Aristolochia serpentaria. Virginia Snakeroot.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 49. Aristolochia serpentaria. It is probable that this root, like many other articles now used in medicine, was indebted to its sensible qualities, for its first introduction into use. As the name implies, its earliest medicinal character was founded on a supposed antidotal power against the bite of venomous serpents. Cornutus, at the end of his book on the plants of Canada, published at Paris in 1635, tells us, that a root had been sent to him from "Notha Anglia" which was called Serpentaria, and in the vernacular tongue Snagröel. This root was a very sure safeguard against the bite of a huge serpent in that country, which proved inevitably fatal within twelve hours, unless a good portion of the antidote was swallowed in season; which being done, no one was ever known to be in danger of his life from this cause.

The snagröel has had a great many rivals in the character of specifics against the bite of serpents. So great, indeed, is the number of articles which are called uniformly successful in such cases, that we are compelled to believe, that the bite of the rattle snake, and doubtless of other venomous serpents in the country, although attended with severe and alarming consequences, is nevertheless but seldom fatal; and hence that the honor of proving specific in these cases is one of cheap acquisition.

The Serpentaria grows in woods in the Southern and Middle parts of the United States. It bears cultivation in any part of the union, though the most northerly situation, from which I have received wild specimens, is the vicinity of New Haven, from which place some living plants were sent to me by Dr. Monson.

The genus Aristolochia has a monopetalous, tubular, crooked corolla, swelling at base, and dilated at the border. Capsule inferior, six celled. The species Serpentaria has its leaves heart-shaped, oblong, acuminate; stem flexuous; peduncles radical. Pursh mentions a variety with leaves so narrow, as to appear like a distinct species; the flower, however, being not different. Woodville's figure of our plant has the leaves much too broad for the common habit of the vegetable.

It belongs to the class Gynandria, order Hexandria, or more properly Dodecandria. It is one of the few genera placed by Linnaeus in that class which are not of the Orchideous tribe. Natural orders Sarmentaceeae, Linn. Aristolochiae, Juss.

This vegetable is humble in its growth, being most commonly under a foot in height. The root is extremely fibrous, and sends up a number of stems. These are simple or slightly branched, jointed, flexuous, and often of a reddish tinge. The leaves are alternate, on short petioles, oblong, entire, acuminate, heart-shaped at base and three nerved.

The flowers grow close to the ground, like those of Asarum. They have a stiff leathery texture, and a dull brownish purple colour. The peduncle which supports them has one or more leafets, and gradually enlarges into a furrowed obovate germ. The corolla, like others in this singular genus, consists of a long contorted tube, bent in the form of the letter S, swelling at its two extremities, having its throat surrounded by an elevated edge or brim, and its border expanded into a broad irregular margin, forming an upper and under lip, which are closed in a triangular manner in the bud. The anthers are twelve in number, growing in pairs to the sides of the fleshy style, which is situated in the bottom of the corolla, and covered by a firm, spreading convoluted stigma, which extends over the anthers. The capsule is obovate, six angled, six celled, with numerous small flat seeds.

Snakeroot has a penetrating, rather agreeable, resinous smell, and a pungent bitter taste, resembling somewhat that of the Pinus Canadensis, or Hemlock spruce. It communicates its qualities both to spirit and water, but most to the former. I subjected a quantity of the root to distillation for one hour, and obtained in the receiver a whitish pearly fluid, very strongly impregnated with the aroma, but less bitter than the root. On standing twenty four hours, this fluid deposited round the edges of the surface a considerable number of small white crystals, which proved to be pure camphor. They were inflammable, fusible with a sudden, and volatile with a gradual heat. I perceived no essential oil, though Dr. Lewis informs us, that if the quantity of root, submitted to the operation, be large, there arises a small portion of pale coloured essential oil of a considerable smell but of no very strong taste. There is probably a portion of resin present, as I found that the root, after having been boiled in water an hour, still impregnated alcohol so as to cause a precipitate with water. The bitterness communicated to the infusion and decoction appears to reside in a variety of extractive matter.

Medicinally considered, Serpentaria is a tonic, diaphoretic, and in certain cases an antispasmodic and anodyne. It has been abundantly used in fevers of various descriptions, and has been commended by a host of medical writers. There is no doubt that it has been injudiciously employed in many cases, in fever attended with an active pulse and inflammatory diathesis. The early stages, also, of febrile diseases rarely admit the exhibition of so decided a stimulant, without injury. But in the advanced stages of fever and those attended with typhoidal symptoms, this medicine is resorted to with great advantage, both alone and in combination with other tonics and stimulants. It is peculiarly useful in supporting the strength, and in allaying the irregular actions which attend great febrile debility, such as subsultus tendinum, delirium, watchfulness, &c. Its bitter ingredients, and the camphor which it contains, no doubt contribute to these effects. It is most advantageously given in combination with bark, or with wine and opium.

Snakeroot is a popular remedy in exanthematous disorders as a diaphoretic, being given to keep out the eruption, and to restore it when it has receded. In the latter case its use is doubtless injudicious, and if it fails to reproduce the eruption, it greatly increases the heat, pain, and restlessness of the patient. It is better in cases where the eruption has receded to the disadvantage of the patient, to attempt its restoration by nauseating and saline diaphoretics, and even by a full emetic, than to incur the risk of aggravating the symptoms by a stimulating regimen.

Dr. Chapman, in his Therapeutics, considers the Serpentaria as partaking the mixed qualities of a stimulant and tonic, and acting also as a diaphoretic and diuretic. It is peculiarly useful as an auxiliary to the bark. He states, that one of the more early uses of the medicine was in the cure of intermittent fever. Whether alone it was found adequate to this purpose, does not clearly appear. "It was used by Sydenham in conjunction with wine, to prevent the recurrence of the paroxysm, and from his account, not without advantage. As a general rule, he says, that in all cases, where it is expedient to combine wine with bark, the effect will be much increased by adding Serpentaria. The correctness of this observation has been fully confirmed by subsequent experience, and it is now very much the practice to unite the two articles in the low states of disease."

Dr. Chapman farther states, that though it is doubtful whether the Serpentaria, by itself, will cure ague and fever, it is certainly a powerful assistant to bark, not only in increasing its efficacy, but, what is of great consequence, in enabling the stomach to retain the medicine.

To remittent fever he thinks this medicine better adapted. It has here, in many cases, an indisputable superiority over bark, inasmuch as it is rarely offensive to the stomach, and may be given without injury, in those obscure states of the disease, where the remission is not readily discernible. He prefers, in these cases, a combination of bark, snakeroot, and soda.

Snakeroot, he informs us, is much resorted to as a popular remedy in the management of the secondary stages of pleurisy. After bleeding, it is the ordinary practice, in many parts of our country, to resort to a strong infusion of this article with a view of exciting perspiration. Catarrhs, rheumatisms, and other winter complaints, incident to rustic life, are managed in the same way. In that species of pleurisy which is properly enough designated by the epithet bilious, he has repeatedly had occasion to recur to the Serpentaria, and always with more or less utility. This bilious pleurisy he considers as having all the characters of pneumonic inflammation, with the addition of some of the symptoms incident to autumnal fever, such as head ach, great gastric distress, and almost always violent vomitings of bile. It differs also from ordinary pleurisy in having less activity of inflammation, and consequently in not bearing the same extent of depletion. The system, indeed, will often be very evidently depressed by one or two bleedings. In this case the practice which has been commonly pursued is, after the removal of a comparatively small portion of blood, and the thorough evacuation of the alimentary canal; to administer very freely draughts of the infusion of the Serpentaria in order to excite copious diaphoresis.

Dr. Chapman concludes his remarks on this article, by stating, that it is admirably suited to check vomitings, and to tranquillize the stomach, more particularly in bilious cases. It is given for this purpose in decoction, in the small dose of half an ounce or less at a time, and frequently repeated.

The most common form of exhibiting snakeroot is in infusion, for which purpose half an ounce may be steeped in a pint of boiling water for two hours, in a covered vessel. Of this infusion an ounce or two may be taken every three or four hours. Decoction is a less proper mode of preparing this plant, as it tends to dissipate the volatile parts, a portion of which is detained in a state of mixture by the infusion. Sometimes the powder is given in doses of from ten to thirty grains. A tincture of snakeroot is made by digesting an ounce of the root in a pound or somewhat less of proof spirit. The compound tincture of bark, commonly called Huxham's tincture, contains Serpentaria as one of its ingredients.

Botanical References.

Aristolochia serpentaria, Linn. Sp. pl.
Walter, Flor. Car, 223.
Woodville, ii. 291. t. 106.
Michaux, ii. 162.
Pursh, ii. 596.
Pistolochia sive Serpentaria Virginiana, &c.
Plukenet, t. 148. f. 5.
Catesby, Car, i. 29.

Medical References.

Murray, App. Med. i. 348.
Cullen, Mat. Med, ii. 85.
Chapman, Therapeutics, ii. 411.
Lind. Hot climates, 104, 254.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.