Name: Birthwort (Aristolochia longa)
Otherwise known as: Long Rooted Birthwort, Dutchman’s Pipe
Habitat: A perennial member of the family Aristolochiaceae, growing to about 1m in poor soil on field edges and woodland. It has an erect stem displaying pale green, alternate, heart-shaped leaves with trumpet-shaped flowers which vary in colour from dull yellow to crimson, and in some varieties resemble pitchers. The plant is native to Europe and Asia and has an overall foetid smell and is poisonous in all parts.
What does it do: Dioscorides states that an infusion of the plant ‘brings away both child and afterbirth and whatsoever a careless midwife hath left behind’ and also recommended it as an antidote to poison and as treatment for asthma, rickets, ruptures and convulsions. Theophrastus echoes this by claiming that the plant ‘…seems to possess a surpassing variety of usefulness’; one aspect of this, in Asia and the southern Mediterranean, was as a treatment for snake-bite. The medieval herbalists such as Joseph Miller claim that ‘…the root be good for cleansing the lungs of tough phlegm… and outwardly it is useful in cleansing sordid ulcers’.
At one time a very popular folk medicine it has now fallen into decline because of the presence of aristolocic acid. However, extracts are still used by medical practitioners to treat vascular diseases and thrombosis. Some Chinese herbalists employ the plant topically to treat running sores, ulcers, eczema and other skin ailments. The Siberian shaman applied it to cure rabid wolf bites which some western physicians believe were successful. The plant grows around the lower Troodos.
Aristolochia debilis, known as Chinese fairy vine, is currently used to treat venomous bites, stomach pains, sore throats and dry coughs. Recent research indicates that the plant contains anti-tumour properties and a powerful analgesic.
Alexander McCowan is author of the book, ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Plants: Kill or Cure?’ edited by Tracy Phillips, which is available in e-book format from the online publishing platform Lulu (www.lulu.com) at a cost of £6.99