Herb: Virginia Snakeroot
Latin name: Aristolochia serpentaria
Family: Aristolochiaceae (Birthwort Family)
Medicinal use of Virginia Snakeroot:The Virginia snakeroot is attracting increasing interest for its medicinal virtues and as a result is becoming uncommon in the wild. It merits consideration for cultivation in forest areas. It is used in a number of proprietary medicines for treating skin, circulatory and kidney disorders. The plant contains aristolochic acid which, whilst stimulating white blood cell activity and speeding the healing of wounds, is also carcinogenic and damaging to the kidneys. The root is harvested in the autumn and dried for later use. The root is antidote, anti-inflammatory, bitter tonic, diaphoretic, diuretic and stimulant. Traditionally it was chewed in minute doses or used as a weak tea to promote sweating, stimulate the appetite and promote expectoration. The native North Americans considered it to have analgesic properties and used an infusion internally to treat rheumatism, pain - but especially sharp pains in the breast, and as a wash for headaches. This plant should be used with caution, it is irritating in large doses and can cause nausea, griping pains in the bowels etc. It should only be used internally under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. The bruised root is placed in hollow teeth for treating toothache. An extract of the root can be drunk to relieve stomach pains. The boiled root, or a decoction of the whole plant, can be used to treat fevers. The chewed root or crushed leaves was applied to snakebites. This species was the most popular snakebite remedy in N. America. It has also been applied externally to slow-healing wounds and in the treatment of pleurisy.
Description of the plant:
Habitat of the herb:Rich dry woods, usually on calcareous soils.
Propagation of Virginia Snakeroot:Seed - best sown in a greenhouse as soon as it is ripe in the autumn. Pre-soak stored seed for 48 hours in hand-hot water and surface sow in a greenhouse. Germination usually takes place within 1 - 3 months at 20°C. Stored seed germinates better if it is given 3 months cold stratification at 5°C. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant out in late spring or early summer after the last expected frosts. Division in autumn. Root cuttings in winter.
Cultivation of the herb:Rich dry woods, usually on calcareous soils.
Known hazards of Aristolochia serpentaria:We have no specific details for this species but most members of this genus have poisonous roots and stems. The plant contains aristolochic acid, this has received rather mixed reports on its toxicity. According to one report aristolochic acid stimulates white blood cell activity and speeds the healing of wounds, but is also carcinogenic and damaging to the kidneys. Another report says that it is an active antitumour agent but is too toxic for clinical use. Another report says that aristolochic acid has anti-cancer properties and can be used in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiotherapy and that it also increases the cellular immunity and phagocytosis function of the phagocytic cells.
Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.