This genus consists of some 300 species of poisonous, evergreen and deciduous, twining vines, shrubs, scramblers, and herbaceous perennials that occur in temperate and tropical regions in many parts of the world. Many of the climbing species are grown for their attractive foliage and intriguing, foul-smelling flowers. The name Aristolochia is derived from the Greek aristos, "best" and lokhia, "childbirth", referring to the main medicinal use for postpartum infections. As the common name "snakeroot" suggests, aristolochias are also used to treat snakebite. These uses may have originated in the medieval Doctrine of Signatures, which regarded the color or shape of an herb as a sign of its purpose. The flowers of Aristolochia were seen to resemble a curved fetus or a snake. Aristolochia clematitis has a long history of use in childbirth, being recorded in ancient Egyptian times. It closely resembles Asarum canadense (see wild ginger) in its properties and uses. Aristolochia debilis was first mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts in about CE600. Aristolochia serpentaria was valued by native N Americans as a remedy for snakebite. It was introduced into European medicine in the 17th century as a remedy for the bites of snakes and rabid dogs. Following modern research into its medicinal properties, it enjoyed a vogue during the 1970's and 1980's, resulting in over-collection from the wild. Various other species are used medicinally, including Indian birthwort (A. indica, an Ayurvedic herb, used to induce abortion; A. fangchi (guang fang ji, fang chi), a Chinese arthritis remedy; A brachteata (ukulwe) used in both India, and tropical Africa; the N American A. longa; and A. rotunda, a southern European species. Aristolochias contain aristolochic acid, which can cause liver and kidney damage. In Chinese medicine, the same name may be used for several different plants, as it refers to the drug, not the species. Often, the drug is obtained from several quite different species. Following severe adverse reactions to a dieting preparation containing aristolochic acid, a ban was imposed by several countries in 2000 on the use of Aristolochia species, together with various other species, such as Akebia, Clematis, Cocculus, and Stephania, that be be substituted for Aristolochia or contaminated with aristolochic acid.

Its scientific name, Aristolochia, means "excellent birth", and the fresh juice of birthwort was used traditionally to induce labor and remove obstructions after childbirth. Native Americans used this herb, which is also known as snakeroot, to treat snakebites, toothaches, stomach pain, and fevers.

Fetid perennial with a long creeping rhizomes, upright stems, and heart-shaped leaves, 6-15cm (2½-6in) long. Clusters of 3-8 erect, tubular yellow-green flowers appear in summer, followed by pear-shaped capsule.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Aristolochia, Black Snakeroot, Heartwort, Long Birthwort, Pelican Flower, Serpentaria, Snakeroot, Snakeweed, Virginia Snakeroot
Botanical Name:
Aristolochia clematitis
Native Location:
C and S Europe
Well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Thin out previous year's growths or cut back to two or three nodes in late winter. Aphids, whitefly, and spider mite may damage foliage of plants under cover.
By seed sown in spring at 13-16°C (55-61°F); by semi-ripe cuttings in summer; by division in early spring or autumn; by layering in autumn
Roots are harvested in autumn, and fruits collected when ripe, and dried for liquid extracts, decoctions, powders and tinctures. Oil is distilled from dried roots (A. serpentaria).
20-85cm (8-34in)
20-85cm (8-34in)
Parts Used:
Roots, leaf, stem, flower.
Chemical Constituents:
  • Aristolochin
  • Borneol
  • Terpene
  • Volatile Oils
  • Properties:
    An aromatic, tonic herb that stimulates the uterus, reduces inflammation, controls bacterial infection, and promotes healing.
    Known Effects:
  • Stimulates stomach secretions
  • Stimulates smooth-muscle contractions of the gastrointestinal tract and heart
  • Possible Additional Effects:
  • May increase circulation
  • May stimulate heart action
  • May treat dyspepsia
  • May reduce fever
  • May treat stores on skin
  • Medicinal Uses:
    Internally for gynecological and obstetric disorders. A toxic herb, prescribed in small doses for short-term used only and not given during pregnancy. For use by qualified practitioners only. Externally for skin infections and diseases, and wounds (especially snakebite or insect bites.)
    To treat gastrointestinal and gallbladder colic caused by allergies, joint pain, stomacheache, malaria, and gynecological disorders; to stimulate the immune system.
    Warnings and Precautions:
    Toxic if eaten.
    This herb is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.

    Don't take if you:
  • Are pregnant, think you may be pregnant or plan pregnancy in the near future
  • Have any chronic disease of the gastrointestinal tract, such as stomach or duodenal ulcers, reflux esophagitis, ulcerative colitis, spastic colitis, diverticulosis, or diverticulitis

  • Consult your doctor if you:
  • Take this herb for any medical problem that doesn't improve in 2 weeks (There may be safer, more effective treatments.)
  • Take any medicinal drugs or herbs including aspirin, laxatives, cold and cough remedies, antacids, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, supplements, other prescription or non-prescription drugs.

  • Pregnancy:
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
    Infants and Children:
    Treating infants and children under 2 with any herbal preparation is hazardous
    None are expected if you are beyond childhood, under 45, not pregnant, basically healthy, take it only for a short time and do not exceed manufacturer's recommended dose.
  • Store in cool, dry area away from direct light, but don't freeze.
  • Store safely out of reach of children.
  • Don't store in bathroom medicine cabinet. Heat and moisture may change the action of the herb.

  • Safe Dosage:
    Consult your doctor for the appropriate dose for your condition.
    Rated relatively safe when taken in appropriate quantities for short periods of time.
    Adverse Reactions, Side Effects, or Overdose Symptoms:
    Birthwort is extremely toxic. When taken in low doses over time, its side effects include the development of tumors. Toxic doses lead to vomiting, severe kidney damage, gastroenteritis, and death by kidney failure.

    Signs and Symptoms What to Do

    Diarrhea Discontinue. Call doctor immediately.
    Nausea or Vomiting Discontinue. Call doctor immeditately.
    Tenesmus (spasm of the rectal spincter) Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Drug Interactions:
    Taking birthwort with these drugs may intefere with the action of the drugs:
    Aluminum Hydroxide (AlternaGel, Alu-Cap) Aluminum Hydroxide and Magnesium Carbonate (Gaviscon Extra Strength, Gaviscon Liquid) Aluminum Hydroxide and Magnesium Hydroxide (Maalox, Rulox) Aluminum Hydroxide and Magnesium Trisilicate (Gaviscon Tablet)
    Aluminum Hydroxide, Magnesium Hydroxide, and Simethicone (Maalox, Mylanta Liquid) Calcium Carbonate (Rolaids Extra Strength, Tums) Calcium Carbonate and Magnesium Hydroxide (Mylanta Gelcaps, Rolaids Extra Strength) Cimetidine (Nu-Cimet, Tagamet)
    Esomeprazole (Nexium) Famotidine (Apo-Famotidine, Pepcid) Famotidine, Calcium Carbonate, and Magnesium Hydroxide (Pepcid Complete) Lansoprazole (Prevacid)
    Magaldrate and Simethicone (Riopan Plus, Riopan Plus Double Strength) Magnesium Hydroxide (Dulcolax Milk of Magnesia, Phillip's Milk of Magnesia) Magnesium Oxide (Mag-Ox 400, Uro-Mag) Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom Salts)
    Nizatidine (Axid, PMS-Nizatidine) Omeprazole (Losec, Prilosec) Pantoprazole (Pantoloc, Protonix) Rabeprazole (Aciphex, Pariet)
    Ranitidine (Alti-Ranitidine, Zantac)
    Sodium Bicarbonate (Brioschi, Neut)
    Lab Test Alterations:
    May cause nephropathy and abnormal kidney function test results.
    Disease Effects:
    Can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and may worsen inflammatory or infectious gastrointestinal ailments.
    Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni BrownCopyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited. pg. 129
    The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide by George T. Grossberg, MD and Barry Fox, PhD Copyright ©2007 by Barry Fox PhD. Pp.67-68.
    Vitamins, Herbs, Minerals & Supplements The Complete Guide by H. Winter Griffith, MD Copyright©1998 Fisher Books pp. 439-440