aralia1THE NAME SOUNDS OMINOUS: DEVIL’S WALKING STICK. But it’s one of my most beloved woody plants, a native who looks like an alien, a misbehaved wanderer who gets into everything and is a total delight nevertheless, to me and to the hungry birds.

aralia3

I couldn’t find Aralia spinosa for sale 15 years or so ago when I first wanted it, but a nearby nursery knew of a stash and got me some. They sent then-staffer David Burdick, now a popular daffodil and bromeliad expert with a business of his own, with the first few prickly beasts in ball and burlap.

And those begat a colony, over time, a tropical-looking grove that’s handsome in leaf and in its high-summer flower period, and positively unparallelled in its autumn show of foliage and fruit. Its canopy becomes a stained-glass window of purple and orange, yellow and green; a remarkable sight.

A few wood thrushes and a lot of robins make the glade of devil’s walking stick a regular hangout this time of year, as do the blue jays, drinking up the overripe berries and acting bawdy all the while. Nobody seems to mind the frighteningly spiny trunks, which get to 15 or 20 feet here.

Apparently the devil’s walking stick, which is native to most of the Eastern United States and even into Texas (see map), gets even bigger in its southern range, to 30 feet. No matter its height, the stark trunks do not branch, making them even more eerie.

Never content with one of anything, I’ve got another colony going, having cut down the trunks of young suckers and moved the root masses into the new location. Don’t choose a site where manners are too important; this is a plant that wants to have its own room. I’m happy to give it several, devil be damned.

  1. Kathy says:

    Good Morning Margaret, WOW! I have never heard of Aralia but I wish I had the room to plant a grove. Fantastic color, I get so greedy when it comes to plants. Only my property line slows me down.

  2. Sarah O says:

    We found some devil’s walking stick growing against a building in a local industrial park, and the building owners were generous enough to give us a stalk (I have no idea where they found it, as I haven’t seen any nursery carry it). My father talks about having a little patch in suburban Nova Scotia when he was growing up, so now I think of it as a very 1950s and 60s kind of plant. I didn’t even know DWS was bird-friendly, but now I’m looking forward to that, as well as the colour display it has already shown us in its first year. Thanks for the info!

  3. Brian G. says:

    Is it related to Sumac? The leaf shape and fall color as well as the fruit looks very similar to the Sumac I see from the train window up and down the Hudson.

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Margaret. I believe the Chinese one is used as rootstock to graft the variegated-leaf forms that are so in vogue in specialty nurseries. Thanks for the additional information, and the link.

    @Brian and Andrew: As for the connection between Aralia and sumac, or Rhus, they are in different families…that much I know. Now if I could just find my gigantic taxonomy book around here I could go farther and see if there is any connection whatsoever.

  5. chris says:

    dissenting view:

    not big on prickly.

    also not big on many tall skinny trees in a grove; much prefer trees that are more substantial, that can be appreciated from top to bottom with some breathing room; i would be taking my trusty saw and chipper and thin that grove out a bit.

    also not big on rhizome propagation for trees, which results more in what i would consider brush stands than tree groves.

    other than that, nice leaves.

  6. Tammy says:

    I wonder if the fall colors would be as vibrant in Texas. I do have some land in east Texas begging for fall color.
    Also, Margaret can you recommend any books on landscaping acreage?

  7. Ted says:

    The herbaceaous aralias are worth growing as well. A. cordata and A. racemosa both do well for me in Wisconsin. Racemosa is native and nice. cordata is Asian but not invasive as far as I know. It’s bigger and showier with plum colored stems and berries.

  8. margaret says:

    @Ted: I grow other aralias here, too, including a lot of A. racemosa and A. californica, both giants and herbaceous. Birds enjoy them as well. All for another post another week, but both were beautiful this year.

  9. Gayla T says:

    I was expecting Harry Louder’s Walking Stick so this was a pleasant surprise and so interesting to find a plant that is unfamiliar to me. I’d never heard of Harry being called the devil so I’m glad to see it is not him.

  10. Deb says:

    Very cool!
    I bought 3 baby aralia racemosa (aka Spikenard) from the North Central Conservation District sale a year ago, because 1) they promised to grow to 6′ tall and 2) they grow in shade. This is apparently a native herbaceous perennial, but that’s all I know. Still waiting for it to re-emerge this spring in Manchester Ct.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Deb. I have grown A. racemosa here for at least 20 years. Love it (and so do the birds). The plants take a few years to reach full stature, which is quite gigantic! And note that they self-sow, at least here, so if you don’t want them all over then pot up seedlings to share with friends.

  11. Diane says:

    I have a great site in mind for these, which would be back lit (perfect). Question: do the deer bother them? We have LOTS of deer.

  12. Geri Lindmar says:

    I just purchased some property in Virginia. I noticed growing on the edge of the woods are some devil’s-walking-stick saplings- Aralia spinosa. I am contemplating as to whether to pull it all out or keep it I’m worried about future invasion. I consider it an attractive plant with great wildlife value beautiful full color but those thorns! How difficult is it to maintain?

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