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Essays

Moseying: Exploring the Natural World

Behold the Devil’s Claw, a Pleistocene anachronism
July 2, 2008

“I’ve been bit!” Nina McCart exclaimed. I whirled around, but she was laughing. “I thought it was a snake, but look.” She pointed at her heel. A devil’s claw clasped her ankle. Ms. McCart and fifteen other members of the 2008 class of the Llano Estacado chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists had just seen a young rattlesnake. The little rattler had “scooched” a divot out of the soft humus-laded soil under a hackberry in a draw on a Midland County ranch. The foot-long “Cascabelito” endured the group’s ten-minute inspection by tightening its coiled body into a disc an inch smaller. It had not even stuck its tongue out during its effort to be “invisible.”

Ms. McCart stood on one leg like a crane and pried the devil’s claw from her shoe and then held up for everyone’s inspection. “We are looking at a Pleistocene anachronism,” I stated. “Huh?” answered a half-dozen people (the response I wanted!) “Some scientists think that Proboscidea parviflora developed its large clasping seedpods during the Pleistocene when the oversized megafauna dominated the landscape. The hooks of the seedpods would have readily fit on the ankle of a giant sloth or the huge bison antiguus.”

Photo of a Devil's Claw
Devil's Claw seedpod

Leslie Harman mentioned that she had known craftspeople that created charming knickknacks out of the “rams horn” shaped seedpod. I nodded and mentioned that a local craftsperson had given Sibley a deer figure made from seedpods whose head and antlers were made from the plant. On a whim I once hung a dead plant from the ceiling of my shade house like a mobile. I continued, “The green pods and dried pods were important items in the Southwestern Indian cultures. In fact, if you buy a basket from any Indian in the region, the black in the basket is made from the “unicorn plant” seed pods, so it is purposefully grown in the gardens of every pueblo that still produces baskets. ”

“Before the green seedpod splits into the devil’s claw, it looks somewhat like a curved okra pod. The green fruit is mucilaginous, like okra, and the large seeds have a nutty flavor. The seeds are rich in oil and protein. A tablespoonful is found in each pod, so an acre of plants can provide a substantial amount of food value. Some modern Puebloans (and other southwesterners) pickle the small pods like is done with okra and cucumbers.” I later found several references in books on Indian and Hispanic herbal medicine that indicated that a tea made from steeping the dried seedpods is used as a headache medicine.

The Indians have developed cultivars of the plants over the centuries. The Oodham (Papago) of southern Arizona developed a variety with seedpods that have claws over fifteen inches long. They also developed a cultivar with four claws, but it fell out of favor when one of the families that preserved this cultivar had several sets of twins. The Oodham produce beautiful white baskets with black designs. The white of the basket is made from sun-bleached yucca leaves. Both the yucca and devil’s claw is wrapped tightly around Nolina leaves. The devil’s claw pods are pressed together to form balls about the size of basketballs and then buried to preserve the black color. When the basket is begun, the dried pods are soaked in water and the softened claws are split into narrow strips that are quite pliable (and feel like leather.)

Some archaeologists have thoroughly studied the history of Indian basketry. It is believed that the devil’s claws were first used to make the base of baskets. Earlier baskets, without devil’s claws, were made from willow or cottonwood. The sand around cooking fires shredded the soft wood over time. Bases made from the pods of the Devil’s claws lasted much longer. The top edges of the baskets were also easily frayed, so the rims were also constructed with devil’s claw pods. Creative basketmakers then invented many striking designs on the sides of the baskets.

A yellow flowered perennial species of devil’s claw (P. althaeifolia) is occasionally found in West Texas. Its existence in the region may be because of basketweavers trading seeds, for it seems to be common only along the Colorado River on the western edge of Arizona. Another “imported” West Texas plant is Syrian Rue, a native of North Africa. A farmer that wished to produce the dye “Turkish Red” brought it to southeastern New Mexico in the early 1900s. For years, most West Texans believed it arrived on the bombers stored after World War II at the Rattlesnake Bomber Base at Pyote. Tumbleweeds, salt cedar, and many other plants are now part of our landscape and each has a story of its introduction. (But mesquite is not an imported plant – it has always been here!)

Devil’s claw plants have big leaves and often create a bush three feet tall and three feet across when plentiful rains occur. It is a “disturbed soil” plant, germinating in bare soil in draws and playas or in weedy cotton fields. The leaves have a very unpleasant smell (reminiscent of cat urine) and are very sticky to the touch, so grasshoppers or caterpillars rarely damage it. Despite the smell, some gardeners do use the plant as an ornamental, for the white blossoms with pink and yellow markings are big and bell-shaped. The cultivar with long claws can be purchased from Native Seeds Search, an Arizona non-profit originally started by Gary Nabhan to preserve the unique food and material plants of southwestern Indians and Hispanic settlers.

When the Devil’s claw grabs you, it is trying to tell you its story!

Sibley Nature Center
1307 E. Wadley, Midland, Texas 79705
phone 432.684.6827
email info@sibleynaturecenter.org