Name: Colic Root (Dioscorea villosa)
Otherwise known as: Wild Yam
Habitat: Colic Root is a climbing member of the Dioscoreacea family growing to about 6m in wet woodlands and swampy areas in the USA, Central and South America. It grows from tuberous rhizomes with a chaotic twining stem that supports large, heart-shaped leaves that appear to be quilted, with yellow flowers that develop into winged seed-pods.
What does it do: A famous plains Indian medicine man said ‘If there were no plants we would not be here. For we breathe in what they breathe out. That is how we learn from them’. This is one of the plants he was referring to. The tribes used it to control birth and prevent miscarriage, and to treat any internal spasms.
The plant contains saponins; these are glycosides, such as diosgenin, dioscin and dioscorin, and are used in the manufacture of steroids. Their presence makes the plant antirheumatic, anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant, diaphoretic, a cardiac sedative and antibilious. The effective chemicals are concentrated in the root.
The range of ailments to which it may be applied is interesting. Herbalists from the Americas to China use it to treat adrenal exhaustion, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach and muscular cramps, kidney and intestinal colic, dysentery, persistent nausea and vomiting, to increase bile flow, diverticulosis (weakness of the colonic wall) and appendicitis. A tea is given to aid liver function in cases of degenerative disease and in cases of complications arising from the menopause.
The Colic Root was originally used to produce steroidal preparations such as cortisone, anabolic hormones, and a precursor of progesterone, to make the contraceptive pill. This was discontinued in the seventies when cheaper sources such as soya were used. However, hydrocortisone cream – which is used in the treatment of eczema – is still derived from this plant.
Many members of the family Dioscoreae are important food sources in the tropics which may be eaten directly or after processing.