulis, which is grown as a vegetable in Japan, is a similar species that grows to 3-4 ft (0.3-1.2 m) and bears bluish black berries in late fall.

Devil's walking stick comes from the eastern United States, where it grows in open woodlands and in clearings and along forest edges. This species likes disturbed areas. In the wild, populations expand into clearings and decline when the forest overstory gets thick again.

devils walking stick flowers
In summer the devil's walking stick calls attention to itself with huge showy clusters of white flowers.
Devil's walking stick is happiest in a good deep loam, but it will grow well on rocky, sandy, or clayey soils and is tolerant of a wide pH range. Growth is luxuriant on rich sites, but the plants tend to be sturdier and live longer on relatively poor soil. Occasional mowing, cutting, or prescribed burning will result in vigorous new growth. Margined blister beetles may defoliate the plants early in the fall.
Light: This species will grow in full sun or light shade, but it prefers semishade.
Moisture: Devil's walking stick will not tolerate extended flooding or longterm desertlike dryness, but it grows well on a full range of mesic sites, from low spots that are constantly moist with seepage to extremely well-drained hillsides which dry out thoroughly during droughts.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 9. Severe freezes may kill stems back to ground level. The young spring foliage is very tender and likely to be burned back by a late frost if the plant is not protected.
Propagation: Seeds should be sown in a coldframe as soon as ripe for spring germination. Stored seed will require stratification for 3-5 months, followed by 1-4 months at 68ºF (20 ºC) for germination. Three inch (7.6 cm) root cuttings can be taken in the late fall, overwintered upside down in sand, then potted up in the spring. Suckers transplant easily, especially in late winter.

The sinister spines set all along the unbranched stems inspired the common name devil's walking stick. The fact that the stems of fallen leaves look like bones reinforces the choice of name.
Devil's walking stick is used in the landscape as an accent plant or for tropical effects. The bark, roots, and berries were used for medicinal purposes by both Indians and early settlers. The bark was administered as a purgative and the berries were employed in pain killing preparations. Various parts of the plant have been used to treat boils, fever, toothache, cholera, eye problems, skin conditions, snakebite, and venereal disease. The flowers of devil's walking stick must really pump out the nectar in the late afternoons, because that's when they are absolutely covered with honeybees. The berries are valuable as food for birds, black bears, and other wildlife.

This is one of the most viciously spiny things in the vegetable kingdom! You can plant it under a vulnerable window to deter burglars or use it as a living fence in place of barbed wire. Between its sinister spines and the way bonelike leaf stems and midribs pile up around the base as it sheds its leaves, there is something downright spooky about this plant. Plant it along the edge of the woods next to where you pile your Halloween pumpkins.


Aralia spinosa's dark purple berries are toxic to humans but provide nutrition to birds and wildlife.
This species can be both poisonous and invasive. The raw berries are mildly toxic if ingested. Contact with the bark or roots can cause brief skin irritation. Devil's walking stick is not a rampant invader, but it will send new shoots out into surrounding plantings. These can be difficult to remove, since the spines are so hard and sharp that you can't get a good grip on the plant even with heavy gloves.

lcd 12/1/00; updated 9/25/03

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