Indian Snakeroot: Uses and Side Effects

Indian Snakeroot
Indian Snakeroot
A Threatened Plant Species of Immense Medicinal Value

-Dr. Arvind Singh 

Originating from India and dating back to the origin of Ayurvedic medicine, Indian snakeroot (scientifically known as Rauvolfia serpentina) has been a medicinal plant of significant importance whose root drug has gone on to become, therapeutically applied worldwide. It is the most sung plant of ancient medical treatises like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita.

Due to sharp decline in population, Indian snakeroot is listed as ‘Endangered’ in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Endangered species are those species which are in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue to be operating. Their number has been reduced to a critical level or whose habitats have been so drastically reduced that they are deemed to be in immediate danger of extinction.

History of Indian Snakeroot:
The Indian snakeroot has a very interesting history. The plant has been described by Charaka (1000-800 B.C.) under its Sanskrit name of Sarpagandha as a useful antidote against snake bite and insect stings. There are several folklores about Indian snakeroot. One such is that a mongoose would first chew upon the leaves of Indian snakeroot to attain strength before combating a cobra.

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According to other folklore, its leaves when freshly ground and applied to toes, could serve as an antidote for snake poison. Another says that the mentally disturbed person is relieved of his/her madness if he/she eats the pieces of the roots. Therefore, for this reason the plant is known as 'Pagal-ki-dava’ in India. The generic name Rauvolfia was coined by the French Botanist Plumiers in honour of the well-known sixteenth-century German Physician Botanist, Traveller and Author Leonard Rauwolf of Augsburg.

The Indian snakeroot is a small, glabrous, deep-rooted, evergreen, perennial shrub with a pale coloured bark. It belongs to the Apocynaceae family of the flowering plants. The leaves are whorled, 7.5-17.5 cm long by 2.5- 6.25 cm wide, lanceolate with acute or acuminate apex, tapering gradually into the petiole. Flowers are white or pinkish arranged in terminal or lateral corymbose cymes. Flowering occurs in November-December. The fruit is of drupe type which becomes purplish-black after ripening.

Distribution and Ecology:
The Indian snakeroot is found in the tropical Himalayas and plains near the foot of the hills from Sirhind to Sikkim. It also occurs in Assam in South India Peninsula along the Ghats and in Andaman islands. It is also distributed in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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The Indian snakeroot grows in sandy loam to clayey-loam acidic soils, rich in humus. It prefers tropical to sub-tropical climate receiving heavy monsoon rains between June and August, and the temperatures between 10º and 38ºC are considered ideal for its growth. The plant sheds its leaves during winter under conditions obtaining in Northern India.

Medicinal Attributes:
The medicinal attributes of the Indian snakeroot are found chiefly in the root bark. Therefore, the roots of Indian snakeroot and its products command a sizable market in India and abroad. The fibrous roots are rich in alkaloid contents. The roots of Indian snakeroot contain more than 55 monoterpenoid indole alkaloids. About 80% of the alkaloids are concentrated in the root bark. The total amount of alkaloids in the roots ranges between 0.8-1.3 per cent.

The alkaloids are divided into two groups (i) Ajmaline group which includes ajmaline, ajmalinine and ajmalicine; and (ii) Serpentine group which include serpentine and serpentinine. The other includes reserpine, rescinnamine, raucaffricine, sarpagine and yohimbine. Of these reserpine has gained the greatest prominence for its therapeutic action.

In addition to the alkaloids, the roots contain oleoresins, a sterol, unsaturated alcohols, oleic acid, fumaric acid, glucose, sucrose, oxymethylanthera quinone, a strongly fluorescent substance and mineral salts. Of these, the oleoresin is said to be physiologically active and exhibits typical sedative and hypnotic action of the drug.

Medicinal Uses:
Since ancient days in India the roots of this plant species has been much valued as an antidote for the bites of poisonous snakes and stings of insects, and as a remedy against fever, dysentery, cholera and other painful affections of the intestinal canal. The decoction of the root is valuable medicine against hypertension.

The decoction of root is also used to cure pimple and boils and to enhance uterine contraction to facilitate or ease the child birth. The juice of leaves is instilled into the eyes as a remedy for the removal of the opacities of the cornea. The juice or decoction of plant is used as an effective medicine to cure hysteria and epilepsy. Thus Indian snakeroot is used in indigenous medicine from several centuries.

In modern therapeutics, it is being used in reducing blood pressure in hyperpiesis and as a sedative in the treatment of insomnia, nervousness, hypochondria and mental disorders. It is used in several other diseases like psoriasis, hyper-sweating, itching, menstrual molimina, menopausal syndrome, toxic goitre, angina pectoris and irregular heart action.

Causes behind Dwindling Population:
There are several causes behind the dwindling population of Indian snakeroot in India. These include over-extraction for commercial use, poor regeneration potential, expansion of agriculture, deforestation and indiscriminate use of pesticides in modern agricultural practices to control weeds and insects.

Over-extraction for its commercial use (by uprooting the whole plant) and poor regeneration potential (the germination of the seed is poor) are the chief causes behind the shrinking population of Indian snakeroot. Expansion of modern agricultural practices following the advent of the Green revolution in India has led to clearance of the natural habitats of Indian snakeroot for agricultural purposes. Forest of Sub-Himalayan tracts has traditionally been the storehouse of Indian snakeroot in India. However, large scale deforestation in this region since the last several decades has led to a significant decline in forest cover which has contributed to the declining population of Indian snakeroot.

Indiscriminate application of weedicides to control weeds in agriculture causes the death of plant species. Besides killing the weeds, weedicides also kill the plants of Indian snakeroot growing nearby the agricultural fields, as weedicides are often drained by rain water to the nearby locality. Similarly, the indiscriminate use of insecticides to control the harmful insects has also killed beneficial insects promoting pollination in Indian snakeroot, thus adversely affecting the reproductive potential of the plant species.

Conservation of invaluable Indian snakeroot can be achieved by adopting in situ and ex situ conservation methods. In situ conservation, the natural habitats of Indian snake root needs to be restored and must be protected from human interference, while in ex situ conservation, Indian snakeroot need to be grown outside its natural habitat under human protection.

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Since natural regeneration of the plant is poor, hence efforts should be made to propagate this plant species through tissue culture. Furthermore, in agriculture dominant country of ours, farmers need to be motivated to cultivate Indian snakeroot on their agricultural lands which would not only provide protection to this medicinal plant species but would also be helpful in raising the economic status of farmers as the roots and seeds of Indian snakeroot command a sizeable market in India. Indian snakeroot is a one-and-a-half year crop and can be grown from seeds, root and shoot cuttings. Though the seed-crop, gives larger root yield, however, the average germination is only 15%.

Conclusively it can be said Indian snakeroot is a plant of immense medicinal importance, hence dwindling population of this plant species is a matter of serious concern as it is utilized in traditional as well as modern systems of disease treatment. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to protect and conserve the Indian snakeroot for the sustenance of the bio-wealth of India.

Author Bio:

Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is a dedicated Researcher having more than four dozens of published research papers in the journals of national and international repute. His main area of research is the Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, Varanasi (India). Furthermore, he is also an active science writer having more than 10 dozens of published science articles in different periodicals of national repute. His email address is:

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