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(Derived from the Greek words iater, physician, and rhiza, root, evidently in allusion to its healing virtues. Most German and a few English authorities (e. g. Flueckiger, the German pharmacopeia of 1890, the U. S. pharmacopeia of 1880, and others) spell the name "jateorrhiza," with the two r's, notwithstanding the fact that Miers, the author of the name spelled it with a single r. In this he is followed by most authorities (except the Germans), including the Index Kewensis, and the V. S. pharmacopeia of 1890. Mamie (Pharmacognosie, 1886), suggests that the name jatrorhiza, should be used instead of jateorhiza, and so also does Koehler (Medicinalpflanzen, 140).)
Persons familiar with our common yellow parilla, Menispermum canadense, have a good idea of the plant that yields the calumba root of commerce. Indeed, a casual observer would take an illustration of one for the other, so closely do they resemble each other in shape of leaf, stem, and general floral appearance. One author, Roxburgh (559) (Flora Ind., Vol. 3, p. 807) has placed the plant in the genus menispermum. The genus jateorhiza as now constituted consists of three species, all natives of tropical Africa. It belongs to the natural order menispermaceae. The plant which produces the Colombo root of commerce is a herbaceous vine climbing over trees in the forests of eastern tropical Africa in the territory of Mozambique and Quilimani. The leaves are alternate, petiolate, cordate, and palmately lobed. As previously stated, they look very much like the leaves of our common yellow parilla. The flowers are dioecious and borne in pendulous axillary panicles. The female flowers have six sepals, six petals, six abortive stamens, and three pistils. The male flowers have the same floral envelopes and six perfect stamens. The anthers, as in yellow parilla, are four-celled, a structure comparatively rare save in this natural order. The plants that produce the root of commerce vary much in the shape of the leaves and in the amount of hispidity in the stem, and were formerly considered as belonging to two species, Jateorhiza calumba and Jateorhiza palmata, but later botanists have united them under the former name.
Calumba (also columbo) root has long been in use under the name "kalumb" among the African tribes of Mozambique, who employed it as a remedy for dysentery and other diseases (Berry) (63). Undoubtedly the drug was brought by them to the immediate knowledge of the Portuguese when they obtained possession of that country in 1508. Through the influence of their traders, knowledge of the drug was slowly diffused among the Europeans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The first definite information regarding calumba root, however, dates from the year 1671, when Franciscus Redi, 1626-1697, (538), born at Arezzo and physician to the Duke of Toscana, describing it under the name calumba, made its medicinal virtues conspicuous.
In 1695 the celebrated Leeuwenhoek (376), in his work "Arcana Naturae," recorded some chemical experiments that he had made with this root, which he calls radix indica, rays columba. He also introduced illustrations of crystals observed in the study of this drug. Contemporaneously with this physicist, J. C. Semmedus (592) (probably in 1689 or shortly before) mentions calumba in his writings as occurring among drugs originating from India. This author's work has become more prominent in a later edition (1722).
Valmont-Bomare (656c) in the 1764 edition of his dictionary describes "calumbe" as the root of an unknown tree brought to us from India. He adds that in Bengal this root is considered a specific in cases of colics, indigestion, and against the effects of "mort-du-chien," which is the old French name for colchicum.
Not, however, until in close succession the treatises on calumba root by Gaubius (257a), 1771, Cartheuser (129), 1773, and Percival (499), 1773, appeared, was there much general distribution of knowledge concerning this drug. In this connection it is perhaps of interest to note that in a previous translation (dated 1755) of Cartheuser's Materia Medica calumba root is not to be found.
Through Percival's recommendation especially the drug rapidly gained entrance into European materia medicas, and since about 1776 we find a record of it in many of the pharmacopoeias of European countries. However, the geographical and botanical origin of calumba root as yet remained a mystery. The Portuguese, as already stated, having had a monopoly of the trade in this article, seemed to have been careful not to disclose the origin of the drug and made it a custom to carry it to India and then to export it to Europe from Indian instead of African ports. Hence, for a long time the general impression prevailed that the plant was a native of India and that the capital of Ceylon (Colombo) gave the drug its name.
From about 1770, however, the suspicion that calumba root was of African origin had been gaining ground. In this year Philibert Commerson, a French physician, collected a specimen of a certain plant which was growing in the garden of M. Poivre in the Isle de France, which Lamarck in 1797 named Menispermum palmatum, stating that this menispermum (of which he described the male plant only) perhaps yielded the root that is brought to us from India under the name of calombo or Colombo root. He adds, however, that "it seems to be indigenous to India."
In 1805 a distinct advance was made in establishing its African origin. M. Fortin in this year brought the root of a male calumba plant from Mozambique to the city of Madras, where it was raised and cultivated by Dr. James Anderson. From this specimen Dr. Berry (63), in 1811, published a botanical description in the "Asiatic Researches," in which he also gives definite information regarding its origin and uses in its native country. The specimen was transported later by him to the Calcutta botanical gardens. De Candolle in 1818 named the plant Cocculus palmatus. However, the female plant was still unknown.
In 1825 Captain W. F. Owen brought a male and a female plant from Oibo, in East Africa, to Mauritius, where it was cultivated and observed by Bojer. From this source, at last, Sir W. J. Hooker (324) in 1830 was enabled to describe the whole plant, both male and female, under the name of Cocculus palmatus, Hooker.
The name of the genus jateorhiza was finally created in 1849 by Miers. (Hooker, Niger Flora, p. 212.) Chasmanthera columba is another synonym for this plant proposed by Baillon (33). (Nat. Hist. of Plants, Vol. III., London, 1874.)