Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hercules' Club

Hercules' Club (Aralia spinosa) can be mistaken for Elder (Sambucus). The flowers/berries grow in smaller clusters that are not umbrel-shaped, and the trunk is thorny--the clues that this similar-looking plant is not Elder.

While visiting my mother and father-in-law in Gloucester, Virginia last week, I was very excited to walk down the neighbor's road where I'd seen Elder trees growing the last time we were there in summer, thinking they'd still be blooming in Virginia and I could make some more tincture. Unfortunately, the sides of the road had been mowed! George and I walked the street, with me feeling sadder by the minute, until finally we found a shrub that looked like Elderberry. But alas, as we got closer I felt right away that it looked different.

The berries were ripe and black like elderberries and the stems were the same deep burgundy color, but they hung in smaller clusters that were not quite umbrel-shaped (think, umbrella here) like I'm used to. This right away got my "hackles up" as they say. I became skeptical, which is an extremely healthy thing in a wildcrafter!

Then George noticed that there were thorns on the trunk of the tree/shrub. That was also odd. I decided to taste a berry (something I feel comfortable doing because I know what I'm tasting for, and I know to spit it out as soon as it doesn't taste right, but I would NOT recommend many people do that!). The berry did not taste sweet, it was very "dry" on my tongue, and in short I knew right away that this was not elder.
A search on Google taught me that it was Hercules' Club, often mistaken for Elder. But one way you can always tell it's not: Elder trees/shrubs NEVER have thorns.

Wikipedia's article on Hercules' Club says that "the young leaves can be eaten if gathered before the prickles harden. They are chopped finely and cooked as a potherb." I don't know anything about that, but I also read that the berries are poisonous, and they are definitely not elderberries so I would leave the plant alone.

Anyone know about Hercules' Club? I guess it's also known as Southern Prickly Ash, though it is not the Zanthoxylum (prickly ash) I'm familiar with as a wonderful nerve and tootheache remedy. Maud Grieve's Modern Herbal on calls Hercules' Club "Angelica Tree" and gives some medicinal uses for it. I'm not familiar with Angelica so I will have to do some further research.

Mainly for this post I wanted readers to be aware of this plant that can resemble Elder. This example just brings home the message that it's good to check and double check and be really certain you have the correct plant when wildcrafting. I know it brought that lesson home to me!


Mon @Hearth herbalist said...

Great post Lisa. I don't think I've ever seen this other plant before. But it reminds me that you can never be complacent amongst our green friends.

Kristin said...

Yup. I made the same mistake a few years back. Gathered a bunch of "elder" flowers before I happened to spot in a field guide a description of "Devil's Walking Stick". Had to toss all those dried flowers.

Sadly, I haven't found elderberry growing on our property.