Name: Cancer Root (Phytolacca americana)
Otherwise known as: Poke Wort, Pigeon Berry
Habitat: A perennial member of the Phytolaccaceae, growing up to 4m in rich, light soils in Europe and North America. It has purple stems carrying oval, pointed leaves and produces racemes of pink flowers that transform into deep purple berries. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
What does it do: The plant was used extensively by native Americans for treating some forms of skin cancer and as a remedy for sexually transmitted diseases, which may have given rise to its name. It has a wide range of applications: it is a lymphatic alterative, a parasiticide, anti-neoplastic, fungicide, anti-rheumatic and anti-inflammatory. Herbalists refer to the plant as ‘vegetable mercury’, claiming that its action on the blood is slow but powerful.
The claims made for Cancer Root are extensive and extraordinary. It has been applied as a treatment for swollen glands and lymph nodes, mumps and tonsillitis, inflammation of the prostate gland, ovaries and testicles. The plant is said to give relief in cases of chronic skin ailments such as ringworm, eczema, psoriasis, acne, scrofula, lupus and itching of the genitalia and anus. If this isn’t enough, then consider that it is recommended for internal and external ulcerations, polymyalgia, rheumatism and arthritis.
Medical observations have confirmed that it halts the erosion of periosteum in bone, and a paper submitted by Dr W Dewey claimed that he used the plant to cure a cancer of the lip. A number of early medical practitioners – the eclectics – in North America following Native American practice used the plant to treat skin carcinomas.
It was commonly known among poultry farmers that it was unwise to let their birds feed on the berries because it caused them to lose most of the body fat. This piece of agricultural history seems to be exercising the minds of some of the major drug companies.