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Gerard's Herbal - Part 3

Gerard's Herbal - CHAP. 312. Of Birthworts.

CHAP. 312. Of Birthworts.

Fig. 1257. Long Birthwort (1)

Fig. 1258. Round Birthwort (2)


The Kinds.

            Birthwort, as Dioscorides writeth, is of three sorts, Long, Round, and Winding: Pliny hath added a fourth kind called Pistolochia, or Little Birthwort. The later writers have joined unto them a fifth, named Saracen's Birthwort.

The Description.

            1. Long Birthwort hath many small long slender stalks creeping upon the ground, tangling one with another very intricately, beset with round leaves not much unlike Sow- Bread or Ivy, but larger, of a light or overworn green colour, and of a grievous or loathsome smell and savour: among which come forth long hollow flowers, not much unlike the flowers of Aron, bur without any pistil or clapper in the same, of a dark purple colour: after which do follow small fruit like unto little pears, containing triangled seeds of a blackish colour. The root is long, thick, of the colour of Box, of a strong savour and bitter taste.

            2. The Round Birthwort in stalks and leaves is like the first, but his leaves are rounder: the flowers differ only in this, that they be somewhat longer and narrower, and of a faint yellowish colour, but the small flap or point of the flower that turneth back again, is of a dark or black purple colour. The fruit is formed like a pear, sharp toward the top, more ribbed and fuller than the former; the root is round like unto Sow-Bread, in taste and savour like the former.

Fig. 1259. Climbing Birthwort (3)

            3. Climbing Birthwort taketh hold of any thing that is next unto it with his long and clasping stalks, which be oftentimes branched, and windeth it self like Bindweed: the stalks of the leaves are longer, whose leaves be smooth, broad, sharp pointed, as be those of the others: the flowers likewise hollow, long, yellow, or of a blackish purple colour: the fruit differeth not from that of the others: but the roots be slender and very long, sometimes creeping on the top of the earth, and sometimes growing deeper, being of like colour with the former ones.

Fig. 1260. Saracen's Birthwort (4)

Fig. 1261. Small Birthwort (5)

            4. There is a fourth kind of Birthwort resembling the rest in leaves and branched stalks, yet higher, and longer than either the long or the round: the leaves thereof be greater than those of Asarabacca; the flowers hollow, long, and in one side hanging over, of a yellowish colour: the fruit is long and round like a pear, in which the seeds lie severed, of form three-square, of an ill favoured blackish colour: the root is somewhat long, oftentimes of a mean thickness, yellow like to the colour of Box, not inferior in bitterness either to the long or to the round Birthwort: and sometimes there are found to be small and slender, and that is when they were but lately digged up and gathered: for by the little parcels of the roots which are left, the young plants bring forth at the beginning tender and branched roots.

            5. Small Birthwort is like to the long and round Birthwort both in stalks and leaves, yet is it lesser and tenderer: the leaves thereof are broad, and like those of Ivy: the flower is long, hollow in the upper part, and on the outside blackish: the fruit something round like the fruit of Round Birthwort instead of roots there grow forth a multitude of slender strings.

Fig. 1262. Virginian Snake-Weed

            6. Clusius figures and describes another small Pistolochia by the name of Pistolochia cretica, to which I thought good to add the epithet virginia also, for that the much admired Snake-Weed of Virginia seems no otherwise to differ from it than an inhabitant of Candy from one of the Virginians, which none I think will say to differ in specie. I will first give Clusius his description and then express the little variety that I have observed in the plants that were brought from Virginia, and grew here with us: it sends forth many slender stalks a foot long, more or less, and these are cornered or indented, crested, branched, tough, and bending towards the ground, or spread thereon, and of a dark green colour: upon which without order grow leaves, nervous, and like thote of the last described, yet much sharper pointed, and after a sort resembling the shape of those of Smilax aspera, but less, and of a dark and lasting green colour, fastened to longish stalks: out of whose bosoms grow long and hollow crooked flowers, in shape like those of the Long Birthwort, but of a darker red on the outside, but somewhat yellowish within: and they are also fastened to pretty long stalks; and they are succeeded by fruit, not unlike, yet less than that of the Long Birthwort. This hath abundance of roots, like as the former, but much smaller, and more fibrous, and of a stronger smell. It flowers in July and August. Thus Clusius describes his, to which that Snake-Weed that was brought from Virginia, and grew with Mr. John Tradescant at South Lambeth, Anno 1632, was agreeable in all points, but here and there one of the lower leaves were somewhat broader and rounder pointed than the rest: the flower was long, red, crooked, and a little hairy, and it did not open the top, or shew the inner side, which I judge was by reason of the coldness and unseasonableness of the later part of the summer when it flowered: the stalks in the figure should have been expressed more crooking or indenting, for they commonly grow so. How hard it is to judge of plants by one particle or faculty may very well appear by this herb I now treat of: for some by the similitude the root had with Asarum, and a vomiting quality which they attributed to it (which certainly is no other than accidental) would forthwith pronounce and maintain it an Asarum: some also refer it to other things, as to Primroses, Vincitoxicum, &c. Others more warily named it Serpentaria virginiana and Radix virginia, names as it were offering themselves and easily to be fitted and imposed upon sundry things, but yet too general, and therefore not fit any more to be used, seeing the true and specific denomination is found.

The Place.

            Pliny showeth, that the Birthworts grow in fat and champion places, the fields of Spain are full of these three long and round Birthworts: they are also found in Italy and Narbonne or Languedoc, a country in France. Petrus Bellonius writeth, that he found branched Birthwort upon Ida, a mountain in Candy. Carolus Clusius saith, that he found this same about Hispalis [Seville], and in many other places of Granada in Spain, among bushes and brambles: they grow all in my garden.

The Time.

            They flower in May, June, and July.

The Names.

            Birthwort is called in Greek and Aristolochia, because it is Aris tais lochis, that is to say, good for women newly brought abed, or delivered with child: in English, Birthwort, Hartwort, and of some, Aristolochia.

            The first is called Aristolochia longa, or Long Birthwort, of the form of his root, and likewise Aristolochia mas, or Male Birthwort: the second is thought to be fœmina or female Birthwort, & it is called Rotunda aristolochia, or round Birthwort: of divers also Terrę malum, the Apple of the Earth: yet Cyclaminus is also called Terrę malum, or the Apple of the Earth.

The Temperature.

            All these Birthworts are of temperature hot and dry and that in the third degree, having besides a power to cleanse.

The Virtues.

            A. Dioscorides writeth, that a dram weight of Long Birthwort drunk with wine and also applied, is good against serpents and deadly things: and that being drunk with myrrh and pepper, it expelleth whatsoever is left in the matrix after the child is delivered, the flowers also & dead children; and that being put up in a pessary it performeth the same.

            B. Round Birthwort serveth for all these things, and also for the rest of the other poisons: it is likewise available against the stuffing of the lungs, the hicket, the shakings or shiverings of agues, hardness of the milt or spleen, burstings, cramps, and convulsions, pains of the sides, if it be drunk with water.

            C. It plucketh out thorns, splinters, and shivers, and being mixed in plasters, or poultices, it draws forth scales or bones, removeth rottenness or corruption, mundifieth and scoureth foul and filthy ulcers, and filleth them up with new flesh, if it be mixed with Ireos and honey.

            D. Galen saith, that branched Birthwort is of a more sweet and pleasant smell; and therefore is used in ointments, but it is weaker in operation than the former ones.

            E. Birthwort, as Pliny writeth, being drunk with water is a most excellent remedy for cramps and convulsions, bruises, and for such as have fallen from high places.

            F. It is good for them that are short-winded, and are troubled with the falling sickness.

            G. The round Aristolochia doth beautify, cleanse, and fasten the teeth, if they be often fretted or rubbed with the powder thereof.

            H. The root of the Virginian Pistolochia, which is of a strong and aromatic scent, is a singular & much used antidote against the bite of the rattle-snake, or rather adder or viper, whose bite is very deadly, and therefore by the providence of the creator he hath upon his tail a skinny dry substance parted into cells which contain some loose, hard dry bodies that rattle in them (as if one should put little stones or peas into a stiff and very dry bladder) that so be may by this noise give warning of his approach, the better to be avoided; but if any be bitten, they know, nor stand in need of no better antidote, than this root, which they chew, and apply to the wound, & also swallow some of it down, by which means they quickly overcome the malignity of this poisonous bite, which otherwise in a very short time would prove deadly. Many also commend the use of this against the plague, smallpox, measles, and such like malign and contagious diseases.

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