This section is from the book "A Treatise On Therapeutics, And Pharmacology Or Materia Medica Vol1", by George B. Wood. Also available from Amazon: Part 1 and Part 2.
This is the root of Symplocarpus foetidus, or common skunk cabbage, an indigenous plant, with broad cabbage-like leaves, and a very fetid odour, growing in low meadowy or swampy places, throughout the northern and middle sections of the United States. The root should be collected twice a year, if possible, early in the spring and late in the autumn, should be carefully dried without heat, and then kept in closely-stopped bottles. It should not be kept in powder.
There are two parts of the root, the body and the radicles or rootlets, which are separated when collected. The body, as kept in the shops, is either whole or in slices. In the former state, it is two or three inches long by an inch thick, dark-brown and rough externally, and white and starchy within; in the latter, it is in circular pieces, which are transverse sections of the root. The radicles are of various lengths, about as thick as a hen's quill, flattened and wrinkled, white within, and invested by a light brownish-yellow epidermis.
The root has a peculiar, extremely fetid odour, which is strongest in the recent state, is retained, however, in drying, but gradually lessens, and at length disappears. The taste is acrid, and in like manner is injured by time. A boiling heat deprives the root both of smell and taste. These sensible properties are connected with one or more highly fugitive principles, which it has been found impossible to isolate, probably because they are destroyed in the process. Dr. Bigelow found that water distilled from the root was but feebly impregnated with the odorous principle, but was somewhat acrid, if the process were carefully conducted. It lost its acrimony, however, on standing a short time. (Med. Bot., ii. 46.) The root is said to yield its virtues to water and alcohol. It should not be kept longer than a year for use.
Dracontium is locally irritant, and, in its effects on the system, stimulant both to the circulation and nervous centres; and it is thought also by some to be expectorant. The Rev. Dr. Cutler, of Massachusetts, introduced it to the notice of the profession as a remedy or palliative in the paroxysms of spasmodic asthma, in which he had found benefit from it in his own person. Many practitioners have confirmed the statements of Dr. Cutler. Dr. Bigelow has seen a number of instances in which it proved useful in the catarrhal affections of old people; and Dr. Eberle gives similar testimony, from his own experience, of its effects in chronic cough "attended with a cold phlegmatic habit of body." (Mat. Med. and Therap., 4th ed., ii. 154.) It is probably useful in these catarrhal affections mainly by its stimulant influence on the nervous centres of respiration. Dr. Thacher, in his Dispensa-tor\~, states that it has been found useful in hysteria, hooping-cough, spasmodic pains, chronic rheumatism, and dropsy. Dr. Heintzelman has used it, "with unequivocal benefit," in hooping-cough, in the spasmodic stage; finding it, when not successful in completely eradicating the disease, almost always to mitigate the severity of the symptoms. (N. J. Med. Reporter, iv. 310.) He has also used it advantageously in phthisis. There can be little doubt that it is a very efficacious nervous stimulant, when used in sufficient doses, and before its virtues have been impaired by time. As kept in the shops, it is often nearly or quite inert; and its great disadvantage is that, in the uncertainty as to its strength, it is impossible properly to graduate the dose unless it be quite recent. The practitioner in the country can always command it of full strength; for it is almost everywhere abundant in the low grounds.
The dose of the recently dried root in powder, to begin with, is from ten to twenty grains, three or four times a day. Dr. Bigelow found thirty grains of it to occasion vomiting, vertigo, headache, and dimness of vision. But it has been given in larger doses with entire impunity. and the probability is that different individuals are affected by it with different degrees of facility. The dose above recommended, if it produce no obvious effect, should be gradually increased till it does so, in order to determine the degree of its activity. It may be given also in strong cold infusion, in tincture, or syrup. The infusion should be made by percolation with cold water, in the proportion of an ounce of the recently dried root to the pint, and given in the commencing dose of half a fluid-ounce to an adult. An infusion, prepared in the same way, but of four times the strength, may be formed into a syrup with twice its weight of sugar, and given in half the dose. The dose of a saturated tincture is stated at one or two fluidrachms.