Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Devil’s Walking Stick or Hercules’ Club? Does it matter?
Not to your average person walking in the woods, no.
Today I explored a Westchester woods I hadn’t been in before, near Pleasantville. About 300 feet off the highway, I encountered this tree. I hadn’t seen one for a couple years, at least — and it's a tree to have nightmares about.
It’s definitely odd looking. A single trunk, at this point less than two inches in diameter, rising to a crown that’s a spray of compound pinnate leaves somewhere higher than six feet off the ground. Fully grown, it might have a whole clump of trunks and rise well over thirty feet. At this stage, it resembles an umbrella.
But it’s one thing you wouldn’t want to grab in an emergency! There are two very similar trees, both called Devil’s Walking Stick or Hercules’ Club. One is a cousin to both rue and citrus (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), the other (Aralia spinosa) is cousin to ginseng. This far north, the tree is probably Aralia. Both can hurt you!
Look at those thorns! In another months, each of them will be more than an inch long. Yes, they’re on the trunk, too, ringing it in many places. They also grow out of the spines on the leaves and the veins on the leaflets. Wherever you touch this tree, there’s probably a skin-ripping thorn.
Some gardeners actually import this tree into their gardens. In the autumn, leaves of the Aralia — the ginseng — can turn bronze. But it spreads underground, its blossoms are unremarkable, and birds love its berries so it spreads that way too. And as the tree ages, the bark can grow over the thorns, so the trunk becomes horribly lumpy and looks diseased. What’s to like? Aralia creeps me out so much I’m not sure I want to revisit that woods.