Virginia Dutchman’s Pipe – Aristolochia serpentaria

Virginina Snakeroot – Aristolochia serpentaria, photo by Steven Foster

Overall At-Risk Score: 47

Latin Name:

Aristolochia serpentaria

Synonym: Aristolochia convolvulacea

Variations: Aristolochia serpentaria var. hastata, Aristolochia serpentaria var. nashii

Common Name:

Virginia Snakeroot, Virginia dutchman’s pipe (Dutchman’s pipe is also a common name given to a similar-appearing species, Aristolochia macrophylla). The name of this plant is modified on the species at-risk page because the words Virginia snakeroot and serpentaria are flagged as unapproved substances by google ads policy.

Family:

Aristolochiaceae (Birthwort family)

Lifespan:

Perennial

Reproduction:

Virginia Snakeroot produces several lateral stems from its base, with a single hairy flower on the end of each stem. Snakeroot flowers are pale green to dark maroon in color, shaped a bit like a tobacco pipe, and are covered with very fine white hairs. These flowers close up to trap flies and gnats that land on them and leave them inside to feed off of their nectar until their stamens develop, before reopening and sending the insects covered in pollen off to pollinate other Snakeroots. Once fertilized, Snakeroots develop into small six-valved seed pods.

Geographic Region:

Native to most of Appalachia and the southeast United States, Virginia Snakeroot can also be found as far west as portions of Texas. Virginia Snakeroot is found in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Habitat:

Virginia Snakeroot lives primarily in mesic habitats with lots of shade and rich in organic matter, meaning it is found predominantly in intact old-growth areas or late-successional forests.

Ability to Withstand Disturbance and Overharvest:

This plant grows sporadically as solitary plants, rather than in patches, and relies on consistent soil conditions that are disturbed by the methods of finding and harvesting used on Virginia Snakeroot plants. This makes A. serpentaria easy to overharvest and slow to recover in a previously harvested area.

Status of Endangered/Threatened (by state):

Aristolochia serpentaria is listed as “Threatened” in Connecticut, Iowa, and Michigan, and var. hastata is “Threatened” in Illinois.

Aristolochia serpentaria is “Endangered” in New York.

Aristolochia serpentaria has not yet been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Part of Plant Used/Active Medicinal Compounds:

Aristolochia serpentaria root was used historically by several Native American tribes as a remedy for snake bites, fevers and colds, and as a painkiller for various pains.

Modern herbalists use the rhizome as a diuretic and gastric stimulant, but it is important to note that the rhizome contains aristolochic acid and trimethylamine, both of which have links to cancer and other serious medical issues. Specifically, aristolochic acid brings with it a risk for kidney failure and liver cancer, and trimethylamine has the potential to develop into the highly toxic carcinogen, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). Large doses of Virginia Snakeroot have also been linked to respiratory paralysis.

Vulnerability of Habitat/Changes of Habitat Quality and Availability:

Though much of the Appalachian Mountains is aging into a successional stage suitable for A. serpentaria, this plant is easily crowded out by faster growing invasive species.

As a plant that requires older stands of forests, Virginia Snakeroot is going to have a hard time finding large tracts of land in the eastern U.S. to populate due to an increase in invasive plants and humans developing regions previously habitable to the plant.

Recommendations for Industrial and Home Use:

We recommend staying away from wild-harvesting Virginia Snakeroot and instead looking into other natural alternatives to Aristolochia serpentaria.

Citations

  • Bain, M. A., Fornasini, G., & Evans, A. M., (2005, June), Trimethylamine: Metabolic, pharmacokinetic and safety aspects, Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15975041
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America, (2019, July 31), Pipevine Swallowtail Battus philenor (Linnaeus, 1771), Retrieved from https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Battus-philenor
  • eFloras, (n.d.), Aristolochia serpentaria in Flora of North America, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA. Retrieved August 5, 2019, from http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=233500164
  • Hamel, Paul B. and Mary U. Chiltoskey, 1975, Cherokee Plants and Their Uses — A 400 Year History, Sylva, N.C. Herald Publishing Co., page 55.
  • Hammer, R. L, 2018, Complete guide to Florida wildflowers: Over 600 wildflowers of the Sunshine State, including national parks, forests, preserves, and more than 160 state parks. Guilford, CT: FalconGuides.
  • Hilty, (n.d.), Aristolochia serpentaria (Virginia Snakeroot), Retrieved August 5, 2019, from http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/va_snakeroot.html
  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, (2013, August 18), Plant Database: Aristolochia serpentaria, Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ARSE3
  • Tantaquidgeon, Gladys, 1972, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Historical Commission Anthropological Papers #3, page 70, 128.
  • Taylor, Linda Averill, 1940, Plants Used As Curatives by Certain Southeastern Tribes, Cambridge, MA. Botanical Museum of Harvard University, page 20.
    USDA, (n.d.), Plants Profile for Aristolochia serpentaria (Virginia snakeroot), Retrieved August 5, 2019, from https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ARSE3

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