Devil's Claw

Devil's claw is an ancient herb which has been used for thousands of years by African natives for its medicinal benefits. Learn about its uses and unique biology.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Devil's claw, grapple plant, wood spider
  • Scientific nameHarpagophytum procumbens
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Main producer(s)Germany
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Devil's Claw

Native to southern Africa, devil's claw gets its name from its tough-looking fruit which has barbed hooks. Its botanical name, Harpagophytum, means "hook plant" in Greek. The medicinal properties of devil's claw were first discovered thousands of years ago in southern Africa - in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia - and the plant was later introduced to Europe in the early 1900s. Today, it is widely used for various natural health remedies.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAnalgesic, Anti-inflammatory
  • Key constituentsIridoid glycosides, harpagosides, flavonoids
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Tincture, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution
Devil's Claw Benefits

Historically, devil's claw was used to treat inflammatory pain, liver, and kidney problems, fever, and malaria. Since being introduced to Europe, extensive research has been carried out in order to confirm the medicinal properties possessed by the plant, and how these can be utilized for the benefit of human health. Some of the conditions that devil's claw can be used for include the following:

  • Reducing inflammation. The plant contains anti-inflammatory properties, making it effective in treating both internal and external swelling.

  • Easing arthritic pain. In addition to its ability to reduce inflammation caused by arthritis, devil's claw possesses chemicals which can act as a pain killer, thus it can relieve pain caused by this condition too.

  • Treating muscle pain. In France and Germany especially, devil's claw ointment is popular for applying to the back and neck to relieve muscle pain.

There are various further claims about the potential health benefits devil's claw offers, however there is little to no scientific evidence to support them. Some herbalists recommend the plant as a treatment for headaches and fever, and it has also been suggested that the bitter taste can make it effective in treating stomach complaints such as nausea or loss of appetite.

How it Works

One of the main biologically-active components in devil's claw is harpagoside. This is a type of iridoid glycoside, which are chemical compounds known to have anti-inflammatory effects. The presence of harpagoside can inhibit inflammation before it begins.

Other active constituents are flavonoids and stigmasterol. Flavonoids have anti-oxidant properties as well as anti-inflammatory, and stigmasterol is a phytosterol - a natural steroid found in plants. Also, stigmasterol has the potential to lower cholesterol in the human body.

Scientific investigation has shown that devil's claw also possesses analgesic, anti-diabetic, anti-epileptic, antimicrobial and antimalarial features; however the mechanics of these are yet to be fully understood.

Analgesic properties are also present in cloves and honeysuckle, whereas ginger and peony can provide similar anti-inflammatory benefits.

Devil's Claw Side Effects

Devil's claw is largely considered safe to consume in moderate doses, however some mild side effects have been reported. These are usually a consequence of high intake, and include stomach upset, diarrhea, headaches and rashes.

Research into the safety of consumption for children and pregnant/breast feeding woman is limited, so it is particularly advisable for such people to seek advice from a health professional.

Devil's Claw Cautions

It is believed that devil's claw can interact with some medication including blood thinners, antacids and anticoagulants and antiplatelets taken for diabetes. Anyone who is taking these - or similar - drugs should speak with a doctor before taking devil's claw.

There have been some rare, extreme cases in which consumption of devil's claw has caused an abnormal heart rate and bleeding. Sufferers of heart disease, and blood pressure problems should be cautious of using this herb.

How to Consume Devil's Claw

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsFruit, Root

Devil's claw originated in Africa, here people have been consuming the plant naturally for many years. Since being introduced to Europe, its components have been used to make supplements - which has become the most popular and easiest method of ingestion.

Devil's claw is not generally consumed as a food, although in some parts of Africa the young pods and seeds are roasted for consumption. They are generally added to other meals to bring an interesting texture, and for added nourishment.

The medicinal preparations of devil's claw are generally made from the roots and tubers of the plant.

Natural Forms

  • Infusion. Devil's claw roots can be brewed into a warm tisane for relieving headaches and soothing aching muscles.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Liquid extract. This highly concentrated preparation allows for a better and faster absorption of devil's claw active compounds compared to capsules.

  • Ointment. Suitable for treating external inflammation and pain caused by conditions such as arthritis, sores, ulcers, and boils.

  • Tincture. This preparation should be diluted in water and it is ideal to provide pain relief.

  • Capsules. This supplemental form is often favored for delivering the medicinal properties of devil's claw in easy to swallow, standardized daily doses.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores

Natural Forms

Fresh devil's claw is not commonly sold, but the dried roots and tubers can be bought online on herbalist websites, and in specialized health stores. The dried tuber is typically used in preparations to treat digestive problems and arthritis.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Although devil's claw was once only used in Africa, it is now widely available year-round in pharmacies and health food stores all over the world, as well as being easy to find online.

Supplements should be standardized to contain 3% iridoid glycosides, as individual plants can range slightly in their phytonutrient content.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Harvested partsRoots, Fruit
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Soil pH6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatArid or desert regions
  • Plant spacing average1 m (3.28 ft)

Devil's claw is native to southern Africa, and is commonly found growing in the Transvaal Province. It thrives in warm climes; however, it can still be successfully cultivated in cooler environments across the world. An awareness of the plant's favored conditions is helpful before endeavoring to grow devil's claw at home.

Growing Guidelines

  • Devil's claw prefers loamy soil, with a neutral pH

  • Plant devil's claw requires in full sun, it has a low tolerance to cold and will suffer in frost. Also, it needs plenty of space to grow to maturity.

  • Plants should be around three feet (90 cm) apart from others.

  • Seeds should be planted on the surface of the soil. Water the seeds, keeping the area slightly moist.

  • Soil ought to be kept moist but the plant can survive dry climates.

  • Seeds may require light scarification to germinate.

  • The use of safety gloves is recommended when harvesting, due to the plant's sharp edges.

  • Not all tubers should be harvested as the plant will not regenerate unless enough are left behind.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesBasketry

Plant Biology

Devil's claw is so called because of the sharp pointed shape of the fruit. It is also sometimes known as “grapple plant”, as it is able to grip onto animals and other passing objects, which it does to enhance seed dispersal. The stem of the plant can grow up to 6.5 feet (two meters) in length, and from it pink flowers and leaves develop.

Devil's claw has an unusual biological feature, in that it grows from a primary tuber and then secondary tuber. The secondary tubers develop on the roots of the primary, and can be up to ten by two inches (25 x 6 cm) in size.

  • Classification

    Devil's claw belongs to the genus Harpogaphytum, which is a member of the Pedaliaceae family, also known as sesame family after its most famous species, Sesamum indicum, which is the source of sesame seeds and oil. The genus Harpogaphytum includes 14 species  distributed along seven accepted genera. All the plants within this genus share similar characteristics, such as claw-like features.
  • Varieties and Subspecies of Devil's Claw

    There are two species within the genus Harpogaphytum; H. procumbens (devil's claw) and H. zeyheri. This variety is also native to South Africa, growing specifically in the Kalahari Desert. H. zeyheri, is sometimes used similarly to devil's claw for medicinal purposes, however it possesses fewer beneficial properties. The tubers of each of these are more or less identical, which has led to H. zeyheri being unlawfully exported as H. procumbens to the U.S. and Europe.

Historical Information

Devil's claw was first introduced to Europe in 1904 by a German soldier - Mehnert - who had settled in Namibia and seen it consumed by local people in the form of tea, as a medicinal treatments. It is known that Mehnert was held captive in a South African prisoner of war camp in 1941, where his knowledge of the health benefits of devil's claw was useful to him. He is believed to have begun exporting the plant to Germany after he was released at the end of the war.

Economic Data

The high demand for devil's claw in Western medicine has secured its position as an important export from southern Africa. It is cultivated in many poor, rural communities and has therefore become a valued generator of income, and is relied upon by many. In Botswana, a study estimated that harvesting and selling the plant can contribute around 750 BWP (about $83 USD) per household per harvesting season of three months.

It is estimated that the total value of exported devil's claw in 2009 was around €1.06 million. There are concerns that to keep up with this high demand, the plant has become over-harvested and is not being farmed in a sustainable manner. It has become apparent that instead of extracting only the secondary tubers, farmers are removing the entire plant, which means it cannot regenerate. This is causing devil's claw to become increasingly rare, and it has now been declared a protected species in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Popular Beliefs

There is a myth surrounding the introduction of devil's claw to Europe, concerning the German soldier, Mehnet. Some people believe that he first saw the plant being used by a local healer, to miraculously save a victim of the 1904-1908 Hottentot uprising. Supposedly the German physicians had declared the injured man as untreatable, but then the healer applied a preparation made from devil's claw, which then healed him. 

Other Uses

Aside from its medicinal and alimentary uses, devil's claw is also used in some crafts. The roots and tubers are strong and durable, and therefore can be used in basket making and for ornamental structures.

Devils' claw is a useful plant which is somewhat simple to cultivate. It has been valued in Africa for centuries, and its potential to benefit human health has been largely investigated in Europe and the US, since it was introduced to Western medicine in the early 20th century. Increased awareness about how to sustainably grow the plant, should hopefully ensure that it is available to people for at least the foreseeable future.

Bibliography

  • USDA Plants Database, Taxon: Harpagophytum procumbens (Burch.) DC. ex Meisn
  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, p. 105
  • MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements, Devil's Claw
  • Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Harpagoside suppresses lipopolysaccharide-induced iNOS and COX-2 expression through inhibition of NF-kappa B activation, 2006
  • University of Maryland Medical Center, Devil's Claw
  • New York University - Langone Medical Center, Devil's Claw
  • American Botanical Council, Devil’s Claw: From African Traditional Remedy to Modern Analgesic and Antiinflammatory
  • Arthritis Research UK, Devil’s claw
  • Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Harpagophytum procumbens (devil’s claw)
  • The International Society for Phyto-Sciences, Devil’s claw: Myths and facts about its discovery
  • National Institutes of Health, Devil’s Claw-a review of the ethnobotany, phytochemistry and biological activity of Harpagophytum procumbens
  • Wudpecker Journal of Agricultural Research, The economic potential of Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) to rural communities in Botswana: A case study of Kweneng district, 2012
  • Journal of the American Botanical Council, Devil’s Claw: From African Traditional Remedy to Modern Analgesic and Antiinflammatory