Aralia spinosa, or devil’s walking stick, is a moderate to highly preferred deer browse from the ginseng family (Araliaceae) found throughout the southeastern United States that also goes by several other common names, including prickly ash, Hercules club and toothache tree, among others. The trouble is these same common names are also used to describe a woody plant in the citrus family (Rutaceae), which can be heavily browsed by deer as well and found in some of the same areas. Zanthoxylum clava-herculis overlaps Aralia spinosa’s range along the extreme coastal plain from Maryland south, through northern Florida and west to Texas. Both have compound leaves and prickly stems. There is also “northern” prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) and “Texas” prickly ash (Zanthoxylum hirsutum), and each of these are sometimes consumed by deer in their respective areas too; thus, just calling a plant “prickly ash” can mean you might be referring to any of these four species. Confused yet? Don’t be, luckily they all have fairly unique identifying characteristics; you just need to know which one you’re talking about.
Aralia spinosa is a deciduous shrub or small tree that grows as a relatively singular unbranched stem, reaching 12 to 20 feet in height. It occurs in upland and lowland forests on a wide range of soil conditions and is semi-shade tolerant; however, direct sun is required for it to flower. It propagates with a rhizomatous root system that extends just below the surface to create a cluster of plants in loose formation. The individual stems are called ramets, and are clones of the parent plant.
The leaves, stems and flowers are the best distinguishing characteristics, and should be used to separate these two species. Whole leaves of Aralia spinosa are tropical looking and form an umbrella atop the main stem. They are very large, up to three feet long and about as wide, are two or three times pinnately-compound and have thorns on the petioles. The leaves of Zanthoxylum clava-herculis are only once odd pinnately-compound and roughly l0 inches long. The thorns found along the trunk on older Aralia plants are concentrated in a ring near the leaf and terminal bud scars, but are scattered randomly along the twigs and main stem of Zanthoxylum; they are also found on the ends of corky bumps on larger specimens. Large clusters of showy, white flowers appear midsummer (July to August) on Aralia, followed by abundant purple-black berries.Zanthoxylum displays yellow-green flowers and they arrive earlier in the spring (April to May), succeeded by red-brown colored fruit.
The flowers of Aralia spinosa provide an important pollen and nectar source to honeybees and a variety of other insects. Its berries are edible to many wildlife species, a favorite of the wood thrush, northern cardinal, white-throated sparrow, cedar waxwings and other birds, as well as other terrestrial animals, including the red fox, striped skunk and black bear. They can be mildly toxic to humans. Of course, deer readily browse the foliage, though it’s reported to be consumed more regularly in the southern portion of its native range than anywhere else. Also, its tendency to grow from runners and form natural thorn-laden thickets gives it excellent value as bedding cover as well.
Because of its showy nature, plantings of Aralia spinosa are available at some landscape services as nursery stock. Fresh seed can be sown in the fall or stratified seed sown in spring. For most deer enthusiasts, if you already have it on your property, you can encourage more growth by either using dormant root cuttings stored in cool, damp sand until spring and/or transplanting of suckers (ramets). However, be aware that it can have invasive tendencies and may spread by way of shoots from rhizomes.
This article is an excerpt from the “Natural Species Profile,” a regular feature of QDMA’s Quality Whitetails magazine.