Hemidesmus.—Indian Sarsaparilla.

Related entries: Sarsaparilla - Aralia nudicaulis—False Sarsaparilla

The root of Hemidesmus indicus, Robert Brown (Periploca emetica, Retzius).
Nat. Ord.—Asclepiadaceae.
COMMON NAMES: Indian sarsaparilla, Nunnari.
ILLUSTRATION: Bentley and Trimen, Med. Plants, 174.

Botanical Source.—This is a climbing plant with a long and slender root, with few ramifications, covered with rust-colored bark, and with twining, diffuse or climbing, woody, slender stems, from the thickness of a crow's quill to that of goose's, and nearly smooth. The leaves are opposite, on short petioles, entire, smooth, shining, and of firm texture; they vary much in shape and size, those of the young shoots that issue from old roots, being linear, acute, and striated down the middle with white; while the others are generally broad-lanceolate, sometimes ovate or oval. The stipules are 4-fold, small, on each side of each petiole, and caducous. The flowers are small, externally green, internally a deep-purple, in axillary, sessile racemes, which are imbricated with flowers, and then with scales like bracts. Calyx 5-cleft, with acute divisions corolla flat, rotate, with oblong, pointed divisions, and rugose inside. Follicles long, slender, and spreading (L.—Ro.).

History, Description, and Chemical Composition.—This plant is the Periploca indica of Willdenow, and the Asclepias pseudosarsa of Roxburgh. It is common all over the peninsula of India. It has long been used as a medicine in India, but was not known to the medical profession of this country and Europe, until its introduction by Dr. Ashburner, in 1831 (Lond. and Edinb. Phys. Jour., Vol. LXV, p. 189). Its root is long, tortuous, cylindrical, rugose, furrowed longitudinally, and has its cortex divided by tranverse fissures into moniliform rings. It is brownish externally, has a feeble, bitter taste, and a peculiar aromatic odor, somewhat like that of sassafras, but which has been compared to that of new hay. The cortical portion has a corky consistence, and surrounds a ligneous meditullium. Mr. Garden (Lond. Med. Gaz., 1837, p. 800) obtained from it a volatile, crystallizable acid, on which the taste, smell, and probably the medicinal properties depend. From an erroneous notion of the origin of the root, he called the acid the smilasperic acid, but it may with more propriety be termed hemidesmic acid or hemidesmin (P.) (also see Amer. Jour. Pharm., Vol. XX, p. 289).

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Indian sarsaparilla has been successfully employed in venereal diseases, especially in cases where the South American sarsaparilla has proved inefficient. Dr. Ashburner says that it increases the appetite, acts as a diuretic, and improves the general health; "plumpness, clearness, and strength, succeeding to emaciation, muddiness, and debility." Likewise said to be useful in affections of the kidneys, scrofula, cutaneous diseases, and thrush. Notwithstanding these statements it is by no means so efficient and certain as many of our indigenous remedies. It is used in the form of infusion, as boiling dissipates its active volatile principle. Two ounces of the root may be infused in a pint of boiling water for an hour, the whole of which may be taken in the course of 24 hours. A syrup of hemidesmus is used for flavoring medicinal mixtures.

Related Species.Gymnema sylvestre, Robert Brown (Asclepias geminata, Roxburgh). This asclepiadaceous climber is indigenous to India and Africa. The vine is woody and bears little yellow flowers. The root is nearly an inch, or about two-thirds of an inch, in thickness, and is covered with a red-brown, spongy bark. To the taste it is acrid and saline. The leaves of this plant are said to possess the peculiar property of temporarily obliterating the sense of taste for sweetness or bitterness, so that sugar does not taste sweet, and that quinine tastes like chalk (Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1888, p. 331); also ibid., 1848, p. 153). This property is thought to be due to an acid having some likeness to chrysophanic acid. It was isolated by D. Hooper, in 1887, and named by him gymnemic acid. The taste of sour, saline, and astringent substances is not altered by this principle. Dr. Hooper also found coloring matter, resins, albumen, various carbohydrates, tartaric acid, and a bitter neutral body. The powdered root is a remedy in India for snake-bites.

King's American Dispensatory, 1898, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D.