093. Polygala senega. Rattlesnake-root milk-wort.
Synonyma. Seneka. Pharm. Lond. & Edinb.
Polygala marilandica, caule non ramoso, spica in fastigio singulari gracili e flosculis albis composita. Raii App. vel. Hist. tom. iii. p. 670.
Polygala caule simplici erecto, foliis ovato-lanceolatis alternis integerrimis, racemo terminali erecto. Gron. Flor. Virgin. i. p. 80.
Polygala Senega. Amaen. Acad. Tom. iii. p. 124. Miller's Dict. Fig. Ed. 7.
Senegau. Trew. Comm. Litt. Nor. 1741. Tab. 4.
Class Diadelphia. Ord. Octandria. Lin. Gen. Plant. 851.
Ess. Gen. Ch. Cal. 5-phyllus: foliolis alaeformibus, coloratis. Legumen obcordatum, biloculare.
Spec. Char. P. floribus imberbibus spicatis, caule erecto herbaceo simplicissimo, foliis lato-lanceolatis.
The root is perennial, woody, branched, contorted, about the thickness of a finger, and covered with ash-coloured bark: it sends up several stems, which are simple, erect, slender, round, smooth, of a dark reddish colour, and rise nearly a foot in height: the leaves are oblong, or lance-shaped, acutely pointed, of a pale green colour, and stand alternately upon short footstalks: the flowers appear in June, they are white, of the papilionaceous kind, and grow in a close terminal spike: the calyx is divided into three narrow persistent segments, two of which are placed beneath and one above the corolla: the corolla is composed of two exterior petals, or wings, which are flat, and of an oval shape; a short tubular standard, undivided at the mouth; and a flattened keel distended towards the end, from whence proceeds a pencil-shaped appendage: the filaments are eight, united at the base into two portions, and supplied with simple antherae: the germen is oblong, and supports a simple erect style, furnished with a cloven stigma: the capsule is inversely heart-shaped, and contains several small oblong seeds.
This plant is a native of Virginia, and other parts of North America. It was first cultivated in England in 1759, by Mr. P. Miller, [Dict. Ed. 7. n. 5. See Hort. Kew.] who has published a figure of it, which will be found to accord very accurately with the icon here annexed, which was drawn from the plant now in flower at the Royal garden at Kew. "This root, of no remarkable smell, has a peculiar kind of subtile pungent penetrating taste. [Bergius says, "Sapor primum calidiusculus, deinde acidulus in faucibus sentitur cum specie acrimoniae, inhaerens cum siccitate." M. M. p. 596.] Its virtue is extracted both by water and spirit, though the powder in substance is supposed to be more effectual than either the decoction or tincture. The watery decoction, on first tasting, seems not unpleasant, but the peculiar pungency of the root quickly discovers itself, spreading through the fauces, or exciting a copious discharge of saliva, and frequently, as Linnaeus observes, a short cough: those to whom I have directed this medicine, have generally found a little Madeira most effectual for removing its taste from the mouth, and making it fit easy on the stomach. A tincture of the root, in rectified spirit, is of more fiery pungency, extremely durable in the mouth and throat, and apt to promote vomiting or reaching." [Lewis, M. M. p. 518.] Rattlesnake-root was first introduced to the attention of physicians about sixty years ago, by Dr. John Tennent, [See his Physical Disquisitions, P. 2. Lond. 1735.], whose intercourse with the Indian nations led him to discover that they possessed a specific medicine against the poison of the rattlesnake, [A fortiori, it is presumed to cure the poisonous effects of other serpents, as being less virulent. Testatur exemplum ancillee Suecicae, quae alvi dejiciendae causa ruri pone fruticem secedens a serpente quodam (Colubro Bero sine dubio) et in mulieribus ipsis vulnerabatur sub gravissimoruin sypmtomatum satellitio, sed duabus unice dosibus ab ill. a Linne subministratis convaluit. Amaen. Acad. vol. vi. p. 214.] which, in consequence of a suitable reward, was revealed to him, and found to be the root of this plant, which the Indians employed both internally and externally. [Chewed and applied to the wound, or in the form of a cataplasm.] Cases afterwards occurred, by which he was fully convinced of the efficacy of this medicine from his own experience. And as the Doctor observed, that pleuretic or peripneumonia symptoms [As difficulty of breathing, cough, haemoptysis, a strong quick pulse, &c.] were generally produced by the action of this poison, he hence inferred, that the Rattlesnake-root might also be an useful remedy in diseases of this kind. It was accordingly tried in pleurisies not only by Tennent himself, [See his Ess. on the Pleurisy. Philad. 1736. Also his Epistle to Dr. Mead.] but by several of the French academicians and others, [Lemery, De Jessieu, Du Hamel, Bouuvart, for which see Mem. de l'Acad. de Paris, 1739, & 1744.] who all unite in testimony of its good effects. However, in many of these cases, recourse was had to the lancet, and even the warmest advocates for the Seneka say, that in the true pleurisy repeated bleeding is at the same time not to be neglected. The repute which this root obtained in peripneumonic affections, induced some to employ it in other inflammatory disorders, in which it proved serviceable, particularly in rheumatism. [Comm. Noric. 1741. p. 362. Sarcone Geschichte d. Krankh. in Neapel, Tom. i. p. 108, 169, 173, 199. And Dr. Cullen says, "We have had some instances of its being useful, especially where it operated by producing sweat." M. M. vol. ii. p. 533.] It has also been prescribed with much success in dropsies, [Bouvart. l. c. Mackenzie, Med. Obs. & Inq. vol. ii. p. 288. See also Percival, Essays, vol. ii. p. 178.] and this we can the more easily credit from its effects in increasing the different secretions, for it is remarked that it produces a plentiful spitting, increases perspiration and urine, and frequently purges or vomits. It is likewise reported to be a medicine of great power, in rendering the siziness of the blood more fluid; De Haen however brings a strong fact to contradict this opinion. [Ratio Medend, P. 4. p. 252.] The usual dose is from one scruple to two of the powder, or two or three spoonfuls of a decoction, prepared by boiling an ounce of the root in a pint and a half of water till it is reduced to one pint.