Sympathy for the Devil's Walkingstick, Aralia spinosa
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 31, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Almost anything green that arrives by chance in my yard is tolerated as a learning experience and possible worthwhile addition to my landscape. And I'm patient; I understand some plants will need time to show me everything they've got in all seasons and stages. With Aralia spinosa, the devil's walkingstick, I took five years to decide how I felt about using this distinctive native species in a home landscape.
2003 I found an interesting, vaguely ferny looking sprout in the perennial bed. It could have been planted by a bird dropping. Newly interested in native plants, I browsed through wildflower books with no luck. (What a novice I was back then in my pre-Dave's Garden days.) I let it grow to see what would develop.
2004 That interesting plant was still there, and getting a little sturdier. And --(ouch!) as I examined it more closely, I found thorns along the stem and leaves. It started to seem kind of woody too. Now there was a clue about why I didn't find this thing in my wildflower books. I should have been looking in the shrub section, or a tree book. Success! It was unmistakeably a devil's walkingstick, aka Hercules club, formally Aralia spinosa. The thorns that cover the upright stems are distinctive. There are thorns under the leaves too. And what you think are branches turn out to be "tripinnately compound" leaves. All the horizontal growth falls off in autumn, leaving those striking spiny verticals.
one flower cluster, about an inch across, out of thousands on the tree
one compound leaf, 46 inches from base (at bottom of picture) to tip
|a small portion of the numerous berries|
2005 Still bigger, and reaching out over the lawn, the devil needed to be moved farther into the bed and away from passing kids at play. Transplanting and drought kept the devil small but, even at just two feet tall, it flowered. I liked the color it added to my mixed shrub and perennial area. Now that I saw the heads of flowers and berries, I realized this Aralia was pretty common in the wooded fringes in my area. I picked out Aralias on the roadsides while driving and noticed it at parks all around here.
2006 A neighboring abandoned horse farm and scrubby property was scheduled for the bulldozer. We took our last few walks through the woods and discovered a large grove of devil's walkingstick. Here was the source of my bird-dropped seedling. It was slightly creepy, threading our way through dozens of well-armed sprouts and saplings up to 20 feet tall. This experience with wild walkingsticks started a faint warning bell ringing in my head. I ignored it and focused on the posssible wildlife benefits of the loads of berries produced each fall. My devil was behaving himself, growing slowly.
2007 The bulldozers began their dirty deed, but my personal devil was still safe in my border. He grew to three feet tall. We were becoming friends. The huge divided leaves gave a unique, exotic feel to this small tree. New spring growth emerged tinged with red and grew into a fresh green foliage for summer. The flower head got bigger each year, followed by bunches of berries. I loved the beautiful golden to rusty-red fall color, although it clashed a bit with my adjacent dogwood and homegrown japanese maple. That was a siting problem, not the plant's fault. I tolerated the stickery stems just fine, since it was placed behind other plants and surrounded by a tough, maintenance-free groundcover.
2008 My devil became a young adult. I was all set to document his year with pictures and write a glowing description of this native tree. I took closeups of the dramatic thorny trunk in winter. I admired the lush emerging leaves, growing to four feet long . I was amazed as the tree added four feet of new leafy stem. And I discovered that my little friend had decided to show a more devilish side. Dozens of stickery suckers came up all around the tree, from shallow, fleshy, horizontal roots. That was a new twist. I'd have to contend with pulling about fifty very stickery sprouts out of my shrub bed; some of the suckers were making a mess of a nice patch of heirloom iris. I'm not exaggerating- there were sprouts all around, five feet from the tree in places. Maybe I should have heeded the warnings about this reputed "rampant spreader." How much sprouting would I have to endure if I kept this tree? I started to ponder removing the devil. This suckering just couldn't be tolerated, especially when it invaded my neighbor's yard.
Gloved up and gingerly reaching far under the long and well armed leaves, I went after those suckers. They actually broke off easily and I soon had ripped them all up. I guess that wasn't so bad. The devil stayed. Luckily, only a half-dozen new suckers came up in the months after my weeding. Late this summer, the devil's walkingstick rewarded me for my tolerance. In August, the now seven foot tall stems were topped by gigantic flowerheads. The thousands of tiny flowers drew clouds of flying insects that made the tree literally buzz with activity. The blooms turned into berries that ripened in September. The thousands of purple-black berries on pink stems made a bold early fall accent.
To complete my research, I read what the authorites have to say about the species. A detailed description of devil's walkingstick as a native species is on this page from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as links to other sources. I can't help but think that there are a lot of grateful bees and birds near my yard when this tree flowers and fruits. Having lived in close (sometimes too close, ouch) contact with this tree as a landscape specimen, I can say that yes it certainly can spread aggressively. I can also say that it may be the most dramatic small tree native to the southern and eastern half of North America. It has been used in landscaping before- renowned tree expert Michael Dirr includes it in lists as a tree "with bark of interesting texture," having "tolerance to compacted soils, drought and heat." and with moderate to good shade tolerance. For a unique situation, this unique tree just might work.
My devil's walkingstick has outgrown its spot because adjacent trees have grown and because I don't want my neighbor subjected to those suckers. I'll be removing the original tree this winter. Next spring I'm betting I'll have at least one sprout of walkingstick to consider moving to the far corner of the yard, where I can keep the area around it cleared. And now, if one of these happens to pop up on your property, you might not need to watch it for five years to decide what you'll do about it.
 Michael A. Dirr, Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia ( Timber Press, 1997) p. 45.
 Michael A. Dirr, Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia ( Timber Press, 1997) pp. 449-455.