Snakeweed - Botany And History

Snakeweed is a not-so-well known medicinal herb that was said to have originally a native species found in Central America, although it is also found prolifically in the tropics and subtropics of the Asian and African continents. Typically considered a weed by most individuals, it is said to possess potent medicinal benefits and is prized as such by those who are in the know.

This unassuming plant can typically be found in waste areas, untended lots, pathways, and even street corners. It is due to this humble and proliferate nature that this unassuming plant is mistaken for, if not altogether considered as no more than a weed. Characterized by its hairy stems, leaves, and cauliflower-like buds, as well as for its distinctive milky sap that oozes out when its delicate stem is damaged, this small plant holds medicinal wonders, the most seemingly miraculous of which are only beginning to be tapped. [1] For folkloric and shamanic healers however, snakeweed is a valuable pharmacopoeia of cures, and is a prized healing plant in every place where it thrives.

Snakeweed - Herbal Uses

In the Philippines where snakeweed is called 'tawa-tawa' or 'gatas-gatas' (due to its distinctly milky sap) it is employed as a tea or tisane to treat a wide variety of ailments such as coughs, fevers, and flu. All the parts of the plant, from the leaves to the stalk, to the roots possess medicinal properties. The most common method of preparation is either by making a light or strong (depending on the ailment) decoction of the leaves, a remedy which is common for treating mild sicknesses such as fevers and chills. For more serious aliments such as bronchitis, a combination of the leaves and the roots may be decocted and drunk (the plant's purported curative properties and its use in treatment earning it the name 'asthma weed'). [2] Decoction and infusion are the most common modes of preparation for this herbal remedy, regardless of the country or area that employs it as a curative herb. The leaves may also be dried to make for easier preparation, in which case infusions are more favourable than decoctions. The dried leaves may also be smoked to relieve chest congestions, in which case it is either smoked on its own or mixed with other herbs in wooden or bamboo pipes, or otherwise rolled in betel leaves or plain paper. In Indo-Chinese medicine, dried snakeweed leaves may even be mixed with cloves to make an anti-bronchitis smoking blend. Because of this, snakeweed smoking blends have been dubbed the 'asthma cigarette' or 'asthma tobacco'. [3]

Aside from its use as a cure for asthma, bronchitis and fever, recent forays into herbal medicine have resulted in its association as a cure for dengue fever and tuberculosis. While Philippine medical bodies are as yet unsure of the exact pharmacological substances that help to make it a potent remedy for potentially fatal diseases, research is continuously being conducted to ascertain just that. The local government advocates the use of snakeweed as a remedy for mild cases of dengue and tuberculosis, although it has had mixed reactions, with especially negative ones from the pharmaceutical industries who attest that it is no more than a folkloric (read un-effective) remedy. In using snakeweed to treat dengue fever and tuberculosis, a strong decoction of the leaves is made and is given to the patient to consume for 24 hours. No other liquid, other than snakeweed tea, is to be given them. This is said to combat the disease and help detoxify the body. For tuberculosis, the tea may be brewed on its own or mixed with other local medicinal plants for greater efficiency. It is to be taken daily and maintained for a week to two weeks. [4]

Aside from these seemingly miraculous curative properties, very strong decotions of snakeweed seeds and roots can also be employed as a purgative to kill intestinal parasites, while milder decoctions are drunk to alleviate the discomfort of diarrhea, peptic ulcer, and as a remedy for kidney stones. [5] Snakeweed tea, whether made from dried or (preferably) fresh leaves, are also helpful for other bodily complaints, among them, menstrual problems, urinary track infections, and even some types of venereal diseases. [6] In spite of its astounding medicinal properties, the use of snakeweed as a natural curative supplement outside of those countries that employ it as a traditional medicine is still unrealized.

Snakeweed - Safety Note

Some Euphorbia species are highly poisonous and correct identification is therefore essential.

Names of Snakeweed, Past and Present

French: malnommee / euphorbe pilulifere
Portuguese: erva de Santa Luzia (lit. Herb of St. Lucy / Lucia) / burra leiteira / erva andorinha
Swahili: mziwaziwa / kinywele
Chinese: fei-yang ts'ao
Filipino: tawa-tawa (lit. 'laugh-laugh') / gatas-gatas (lit. 'milk-milk')
English: snakeweed / pill-bearing spurge / asthma herb
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Euphorbia pilulifera L.



Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt,

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