Snakeroot, a common name, usually with a prefix, for several plants which are botanical-ly very distinct, applied to them because they were supposed, especially by the Indians, to be efficacious against the poisonous bites of serpents. 1. Seneca snakeroot (officinal as senega) is polygala senega. The genus polygala (Greek πολύς, much, and γάλα, milk, as some species were formerly supposed to increase the secretion of milk) has about 200 species, widely distributed, about 25 of which belong to this country, and a few showy exotics are grown as greenhouse plants. The flowers have the general appearance of those of the leguminosoe, but their structure is quite different and is difficult to describe; two of the five sepals are colored and petal-like, while the three proper petals are united, the middle one keeled-shaped and often bearing a crest; the six or eight stamens are united by their filaments in two sets, the anthers one-celled and opening by a hole at the top; pod small and two-seeded. Polygala polygama and P. pauciflora, both pretty native species, produce, besides ordinary flowers, numerous fertile flowers on short underground runners.
P. senega, the thick, hard, and knotted rootstocks of which are the seneca snakeroot of the shops, is found from New England southward and westward; the stems are about a foot high; leaves lanceolate, and the white flowers in close terminal spikes. The dried root has a peculiar odor and an acrid taste when chewed; it contains a principle called senegine, probably the same that has been called polygalic acid, and closely allied to saponine. The drug was first introduced into Europe as the Seneca rattlesnake root about 1734, and in 1749 Linnaeus wrote a dissertation upon the drug. It is a stimulant expectorant, and in large doses emetic and diaphoretic; it is chiefly used in the compound sirup of squills, or hive syrup. 2. Virginia snakeroot, as found in the shops, is the root of aristolo-chia serpentaria and its varieties. The genus aris-tolochia is apetalous, and comprises low herbs and climbing vines; the tubular calyx is often curiously bent and inflated, and in some of the hothouse exotic species presents some of the strangest forms to be found among flowers. The best known species is A. sipho, which, under the name of Dutchman's pipe (from the shape of the flowers), is often cultivated as a vine for verandas.
The medicinal species has a weak stem about a foot high, usually heartshaped leaves, and a few inconspicuous flowers close to the root, the calyx tube being curved like the letter S. It is most abundant in the middle states and southward, but like most medicinal plants has become rare in the older states. The dried root, when bruised, has a marked odor and taste, which have been compared to camphor, valerian, and turpentine combined; it contains an essential oil and a resin. Virginia snakeroot had a high reputation with the Indians as a cure for snake bites, and was early introduced into England as a remedy for the bite of reptiles and rabid dogs, and was officinal in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1650. It is now used only as a stimulant tonic and diaphoretic, and has been employed in the treatment of intermittent fevers. 3. Canada snakeroot, also called wild and Indian ginger, is asarum Canadense. The genus asa-rum, with the preceding one, belongs to the family of aristolochiaceoe, and consists of low stemless herbs, from the creeping rootstocks of which rise usually one or two heart-shaped leaves on long petioles, and a short-peduncled flower, which appears in early spring; the regular calyx has three equal lobes, brownish purple, enclosing 12 stamens and the large pistils.
A. Canadense has broadly heart-kidney-shaped deciduous leaves, in pairs, with the flower between them. The dried rootstock is in contorted pieces about the size of a quill, with an odor and a taste somewhat between those of ginger and cardamoms; it contains an essential oil; it is an aromatic stimulant, and is sometimes used to modify the action of other medicines; in domestic practice a tincture is used in colic, and in some parts of the country-it is made to serve the purpose of ginger in cookery; it is one of the things chewed to conceal a bad breath. Two evergreen species are found from Virginia southward: A. Vir-ginicum, with small round-heart-shaped, and A. arifolium, with large halberd-shaped leaves; both possess similar aromatic rootstocks, and the leaves of all three, when dried, powdered, and used as snuff, are said to have similar properties with the foreign A. Europoeum, or asurabacca, in producing sneezing and a copious flow of mucus from the nose. - Black snakeroot is sanicula Canadensis and S. Marilan-dica. Button snakeroot is eryngium yuccoefo-lium; the same name is also given to some species of liatris. "White snakeroot is eupato-rium ageratoides.
Snakehead is Chelone glabra.
Seneca Snakeroot (Polygala Senega). Part of Root of natural size.
Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria).
Canada Snakeroot (Asarum Canadense).