We called it devil’s club. It was large, growing as tall or taller than me. Its leaves resembled those of the maple, and it produced bright red berries that Mother told us we must never, ever eat. But the most distinctive feature of the plant was that it was covered, from stem to leaves, with long, sharp spines. (page 146 – The Lightkeeper’s Daughters)
My research into Porphyry Island revealed that it was home to unique plant species, including some arctic disjuncts and rare orchids. This prompted me to weave a story thread that included adding the characters of Alfred and Millie, biologists researching wetlands and documenting the vegetation found there. But the presence of the plant oplopanax horridus, or devil’s club, offered more opportunity for the environment to play into the story, and it appears in several scenes.
Common along the pacific northwest coast, devil’s club grows in the understory of moist forested ecosystems from Alaska down through BC to Washington and east to the Rockies. Its presence on a few islands in Lake Superior, including Isle Royale, the Slates and Porphyry Island, is a bit on an anomaly. The plant is characterized by a dense armour of needle-like spines that covers the stems and undersides of the leaves. In addition to the scratches and discomfort of being scraped by the spines, contact with the plant can cause severe skin reactions.
I called to Emily, walking toward her, carefully picking my way over fallen logs and around the patches of devil’s club. She did not look at me but continued toward the sound of Heathcliff’s cries. Moonlight glowed blue, revealing Everett darting away from her, glancing over his shoulder as he went, and I watched him stumble and fall, landing in the prickly grasp of devil’s club, where he floundered, his focus no longer on the specter moving toward him as the thorns grabbed at his flesh.
On the other hand, devil’s club is a member of the ginseng family and is widely known for its medicinal properties. It was traditionally used as an antibacterial to treat infections, both internal and external, as well as arthritis, rheumatism and respiratory ailments – uses I have incorporated into the novel. Elizabeth and Emily’s mother, Lil, knew and applied many traditional forms of medicine, having acquired the expertise of a healer from her Indigenous mother.
Mother spent more and more time sitting in her chair, her back bent and painful. She sent me to gather the stems of the big-leafed devil’s club from the Indian cemetery, and, carefully avoiding the sharp spines that protected the healing roots, I brought them to her. She peeled the outer bark and mashed the pulpy insides to a paste and had me spread it on her back.
This summer when I visited Porphyry Island, I found a patch of the plant growing alongside the trail that runs from the boatyard to the light station at the point. Perhaps, this is where Everett encountered it, stumbling around on a moonlit night, haunted by the living spirit of Emily and the eerie call of a fox.