Aristolochia Serpentaria. Serpentaria, Virginia Snakeroot, Birthwort.
Description: Natural Order, Aristolochiaceae. This peculiar little plant is common in thickets and rich, shady woods, through the Middle, Southern, and Western States. Stem eight inches to a foot high, round, slender, without branches, jointed, and forming slight angles at each joint. Leaves oblong, or ovate-cordate, acuminate, thin, entire, pale yellowish-green, on short petioles arising alternately from the joints of the stem, two to four inches long, of variable width. Perianth springing from the joints near the root; on a long and bending peduncle, which curves till the flower is often hidden in the decaying leaves around; consisting of a dull-purple, leathery, tabular calyx, the corolla being wanting; this calyx-tube being from seven to nine lines long, curiously bent upon itself near the middle and enlarged at each end, and the limb of three short obtuse lobes. Stamens six, with their anthers sessile and adnate to the back of the short stigma. July. The plant is minutely pubescent; from one to several stems from the same root-stalk; flowers one to four. Root perennial, with a short, light-brown, horizontal, knotty rhizoma, which gives off a thick cluster of yellowish-brown, long, and slender fibers.
This root has long had a reputation in medicine. It has an aromatic odor and taste, bitter and heating, something between turpentine, quassia, and camphor. It contains a volatile oil; and a very bitter, yellowish, extractive material. Water, and alcohol in any degree of dilution, extract its properties. Heat impairs it by driving off its oil; though this oil is not sufficient in quantity to have led to its appearance in commerce. The fibers turn brown by age; and lose much of their virtue, unless carefully kept. It has been asserted that a cold decoction slowly deposits crystals of camphor, but I feel satisfied this is a mistake. It often appears in market adulterated with pink-root and senega; but these may both be distinguished from the serpentaria by their taste, and by not occurring in entangled masses upon a knotty rhizoma.
Other species of Aristolochia are equally valuable with this one, as the reticulata, hirsuta, and tomentosa.
Properties and Uses: The root is very strong; actively and diffusively stimulating, and considerably relaxing. It is very warming and persistent to the taste, leaving bitterness behind, and stimulating the flow of saliva. It influences the capillary and arterial circulation, and by them the secretions of the skin and kidneys; also elevating nervous activity, and increasing the gastric and mucous secretions. Its excitation of the stomach is very prompt; it seems to pervade the whole system almost instantly, by means of the solar plexus of the sympathetic nerve; and though its impressions are not very permanent, they are very decided.
In small doses it arouses the stomach, and may thus increase appetite and digestion. A warm sensation follows its use; and large doses create nausea, and even prompt vomiting. This vomiting, connected with the sudden stimulation of the nerves, I have thought might render this a good agent when an emetic ,vas needed to eject a narcotic poison from the stomach. A continued use of considerable doses induces flatulent and uneasy feelings in the stomach; and there may also follow gripings, tenesmus, and dysenteric stools. These facts usually prevent the use of the article for any considerable length of time; and in cases where there is a tendency to irritation, inflammation, ulceration, or looseness of the bowels–also in many typhoid conditions. They render it most appropriate in cases where a prompt and temporary impression is demanded; also in typhoid states when the above-named conditions are not present. Among the difficulties for which it is peculiarly valuable, may be named the following: Fainting, depression from any form of nervous or surgical shock, sudden nervous languor, sudden recession of blood from the surface, and insufficient development of small-pox. or scarlatina, (but not usually fit for measles.) The warm infusion, given in small doses while the patient is well covered, will soon secure a warm perspiration in languid conditions; I have repeatedly noticed this moisture appear first on the hands and feet, thus evincing the extreme diffusiveness of the agent; the perspiration is usually accompanied by a slight itching sensation; and after a time the pulse gets fuller and stronger, till the heart and brain finally feel the stimulation. The cold infusion, or even the warm infusion to a patient in a cool atmosphere, will usually act with vigor upon the kidneys.
By its influence upon the entire circulatory and nervous systems, it may arouse different functional actions; but it very especially influences the uterus. In sudden suppressions of the catamenia, especially those from cold, and while the system is languid, it will exert a decided effect in restoring the menstrual flow. During parturition, it will arouse flagging pains with great power, if the patient become weary and chilly, with cold extremities. Combined in small quantities with cypripedium and caulophyllum, it is a most valuable parturient under such circumstances, but not under others. It promotes saliva and expectoration, and has been used as a gargle in malignant conditions. Though some speak of it very highly in low fevers, it needs, as above shown, much discrimination in its use. Its reputed value in agues is not deserving of confidence. It was once considered sovereign in snake-bites and other poisoned wounds; and is of much service in arousing the system to cast out virus. In threatening pyaemia and mortification, where the system lacks power to resist the encroachments of the poison, it will rapidly establish the line of demarkation and eject the putrid fluids-provided the stomach is not too irritable to use it.
Dose, of the powder, from two to five grains every six or four hours. It is rarely given in this way, the infusion being usually preferred when the article is used alone.
Pharmaceutical Preparations: I. Infusion. Roots of serpentaria, crushed, three drachms; macerate for an hour in a pint of water, in a covered vessel, at a heat considerably below the boiling point. In emergencies and for sudden impressions, two or three tablespoonfuls of this may be given every twenty or thirty minutes; but one tablespoonful every hour will serve most acute cases, and every four hours when it is desired to continue the agent for a day or more.
II. Tincture. Four ounces of the crushed root may be macerated for ten days (or less) in a sufficient quantity of diluted alcohol; then put into a percolator, and treated with diluted alcohol till one quart passes over. If used alone, this is given in doses of from half to a whole teaspoonful, or even four times that quantity. Its chief employment is as an addition to tonic preparations.
The wine tincture, three ounces of roots to a quart, is a more pleasant article. It is an ingredient in the Compound Tincture of Cinchona. The Eclectics combine it with ipecac, saffron, camphor, and opium, in their Sudorific Tincture--a compound rendered deceitful and pernicious by the last ingredient. As a diaphoretic, I combine it usually with asclepias tuberosa, which see.
The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869, was written by William Cook, M.D.
It was scanned by Paul Bergner at http://medherb.com