Virginia snakeroot is a frail perennial plant with a straight and undulating stem that usually grows up to a height of 60 cm or two feet. The plant rises from a horizontal tubular root that produces several thin roots as well as numerous thin shoots. The plant bears alternate slender green leaves that are oval and sometimes heart shaped and gradually getting thinner to a point at the apex. The Virginia snakeroot blooms during the early part of summer, especially in June and July, and bear a small number of faded purple flowers with a brownish shade. The flowers are tubular in appearance and emerge on small scaly stalks rising from the bottom of them stem. The flowers are wilting, grown very near to the ground and often have a disagreeable scent.
The genus name of the Virginia snakeroot is Aristolochia and is drawn from the Greek expression aristos denoting the finest, while locheia means delivery. Greek herbal medical practitioners in the ancient period were of the opinion that plants that belonged to the Aristolochia genus made childbirth easier and therefore, it is not surprising that the herb is commonly known as ‘birthwort'. However, it is interesting to note that the Virginia snakeroot was never used during the final stages of pregnancy, but commonly used to control the menstrual cycle.
There was a time when the Virginia snakeroot was held in high esteem for it repute as an herb that had the capability to heal rattlesnake bites and other venomous stings. However, scientists are yet to ascertain as to how the plant was associated with such therapeutic properties. Nevertheless, according to some sources, snake charmers in ancient Egypt used the roots of some associated varieties of this plant to paralyze or numb the mouths of the reptiles before performing any perilous tricks with them. Some others say that the exceptional and low-growing ‘S'-shaped flowers has a resemblance to snakes and hence the name as well as the reputation of the plant. In fact, it was the indigenous American Indians who were the first to initiate the practice of chewing the roots of the plant after sucking out the venom from a snake bite or other poisonous stings and applied it on the snake bites. The early settlers in the New World from European countries noticed this practice of these American Indians and in the middle of the 16th century, introduced it into European medicine. In fact, the rhizome of the Virginia snakeroot kept on being considered as one of the prime remedies for snake bites as well as mad dog bites till as late as the middle of the 18th century.
In fact, only the rhizome of the herb has been used therapeutically. Presently, the therapeutic use of Virginia snakeroot has declined drastically, as most herbal medicine practitioner no longer prescribe it for curing snake bites or any other venomous stings. Nevertheless, when medicines prepared with this herb are taken in measured dosages, it is believed to promote appetite as well as facilitate digestion. When taken in adequate doses, the herb is said to promote blood circulation, alleviate fever, stomach ache, smallpox, scarlet fever, pneumonia, croup, flatulence as well as suppressed menses. A tea prepared with the herb may be use as a gargle to treat sore throats. However, when ingested in excess amounts, the herb is likely to result in vomiting, vertigo and acute riveting pains. The root of the plant contains an alkaloid, which when ingested in excess amounts, may cause acute internal injuries, such as paralysis, that may even result in coma and death.
There are numerous species of the genus Aristolochia and they are frequently referred to as the ‘Dutchman's pipe' owing to the shape of their blooms. These species are extraordinary and attractive and, hence, are widely used as ornamental garden plants. Some of the species of Aristolochia are also climbers. All these species of the genus may be propagated from their seeds, but they take unusually longer periods to germinate in warm climatic conditions. Alternately, the Virginia snakeroot may also be propagated by root division. However, when propagated by this method, the plants take unusually longer time to get established. The Virginia snakeroot plants have a preference for rich and well-drained soil. The plants thrive well in partial shades.
Although the herb has been neglected for years, there is a growing interest among the scientists for its therapeutic properties. As a result, the Virginia snakeroot is gradually becoming exceptional in the nature. In fact, the medicinal properties of Virginia snakeroot makes it worthwhile to grow the herb in forest areas. Virginia snakeroot forms an important ingredient of several patented medications that are used to treat skin disorders, circulatory problems and kidney problems. The herb encloses aristolochic acid that promotes the activities of the white blood cells and facilitates healing of wounds. On the other hand, use of Virginia snakeroot is said to increase the risk of developing cancer (carcinogenic) and it is also believed to be detrimental for the kidneys.
The rhizome of Virginia snakeroot is normally harvested during autumn, dehydrated and stored for use when necessary. The root of the plant possesses several therapeutic properties. It is an antidote, anti-inflammatory, bitter tasting tonic, diaphoretic (promotes perspiration), diuretic and a stimulant. By tradition, the root of the herb was chewed in small doses to stimulate sweating, enhance appetite as well as endorse coughing. Native North Indians believed that the root of the herb possessed pain killing or analgesic virtues and, therefore, prepared an infusion with it for internal usage to treat rheumatism and pain. They particularly used the roots to alleviate acute chest pains and a wash for headaches.
All said and done, people using this herb ought to use this herb with adequate caution, as excessive use of the herb or medications prepared with it may cause irritation. Ingesting the herb in excess may result in gripping pains and nausea in the bowels and other places. The herb should always be used under the supervision of an experienced and qualified herbal practitioner. Some people crush the roots of the herb and put it in the hollow tooth cavity with a view to alleviate toothache. In addition, people also consume an extract of the herb's root to alleviate stomach aches. The entire Virginia snakeroot plant may be boiled or a decoction may be prepared with the herb and consumed to cure fevers. In earlier days, people chewed the roots of the herb or crushed the leaves of the plant and applied it topically to heal snake bites. As mentioned earlier, once upon a time, the Virginia snakeroot was the most popular medication to treat snake bites in North America. In addition, medications prepared with the Virginia snakeroot plants have also been used externally to facilitate healing wounds as well as curing pleurisy.
As mentioned earlier, when taken in appropriate dosages, Virginia snakeroot or medications prepared with it promotes appetite and digestion. However, when it is used for a long period, the herb has an inclination to disturb the digestive process, result in nausea, vomiting, grappling of the intestine as well as muscle cramps (tenesmus). When taken in full dosage, the herb invigorates to a significant level, but may, at times, result in gastronomic disorders, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches as well as dizziness. Excessive use of the herb is also likely to cause sleeping disorders or insomnia.
Ingestion of a warm infusion prepared with the herb is certain to promote perspiration. In such cases, the herb is also useful in facilitating outbreak in slow skin eruptions. When used in appropriate dosages for small periods, the herb is useful in treating atonic dyspepsia (dyspepsia with impaired tone in the muscular walls of the stomach). The herb may be used in combination with quinine or cinchona for patients suffering from periodic fevers with a view to treat depression as well as provide a tone to the weakened system. When suffering from urinary inactivity or menstrual delay owing to cold, serpentaria or the Virginia snakeroot promotes diuretic actions as well as a medication to promote menstrual discharge (emmenagogue). In fact, the best use of this herb is to treat acutely congested, but slow and aching angina of scarlatina. In addition, the herb may be used as a gargle as well as internally.
Habitat and cultivation
As discussed earlier, Virginia snakeroot is indigenous to North America and is found growing in abundance in eastern and central regions of the United States extending towards the south. The herb grows best in partial shade, especially in forests under the trees. The plants of this genus have a preference for light and well drained soil that is fertile. The herb thrives best in partial shade and it can adapt to any common garden soil. Most species in this genus bear flowers that have an unpleasant scent. At time, blooms of the Virginia snakeroot are cleistogomous (small flowers that do not open, are self-pollinated in the bud).
The Virginia snakeroot plant is primarily propagated from its seeds. It is best to sow the seeds of the plant immediately after they are ripe - especially autumn. The seeds need to be soaked in hot water for about 48 hours before sowing. The seeds of the herb need to be sowed in a greenhouse at approximately 20°C and it take anything between one to three months for them to germinate. Actually, seeds that are stored germinate better provided they are given three months of cold stratification at round 5° C. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently enough to be handled, take out each seedling individually and plant it in separate pots. For the remaining part of the first winter, grow the seedlings in individual pots in the greenhouse itself. When the last date of the expected frost has passed, plant them outdoors in their permanent positions during the later part of spring or early summer. Although, Virginia snakeroot is generally propagated through its seeds, it may also be reproduced from root cuttings. The best time for the root cutting is winter.