Devil’s Claw is indigenous to south and south west Africa and has always been used by the people who live there to treat indigestion, as a laxative, for problems associated with the blood, to lower fevers, to relieve pain e.g. in childbirth, as well as in the treatment of wounds, swellings and boils. Knowledge of the medicinal applications of Devil’s Claw in the west can be traced back to the German colonial soldier and latterly farmer, G.H. Mehnert who learned about the plant from a local healer during the Herrero and Hottentot uprisings of 1904 and 1906. Devil’s Claw was introduced into Europe for the first time in 1953 by O.H. Volk and was used to treat metabolic diseases in particular. Scientists soon established that it was especially effective for arthritis. In the 1970s, ‘African rheuma root’ experienced a real boom both in Europe and in Switzerland and demand for the root could not always be met. Since then, this healing plant has become firmly established in the world of phytotherapy.
The name Devil’s Claw refers to the barbs of the fruit that stick to the claws of animals and are thus dispersed. These barbs are also difficult to remove and can cause serious injury. It owes its scientific name, Harpagophytum, to the shape of its woody fruit that reminds us of a grappling hook, harpagos in Greek.
The name Devil’s Claw can give rise to confusion as there are two Alpine plants in the Campanulaceae family that bear the same name. We differentiate between the globe-headed Devil’s Claw, also known as globe-headed Rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum) and the round-headed Devil’s Claw, also known as round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare). Neither of these is used medicinally.
Devil’s Claw has the typical characteristics of a Savannah plant. It has a primary root, which can be up to 50cm in length and from which branch off secondary bulbous storage roots, which can be up to 1.5 metres in circumference and reach a depth of 2 metres. The plant can store up to 90% water in these storage roots. It is these storage roots that are used medicinally. At the beginning of the rainy season each year, fresh young shoots appear from the central primary root that lie radially on the ground and can reach up to 2 metres in length. On these shoots are the opposite or alternate, sinuate (having a pronounced sinuous or wavy margin), slightly fleshy leaves. In the leaf axils are to be found the reddish-purple flowers that resemble gloxinia in appearance. From the flowers the woody fruits are formed which exhibit long, branched protuberances with barbs. Approximately 50 seeds are stored in these bur-like capsules.
Devil’s Claw is indigenous to the deserts of the Kalahari in South Africa and in Namibia. There they are gathered from the wild, harvested in the main from deep holes. The roots must be cut into small pieces and dried immediately after harvesting otherwise they decompose or deteriorate within a short period of time. Only 6kg to 14kg of air-dried usable Devil’s Claw is obtained from 100kg of fresh secondary storage roots. It is feared that intensive commercial use coupled with gathering from the wild will ultimately lead to the plant’s extinction particularly where harvesting involves taking the whole root. Furthermore, the beneficial Devil’s Claw is frequently mixed with the species Harpagophytum zeyheri which is very similar in structure and produces a similar yet weaker effect. A research project on the organic cultivation of Harpagophytum procumbens has been established.
A.Vogel/Bioforce uses the dried secondary storage roots of Harpagophytum procumbens gathered from the wild. They are combined with alcohol to produce a mother tincture.