Monday, July 8, 2013

Rattle snakes and Alexipharmacal plants

Our intrepid Carolina explorers were always worried about rattlesnakes. What does one do about snakes that make frightening noises and whose bites can result in pain, bleeding, nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure, blurred vision, tissue damage, etc. (Although apparently not all rattlesnake bites even deliver venom; it's possible to get bitten and come to no serious harm.) The main effective treatment these days is antivenom, which wasn't around in the early 1700s. Catesby worried quite a bit about rattlesnakes - see his descriptions of their bites in the Natural History (vol. 2, p. 41), and in his plant collections.

Joseph Lord, living in coastal South Carolina in 1704, was also concerned. Three of his specimens contain labels mentioning the use of plants against rattlesnake bites. My favorite is this one, Eupatorium rotundifolium on H.S. 268 f. 35. His label reads:

“This (I think) I have sent you formerly without a name, as now it comes: but I desire you would please to let me know it’s name. Besides that an Indian told me of it's use in feavers, its found to be Alexipharmacal, & an admirable antidote against the Poison of Rattle-snakes in particular, conquering the Venom of their biteing. Gathered, Aug. 15, 1704, having been near a month in flower. It grows common in our woods, both in high & low land. There are divers other plants growing commonly that seem to be varieties of this.”

Alexipharmacal? I had to look that one up. It means an antidote, from the Greek words “ἀλέξειν, alexia,” meaning “to ward off,” and “φαρμακός, pharmakos” for “drug.”

Lord’s label makes it appear that the Indians and the Colonials who arrived here after them were all looking for the same thing as modern doctors - an antivenom. So would this plant work? Well, the closely related Eupatorium perfoliatum goes by the common name “boneset” or sometimes “ague-weed.” It was historically used to treat fevers and other assorted ailments. So maybe this one would work too.

One of the other rattlesnake plants is a specimen of Ageratina aromatica on H.S. 268 f. 33. Common name? “Small-leaved white snakeroot” or “Lesser snakeroot.”

Ageratina used to belong to the genus Eupatorium - of massive snakebite treatment fame. And Lord describes this one as “of the Tribe … of whose vertue against the biting of the rattle-snake I have made mention.” Sounds like taxonomy to me - long before Linnaeus.