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.
Yellow-root, orange-root, and yellow puccoon are the common names by which this medicine, as well as the plant producing it. have been long known in this country, and which have been officinally superseded by the title, both English and Latin, which has been adopted in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia. Already it is probably better known, among the profession, by the name of hydrastis than by any of its vernacular titles. It is the product of Hydrastis Canadensis, an indigenous plant, widely distributed throughout most of the United States, especially the North and West. It is a perennial herb, with a thick, fleshy, yellow root-stalk, which sends out numerous radical fibres, and from which rises annually an erect pubescent stem, from six to twelve inches high, bearing near the top two unequal, generally five-lobed, pubescent leaves, and a solitary rose coloured or purplish flower. The fruit resembles the raspberry, but should not be eaten. It prefers moist and rich woodlands. The root has long been known as a domestic remedy, and has been much used by-irregular practitioners; but did not become officinal until the late revision of the Pharmacopoeia, when it was introduced into the secondary list of that work. It merits, however, a place in the primary catalogue, and will probably receive it at the next revision.
The dried root, which has shrunk much in desiccation, is irregularly contorted, rough and wrinkled, one, two, or three inches long by two or three lines in thickness, with numerous slender rootlets, or the marks where they have been broken off. It is externally of a yellowish colour becoming dark-brown by age, is internally yellow, and yields a yellowish powder. The odour is strong, sweetish, and somewhat narcotic, the taste peculiar but bitter. Water and alcohol extract its virtues. These probably reside partly in a volatile oil, but much more in two alkaloids, hydratlia or hydrastin, originally discovered by Mr. Alfred A. B. Du-rand, of Philadelphia, and berberina, a principle long known as existing in the root of Berberis vulgaris, but first recognized by Mr. F. Mahla as being the second alkaloid of hydrastis. This latter alkaloid has since been detected in other vegetable remedies, especially columbo; and the large proportion in which it exists in hydrastis proves that this medicine must have virtues analogous to those of the African root.
For the modes of preparing, and for the characteristic properties of these two alkaloids, I must be content with referring to the 12th edition of the U. S. Dispensatory. It is sufficient here to state that hy-drastia crystallizes in shining four sided prisms, which are white or colourless when pure, inodorous, nearly tasteless in consequence of difficult solubility in the saliva, nearly insoluble in water, but readily dissolved by alcohol and ether; while berberina is in minute acicular crystals, having in mass a yellow colour, soluble in 100 parts of cold water, less soluble in alcohol, and insoluble in ether, of a decidedly bitter taste, and characterized by the property of forming with muriatic acid a yellow salt, of very difficult solubility.
Medical Properties. Hydrastis is decidedly tonic, as might be inferred from its partial resemblance to columbo in composition. It is also aperient; and this property may be ascribed to the berberina, which is the characteristic ingredient of a root long used for its aperient properties, that, namely, of Berberis vulgaris. But it is asserted also to be chola-gogue, deobstruent in its influence on enlarged glands, diuretic, alterative, etc There can, I think, be little doubt that the alkaloid hydrastia has special remedial powers; and, if further experience should confirm the opinion, that it peculiarly promotes the hepatic secretory function, it will be an invaluable addition to the materia medica, enabling us to dispense in many instances with the use of mercury, otherwise indispensable. The affections in which it has been specially employed are dyspepsia, particularly when attended with deficient action of the liver, jaundice and other functional diseases of the liver attended with deficient secretion, constipation with or without piles, and generally chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes, in which it is supposed to act as an alterative like the mercurials. But much more experience, and a careful comparison of detailed reports from regular practitioners, above the suspicion of interested motives, are necessary, in order to justify a positive determination as to the merits of this very promising medicine.