On an Indigenous Species of Croton.
By JOHN M. MAISCH.
Read at the Pharmaceutical Meeting, November 17, 1885.
A few months ago I was consulted about a plant which had been sent to this city by a farmer in the State of Georgia, with a letter in which the following statements were made concerning the properties of this plant:
"I do not know whether it will cure hay-fever, catarrh, consumption, or not; but I do know that it will cure several diseases. A tea made from this plant will give instant relief in cramp colic, will stop diarrhea, and, by gargling, will cure sore throat, also any kind of ulcers in the mouth; it will also cure the colic in horses. A man was cured of eating cancer by the use of this plant; but I do not know how he prepared it. When the green plant is cut a drop of bloody water runs Out; this blood applied on any kind of bruise, cut or bite will beat anything for healing that I have ever tried or seen tried; it will also stop the flow of blood. The plant appears to be perfectly harmless; I never heard of any one being injured by it."
It was not the extravagant statements made by a non-medical man that attracted my attention, but the fact that the plant proved to be a species of Croton, which genus comprises about 450 species, the large majority of which are arborescent or shrubby. The stimulant and tonic barks known as cascarilla, malambo and copalchi are obtained from this genus; the drastic and irritating croton oil is extracted from the seeds of one species, and a kind of dragon's blood is yielded by several Mexican and South American crotons. In addition to the preceding, other woody species of the same genus, indigenous to tropical Asia or tropical America, are more or less employed there, their properties being usually stimulant or acrid, or in some cases irritant.
None of the herbaceous species of Croton appear to have been medicinally employed. In some older works Croton chamaedrifolius, Lamarck, a perennial herb growing in the West Indian Islands, is mentioned as being used as a vulnerary and in various forms of tumors. But the plant has been transferred to another genus, and is now known as Acalypha chamaedrifolia, De Candolle, while the Croton chamaedrifolius, Grisebach, is an annual plant, and does not seem to have been used in medicine.
Croton tinctorius, Linné, an annual plant of the Mediterranean region, has likewise been transferred to another genus; it is now Chrozophora tinctoria, A. Jussieu, or Tournesolia tinctoria, Baillon. It is cultivated in France, the cultivation being confined to Grand-Gallargues, a village in the neighborhood of Nimes. The greenish juice in contact with ammoniacal liquids yields a kind of litmus, which turns red by acids, but does not become blue again under the influence of alkalies. Paint rags are made by dipping pieces of muslin into the juice and exposing them to the ammoniacal vapors arising from a mixture of urine and lime, or from, horse-dung, until the desired color is produced. This material is stated to be mostly exported to Holland, where it is used for the coloring of cheese and of certain liquors.
Five or six herbaceous species are indigenous to the United States east of the Mississippi, three of which, all annuals, occur northward as far as Illinois and Virginia, while the perennial species Croton maritimum, Walter, and Cr. argyranthemum, Michaux, do not appear to extend northward beyond South Carolina. The last named species is the plant, the curative properties of which have been referred to above. The nearly simple root is from 2 to 3 inches long, about ½ inch thick at the neck, crowned with a broader irregular bead formed from the stem bases, of a light gray-brown color, and breaks with a short non-fibrous fracture, which is whitish and shows a thickish bark, the inner layer of which is of a red color, and a porous meditullium. without medullary rays. The stem is about 12 or 18 inches high, branched, rather firm, and the lower portion somewhat woody; the leaves are alternate, about 1 or 1 ½ inch long, with petioles of ⅜ to ⅝ inch in length, firm and thick, oval, oblong or obovate in shape, entire on the margin, rather obtuse at the apex, and narrowed at the base; the midrib is rather prominent on the lower surface; but its branches are quite indistinct. The flowers are of a silvery whiteness and form short terminal spikes, at the base of which the pistillate flowers are placed. All the aerial parts of the plant are densely covered with scales, imparting a peculiar lustre; these scales have become detached from the older portion of the stem, leaving minute circular scars, which remain visible for some time. Similar scars are also observed on the older leaves, particularly on the upper surface. The scales are formed of small glands, about 0.1 Mm. in diameter, and filled with a red mass; to these glands are attached from 50 to 60 colorless, elongated and stellately arranged cells, which project about 0.1 Mm., or a little more, beyond the gland, and are laterally cohering, except at the apex, which is free, pointed and usually somewhat curved or slightly hooked. The total width of the scales is about 0.3 Mm. or 1/40 inch. The scales on the branches and on the leaves are alike. The root has a slightly aromatic and a more prominent and rather pleasant bitter taste. The leaves are more aromatic, and are decidedly pungent.
As far as may be judged from the physical properties, this plant probably does not possess any decided or very important medicinal virtues; still, in view of the reputation enjoyed by a number of tile woody species of the same genus, it seems to be deserving of investigation. This was suggested more than twenty years ago by Prof. F. P. Porcher, in his "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests;" the plant specially mentioned by him, Croton maritimum, is likewise covered with a silvery scurf, but it is confined to the coast districts, and has broadly oval and subcordate leaves.