THE properties of this mild aromatic have been so far misconceived, probably from its relation to an European species, that it would be improper in a work of this kind, to pass over it without notice of its real character. It affords a striking exception to the rule, that botanical affinities are capable of indicating the medicinal qualities of vegetables. This plant in its effect on the human system, is widely different from the European asarabacca, although it approaches it so nearly in its form, that Michaux styles it "vix distinctum ab Europaeo."
The Asarum Canadense grows in old woods and mountainous tracts from Canada to Carolina. It is one of the humblest plants, presenting only two leaves with their stalks, which appear to constitute the whole of the plant above the ground. On plucking the plant, the two leaves are found connected below, with an obscure flower in their fork, which had rested on the surface of the ground, or been buried under the decayed leaves and soil. Its flowering time is from May to July.
This plant, from the number of its stamens, is placed by Linnaeus and Michaux in the class Dodecandria. Pursh, who has omitted this class in his Flora, has transferred the Asarums to Gynandria, from the circumstance that the stamens are inserted on the germ. This place however is not better suited to the Asarum, than to a multitude of other plants whose germ is inferior.
Linnaeus' natural order for this plant is Sarmentaceae and Jussieu's Aristolochiae.
Generic character. Calyx three or four cleft, superior; corolla none; anthers growing to the middle of the filaments. Capsule coriaceous, crowned.
Specific character. Leaves two, reniform; calyx woolly, cleft to the base; its segments spreading at top.
The root of the Asarum is creeping, fleshy, and somewhat jointed. Leaves kidney shaped, pubescent on both sides, with long, round, hairy petioles. Flower solitary, growing from the fork of the stem, on a pendulous hairy peduncle. Calyx very hairy or woolly, consisting of three broad, concave leafets, which are mostly of a brownish or dull purple on the inside at top and bottom, and terminated by a long, spreading, inflected point, with reflexed sides. The colour varies greatly according to the amount of light which the plant enjoys, being sometimes nearly green. Stamens twelve, inserted on the germ at a distance from the calyx, the alternate ones longer. Anthers growing to the filaments below their extremity. Near the divisions of the calyx are three short, curved, filamentary substances, which may perhaps be called nectaries. Germ inferior, somewhat hexagonal, marked at top inside with a dark red line; style conical, striate, parted at top into six recurved, radiating stigmas.
The root of the As arum has an agreeable aromatic taste, which is intermediate between that of ginger and the aristolochia serpentaria. This quality has given it the names of Wild ginger and Snake root in different sections of the country. The name Colt's foot is also applied to it.
The chemical trials, to which I have subjected the root, bring to view the following substances:—1. A light coloured, pungent, volatile oil, possessing the characteristic taste and smell of the plant in a high degree. 2. A resin, which is of a reddish colour and very bitter. These two constituents communicate to alcohol the active properties of the plant. 3. Faecula. 4. A gummy mucus. These exist in such quantities as to impede the filtration of the decoction. Astringency hardly exists in this root, as a gelatinous solution gave no evidence of tannin, and the sulphate of iron produced a green colour hardly bordering on black.
It has been asserted, and the statement copied from one book to another, that the Asarum Canadense is a powerful emetic. I presume that subsequent writers have taken their opinion from Cornutus, who, in his plants of Canada, informs us, that two spoonfuls of the juice of the leaves of the Asarum, (meaning the European plant, rather than the American,) are found to evacuate the stomach powerfully. I can hardly doubt, that if such an operation has really been produced from the Canadian species, it must have taken place in irritable stomachs, to whom two spoonfuls of any crude vegetable juice would have proved emetic. Having seen the root of this plant used in the country in considerable quantities as a sudorific, I was long since induced to doubt its emetic power. Subsequent experience has satisfied me that the freshly powdered root, given to the extent of half a drachm, and probably in still larger quantity, excites no vomiting nor even nausea.
Still however the plant deserves not to be discarded from use. The aromatic flavour of the root is more agreeable than that of the aristolochia serpentaria, which article it seems to resemble in its medicinal powers. Several country practitioners, who have employed it, have spoken to me favourably of its effect, as a warm stimulant and diaphoretic. As a substitute for ginger, in common domestic use, I know of no indigenous article which promises so fairly as this.
Alcohol is the proper solvent for the active properties of this plant. The tincture has a dark red colour, and a highly concentrated taste of the root.
Asarum Canadensc, Lin. Sp. pl.
Michaux, i. 279.
Pursh, ii. 596.
Asarum foliis reniiformibus, mucronatis, binis, Gronovius, 72.
Asaron Canadense, Cornutus, Canad. 24, t 25.
Asaron Americanum, Parkinson, theatr. 266.
Bart. coll. 26, 48.
Coxe, Disp. 368.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.