The amazing Devil’s Claw, in spite of its sinister name, is perhaps one of the most adaptable and interesting plants native to the Southwest. As the summer heats to boiling, this wildflower begins to flourish… crawling and creeping, producing a sticky deep green foliage and a sweet smelling little flower. Although yellow is the predominate color of the flowers, some species have tinges of crimson in small streaks. Several species will close quickly if touched and this characteristic results in the instant capture of pollen and produces an array of flower colors. Bees will travel long distances to gather their pollen so it must indeed be sweet.
There is a long and colorful history to this plant, which is an important part of our Southwest Native culture. It has been cultivated for hundreds of years for both its fruit, seeds, and pods. Cooked and eaten as a vegetable, the fresh pods are a valuable source of protein and the dried seeds provided it in winter months.
The woody fiber of the dried seed pod is used in Native basket weaving. Prized for its dark color, often claws gathered for basketry were buried to preserve it. The dried capsules are soaked in water and the long, curved claws are split lengthwise into narrow strips which are tightly coiled around bundles of bear grass leaves to produce dark patterns. Since the black color is not a dye, it will last indefinitely and makes a striking contrast with the lighter leaves.
Of course it has medicinal uses as well. In spite of its bitter taste, a tea made from it has been used for hundreds of years to alleviate arthritis, fever, and conditions involving the gallbladder, pancreas, stomach and kidneys. A salve made from oil of the seeds was used for skin conditions.
The strange nature of the mature seed pods give this plant its name. To assure survival this curious plant devised a seed pod which is known as a hitchhiker. The inner woody seed capsule splits open and produces two intricately curved claws which grasp, easily attaching to the leg of any passing animal. Thus attached, as the animal travels, the forty or so seeds will be gradually released as the pod continues to split. Those in our Southwest are among the largest hitchhiker fruits in the world… I am looking at one on my desk as I write.