Botanical and Common Names
- Family Polygalaceae
- Polygala amara (Bitter Milkwort, European Bitter Polygala, European Senega Snakeroot, Evergreen Snakeroot, Flowering Wintergreen, Little Pollom)
- Polygala senega (Seneca/Seneka Snakeroot, Milkwort, Mountain Flax, Rattlesnake Root, Senega)
- Do not exceed dosage as it can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
- Since early tribes used it to induce abortions, seneca root should never be taken during pregnancy, even if no scientific proof has established its effectiveness in that regard.
Milkwort is native to Europe, and commonly found in grassy and moorland areas. Seneca Snakeroot is indigenous to central and western North America and found in dry, stony, open ground and woodlands. The plant is a perennial with lance-shaped, toothed leaves, and spikes of small white, pink, blue, or mauve flowers. Snakeroot is unearthed in the autumn, while the aerial parts of the Milkwort are gathered when the plant is in flower during the summer.
Milkwort was so named because it was thought to stimulate breastmilk. In his Irish Herbal (1735), K’Eogh stated that, because of its hot and dry nature, “it encourages the production of milk in nursing mothers.” However, this attribute is unfounded.
The Seneca Indians made a tea from the plant as a remedy for coughs, sore throat, and colds. However, their use of the plant on snakebites is what gave it its name. Hunters of various tribes, including Seneca, Winnebago, and Dakota, would carry pieces of the root whenever they ventured into snake country; and, if a bite occurred, they would quickly chew a piece of root and then apply it to the bite. Tribes in the Dakotas and parts of Canada also used seneca root to treat insect stings and bites.
The Seneca brewed tea from the root to treat sore throats and chest congestion, while other tribes used it to induce abortions. Early European settlers adopted some of these uses, as well as for the treatment of pleurisy, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases. In the 1920s, seneca root was a popular ingredient in patent medicnes to treat bronchitis.
Seneca Snakeroot was a highly prized herb by both Native Americans and European settlers, including one Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston who, in 1768, wrote about its attributes.
The plant was a common barter item among the Plains tribes. Both the Mesquakies and Potawatomis used the boiled root to treat heart trouble.
It was officially listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1936 and the National Formulary from 1936 to 1960. The USDA also included instructions on how to grow the plant in their 1915 edition of Drug Plants Under Cultivation.
Research interest in Europe, Japan, and the US has created a demand for the plant, particularly in Canada where, in 1987, commercial wholesalers in Winnipeg estimated that they handled about 10,000 kg (22,000 lbs) of the root.
- promotes sweating
- stimulates saliva
- triterpenoid saponins
- volatile oil
(b) Seneca Snakeroot
- triterpenoid saponins (including sengins)
- phenolic acids
- methyl salicylate
- plant sterols
Root (Seneca Snakeroot), aerial parts and root (Milkwort)
The saponin glycosides, especially polygalic acid and senegin, form a soapy froth when mixed with water. When ingested, these substances act as an expectorant to thin and loosen phlegm, making it easier to cough up. These compounds also stimulate the sweat glands to increase perspiration. When taken in large amounts, they increase the urinary output and act as purgatives to cause vomiting and diarrhea. These functions were once considered helpful in cleansing the system, but are rarely used now.
Both are used to treat respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis, bronchial asthma, and convulsive coughs, including whooping cough. Tinctures and infusions are used to expel phlegm.
The root has a more stimulating action on the bronchial membranes, promoting the coughing up of mucus, thereby easing wheezing. In large doses, the root is emetic (induces vomiting) and can cause diarrhea.