- Family Pedaliaceae
- Harpagophytum procumbens
- Grapple Plant, Wood Spider
- Do not take if suffering from stomach or duodenal ulcers.
- Do not take during pregnancy.
- Care must be taken not to mix the tubers, which contain the active constituents, with the roots, since this can render the herb ineffective.
Native to the Kalahari Desert and other arid areas of southwestern Africa, it is found most commonly on the veldt of the Transvaal and now cultivated in other parts of the world. Devil's Claw is a trailing perennial, reaching five feet in length with fleshy, lobed leaves, bright red, trumpet-like flowers, and barbed, woody fruit. It thrives in clay or sandy soil, preferring roadsides and wasteground, especially in places where natural vegetation has been cleared. The underground tubers have the ability to store water that they need in order to survive the harsh desert climate. Young tubers are unearthed in autumn.
Devil’s Claw must survive up to ten months of drought each year and, therefore, depends on a very deep root system. Along its long root fibers are potato-like tubers that store moisture. It is this secondary storage root system where the medicinal properties of the plant are found. When first unearthed, the moisture content is very high and must be processed soon after harvesting. The water saturation is such that each root provides only a relatively small proportion of active ingredients, about 6 kg (13.2 pounds) for every 100 kg of tubers.
The tuber is covered with a thin, grooved cork shell. In processing, the root is slit once or twice lengthwise, then slowly dried. As it dehydrates, it shrinks into the characteristic fan-shape. These are carefully grated, but mills or knives are not used because the sticky substance would soon coat the metal surfaces and render them useless.
The pods are heavily barbed and very strong. They can severely injure animals that get too close. Often, pliers are needed to pry a pod loose from an animal’s hoof. The hook-like projections can become so entangled in a sheep’s wool that the animal is unable to free itself and dies there. The moisture from the dead animal allows for seeds to germinate and thus its name. It is indeed a “devilish” way for any plant to seek its survival. It is due to these pods, which can inflict such damage on the herds of desert tribes, that the plant received its name. Its various names were also derived from the appearance of the fruit, which looks like it is covered with tiny hooks, claws, or spider legs.
Its medicinal properties are said to have been discovered by various southern African peoples who used a decoction of the tubers to treat digestive problems and arthritis. Two related African species are still used interchangably with H. procumbens.
African healers have used the tubers for centuries to treat everything from cancer, intestinal disorders, and fevers, to menstrual and pregnancy problems. Various peoples from southern Africa, including the Khoikhoin and the Bantu, used the herb for digestive problems, arthritis and rheumatism, to reduce fevers, and in ointments to treat sores, ulcers, and boils.
Although it was used for centuries in Africa, it was unknown in Europe until the beginning of the 20th century, when a German farmer heard stories about its medicinal properties while travelling in South Africa. He decided to try cultivating it in Germany, and it soon became popular as a botanical medicine. Over the next few years, its popularity increased and spread to include North America. It is now also cultivated in China, where it has been added to the list of traditional Chinese botanical medicines.
- digestive stimulant
- estrogenic effects
- iridoid glycosides (mainly harpagoside)
- sugars (stachyose)
- vitamins and minerals (mainly niacin, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese, sodium, and zinc)
In 1992, French researchers proved the anti-inflammatory effects of the herb; but opinion is still divided as to its effectiveness.
Stigmasterol and other fatty acids may act as a natural estrogen.
Harpagoside has been proven to reduce inflammation, especially that associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Unlike many NSAID drugs which relieve arthritis pain but may also increase cartilage damage, devil’s claw appears to protect the cartilage, while relieving the pain and increasing joint flexibility.
The bitters stimulate the flow of saliva and digestive juices. These effects help perk up the appetite and may also improve digestion and reduce gas.
Beta-sitosterol may lower cholesterol.
Since it has some analgesic effects, it is used to ease the symptoms of joint pain.
It is used to tone the digestive system; and, since many arthritic symptoms appear as a result of poor digestion and absorption of food, the stimulating effect of this herb on the stomach and gallbladder contributes to its overall therapeutic value as an anti-arthritic and digestive tonic.
The tubular secondary roots are also used to treat pain, dyspepsia, loss of appetite, and liver and gallbladder complaints.
Western use falls in line with the traditional African applications, but it is also used as supportive therapy for degenerative disorders of the CNS (central nervous system). The herb is sold today in pharmacies and health food stores as a remedy for arthritis and rheumatism.
In Europe, it has become a popular botanical medicine, taken as a painkiller, diuretic, and sedative. It is used to reduce arthitic pain and inflammation, calm jittery nerves and ease anxiety, helps rid the body of excess fluid, treats mild digestive problems, and stimulates the appetite.