By Jake Landers
Published August 2012
Its flowers are as beautiful as an orchid, its seed pods as weird as a flying fish. Devil’s Claw is a successful native plant that will be with us as a weed for a long time. You are as likely to find it growing in a waterlot on the ranch or in a cotton field on the Lipan Flats near Wall, Texas. Like most weeds it thrives on soil disturbance whether from hoof action or plow. Livestock do not touch it, but herbicides, with persistence, can do it in.
Like Bluebonnets, Devil’s Claw must come up from seed every time it grows. Both have seeds that may last in the soil for many years before they germinate. Also, Devil’s Claw seeds germinate with late spring, early summer temperatures, instead of the cool sunny days of fall and winter when the Bluebonnets do. It can become a weed in a cotton field because it may not germinate until cotton is up too big for cultivation or it can survive the preemergence herbicides. Before “over-the-top” herbicides became available, Devil’s Claw had to be controlled by hoe or hand pulling, neither job would have appealed to most farmers.
If a plant grows to maturity it can produce many black pods with two curved hooks with sharp points that can grab onto most anything that passes. When the pod begins its growth it looks a bit like okra, green, fuzzy, and with a bent pointed tip that eventually dries and splits. Although it is bad smelling and covered with sticky hairs, Devil’s claw pods can be pickled, and the seeds can be eaten like green peas. Black seeds, shaken from the dried pods, can be eaten, having the flavor of cocoanut.
In Delena Tull’s book on "Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest," she writes that Devil’s claw was once grown in the early 1900s for pickles in Michigan and Massachusetts, of all places. Seeds may still be available in parts of Mexico and Central America at farmer’s markets. People in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico have selected varieties that produce larger pods for making baskets.
Other common names are Unicorn plant, Aphid trap, Cow-catcher, Ram’s horn, Una de Gato, Torito, and Mule-grab. Its scientific name is Proboscidea louisianica, and it is in its own plant family, because there are few other plants like it.
I don’t know when I first ate a Kiwi fruit, or Jicama, and some of the other strange food items that appear at the grocery store, but we learned to eat Artichoke (nothing more than a overdeveloped Thistle) in California in the 1950’s. I missed out on the first use of Devil’s claw for food, but maybe someone will try to get the pickled pods back in the market.
Reading The Landscape
Here you are traveling along a county road in central Texas looking North. What is going on here, and is there a potential problem ahead for the ranch owner? Click here for Jake's explanation. —JL
Jake’s summary: This county road in Menard Co has not been mowed since last fall. A few dozen plants of Distaff thistle are faintly visible in the roadside. The pasture in the background has been dozed two or so years past leaving Mesquite wood in windrows. Vigorous Mesquite sprouts are in the fenceline but not in the pasture, although chances are there are a few. Grass cover is weak from last year’s dry weather and this year’s abundant wildflower dominance. Distaff thistle, the meanest of the thistles, has the potential to spread into the pasture a little next year, and in a few years to dominate. Seeds are not carried very far by the wind like other thistles, but they will spread by tumbleweed action as stems break off and get carried across the open pasture by a strong south wind. Suggestions: 1.) Pull Distaff stalks immediately, sack, and, burn. 2.) Apply preemergence herbicide in late fall after it rains on the area where distaff is now growing. 3.) In March when seedlings can be identified, apply a 2,4-D herbicide to the area where distaff seedlings appear. It wouldn’t hurt to do all three. —JL