Chapter 25. Seneca Snakeroot.
Polygala Senega L.
OTHER COMMON NAMES—Senega snakeroot, Seneca root, rattlesnake-root, mountain flax.
HABITAT AND RANGE—Rocky woods and hillsides are the favorite haunts of this indigenous plant. It is found in such situations from New Brunswick and western New England to Minnesota and the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and South along the Allegheny Mountains to North Carolina and Missouri.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—The perennial root of this useful little plant sends up a number of smooth, slender, erect stems (as many as 15 to 20 or more), sometimes slightly tinged. with red, from 6 inches to a foot in height, and generally unbranched. The leaves alternate on the stem, are lance shaped or oblong lance shaped, thin in texture, 1 to 2 inches long, and stemless. The flowering spikes are borne on the ends of the stems and consist of rather crowded, small, greenish white, insignificant flowers. The flowering period of Seneca Snakeroot is from May to June. The- spike blossoms gradually, and when the lower-most flowers have already fruited the upper part of the spike is still in flower. The seed capsules are small and contain two black, somewhat hairy seeds. The short slender stalks supporting these seed capsules have a tendency to break off from the main axis before the seed is fully mature, leaving the spike in a rather ragged-looking condition, and the yield of seed, therefore, is not very large. Seneca Snakeroot belongs to the milkwort family (Polygalaceae).
A form of Seneca Snakeroot, growing mostly in the North Central States and distinguished by its taller stems and broader leaves, has been called Polygala Senega Var. latifolia.
DESCRIPTION OF ROOT—Seneca Snakeroot is described in the United States Pharmacopoeia as follows: "Somewhat cylindrical, tapering, more or less flexuous, 3 to 15 cm. long and 2 to 8 mm. thick, bearing several similar horizontal branches and a few rootlets; crown knotty with numerous buds and short stem remnants; externally yellowish gray or brownish yellow, longitudinally wrinkled, usually marked by a keel which is more prominent in perfectly dry roots near the crown; fracture short, wood light yellow, usually excentrically developed; odor slight, nauseating; taste sweetish, afterwards acrid."
The Seneca Snakeroots found in commerce vary greatly in size, that obtained from the South, which is really the official drug, being usually light colored and small. The principal supply of Seneca Snakeroot now comes from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and farther northward, and this western Seneca Snakeroot has a much larger, darker root, with a crown or head sometimes measuring 2 or 3 inches across and the upper part of the root very thick. It is also less twisted and not so distinctly keeled.
Seneca Snakeroot is often much adulterated with the roots of other species of Polygala and of other plants.
COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—The time for collecting Seneca Snakeroot is in autumn. Labor conditions play a great part in the rise and fall of prices for this drug. It is said that very little Seneca Snakeroot has been dug in the Northwest during 1906, due to the fact that the Indians and. others who usually engage in this work were so much in demand as farm hands and railroad laborers, which paid them far better than the digging of Seneca Snakeroot. Collectors receive from about 55 to 70 cents a pound for this root.
This drug, first brought into prominence as a cure for snake bite among the Indians, is now employed as an expectorant, emetic and diuretic. It is official in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States.