The colorful name of this African plant is derived from the appearance of its tough, barbed fruit. The medicinal properties of devil’s claw were first discovered by various southern African peoples, who used a decoction of the tuber to treat digestive problems and arthritis. The herb is now widely available in pharmacies and health food stores in the West as a remedy for arthritis and rheumatism.
Habitat & Cultivation
Devil’s claw is native to Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, where it is a protected species due to over-harvesting of wild plants. It thrives in clay or sandy soils, preferring roadsides and open areas, especially places where natural vegetation has been cleared. Propagated from seed in spring, the young tubers are unearthed in autumn and cut into pieces about 3/4 in (2 cm) long. Care is taken not to mix the tubers, which contain the active constituents, with the roots, as this can render the herb ineffective.
Two related species, both growing in Africa, are used medicinally in a more or less similar way to devil’s claw.
- Iridoid glycosides (harpagoside)
- Sugars (stachyose)
- Digestive stimulant
Anti-inflammatory: French research (1992) indicated that devil’s claw is anti-inflammatory, but opinion is divided on its effectiveness in practice.
Pain relief: There is some evidence to confirm devil’s claw’s use as an analgesic as it seems to be effective in easing the symptoms of joint pain.
Bitter: The strongly bitter action of devil’s claw stimulates and tones the digestive system. Many arthritic conditions are associated with poor digestion and absorption of food, and the stimulant effect of this herb on the stomach and gallbladder contributes to its overall therapeutic value as an anti-arthritic remedy.
Traditional & Current Uses
African traditional remedy: Devil’s claw is used by various peoples in southern Africa, including the Khoisan and the Bantu. Traditionally it has been used as a tonic, especially for digestive problems; for arthritis and rheumatism; to reduce fevers; and as an ointment for sores, ulcers, and boils.
Western uses: Current Western use of devil’s claw is broadly in line with its traditional application. It is commonly available over the counter in tablet form for arthritic and rheumatic conditions and can bring relief from pain arising from a range of joint and muscular problems, including gout, back pain, fibrositis, and rheumatoid arthritis.