This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Venomous serpents abound in all the tierras calientss (hot lands) of America. The frequent fatality following their bite - particularly among the Indians, who roam barefoot through the tangled woods - renders the knowledge of any counteracting remedy a matter of great importance to these people. In consequence, much diligence has at all times been used in seeking for such remedies; and many, more or less efficacious, have from time to time been discovered.
That of surest virtues yet known is a plant called the guaco - the sap of whose leaves is a complete antidote against the bite of the most poisonous reptiles. The guaco is a species of willow. Its root is fibrous, the stem straight and cylindrical when young; but as it approaches maturity, it assumes a pentagonal form, having five salient angles. The leaves grow lengthwise from the stem, opposite, and cordate. They are of a dark green color mixed with violet, smooth on the nnder surface, but on the upper rough with a slight down. The flowers are of a yellow color, and grow in clusters - each calyx holding four. The corolla is monopetalous in-fundibuliform, and contains five stamens uniting at their anthers into a cylinder which embraces the style with its stigma much broken.
The guaco is a strong healthy plant, but grows only in the hot regions, and flourishes best in the shade of other trees, along the banks of the streams. It is not found in the colder uplands (tierras friat;) and in this disposal nature again beautifully exhibits her design, as here exist not the venomous creatures against whose poisons the guaco seems intended as an antidote.
That part of the plant which is used for the snake-bite is a sap or tea distilled from its leaves. It may be taken either as a preventive or cure: in the former case, enabling him who has drank of it to handle the most dangerous serpents with impunity. For a long time the antidotal qualities of the guaco remained a great mystery, and was confined to a few among the native inhabitants of South America. Those of them who possessed the secret were interested in preserving it, as through It they obtained considerable recompenses, not only from those who had been bitten by venomous snakes, but also from many who were curious to witness the feats of these snake-tamers themselves. However, the medicinal virtues of the guaco are now generally known in all countries where it is found; and its effects only cause astonishment to the stranger or traveller.
Being at Margarita some time ago, I heard of this singular plant, and was desirous of witnessing the test of its virtues. Among the slaves of the place there was one noted as a skilful snake-doctor; and as I enjoy the acquaintance of his master, I was not long in obtaining a promise that my curiosity should be gratified. A few days after the negro entered my room, carrying in his hands a pair of coral-snakes, of that species known as the most beautiful and venomous. The negro's hands and arms were completely naked; and he manipulated the reptiles, turning them about, and twisting them over his wrists with the greatest apparaut confidence. I was for a while under the suspicion that their fangs had been previously drawn; but I soon found that I had been mistaken. The man convinced me of this by opening the mouths of both, and showing me the interior. There, sure enough, were both teeth and fangs in their perfect state; and yet the animals did not make the least attempt to use them. On the contrary, they seemed to exhibit no anger, although the negro handled them roughly.
They appeared perfectly innocuous, and rather afraid of him I thought.
Determined to assure myself beyond the shadow of a doubt, I ordered a large mastiff to be brought into the room and placed so that the snakes could reach him. The dog was sufficiently frightened, but being tied he could not retreat; and after a short while one of the serpents " struck," and bit him on the back of the neck. The dog was now set loose, but did not at first appear to notice the wound he had received. In two or three minutes, however, he began to limp and howl roost fearfully. In five minutes more he fell, and struggled over the ground in violent convulsions, similar to those occasioned by hydrophobia. Blood and viscous matter gushed from his mouth and nostrils, and at the end of a quarter of an hour by the watch he was dead.
Witnessing all this, I became extremely desirous of possessing the important secret - which by the way, was not then so generally known. I offered a good round sum; and the negro, promising to meet my wishes, took his departure.
On the following day he returned, bringing with him a handful of heart shaped leaves, which I recognised as those of the bejuco de guaco, or snake-plant. These he placed in a bowl, having first crushed them between two stones. He next poured a little water into the vessel. In afew minutes maceration took place, and the " tea" was ready. I was instructed to swallow two small spoonfuls of it, which I did. The negro then made three incisions in each of my hands at the forking of my fingers, and three similar ones on each foot between the toes. Through these he inoculated me with the extract of the guaco. He next punctured my breast, both on the right and left side, and performed a similar inoculation. I was now ready for the snakes, several of which, both of the coral and cascabel species, the negro had brought along with him.
With all my wish to become a snake-cliarmcr, I must confess that at sight of the hideous reptiles I felt my courage oozing through my nails. The negro, however, continued to assure me; and as I took great pains to convince him that my death would cost him his life, and I saw thut he still entreated me to go ahead, I en me at length to the determination to run the risk. With a somewhat shaky hand I took up one of the corals, and passed it delicately through my fingers. All right. The animal showed no disposition to bite, but twisted itself thiough my hands, apparently cowering and frightened. I soon grew bolder, and took up another and another, until I had three of the reptiles in my grasp at one time. I then put them down and canght a snake of the cascabel secies - the rattlesnake of the north. This fellow behaved in a more lively manner, but did not show any symptoms of irritation. After I had handled the reptile for some minutes, I was holding it near the middle, when to my horror, I saw it suddenly elevate its head, and strike at my left arm! I felt that I was bitten, and flinging the snake from me, I turned to my companion with a shudder of despair.
The negro, who with his arms folded bad stood all the while calmly looking on, now answered my quick and terrified inquiries with repeated assurances that there was no danger whatever, and that nothing serious would result from the bite. This he did with as much coolness and composure as if it had been only the sting of a mosquito. I was more comforted by the manner of my companion than by bis words; but to make assurance doubly sure, I took a fresh sup of the guaco tea, and waited tremblingly the result. A slight inflammatory swelling soon appeared about the orifice of the wound, but at the expiration of a few hours it had completely subsided, and I felt that I was all right again.
On many occasions afterwards I repeated the experiment of handling serpents I had myself taken in the woods, and some of them of the most poisonous species. On these occasions I adopted no further precaution than to swallow a dose of the guaco sap, and even chewing the leaves of the plant itself was sufficient. This precaution is also taken by those - such as hunters and wood-choppers - whose calling carries them into the thick jungle of the southern forest, where dangerous reptiles abound.
The guaco has no doubt saved many a life. The tradition which the Indians relate of the discovery of its virtues is interesting. It is as follows: In the ticrras calientes there is a b'rd of the kite species - a gavilan, whose food consists principally of serpents. When in search of its victims, the bird utters a loud but monotonous note, which sounds like the word gva-co slowly pronounced. The Indians allege that this note is for the purpose of calling to it the snakes, over whom it possesses a mysterious power, that summons them forth from their hiding-places. This of course is pure superstition, but what follows may nevertheless be true.
They relate that before making its attack upon the serpent, the bird always eats the leaves of the bejuco de guaco. This having been observed, it was inferred that the plant possessed antidotal powers, which led to the trial and consequent discovery of its virtues. - Household Words.