If your world of plants only consists of what you see for sale at a garden center or box store, then prepare yourself. Wharton and Barbour’s book Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky covers over 280 species of woody plants native to Kentucky. That being said, often only a small subset is actually offered for sale. And many of those are not native to the US, much less Kentucky.
So let me introduce you to a Kentucky native Aralia spinosa, devil’s walking stick or Hercules-club. This small tree / large shrub is named for the large, thick spines on its trunk, stems, and leaf stalks. It is in the ginseng family. The tree/shrub grows to 15’ tall and will sucker readily forming small patches. Mowing will control the patch size. It grows well in full sun or part-shade. It has humungous (2 to 5 feet long) twice-pinnately compound leaves, occasionally thrice-pinnately compound.
In Kentucky, it is found in moist or dry forests and along forest edges. That’s how I first discovered it out in nature. They were growing along a forest edge where I mistook them for elderberries. Their blooms are somewhat reminiscent of elderberry (albeit the timing is off). The small individual flowers form large terminal panicles in July-August. Bees and many other pollinators are highly attracted to them.
Flowers are followed by fleshy black fruits that ripen in September and October. Propagation is sometimes by seed but is mainly accomplished by root suckers. These suckers are easy to dig up and move elsewhere. When the leaves abscise in the fall, I love to go out and look at the leaf scar and its accompanying spines.
Put all these attributes together and you have a small tree with very interesting compound foliage, nice summer flowers, attractive black fruit, with a unique, coarse winter look. And it is spiny! If you’re looking to obtain a devil’s walking stick, I suggest checking with your odd plant friends or with a nursery specializing in native plants. Or contact me directly as I know someone….
Submitted by Beth Wilson, Agent for Horticulture, Pulaski County Cooperative Extension Service