John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society
Devil’s Walking Stick
Devil’s Walking Stick is well-named – in winter the plant is recognized by an unbranched stem covered with sharp spines, not at all suitable for support while walking. In the growing season the plant produces enormous compound leaves that are divided three times (triply compound) and covered with irritating prickles. These are the largest leaves in North America, reaching four feet long and three feet wide, forming an umbrella-like canopy. Green in summer, they become attractive bronze-yellow to red in fall.
This is a shrub or small tree, that can grow to 30 feet, adding a tropical look to a naturalized setting or mixed shrubbery border. The greenish-white flowers are small, but in great clusters that can be three feet long, held above the leaves, and then drooping from the weight of the flowers. Covered with bees and butterflies in summer, the flowers are followed by dark-purple, juicy berries, very popular with birds and small mammals, that leave behind lacy red stalks.
Devil’s Walking Stick is very easy to grow, thrives on neglect and is adaptable to urban conditions. Full sun or part shade and any type of soil is suitable – the plant prefers moist, fertile loams but will tolerate soils with rocks and clay. Devil’s Walking Stick is often found along well-drained stream banks and roadsides. It grows rapidly and spreads by self-seeding and sprouts from the base, eventually creating a thicket. A pioneer species, the plant disappears as a forest is maturing.
Scattered throughout eastern U.S. and most counties in Virginia, Devil’s Walking Stick grows in upland and low woods and woods edges. While it could be an accent or ornamental, Devil’s Walking Stick is too aggressive for the home garden, but since the flowers and fruits are so valuable to pollinators and birds, it is suitable for planting in large lots, along the edge of woodlands.
Deer tend to avoid browsing on the prickly leaves, and the plant has no disease problems, nor insect infestations.
For more information about native plants visit www.vnps.org.
By Helen Hamilton, John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) taken by Helen Hamilton