One of the strangest plants growing in the garden at the 29 Palms Inn is the Devil’s Claw. It is a summer monsoon plant with large sticky leaves, white flowers with pink veins, and the odd mature fruit illustrated above. Look for the fruit hanging from the fence on the oasis side of the garden.
Devil’s Claw was introduced here by Jane Smith, owner of the 29 Palms Inn, at the request of a basket maker she met in southern Arizona. Jane was asked to plant the seeds in her garden and then return the fruits to the basket makers. When Jane accepted this charge she was becoming part of an agricultural tradition that goes back many years. Black fibers from the Devil’s Claw are used by Southwestern Indians in basket weaving. Their main basket material is the white fiber from yucca plants but long ago it was discovered that if some of the black fibers from Devil’s Claw were woven into the basket bottom it would be stronger and last longer. The dark fibers are also used to make the designs in the baskets.
The wild species of Devil’s Claw has a shorter claw. It was thought that as the Indian women started to sell more and more of their baskets it became necessary to cultivate Devil’s Claw to supplement the wild supply. So, this is possibly a recent domestication. Or, maybe not. A cache of the white seeds was found associated with charcoal dated at A.D. 1670. In any event, as the women began selecting which seeds to plant in their gardens they naturally chose from those individuals that would provide the longest and strongest fibers. Over time they created the long clawed variety shown above. Only in 1942 was it reported in the literature that the wild type has black seeds and the domestic type white seeds. Jane was given white seeds to plant. As an aside, Jane’s father, Doc, planted the wild black-seeded variety when she was a child, preparing her for this domestic introduction.
This is such a strange fruit you might wonder what it is designed for. Not for today would be the first answer. The claws are designed to encircle the legs of the large four-legged animals that roamed the grasslands during the Pleistocene epoch. Their hooves would disturb the soil as they walk, leaving a nice furrow for the seeds to drop into.
~ Pat Flanagan