Alaska's Thorny Future
INTRO: Could Alaska's thorniest weed become its next big cash crop? Some think that the much-scorned devil's club has just that potential. Sonya Senkowsky has more, in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: If you've ever tangled with the common Alaska weed known as devil's club, you don't have to ask how it got that name. In some areas, the plant grows as tall as seven or eight feet. And it's covered in long, sharp thorns that, if you mess with them, hurt like the, well…here's Alaska agronomist Peggy Hunt.
HUNT: "It's funny because the scientific name for it is Oplopanux horridus. Think of horrid."
Hunt is a plant ecologist at the state-run Native Plant Nursery, in Palmer, Alaska, which is dedicated to finding the most effective ways to propagate and raise native plants—including devil's club.
HUNT: "And then, hopefully, we'll be able to give the native plants to commercial growers, who will then be able to take those parent plants and sell them to people who may want them."
Why would anyone want devil's club? The same thorns that make Oplopanax horridus so, well, horrid, could make it attractive to others, says Stoney Wright, manager of the Alaska Plant Materials Center, also in Palmer.
WRIGHT: "Early on, there was interest by the Division of Parks for ways of keeping people on trails, and that's when we first started looking at devil's club. If you can keep people concentrated on the trails with something natural that everyone respects and tries not to wander into, it would be devil's club."
Add to this the fact that devil's club, related to ginseng, has long been used in Alaska Native medicines, and some think it may hold chemical cures for a variety of ailments, a possibility researchers elsewhere are actively investigating. Peggy Hunt says devil's club could hold untold promise.
HUNT: "You know, it's kind of like in the rainforest, and you realize that there's so many plants or insects there that may never have been discovered, and one of those plants might have the chemical that you need to cure cancer. Well, here we're looking at the devil's club and it may be something that can help with tuberculosis, or with diabetes, or lots of different things."
But the state-run nursery isn't looking for miracle cures. Its plant scientists are just trying to figure out how to grow devil's club from seed. That way, they can ensure a sustainable harvest.
HUNT: "It seems to take two years for the devil's club to go from a seed into a sturdy seedling of maybe an inch high. And we're trying to make this go a little faster. So instead of it taking two years, we want it to go in one year."
Growing a devil's club plant is not easy. First, the seeds, which are contained in clumps of red berries on top of the plant, need to be extracted from the fruit. The immature seeds are cleaned, to help duplicate the maturing process that would occur in the wild.
HUNT: "Over here, we've got lots of instruments for cleaning seed, like this one where you have a screen with a ping pong ball in it and you move it back and forth to take some of the fuzz off the seed."
Finally, the seeds are rinsed in running water for 72 hours, a process that helps soften them.
After being cleaned, the seeds are planted in flats kept alternately in refrigerators and greenhouses to simulate Alaska's seasons. Seeds harvested this fall will be put on an accelerated schedule, says Hunt. With luck, the next batch of plants will pop up their thorny little stems in just over a year.
Among those eager to see the results will be freelance plant prospector David Smith. A retired Alaska city manager, Smith got excited about devil's club after meeting a scientist in Hong Kong who told him a related plant had been harvested nearly to extinction in Asia. With the aid of grants, Smith has been exploring whether Alaska devil's club could be sold to the Asian market.
SMITH: "The state estimates we have 55,000 acres here. China and Russia combined never had 5,000, but they did use it as a medicine and almost wiped it out. I think this is a hidden asset in Alaska that's been overlooked."
OUTRO: Arctic Science Journeys Radio is a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Sonya Senkowsky.
Audio version and related websites (above right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Nancy Moore, Manager
Stoney Wright, Manager
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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Listen to story on Real Audio
"Can Devil's Club Beat TB, Other Ills?" National Geographic Today
Forest Service, Petersburg, Alaska
Development of the Alaskan Ginseng Industry in Hyder, Alaska [a student research paper]
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