This wild African plant combats joint pain.
Photo by ©2011 Steven Foster
• Genus: Harpagophytum procumbens
• Harpagophytum means hook plant in Greek.
• Procumbens means prostrate in Latin.
• Also known as grapple plant or wood spider
• Grows in the warm African savanna or grasslands
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Devil’s claw. You only have to take one look at the grasping fingers extending from its fruit to understand the name. Despite the ominous sound of its common name, Harpagophytum procumbens is an attractive perennial valued for its healing powers.
This member of the sesame seed family can be found in southern Africa, where it grows wild in the savannas. Its grayish-green leaves trail the sandy terrain of the Kalahari Desert, sometimes reaching a length of several feet. It produces red, purple or pink trumpet-shaped flowers from November through April, and its flat, oval fruit produces dark brown or black seeds. However, it’s the plant’s roots and potato-like tubers that are valued the most and harvested for medicinal purposes.
For centuries, Africans have used devil’s claw to treat ailments of all kinds: liver disorders, malaria, diabetes, fever, high cholesterol, toxins in the blood, and the pain of pregnancy, arthritis and rheumatism. Externally, it has been used in ointments to help heal ulcers, boils, wounds and skin rashes. An early 20th-century German, G. A. Menhert, reported witnessing African tribesmen using devil’s claw for insect bites and stomach ailments.
Although devil’s claw grows only in Africa, it has been popular in Europe as a remedy for joint problems since its introduction there in the early 1900s. It was introduced into the United States from Europe. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that other common uses for devil’s claw include “treatment of loss of appetite and dyspeptic complaints.” It is listed in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia as a sedative and diuretic.
In Europe and Canada, as well as in the United States, devil’s claw is widely used for joint inflammation and pain. For example, in Germany, where herbal medicines may be sold as drugs, devil’s claw has German Commission E (the country’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval for relieving dyspepsia, stimulating the appetite and treating degenerative disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Also, it was the ingredient in nearly three-fourths of the prescriptions for rheumatism in 2001. Clinical studies have shown that, when taken by mouth, devil’s claw may help reduce osteoarthritis pain. In one study, it appeared to be as effective as diacerein, an arthritis drug prescribed in Europe for hip and knee pain. In another study, it compared favorably with rofecoxib, another prescription painkiller, for low back pain. Although these studies were inconclusive, the results were promising enough to warrant further study.
The dried roots and tubers of devil’s claw are taken in capsule or tablet form to relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis, low back pain and tendonitis. Herbalists also recommend its use externally for joint pain. In liquid form, devil’s claw is mixed with water or brewed into a tea and used as a bitter to stimulate digestion. Devil’s claw should be stored in a closed container, away from light.
Devil’s claw is difficult to cultivate and is not grown in gardens. The WHO reports that, due to the tons of devil’s claw exported each year, it has been overharvested to the point of becoming “extinct in the wild under current practices.” In Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, the major exporters of devil’s claw, the plant is protected and permits are required for various stages of the harvesting and exporting processes. The Sustainably Harvested Devil’s Claw project was established in Namibia in 1997, and commercial cultivation experiments also have been conducted. Devil’s claw seeds are stored in the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank, which conserves the seeds of plants faced with the threat of extinction and stores them outside their native habitat. The Kew Gardens project has so far banked 10 percent of the world’s wild plant species.
Linda M. Davis is a freelance writer who raises herbs at her home in Culver City, California.
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