Description and distribution
Harpagophytum procumbens, or devil’s claw is one of the best-known medicinal plants from southern Africa. Harpagophytum means ‘grapple plant’ in Greek, which aptly describes the look of the plant with its spiky fruit.
It has many uses, and many tons of dried tubers are exported each year, mainly to Europe. Devil’s claw is a flat, sprawling plant with a stout, perennial rootstock that has a group of secondary storage tubers arising from it. The flowers are trumpet-shaped and range in colour from dark velvety red or purple to pink while the tube base and mouth are yellowish; they can be all yellow, all purple or white.
It is, however, the plant’s distinctive spiky fruits, which inspire the name devil’s claw. It bears many oblong, dark brown or black seeds. The plants flower mainly from about November to April (summer) and have fruits from about January.
Harpagophytum procumbens are found in most of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and favours mostly dry savanna type areas.
Devil’s Claw was first used by the San of the Kalahari and is effective against many ailments, thanks to the presence iridoid glycosides (mainly harpagoside, harpagide and procumbide).
It is believed to be an effective analgesic, anti-arrhythmic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, diuretic, hypotensive, laxative, purgative, sedative, febrifuge, cholagogue and bitter tonic.
In its local areas, it has also been used for fever, blood diseases, blood purification, lower back pain and pain in pregnant women, coughs, diarrhoea, diabetes, bleeding gums, syphilis, gonorrhoea, gout and lumbago.
It also helps with diseases of the liver, gall bladder, kidneys, pancreas, digestive system (heartburn, peptic ulcers, constipation and lack of appetite) and small joints, as well as hypertension, high cholesterol and tuberculosis.
Externally it also helps heal ulcers, boils, skin lesions and wounds (Neuwinger 2000; Powell 2001).
In western medicine it is mainly used for arthritis and rheumatism, where it apparently works like cortisone but without the side effects.
Did you know?
Many of the benefits of devil’s claw are attributed to a compound known as harpagoside that is believed to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.
The plant is commonly used to treat rheumatic conditions affecting the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. These include back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and tendinitis. There are also claims that it can treat fibromyalgia, sciatica, nerve pain, gout, and symptoms of Lyme disease.
When it comes to osteoarthritis, in which inflammatory substances such as interleukin 6 (IL-6) trigger symptoms, devil’s claw appears to inhibit the production of IL-6.
In people with rheumatoid arthritis, which is associated with immune proteins called autoantibodies, it may assist in reversing the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Sustainability and sourcing
Little is known about cultivating devil’s claw and, as yet there is no significant commercial cultivation. It is mostly wild harvested, and it is important to note that devil’s claw is a protected plant in all three countries where it grows, (South Africa, Botswana and Namibia). This means that it is illegal to dig it up or harvest it, even one plant, without a permit from the various departments of nature conservation.
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