The Devil's claw,


3 species: Proboscidea altheaefolia, P. arenaria, P.gracillima
by Cheryl Miller

Proboscidea altheaefolia or commonly known as "devil’s claw," is also called "elephant tusks", "unicorn

plant.", ¨cuernos del diablo¨ (devil’s horns), ¨espuela del diablo¨ (devil’s spur), ¨gato¨ (cat), ¨campanita¨

(little bell) and ¨unas del diablo¨ (devils claw).

.The common names refer to the plant’s seed pod. When dry, the seed pod becomes a woody capsule, which splits open at one end into two curved claws or horns.  Before the pod splits, the green, fleshy fruit superficially resembles a unicorn’s horn.   This plant is among some of the most unusual plants on earth.

The genus name "Proboscidea" comes from the Greek word "proboskis," a term for an elephant’s trunk, literally meaning "a way to provide food. "Altheaefolia¨ refers to the leaves, which are similar to the marshmallow plant.  Of the 22 species of proboscidea, only four species grow on the Baja.  But by far, Proboscidea altheaefolia  and Proboscidea parviflora are the most common. Part of the Martyniaceae or Unicorn family of plants with less than a total of 100 species, all members of this family are known only in the new world.  All members have woody, hooked fruits that are transported on the fur, nostrils or feet of large animals and hence also they are nick-named the ¨desert hitchhikers¨. Our local devil’s claws are adapted to catch onto the hooves of deer or other animals. The two long, sharp hooks grasp hooves in such a way that the thick, woody seed-bearing capsule of the fruit is positioned beneath the hoof. As the animal walks, the capsule is ground away and the 20 or so seeds it carries are gradually released over a considerable distance. The fruit can also hook hikers’ ankles, boots or clothing in the same manner; the sensation of being “grabbed” is startling and painful!  

This devil’s claw is a ground covering perennial that grows from a large tuberous root. The stems emerge during warm weather in response to rain and produce a mat of sticky foliage. They possess retentive sticky glands as well as defensive secretory glands, Although not carnivorous, the plant has made it to the Carnivorous Plant Society List because of its ability to capture insects on its sticky, hairy surfaces.  Proboscidea altheaefolia has bright yellow, sweetly fragrant flowers that are two-inch wide with deeper yellow streaks neat the center. Proboscidea parviflora flowers are pink to purplish-maroon coloured with yellow streaks and are ill smelling, like the rotting flesh of a dead animal.  This of, course, attracts insects, some of whom help pollinate the flowers. 

 Proboscidea arenaria or the Sand Devil´s Claw grows in the central part of the state of Baja California and is very similar to Proboscidea altheaefolia.  Proboscidea gracillima has reddish purple flowers with maroon upper lobes and is endemic to central Baja California as well.  Little is written about the last two varieties. 

Warm weather triggers growth of all species of devil’s claw. Devil’s claw leaves are heliotropic or sun trackers.  During the morning, leaves may be flaccid but soon become stiff and turn toward the light. Over the course of the day, the leaves may turn completely 180ºs.

Devil’s claw is widespread in much of the Sonoran Desert, and beyond to our Cape Region, as well, where it flowers and sprouts only once every few years.  Individual plants flower, on those odd years, between July and September. They can also be found northwest in Texas, southeast to Sinaloa and central Mexico; and north to California and Arizona.  It is also found in as far south as Peru. It grows mostly in sandy soils, especially in disturbed places such as cultivated farmland, road shoulders, coastal sand dunes and arroyos.

Proboscidea has been prized by Native Americans for centuries.  The seeds are gathered, roasted and eaten. Seeds are large, rich in oil and protein. I am told they are quite tasty.  The fruit, while still green is still frequently prepared similar to okra, or pickled. The dried seed pods have been gathered and used in basket making as the black fibers in those tribes basketry.  The Seri Indians of Mexico, formerly ate part of the underground tuber of P. altheaefolia.  Cowboys of the Sonoran desert used to feed the root to starving cattle.  So popular and useful has this plant been to the Native Americans, that now over 25 tribes use this products from this plant, despite the plant not growing naturally in their area.  As a result, the Tohono O’odham tribe of southern Arizona has cultivated a variety of devil’s claw, P. parviflora var. hohokamiana, bred to possess several unusual characteristics. Instead of the tough black seeds of the wild, that are very difficult

to germinate and may require to lie in the ground for a couple of years before they will germinate, the plants produce white seeds, which germinate more quickly. The white seeds sprout as soon as they get wet in hot weather and are thus easier to cultivate. In addition, the dried capsules are longer, up to 15 inches, and with fibers more flexible than that of the wild species. This has proven to be a useful change from the wild variety for basket making.  It appears that the women of the tribe were responsible for this selective breeding process. When cattle became widespread in the desert, O’odham women, who used the pods in their basketry, started to plant devil’s claw in areas they wanted to protect from cattle, such as garden plots, to prevent livestock consumption of their plants. Over time, they chose seeds that produced only the longer capsules and seeds that germinated faster.  Now, the Tohono O’odham tribe provides pods and seeds to other tribes.  

To cultivate the wild variety, soak the seeds in water overnight, and snip off the end of the hull near the pointed seed end.  This will increase your chances for germination.

These pods are also useful in crafts.  Some people paint the pods and use them as Christmas ornaments.  Adding a few items as bird feathers, glue and simulated eyeballs, devil's claw seed capsules can be transformed into some of the strangest creatures you have ever seen. Sometimes you can find them for sale in native curio shops, painted like birds or even wearing clothing.

Proboscidea arenaria or the Sand Devil´s Claw grows in the central part of the state of Baja California and is very similar to Proboscidea altheaefolia.  Proboscidea gracillima has redish purple flowers with maroon upper lobes and is endemic to central Baja California as well.  Little is written about these other varieties.