Books on Rauwolfia
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Michael Byrne
Posted on: August 7, 2000

I purchased Rauwolfia serpentina seeds from you, and am glad to report that they are germinating – slow and variable, but germinating. So I am now growing some of these plants. I’m wondering if any of the books you sell have information about this plant species. Since I’ve recently read that Rauwolfia can be poisonous, I am concerned about using it as an herb. If you have information available about the safe use of Rauwolfia (if there is such a thing), I would appreciate your letting me know.

Rauwolfia serpentina, also known as "Indian snakeroot", is the source of the world’s first commercial tranquillizer available in the modern Western drug pharmacopoeia. In India where this plant is native, the root has been used for millenia for a variety of conditions including mental illness and insomnia.

According Thomas Bartram’s "Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine" (available from Richters), it is a "powerful agent for reduction of high blood pressure." It has cardiovascular and brain relaxant properties, and is used in psychiatric medicine. In Britain, it is available by prescription only. Bartram continues: "Prescribed in cases of arrhythmia for slowing down the heart muscle." It is sometimes combined with valerian at a 1 part rauwolfia to 2 parts valerian root ratio. Bartram says that the normal dose of the root extract is 2 mg once daily.

Andrew Chevallier writes in his "Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants" (available from Richters) that concerns about the safety of the herb overblown in the scientific and medical literature; he writes further that "there is little evidence to show that the root has serious side effects at normal dosage." He does go on to say, though, that the herb should only be taken under professional supervision.

Jim Duke, author of the "Handbook of Medicinal Herbs" (CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 1985) rates rauwolfia as a "1" in toxicity, which he says makes it "more dangerous than coffee" but he "wouldn’t be afraid to drink one cup containing 10 g herb steeped."

Rauwolfia definitely requires respect, and we share Chevallier’s precaution that it be used under the supervision of a professional health care provider who is familiar its use. You may be able to find an Indian Ayurvedic herbalist who has worked with it and can advise on its use.

For more information on how the plant works and how it has been used in the past, the books by Chevallier and Duke are recommended as a starting point for your research. From there, you may wish to explore the Indian Ayurvedic herbal literature but that literature is hard to find in North America.

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