Aralia spinosa, commonly known as Devil's Walkingstick, is a woody species of plants in the genus Aralia, family Araliaceae, native to eastern North America. The various names refer to the viciously sharp, spiny stems, petioles, and even leaf midribs. It has also been known as Angelica-tree.
This species is sometimes called Hercules' Club, Prickly Ash, or Prickly Elder, common names it shares with the unrelated Zanthoxylum clava-herculis. Aralia spinosa gets confused with Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, and is often mistakenly called the Toothache Tree. It does not have the medicinal properties of Zanthoxylum clava-herculis.
Aralia spinosa is occasionally cultivated for its exotic, tropical appearance, having large lacy compound leaves. It is closely related to the Asian species Aralia elata, a more commonly cultivated species with which it is easily confused.
Aralia spinosa is an aromatic spiny deciduous shrub or small tree growing 2-8 m tall, with a simple or occasionally branched stem with very large bipinnate leaves 70-120 cm long. The trunks are six to eight inches wide with plants umbrella-like in habit with open crowns with stout wide spreading branches occasionally produced, though plants generally grow in clusters of trunks that are branchless.
The flowers are creamy-white, individually small (about 5 mm across) but produced in large composite panicles 30-60 cm long; flowering is in the late summer. The fruit is a purplish-black berry 6-8 mm diameter, ripening in the fall. The roots are thick and fleshy.
The young stem is stout, thickly covered with sharp spines and for the most part branchless or slightly branching. The leaves are the largest of any tree in the continental United States, although the casual observer might not think so, as the leaflets are but two to three inches long. The leaves, however, are so compound, in this case doubly pinnate and sometimes pinnate again, that when one measures from the swollen base of the prickly petiole to the apex of the farthest leaflet the tape frequently records three feet and the spread of the pinnae from side to side is often two feet. In the autumn these leaves turn to a peculiar bronze red touched with yellow which makes the tree conspicuous and beautiful.
The habit of growth and general appearance of the Devil's Walkingstick are unique. It is usually found as a group of unbranched stems, rising to the height of twelve to twenty feet, which bear upon their summits a crowded cluster of doubly compound leaves, thus giving to each stem a certain tropical palm-like appearance. This slender, swaying, palm-like character is in the north only true of the young plants, for after a single stem has buffeted the storms of many winters it becomes a scrubby, deformed, little tree whose great leaves can scarcely cover its ugliness even in summer. In the south it is said to reach the height of fifty feet, still retaining its palm-like aspect.
Ranges from Pennsylvania westward to Missouri and southward to Texas. Prefers a deep moist soil. The plants typically grow in the forest understory or at the edges of forests, often forming clonal thickets by sprouting from the roots.
The young leaves can be eaten if gathered before the prickles harden. They are chopped finely and cooked as a potherb.
Aralia spinosa was introduced into cultivation in 1688 and is still grown for its decorative foliage , prickly stems and large showy flower panicles. Plants are tough and durable, doing well in urban settings. Plants are slow growing and can be propagated from seeds and root cuttings.
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