Celastrus Scandens. False Bittersweet, Staff-Vine, Wax Work, etc.

Botanical name: 

Description: Natural Order, Celastraceae. Genus CELASTRUS: Climbing shrubs, growing in woods and thickets; with a woody stem an inch or more in diameter, covered with a soft grayish-white bark; twining about the trunks and branches of trees to a great height. Flowers often imperfect, in terminal clusters or racemes, small, greenish-white, and slightly fragrant. Calyx flat, five-lobed; petals five, spreading; fruit an orange-colored and berry-like pod, nearly globose, somewhat three-angled, three-celled. This capsule opens in three valves, which hang upon the plant all winter; and, together with the scarlet aril surrounding the seeds, make a bright Winter ornament. Leaves alternate, ovate-oblong, finely serrated, pointed, thin, smooth, one and a half to two inches long, on petioles an inch long. Flowering in June.

This beautiful climbing shrub is common throughout America, choosing moist places with a deep soil and good shade. The root is very long, woody, half to three-fourths of an inch in diameter, covered with a thick cortex of a bright orange color on the outside. This cortex is the medicinal part. It has a sweet and somewhat nauseous taste. Water or diluted alcohol readily extracts its virtues. Age impairs it.

Properties and Uses: The root is a mild and slow relaxant, acting chiefly upon the glandular structures, including the kidneys and skin; but it makes a very general impression upon the system, and seems to influence the absorbents and spleen decidedly. It soothes nervous irritation throughout the frame, tastes slightly nauseous to some persons, and leaves a gentle tonic impression.

This article has been used mostly as an alterative; and deserves far more attention than it receives in all scrofulous cases, whether of glandular swelling or strumous diathesis. Its own action being so largely relaxing, it is best combined with alterant tonics, as menispermum, stillingia, rumex, getiana, etc. (§262.) Such compounds, containing an excess of this agent, are valuable not merely in scrofula, but in nearly all forms of scaly skin diseases, (on the addition of some guaiacum or xanthoxylum,) in secondary syphilis and mercurial cachexia. By some it is spoken of in leucorrhea and obstructed menstruation; but I have never found it useful in such cases as a class. But it is very good, combined with mild tonics, for young women about the age of puberty, when they get blue bands under their eyes, with general paleness, precarious appetite, nervousness, feebleness, and vaginal weakness. I have obtained a good impression from it in some mild cases of chronic ovaritis.

This agent has a peculiar and valuable action on the kidneys and bladder, soothing and strengthening these organs. I have found it good in the enuresis of nervous children, generally combining it with agrimonia. I have found it an excellent agent for irritable cases of spermatorrhea –a small portion of it being combined with a large quantity of the Compound Sirup of Mitchella. The late S. B. Dodd, M. D., of Martinsburg, Ohio, furnished me with a detailed account of his use of it in diabetes. He used one ounce of the solid extract with one-fourth of an ounce of extract of hydrastis, softened to the consistence of molasses with a whisky tincture of colombo and dogwood. Of this he gave a teaspoonful three times a day, and had not known it to fail, in the management of a large number of cases. I have confirmed this observation on many cases of excessive micturation, but not of actual diabetes; but several physicians to whom I have made known Dr. Dodd's experience, have abundantly confirmed it in very bad diabetic cases. J. Weeks, M. D., of Mechanicsburg, Ind., has had a number of opportunities to test it; and has always been successful. In one case in his hands, a soldier shot through the lungs and sent home to die of his wound and diabetes, swelled up enormously with cellular dropsy on every portion of his body, so soon as his diabetes became checked with the celastrus; but Dr. Weeks soon removed this with vapor baths and stimulants, and sent the man back to vigorous army service in three months. It has been used alone with full effect; but probably is best combined with a good tonic.

Outwardly, a strong decoction of this agent makes a good wash in chaffiness of the skin and scaly eruptions, especially when the surface is hot. It is used in poultices, salve, and a strong decoction with flannel, upon glandular swellings, and has a soothing and softening action. It has been highly spoken of outwardly and inwardly in cancers; but it is my impression that this repute has arisen from its good action on caked breasts and other lymphatic enlargements in strongly scrofulous constitutions. It slowly promotes absorption–which would not be a favorable action in cancers. The salve is a popular application to light burns, irritable and healing sores, etc. Dr. D. Carey, of Carmel, Ind., writes me that he has for fifteen years used a strong ointment of celastrus for piles, with the greatest satisfaction.

Narcotic powers have been attributed to this plant, but I am thoroughly satisfied that it has no such property. From the similarity of common names, it is often confounded with solanum dulcamara; and the poisonous properties of the latter are placed upon the celastrus, while the good qualities of the celastrus are credited to the solanum. Druggists too often send solanum when celastrus is ordered, under the impression that the two articles are the same. Botanically, one plant need never be mistaken for the other; and in commerce, the celastrus can at once be distinguished as an orange-red bark, while solanum is a small, dark-purplish and herbaceous stem.

Pharmaceutical Preparations: I. Decoction. Crushed celastrus, two ounces; water, one quart. Digest at a low heat, in a covered vessel, for two hours, and strain. Dose, two to three fluid ounces three times a day.

II. Extract. Two solid extracts of this article are made, the one by water alone, and the other by 80 percent alcohol. They both represent the plant well, but should always be evaporated on a water bath.

III. Fluid Extract. Finely crushed celastrus, one pound. Macerate in diluted alcohol, transfer to a percolator, and treat with diluted alcohol till fourteen ounces have passed. Set this aside, and continue the percolation with water till three pints have passed. Evaporate this carefully on a water bath to two ounces, and add it to the first product. This is a good preparation, of which from half a drachm to a drachm may be used three times a day.

IV. Ointment. The bittersweet ointment is commonly prepared by digesting eight ounces of the fresh root in half a pound of lard; straining, and adding two ounces of beeswax. A nicer and much stronger ointment can be prepared by melting four ounces of simple cerate, adding to it one ounce of the fluid extract of celastrus, and evaporating all the moisture on a water bath. If it is desired to have a soft ointment, half an ounce of olive oil may be used in the cerate. In the absence of fluid extract, three drachms of solid extract may be thoroughly softened with alcohol, and then incorporated with the cerate by trituration. Either ointment is a dark reddish-brown unguent, of much service to soothe light burns, sores, and other irritable surfaces; and in piles Dr. Carey, as above, applies it twice a day. Other preparations will be found under rumex, arctium, and althea rosea.

The Physiomedical Dispensatory, 1869, was written by William Cook, M.D.
It was scanned by Paul Bergner at http://medherb.com