Bitter Root

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Bitter Root

Botanical Name: Apocynum androsaemifolium (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Apocynacae

Synonyms: Milkweed. Dogsbane. Fly-Trap.
Parts Used: The dried rhizome, roots.
Habitat: North America.

Description: The genus Apocynum contains only four species, two of which Apocynum androsaemifolium and A. cannabinum, or Black Indian Hemp, resemble each other very closely, the roots being distinguished by the thick-walled stone cells, which in the former are found in an interrupted circle near the middle of the bark, and in the latter are absent.

A. androsaemifolium is a perennial herb, 5 or 6 feet in height, branching, and, in common with the other three members of the genus, yielding on incision a milky juice resembling indiarubber when dry.

The leaves are dark green above, paler and downy beneath, ovate, and from 2 to 3 inches long. The flowers are white, tinged with red, having five scales in the throat of the corolla which secrete a sweet liquid, attractive to flies. These scales are very sensitive, and when touched bend inward, imprisoning the insects.

The tough, fibrous bark of all four species is used by the Indians of California as a substitute for hemp, in making twine, bags, fishing-nets and lines, and linen.

The milky root is found in commerce in cylindrical, branched pieces, about a quarter of an inch thick, reddish or greyish brown outside, longitudinally wrinkled, and having a short fracture and small pith. There is scarcely any odour, and the taste is starchy, afterwards bitter and acrid.

Constituents: The nature of the active principle is uncertain. A glucoside, Apocynamarin, was separated, but the activity is thought to be due not to the glucoside, but to an intensely bitter principle, Cymarin.

Medicinal Action and Uses: One of the digitalis group of cardiac tonics, apocynum, is the most powerful in slowing the pulse, and its action on the vaso-motor system is also very strong. Being rather irritant to mucous membranes, it may cause nausea and catharsis, so that some cannot tolerate it. It is a powerful hydragogue, helpful in dropsies due to heart-failure, and in the ascites of hepatic cirrhosts has been called the 'vegetable trocar.'

It is used as an alterative in rheumatism, syphilis and scrofula.

Dosage: 5 to 15 grains.

Poisons and Antidotes: The absorption in the gastro-intestinal tract being very irregular, the dosage and patient must be carefully watched and guarded.

Other Species:
A. cannabinum, or Black Indian Hemp, Canadian Hemp, American Hemp, Amyroot, Bowman's Root, Indian Physic Bitter Root, Rheumatism Weed, Milkweed, Wild Cotton, Choctaw Root, is diuretic, expectorant, diaphoretic, emetic, and cathartic. It should not be substituted for A. androsaemifolium or vice versa.

It is not the Indian Hemp (Cannabis Indica) which yields 'hashish.'

A. hypericifolium bears some resemblance to the above.

A. venetum contains an alkaloid, Apocynteine, said to be a cardiac sedative.

BITTER ROOT is also a common name of Gentiana lutea, or Yellow Gentian, the wellknown bitter, and of Lewisia rediviva or Spathulum, with a starchy, edible root.

MILKWEED is also a common name of Asclepias.

DOG'S BANE is also a common name of Aconitum Cynoctonum.