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Devil's Walking Stick

Aralia spinosa

Height: Often little more than a 10- to 15-foot-tall shrub, but tree-like specimens will reach or exceed 30 feet  

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous

Lifespan: A short-lived tree that rarely reaches 50 years of age  

Fall Foliage: Usually red, relatively attractive and showy  

Range: Primarily the southeastern United States, save for large portions of Florida; however, it is found in scattered locations as far north as New York   

Typical Habitat: The devil’s walking stick is most commonly encountered along forest margins and riparian areas; it prefers deep, well-drained soils, but adapts well to many sites  

devil's walking stick thorns

The Devil’s Walking Stick: An Aptly Named Character   

The devil’s walking stick gets its name from the copious sharp spines that adorn its trunk and branches. They also appear along the petioles and leaf veins at times. Even though these thorns aren’t as large as the thorns of hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) or honey locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos), this is not a tree you want to grab while trying to keep your balance on the trail – that will not end well.

This tree is almost completely immune to damage from deer, which helps make it a beloved ornamental species by some. The fall color and attractive berries also make it a highly desirable specimen. However, it is best planted in low-traffic areas, for obvious reasons.  

Devil’s Walking Stick Identification: Tips & Tricks

The devil’s walking stick rarely presents identification issues – even in the winter. It’s leaves, which are some of the largest of any North American species, are twice- or thrice-compound, which sets it apart from the vast majority of U.S. natives, and its obvious spines will alleviate any remaining doubt.

You’re most likely to confuse it with an elderberry (Sambucus spp.), given the superficial resemblance of the leaves, but elderberries have no spines or thorns at all.   

The Devil’s Walking Stick: Additional Information

Need to know more about this intriguing and unusual tree? Check out these resources to learn more about the devil’s walking stick:

  • Florida IFAS Extension: An easy-to-read overview of the species, including a range map and horticultural information.
  • U.S. Forest Service: One of the more comprehensive resources about the species, and it includes info about the species’ response to wildfires.   
  • Missouri Botanical Garden: A basic overview of the devil’s walking stick as well as photographs and some information about the plant’s toxic characteristics.

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