A relative of the coffee plant (Coffea arabica), cat’s claw grows wild in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. Two species are of medicinal interest, Uncaria tomentosa and U. guianensis; both are found in the Amazon Valley. The plant’s twining woody stem, which can grow to 100 feet, bears large, glossy leaves and thorny spines curved like a cat’s claws. In its native region, indigenous people have traditionally used cat’s claw as a contraceptive and as a treatment for a wide range of health conditions.
Much of the supply of this herb used for commercial purposes is wild-harvested from plants in South America, although cat’s claw is increasingly being harvested from cultivated sources or managed plantings in secondary forests.
Common Names: Cat’s Claw, Uña-de-Gato
Description: Twining, woody vine to 100 feet long; large, glossy leaves; thorny spines curved like cats’ claws grow at stem leaf junctions; tiny, yellowish white or red-orange flowers
Hardiness: Zone 11
Parts Used: Bark
Range/Habitat: Native to the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Valley and surrounding regions
Cat’s claw is a known anti-inflammatory agent. It has been used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee and rheumatoid arthritis (in conjunction with conventional therapy), as well as Crohn’s disease, chronic prostatitis, canker sores, gastric ulcers and other stomach problems, sinus infections, and flu. The plant’s roots and stem bark are believed to contain compounds that can stimulate the immune system. Cat’s claw could be useful in the treatment of viral infections and for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Caution: This herb should not be used during pregnancy, by those taking ulcer medications, or by transplant patients. The plant has been over-harvested in the wild; choose products made from sustainably harvested stem bark.
How to grow it
Cat’s claw thrives in rich, moist soil; ample rain; and heat — typical conditions of a tropical rainforest. You can try growing it in a warm greenhouse where it will receive ample light — in the wild, its long vine helps bring this plant into the canopy of the rainforest. Harvesting begins when the plant is at least 8 years old; the vine is cut from the top to within a foot of the ground, and the bark is stripped and dried for use. Basal parts of the stem and roots are left in the ground to ensure that the rapidly growing vine continues to flourish. Propagate the vine from stem cuttings.
The world’s first Sacred Seeds Sanctuary — for the conservation of medicinal plants and the promotion of indigenous knowledge of healing traditions — was founded at Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica. Semillas Sagradas, as it is known in Spanish, is dedicated to “preserving both medicinal plant species and cultural memory.” Gardens with this purpose are now found in more than 1,000 places as part of an international network. Located in a magnificent Costa Rican rainforest preserve and organic biodynamic farm and ecotourism lodge, Sacred Seeds Sanctuary is home to hundreds of medicinal plant species from Central America, as well as from many other regions.