Medical Herbs Catalogue



Botanical Name: Aristolochia Serpentaria (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Aristolochiaceae

Synonyms: Aristolochia reticulata. Serpentatiae Rhizoma. Serpentary Rhizome. Serpentary Radix. Virginian Snakeroot. Aristolochia officinalis. Aristolochia sagittata. Endodeca Bartonii. Endodeca Serpentaria. Snakeweed. Red River or Texas Snakeroot. Pelican Flower. Virginia serpentaria. Snagrel. Sangrel. Sangree. Radix Colubrina. Radix Viperina.
Parts Used: Dried rhizome and roots.
Habitat: The Central and Southern United States.

Description: Many species of Aristolochia have been employed in medicine, the classical name being first applied to A. Clematitis and A. rotunda, from their supposedemmenagogue properties. A. serpentaria and A. reticulata, or Texas Snakeroot, differ slightly in leaves and flowers, the latter having a slightly coarser root. Both are recognized as official in the United States of America.

The plant is a perennial herb, growing in rich, shady woods, the roots being collected in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, where it is packed in bales containing about 100 lb., often mixed with leaves, stems and dirt.

It has a short, horizontal rhizome, giving off numerous long, slender roots below. The flowers are peculiar, growing from the joints near the root and drooping until they are nearly buried in the earth or in their dried leaves. They are small, and brownish-purple in colour. Attempts at cultivation are being made, as the rather large use of serpentaria has caused the drug to become scarcer. A specimen was grown in an English garden as far back as 1632. There is one in cultivation at Kew, but it has not flowered there. The genus Endodeca was defined from this species, but it has no characters to distinguish it. Serpentaria has a yellowish or brownish colour, and both smell and taste are aromatic and resemble a mixture of valerian and camphor. Several kinds are cultivated in hothouses for the singularity and, in some cases, the handsome appearance of their flowers, though their colours are usually dingy. The bent shape causes some blossoms to act as a fly-trap. A. sipho, a native of the Alleghany Mountains, is cultivated as an outdoor climbing plant, for the sake of its large leaves, the shape of its flowers inspiring the name of Pipe-Vine or Dutchman's Pipe.

Constituents: A volatile oil in the proportion of about 1/2 per cent, and a bitterprinciple - Aristolochin - an amorphous substance of yellow colour and bitter and slightly acrid taste, soluble in both water and alcohol. The medicinal properties are due to these two substances, but the root also contains tannic acid, resin, gum, sugar, etc.

A more recent analysis gives volatile oil, resin, a yellow, bitter principle considered analagous to the bitter principle of quassia, gum, starch, albumen, lignin, malate and phosphate of lime, oxide of iron and silica.

About 1/2 OZ. of the oil is furnished by 100 lb. of the root, the coarser, A. reticulata, yielding rather more. The resinous aristinic acid has been obtained from a number of species, including A. serpentaria. The alkaloid Aristolochine, found in several varieties, requires fuller investigation.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Stimulant, tonic and diaphoretic, properties resembling those of valerian and cascarilla. Too large doses occasion nausea, griping pains in the bowels, sometimes vomiting and dysenteric tenesmus. In small doses, it promotesthe appetite, toning up the digestive organs. It has been recommended in intermittent fevers, when it may be useful as an adjunct to quinine. In full doses it produces increased arterial action, diaphoresis, and frequently diuresis. In eruptive fevers where the eruption is tardy, or in the typhoid stage where strong stimulants cannot be borne, it may be very valuable. An infusion is an effective gargle in putrid sore-throat. It benefits sufferers from dyspepsia and amenorrhoea.

Long boiling impairs its virtues. A cold infusion is useful in convalescence from acute diseases.

It is probable that as it does not disturb the bowels, it may often be used where Guaiacum is not easily tolerated, for stimulating capillary circulation and promoting recovery in chronic forms of gouty inflammation.

Many powers are claimed for the drug as an antidote to the bites of snakes and mad dogs, but though there is much direct testimony, the claim is not considered to be authoritatively proved.

Dosage: Powdered root, 10 to 30 grains. Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm. Tincture, B.P. and U.S.P., 1/2 to 1 drachm. Infusion, B.P., 1/2 to 1 OZ. Conc. solution, B.P., 1/2 to 2 drachms.

Poisonous, if any, with Antidotes: According to Pohl, aristolochine in sufficient doseproduces in the higher animals violent irritation of the gastro-intestinal tract and of the kidneys, with death in coma from respiratory paralysis.

The celebrated Portland powder for the cure of gout contained aristolochia, with gentian, centaury and other bitters in the dose of a drachm every morning for three months, afterwards diminishing for a year or more, but its prolonged use injured the stomach and nervous system, bringing on premature decay and death.

Other Species:
Analyses have been made of A. Clematitis, A. rotunda, A. longa, A. argentea, A. indica and A. bracteata, yielding aristolochine, aristolin, or aristinic acid. A closely allied if not identical resinous acid has been obtained from the plant Bragantia Wallichii, besides an alkaloid, which, under the name of Alpam, has long been used in Western India as an antidote to snake-venom. The allied species, Bragantia tomentosa, is said to be employed in Java as an emmenagogue.

Several species are found in the herbalists' stores of India which do not enter commerce.

A. bracteata is employed as an emmenagogue. Aristolochia of the Br. Add. was the dried stem and root of A. indica, the stems with attached roots being used for the cure of snake-bite.

Of A. rotunda, the Br. Add. recognized the concentrated liquor, i.e. 1 in 2 of 20 per cent alcohol (dose, 1/2 to 2 fluid drachms), and the tincture, i.e. 1 in 5 of 70 per cent alcohol (dose, 1/2 to 1 fluid drachm).

A. Clematitis, A. longa and A. rotunda are still retained in official catalogues in Europe, where they are indigenous. A. Pistolochia, of Southern Europe, appears to have been the aristolochia of Pliny, and is still used under the name of Pistolochia.

A. Clematitis, or Birthwort, is found in England, usually near old ruins, as if it had been cultivated for its medical use, as an aid to parturition.

It is stated that Egyptian jugglers use some of these plants to stupefy snakes before they handle them, while it is related that the juice of the root of A. anguicida, if introduced into the mouth of a serpent, will stupefy it, and if it be compelled to swallow a few drops it will die in convulsions.

It is conjectured that the Guaco of South America, a root of which is carried by all Indians and Negroes who traverse the country, is some species of Aristolochia probably A. cymbifera, known in Brazil as milhommen, jarra, and jarrinha.

In the Argentine Republic the root of A. argentina is used as a diuretic and diaphoretic, especially in rheumatism.

In Arabia, Forskhal states that the leaves of A. sempervirens are used as a counterpoison.

A. foetida, of Mexico, or Yerba del Indio, is used as a local stimulant to foul ulcers.

For snake-bite, in addition to A. serpentaria in North America, A. maxima or Contra Capitano is employed in South America, A. anguicida in the Antilles, A. brasiliensis, A. cymbifera, A. macroura, A. trilobata, etc.