Over 100 species of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and small trees make up this genus, occuring in most tropical and subtropical regions. A few species are occasionally seen in botanic gardens today, but none is common as an ornamental. Rauvolfia serpentina was introduced into cultivation in Europe in 1690 and was recommended for pots under glass during the 19th century. Known as sarpagandha in Sanskrit, it was mentioned in Hindu texts c.600BCE. A tea made from the whole plant has been used for centuries in India for treating madness, hysteria, and restlessness. Mahatma Gandhi is said to have drunk it regularly for its calming effect. It contains about 25 alkaloids, the most important of which is reserpine, a potent hypotensive. Demand for R. serpentina has led to over-collecting; it became a protected species in 1997. Other useful species include R. verticillata, which contains similar alkaloids to those found in R. serpentina, and R. vomitoria (African Serpentwood), which is even richer in alkaloids, notably ajmaline, which has largely superseded reserpine because it has fewer side effects. Roots of R. vomitoria have long been used in traditional African medicine for calming mentally disturbed patients. It is collected mainly from Zaïre, Rwanda, and Mozambique for processing in Europe. Rauvolfia caffra (Quinine Tree), found in eastern South Africa and E Africa, is used to treat fevers, malaria, insomnia, and hysteria. It too is rich in indole alkaloids. The unrelated Bacopa monnieri, a SE Asian member of the foxglove family, Scrophulariaceae, contains saponins (notably hersaponin) that are similar in effect to reserpine. Rauvolfia is named after Leonhart Rauwolf, a 16th-century German physician.

Small, understory, evergreen shrub with a long, vertical, rather tuberous, nodular rootstock, and lanceolate, tapering leaves, 5-13cm (2-5in) long, borne in whorls of three. Tiny pale pink, tubular flowers, about 2cm (¾in) long, with 5 white to red lobes, appear in spring , followed by glossy, black-purple, ovoid fruits, to 7mm (¼in) long.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Chandra, Indian Snakeroot, Sarpaganda, Serpentwood, Snakeroot
Botanical Name:
Rauvolfia serpentina
Native Location:
India, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Andaman Islands, and Java
Well-drained soil in sun or partial shade, with an almost dry winter resting period.
By seed sown at 24°C (75°F) in spring; by stem cuttings in spring and summer; by root cuttings in winter. Seeds have a low germination rate.
Roots 1cm (½in) in diameter are lifted in winter, from plants at least 15 months old, and dried for use in decoctions and powders, or for commercial extraction of alkaloids. Bark and inner root may be separated before drying.
30-60cm (1-2ft)
30-60cm (1-2ft)
Min. 10-13°C (50-55°F)
Parts Used:
Chemical Constituents:
  • Ajmaline
  • Deserpidine
  • Rescinnamine
  • Reserpine
  • Serpentine
  • Yohimbine
  • Properties:
    A tranquilizing, sedative herb that lowers blood pressure and slows heart beat.
    Known Effects:
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Depresses activity of central nervous system
  • Hypnotic

  • Miscellaneous Information:
  • Snakeroot depletes catecholamines and serotonin from nerves in the central nervous system.
  • Refined snakeroot has been used extensively in recent years to treat hypertension.
  • Animal studies suggest snakeroot may produce cancers.
  • Possible Additional Effects:
  • May decrease anxiety
  • May decrease fever
  • May kill intestinal parasites
  • In India, used as antidote for snakebites
  • Medicinal Uses:
    Internally for mild hypertension, rapid heartbeat, and nervous and mental disorders. In Folk medicine, internally for fever, cholera, high blood pressure, snakebite, intestinal worms, and to increase contractions in childbirth; externally for eye problems.
    Warnings and Precautions:
    Contraindicated during pregnancy and lactation, and in depression. Side-effects include dry mouth, nasal congestion, depression, fatigue, and slowed heartbeat. Interacts with a number of prescription drugs, including Digitalis glycosides, barbiturates, cough and cold medications, and appetite suppressants.
    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, diverticulitis 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
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
  • 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:
    At present no "safe" dosage has been established.
    Rated slightly dangerous, particularly in children, persons over 55 and those who take larger than appropriate quantities for extended periods of time.
    Adverse Reactions, Side Effects, or Overdose Symptoms:
    Signs and Symptoms What to Do

    Bizarre dreams Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Decreased libido and sexual performance Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Diarrhea Discontinue. Call doctor immediately.
    Drowsiness Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Nasal congestion Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Precipitous blood-pressure drop; symptoms include faintness, cold sweat, paleness, rapid pulse Seek emergency treatment
    Slow heartbeat Seek emergency treatment
    Stupor Seek emergency treatment
    Upper abdominal pain Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Encyclopedia of herbs by Deni Brown Copyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited. pg 341
    Vitamins, Herbs, Minerals & Supplements The Complete Guide by H. Winter Griffith, MD Copyright©1998 Fisher Books. pp. 424-425