Scientific Name(s): Aristolochia serpentaria L.
Common Name(s): Aristolochiae Radix, Birthwort, Caulis Aristolochiae Manshuriensis, Herba Aristolochiae Mollissima, mǎdōu líng, Pelican flower, Red River snakeroot, Sangree root, Sangrel, Snakeroot, Snakeweed, Texas snakeroot, Virginia snakeroot
The genus Aristolochia (Dutchman's pipe) comprises more than 300 species of herbs and vines, including A. serpentaria (also known as Virginia snakeroot). Synonyms include Aristolochia convolvulacea, Aristolochia hastate, Aristolochia nashi, and Endodeca serpentaria. "Snakeroot" is a term also applied to the unrelated white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), rattlesnake root (genus Prenanthes), Canadian blacksnakeroot (Sanicula canadensis), black snakeroot (Actaea racemose), and Sampson’s snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum).USDA 2016
A. serpentaria is a low-growing (up to 0.6 m in height) perennial found primarily in the forests of the central and southern United States. The leaves of the plant are heart-shaped. Its exotic, brownish-purple, tube-like flowers are lined with hairs and possess a foul, fruit-like odor that attracts insects. Insects become caught in the hairs of the flowers, then become covered with pollen while struggling to escape; upon escape, the insect carries the pollen to other flowers, resulting in cross-pollination. The dried rhizome of the plant has been traditionally used as an herbal tonic for its gastric stimulant and diuretic effects.Sharp 2014
Several species of butterfly larvae feed on A. serpentaria, transferring the toxic aristolochic acids of the plant to the adult butterflies for use as a defense mechanism against predators.Pinto 2009, Wu 2000
Aristolochia spp. have been widely and extensively used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as in England and the Americas. Chewed snakeroot was traditionally applied to wounds and used as a cure for snakebite by American Indians. Colonial and European physicians sometimes used snakeroot for infectious fevers, malaria, and rabies. Use in obstetrics, arthritis, eczema, cancer, and weight loss, and as an aphrodisiac, antiviral, and antibacterial agent has been recorded.Heinrich 2009, Kuo 2012, Luciano 2015, Tang 1992
Toxicity of A. serpentaria was reported as early as 1825; in 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning regarding preparations containing aristolochic acids.FDA 2014, Stegelmeier 2015 In 2004, the European Union ceased approving herbal preparations containing aristolochic acids. The compound has also been removed from the Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China.Kuo 2012 However, products containing toxic substances such as aristolochic acids are still available, either on unregulated websites or as adulterants in other preparations.Luciano 2015
A. serpentaria and other members of the genus contain aristolochic acids and associated aristolactams and aporphines; protoberberine-, isoquinoline-, and benzylisoquinoline-type alkaloids; and amides, flavonoids, lignans, coumarins, terpenoids, benzenoids, and steroids. Research has focused on identifying aristolochic acids and associated chemicals because of their toxicity.Duke 1996, Kuo 2012, Michl 2014, Tang 1992
Uses and Pharmacology
Toxicity of Aristolochia preparations precludes their use.FDA 2014
Ethanolic root extracts of Aristolochia ringens showed inhibition of solid tumor growth (in vivo in rodents) and were significantly active in leukemia models.Akindele 2015 In vitro, activity against leukemia has been demonstrated with aristolochic acids extracted from other plants.Goun 2002
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of Aristolochia spp. in cancer; toxicity precludes use for this purpose.
Potential use of Aristolochia extracts as an insecticide, particularly against the malarial vector Anopheles stephensi, has been investigated.Pradeepa 2015
Toxicity of Aristolochia extracts precludes their use.FDA 2014
Pregnancy / Lactation
Avoid use. Aristolochia extracts are known to be toxic. Abortifacient effects of aristolochic acids have been documented in dogs and rodentsWang 1984; the plant has been traditionally used for this purpose.Che 1984, Ganguly 1986
None well documented. Aristolochic acids have been shown to have antithrombin activity.Goun 2002 In vitro evidence suggests that use with Panax ginseng may increase the renal toxicity of Aristolochia.Bunel 2015
Aristolochia extracts are carcinogenic and nephrotoxic (see Toxicology section).
Based on case reports of nephrotoxicity, including end-stage renal disease and aristolochic acid–related DNA adducts in the renal tissue of some patients, the FDA issued a warning in 2000 regarding the nephrotoxicity and carcinogenicity of herbal products containing aristolochic acids.Duke 2002, FDA 2014 Aristolactams and 4,5-dioxoaporphine derivatives are related chemical constituents also reported to be toxic.Michl 2014
Mechanisms of action of the toxic aristolochic acids have been describedLuciano 2015, Michl 2014, Poon 2015 and associations between aristolochic acid and urothelial carcinoma made based on formation of covalent adducts with DNA, which is rarely caused by other carcinogens.Kuo 2012, Luciano 2015, Yang 2014
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