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(Birthwort family)


This family of herbs, shrubs, and twining lianes contains about 400 species in 7 genera. Although a few are found in temperate regions, most species occur naturally in the tropics and sub-tropics. Only Aristolochia L. and Asarum L. species are likely to be found in cultivation.

Several members of this family are apparently capable of producing dermatitis.

Aristolochia L.

This, the largest genus, comprises some 350 species. Many are very decorative and are widely cultivated. The roots of some species have been used in folk medicine as abortifacients, as cures for snakebites, for criminal poisoning, and for other purposes (Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977).

The genus is a source of aristolochic acid which has been evaluated in China for the treatment of wounds and infectious diseases; it was found to be useful for promoting wound healing in ulcers, burns, and scalds (Wren 1988). Aristolochic acid has been reported to stimulate phagocytosis in leucocytes (Mose 1966), granulocytes (Henrickson 1970), and peritoneal macrophages (Mose 1966, Tympner 1981).

Aristolactone, a sesquiterpene lactone of the germacranolide type, has been reported from Aristolochia reticulata Nutt. and Aristolochia serpentaria L. (Yoshioka et al. 1973). It does, however, lack the exocyclic α-methylene group on the lactone ring that appears to be necessary for allergenicity (Mitchell et al. 1972).

Aristolochia clematitis L.

Perrot & Paris (1971) report that this species is irritant.

Aristolochia paucinervis Pomel

According to Merzouki et al. (2000), the leaf is used in NW Moroccan traditional medicine (where it is known locally as baraztam) to treat cutaneous neoplasms. A mixture of powdered leaves, dried scorpion and rancid butter is applied to the affected part.


There are about 70 species, natives of northern temperate regions. Many were formerly cultivated for medicinal use; some are now cultivated for their horticultural interest.

Asarum arifolium Michx.


Asarum caudatum Lindl.


Asarum europaeum L.
Asarabacca, Hazelwort


Asarum virginicum L.

These species are reported to be irritant (Pammel 1911).

Asarum canadense L.
Wild Ginger

The rhizomes are the source of the perfumery raw material known as Canadian snakeroot oil or wild ginger oil. It contains chiefly methyl eugenol and linalyl acetate, but also geraniol, L-α-terpineol, eugenol, myrcene, pinene, etc. No irritancy, allergenicity, nor phototoxicity on application to the skin of various test animals, including man, could be demonstrated (Opdyke 1978).

The leaves can cause dermatitis (Massey 1941).

Asarum sieboldii Miq. var. seoulensis Nakai

Sesamin has been isolated from this plant (Kaku & Ri 1938). Sesamin has been shown to be involved in sesame oil (Sesamum indicum L., fam. Pedaliaceae) contact allergy.

Thottea dependens Klotzsch

This species from western Malaysia is reported to be irritant (Pammel 1911). Perry & Metzger (1980) state that the bark is rubefacient.


  • Henrickson (1970)
  • Kaku T and Ri H (1938) The occurrence of l-sesamine in Asarum sieboldii Miquel var. seoulensis Nakai. Keijo J. Med. 9: 1-4. (Chem. Abstr. 32:9089)
  • Lewis WH, Elvin-Lewis MPF (1977) Medical Botany. Plants affecting man's health. New York: John Wiley [WorldCat]
  • Massey AB (1941) Plant poisoning. Merck's Rep. 50: 24.
  • Merzouki A, Ed-derfoufi F, Molero Mesa J (2000) Contribution to the knowledge of Rifian traditional medicine. II: Folk medicine in Ksar Lakbir district (NW Morocco). Fitoterapia 71(3): 278-307 [doi] [url] [pmid]
  • Mitchell JC, Dupuis G and Geissman TA (1972) Allergic contact dermatitis from sesquiterpenoids of plants. Additional allergenic sesquiterpene lactones and immunological specificity of Compositae, liverworts and lichens. British Journal of Dermatology 87(3): 235-240.
  • Mose (1966)
  • Opdyke DLJ (1978) Monographs on fragrance raw materials. Canadian snakeroot oil. Food and Cosmetics Toxicology 16: 869.
  • Pammel LH (1911) A Manual of Poisonous Plants. Chiefly of North America, with Brief Notes on Economic and Medicinal Plants, and Numerous Illustrations. Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Perrot E, Paris R (1971) Les Plantes Médicinales, Vols 1 & 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
  • Perry LM, Metzger J (1980) Medicinal Plants of East and Southeast Asia: Attributed Properties and Uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press [WorldCat] [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Tympner (1981)
  • Wren RC (1988) Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. (Rewritten by Williamson EM, Evans FJ). Saffron Walden: CW Daniel [WorldCat]
  • Yoshioka H, Mabry TJ and Timmermann BN (1973) The Sesquiterpene Lactones. Chemistry, NMR and plant distribution. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.

Richard J. Schmidt

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