Medicinal Plants

Devil’s Claw: An African Herb for Pain Relief

Named for the hook-shaped spines on its seed pod, devil’s claw plants may sound insidious, but they may harbor soothing medical potential. The genus (Harpagophytum) contains two species, Harpagophytum procumbens and Harpagophytum zeyheri, both of which have the common name ‘devil’s claw’.

They’re beautiful, low-growing plants, which have been used in traditional African medicine for centuries. Word of its potential medicinal benefits soon spread, and it soon became valued in other cultures, including western medicine. 

What are the active compounds in Devils Claw?

The active compound in devil’s claw is known as harpagoside. It’s an iridoid glycoside that may have anti-inflammatory effects, although scientific evidence that proves this is very limited.

What is the medical potential of Devils Claw?

Dried or fresh, devil’s claw roots can be brewed into teas and tonics, taken in tablet form, or applied topically to the skin. It is mostly taken as a form of pain relief and as an anti-inflammatory. Individuals use it to treat conditions like osteoarthritis, and also general pains, like neck ache or back pain.

Chopped and dried devil’s claw roots | Photo by H. Zell on Wikimedia Commons

Can Devil’s Claw be toxic?

Devil’s claw may interfere with the efficacy of blood thinners like warfarin, so it is always recommended to check with a doctor before taking any herbal medicine. Like most medications, it can have secondary side effects, but the most common reactions include diarrhea and stomach upset.

Like many under-researched medicines, it is not considered safe for children, pregnant women, or those taking long-term medication (without speaking with a doctor first).

Cultural symbolism of Devils Claw

Devil’s claw is native to parts of southern Africa. Because of its medicinal value, local governments are implementing regulations to make sure the plant is harvested sustainably.

The plant is the national flower of Botswana, where it is valued greatly as a medicinal herb. It also provides an income source to people living in rural areas. They can harvest devil’s claw roots and sell them. Only the secondary tubers are harvested, as the primary tuber must remain to ensure the survival of the plant.

While scientific evidence is yet to back up the effects, the plant remains very popular as a herbal remedy. Extracts can be found in health and wellbeing stores around the World, and it is still highly valued in Africa.

There is another group of North American plants under the genus Proboscidea which are also referred to as ‘devil’s claw’. These plants have a similar appearance but lack the medicinal values of the South African devil’s claw.

What does Devils Claw look like?

Growing low over sandy soil, devil’s claw sends out creeping stems that hold heavily lobed leaves. When flowering, large pink tubular flowers with a yellow center emerge. When pollinated these may develop into unusual claw-shaped fruits that eventually dry out into woody capsules that hold the seeds. These hook-shaped pods have an almost skeletal appearance, and they open slowly throughout the year. Because of their delayed opening, devil’s claw seeds are noted as remaining viable for up to 20 years.

Devil’s claw (Namibia) | Photo by Olga Ernst & Hp.Baumeler on Wikimedia Commons

Where does Devils Claw grow?

Devil’s claw grows natively in the subtropical desert climate of southern Africa, including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and parts of South Africa. It favors sandy soils and can survive extended dry spells and also periods of heavy rainfall as it stores water and nutrients in tubers.

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) © CITES Secretariat on Wikimedia Commons


With intriguing medical potential, devil’s claw is a valuable and beautiful plant. Because of its popularity in the health and wellbeing trade, devil’s claw is closely monitored to ensure it doesn’t become vulnerable. Regulations are now in place to deter businesses who harvest devil’s claws in an unsustainable way for maximum profits.

Featured Image: Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum zeyheri) Photo by Dr. Alexey Yakovlev on Wikimedia Commons

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