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Prickly Panaceas: The Herbs Behind the Hype

By Audrey Stallsmith (AudreyJuly 25, 2014

Many plants which become popular healers are thorny ones--perhaps on the theory that if what tastes bad has to be good for you, what feels bad has to be good for you too! All of the following prickly types have been highly touted for medicinal purposes in recent years. I don't know whether or not they really work, and would avoid self-medicating with them until we learn more about their long-term effects. But they are the sort of plants which snag your attention!

Gardening picture

Uncaria guianensisCat's Claw: Clawing Its Way to the Top

In the herbal world "cat's claw" refers to either Uncaria tomentosa or Uncaria guianensis. Vines from the Amazon rain forest, pictured to the left here, they can scramble up to 100 feet. Hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11, guianensis boasts 3 to 7-inch leaves and curved thorns like grappling hooks which allow it to shinny up the tallest trees.  Its tubular rust-colored flowers form 4 to 8-inch spherical clusters. Tomentosa is similar, but with less curvaceous thorns and yellow flowers.

Both plants are valued for their medicinal bark, which is stripped from vines eight years of age or older. It became popular due to claims that it could stimulate the immune system. These cat's claws should not be confused with Macfadyena unguis-cati, which shares the same nickname but is an entirely different genus.

Wolfberry: Goji-ing for Broke

Lycium barbarum, Goji berryThe Chinese box thorn or wolf berry (Lycium  barbarum or chinense) is now more popularly known as the Goji berry. Although frequently called a vine, it is actually a floppy shrub which can reach 12 feet in height. It produces small lavender flowers like the one in the thumbnail during summer, which are followed by seedy red berries about 3/4-inch long in the fall.  Those berries are high in antioxidants, which explains their current popularity.

The box thorn's long spines generally appear only on older growth. The younger branches have smaller prickles which allow them to attach themselves to other nearby plants. Although the Goji berry is often listed as perennial only in USDA zones 6 to 10, it has naturalized over much of the U. S. and Canada, and  is probably tougher than it is assumed to be.

Eleutherococcus senticosusSiberian Ginseng: Definitely Not an Exile

The also resilient Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) bristles like a Cold War combatant, with prickles all over its stems. Its leaves usually have five lobes, sometimes three, each lobe about 3 inches long. The shrub can grow up to 15 feet tall with spheres of inconspicuous white flowers followed by balls of 1/2-inch diameter black berries.

For medicinal purposes the inner root is preferred, though the bark and leaves are used as well. A tonic herb that is supposed to boost one's general well-being, this rugged plant can shrug off the cold in USDA zones 3 to 9.

African Hats: Looking Under the HoodHoodia gordonii

African hats (Hoodia gordonii) is a cactus-like succulent liberally covered with thorns. Growing to 3 feet tall, it makes round flowers up to 3 inches across which vary in color from pale yellow to maroon. Those blooms smell of rotting meat to attract the flies which serve as their pollinators.

That idea may kill your appetite, which is the "point" of hoodia, an herb supposed to help with weight loss.  Hardy only in USDA zones 10 to 11, it can be grown as an occasionally odoriferous houseplant elsewhere.


The cropped and enhanced thumbnail image is by Danny S., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and this license, and the cropped and enhanced public domain berries image by Paul144, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The enhanced Siberian ginseng image is by Denis, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and this license. The uncaria image is from Florae Columbiae by K. W. G. H. Karsten and the hoodia image by W. H. Fitch from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, both courtesy of 


  About Audrey Stallsmith  
Audrey StallsmithAudrey is the author of the Thyme Will Tell mystery series from WaterBrook Press (Random House) and an e-book of humorous rural romances titled Love and Other Lunacies. In addition to digging up plots--both garden variety and novel--the former Master Gardener writes free articles on plant history and folklore for her Thyme Will Tell site and posts her photos at . Audrey also designs hay-seedy stuff and nonsense for her Rustic Ramblings Zazzle store, and indulges in mystery novels, apologetics, cryptic crosswords, old lace, beads, and Border Collies. Follow her on Google.

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» Read articles about: Thorny Herbs, Uncaria Tomentosa, Uncaria Guianensis, Lycium Barbarum, Lycium Chinense, Eleutherococcus Senticosus, Hoodia Gordonii, Cat's Claw, Goji Berry, Siberian Ginseng

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