By Georges Betti and Mathias Schmidt
The discovery of the South African plant Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) for Western medicine is usually ascribed to the German settler G.H. Mehnert. A colourful story has been written around this event, and has even been cited as scientific facts in various publications (Volk 1964; Duband 1986; Pelt 1997). According to this story Mehnert settled as a farmer in Namibia, after having reached the country with the German Imperial “Protective Force” around 1904. The story goes that Mehnert had observed the miraculous healing of a victim of the so-called Hottentot uprising from 1904 to 1908 (in fact a brutal war and genocide of the German troops mainly against the tribe of the Herero), with the wounded already given up by the German physicians. The local healer saved the patient through the application of some unknown medicinal plant. The healer would not tell Mehnert what plant he used, but Mehnert put his dog on the trail, and thus found the place where the healer had buried the leaves, which allowed Mehnert to recognize the plant as the one known to him as “Devil’s claw”.
This story was good marketing material, but ultimately it was just that: a marketing story completely made up and told in advertisements of a German pharmaceutical company bringing Devil’s claw to the market in the 1970’s. The only truth in the story was that Mehnert was in fact a farmer of German origin in Namibia. His farm near Mariental still exists as a heirloom of Mehnert’s descendants still living in Namibia. Today it is used as a hunting farm. During our search for the origins we could even find and sample Harpagophytum procumbens on site.
The less prosaic version is that Mehnert was interested in local medicinal plants, and as the preference of the Nama for Devil’s claw was anything but a secret, he knew about the medicinal virtues of Devil’s claw root preparations. The descendants, who still own a diary of Mehnert, told us that during captivity in a South African prisoners of war camp in 1941 this knowledge came in quite handy. After his release from captivity and the end of the war, Mehnert started exporting Devil’s claw roots to Germany. According to Volk (1964), Devil’s claw has been imported to Germany as early as 1953.
The name “Devil’s claw” was derived from the form of the fruits, same as the botanical scientific name “Harpagophytum procumbens”, the “creeping grappling iron plant”. The plant seems to have developed the grappling iron form of the fruits to allow the germination in the loose sand of the Kalahari savannah, where there is the constant threat for the fruits to be carried away by the wind. However, the fruits will also stick quite solidly to the wool of sheep, and being very prickly, the can cause pain to the animals. Volk (1964) describes that sheep trying to shake off the Devil’s claw fruits perform a real devil’s dance, hence the vernacular name.
The form of the fruits can be used for the differentiation between Harpagophytum zeyheri (left side) – with much flatter fruits and less pronounced grappling irons – and Harpagophytum procumbens (right side).
The fruits gave the plant its name, but the roots are used for medicinal purposes. Today, Devil’s claw preparations count among the most favoured medicinal plant products in Europe and the United States of America.
Czygan, F.-C.: „Harpagophytum – Teufelskralle.“ Z. f. Phytother. 8, 19-20 (1987).
Duband, F.: „Harpagophytum procumbens DC: Recherche d’une activité anti-inflammatoire aiguë.“ Diss. Nr. 30, Faculté de Pharmacie, Université de Clermont I (1986)
Pelt, J.-M.: „De la nourriture des dieux à la griffe du diable.“ In: „Les plantes en peril.“ Ed. Fayard, 95-106 (1997).
Volk, O.H.: „Zur Kenntnis von Harpagophytum procumbens DC.“ Dtsch. Apoth. Ztg. 104, 573-576 (1964).