Plant of the week with Alexander McCowan

Snakes, tourists and herbalists

Rauvolfia (Rauvolfia serpentina or snake root) is a shrub member of the Apocynaceae, growing to about 1.5m in sub-tropical Asia. It is a spindly evergreen plant with whorls of leaves, red flowers and yellow fruit, which, surprisingly, appear at the same time.

Last week I agreed to write about Mate, the Paraguayan stimulant, but a recent article in the Times of India involving a cobra, a tourist and a herbal cure proved more interesting, so more of Mate next week.

Snake root takes its name from the l6th Century botanist and physician, Leonhard Rauwolf, while the species name is taken from the appearance of the root, which contains the active chemical constituents.

Rauvolfia has been used for over 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine as a cure for snakebite and as a remedy for hypertension. Folklore claims that the mongoose was seen to unearth and eat the root when about to engage in combat with dangerous snakes seem to convey a rather unusual state of preparedness on the part of the little mammal, but one never knows.

It was not until the early fifties that a group of pharmacists in the employ of CIBA, the Swiss drug company, following some earlier studies by a group of Indian academics, were encouraged to isolate the alkaloid compounds. The results of this research led to the discovery of an organic alkaloid which CIBA named reserpine. In one clinical test, reserpine lowered a patient’s blood pressure from 300/150 to 160/100; that occurred without any of the usual side effects associated with the prescribed drugs of that era, which operated by dilating the blood vessels, while reserpine achieved the result by affecting the hypothalamus.

In Birhar province, the Ayurvedic practitioners used Rauvolfia to treat all manner of mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia. The plant attracted the attention of Western psychiatrists who developed a number of treatments from the root, which are still used today.

Interestingly, the treatment for high blood pressure was abandoned in the sixties when it was apparent that it gave rise to manic depression. Now new compounds have been isolated from the root that have overcome these side effects.

Rauvolfia is still used as sedative to quieten distressed babies in India and as a cure for snakebite. Mahatma Ghandi recommended tea made from the leaves of the plant should be drunk on a regular basis by all politicians.

It is not generally known, but only six per cent of the victims of cobra bite actually die. But I’m sure the tourist treated by the local herbalist with ‘snakebite’ tea will be forever grateful.

Next week Mate