Devil’s Claw – A Unique Southwestern Plant

“Devil’s claw sounds creepy!” said one gardener. I was at the Tucson Organic Gardeners Spring Garden Fair handing out free seed pods of this iconic desert plant, and a visitor to my table said that to me.

I did promise all visitors to my table that I would write a post about devil’s claw, and here it is.

They Got the “Claw” Right

If you have ever been riding a horse out here in the Southwest – and your mount steps on one of these devil’s claw fruit pods, and gets jabbed in the fetlock, then you will clearly see how devilish these can truly can be – and how they got their name.

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The pods slowly dry in the sun and split open to release their seeds. Image courtesy J. Schrenk.

Unique Seed Pods

It’s not uncommon, when strolling the Sonoran Desert near towns like Phoenix or Tucson, you will come across a strange primeval looking artifact that resembles the recurved claws of some long extinct beast. These strange looking hooks are the dried seedpod of devil’s claw, a summer annual with hairy, heart shaped leaves, tubular pink, yellow, purple, or white flowers, and the strange pod which ends up laying on the desert floor waiting to snag passers-by.

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Species found in Texas, Proboscidea louisinaica. Image courtesy V. Smith.

There are roughly 15 species in the genus, and they are found from Central America up into the Great Plains. In virtually all of these areas the indigenous peoples ate the young pods, and many groups used the hard pods as tools or in basketry – but these topics are better covered in a Savor the Southwest post.

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Young pods can be cooked and eaten. Image courtesy W. Anderson.

Common names include desert devil’s claw, doubleclaw, red devil’s-claw (with purple flowers), una de diablo, una de gato, unicorn plant, campanita, cuernitos, and who knows what other common names! I would love it if you would share it in the comment section below.

All of these species of devils claw are summer growers. Most of them are short lived annual plants – living their entire life from seed to plant to flowers to seed pods within 6 to 16 weeks.

The most common species in much of the Southwest is Proboscidea parviflora.

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This is the more common species in the Sonoran Desert, Proboscidea parviflora. Image courtesy W. Anderson.

soule-word-scienceWhat’s in A Name

Proboscidea parviflora. Proboscidea is from Greek “proboskis,” elephant’s trunk.  Then parviflora means “small-flowered.”  Not sure why it got named small flowers – because the flowers are bold and beautiful!  Not to mention large enough for the chunky carpenter bee to crawl inside and pollinate.

How to Grow Devil’s Claw

I did promise those visitors to my table that I would write a post on how to grow the seeds they got, so here goes.

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Grow from Seeds

Remove seeds from the pods. They will not grow from inside the pods.

I save seeds every year, and plant my devils claws with the summer monsoons. Which shall hopefully start any day now. They are an oil rich snack for desert critters so you have to actively plant the seeds about a quarter to a third of an inch deep in the soil.

Soil gardening-with-soule-devils-claw-seedling

Proboscidea parviflora prefers well draining, sandy soils. If you have hard clay soils they might not do quite as well.  That said, they tolerate the caliche soils of my Tucson yard, especially with a little irrigation. The plants really like the improved soil and twice a week irrigation in the citrus orchard. Well, it is only four trees – but it is my little “orchard.”

 

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Javelina and even rabbits will eat the young plants – so you do have to grow them in a protected area. The rock squirrel that used to live in my yard thankfully “unalived” himself (he was really pretty), but rock squirrels will also eat the plants – and the tender young seed pods.

Water

In their wild habitat, these plants tend to be no more than a half a foot tall, but with a good monsoon season, or with supplemental irrigation they will get several feet tall and around.  Water two to three times per week for good growth.

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Fragrant flowers on this desert dweller. Proboscidea fragrans. Image courtesy T. Lebgue.

Enjoy!

The blooms make this a worth while plant to cultivate, and the seed pods make it one of the most unusual wildflowers of our unique region.

More Summer Wildflowers in this Book:

May I recommend my book?  The Month By Month Guide offers tips for your landscape (yes even lawns and roses) in every month of the year.  I have a few copies left and am offering them to you – my loyal readers. Price is what you would pay on Amazon – only when you buy from me you get a signed copy!soule-books-buy

From the review:

“A great reference book is key to successful gardening in the region where you live. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening takes the guesswork out of gardening for anyone residing in the Southwest. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to enjoy a thriving garden all year, from January to December. Chronologically organized, this guide is full of critical gardening when-to and how-to advice, along with illustrated step-by-step instructions.

The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening showcases Soule’s expertise in one easy-to-read guide.”

Profits from the sale of this book go to the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.

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