Unpleasant-smelling perennial with heart-shaped leaves and tubular yellow flowers with flattened lips.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to central and southern Europe, birthwort is also found in southwestern Asia. The root is unearthed in spring or autumn.
Root, aerial parts.
Birthwort contains aristolochic acids, a volatile oil, and tannins. While stimulating white blood cell activity, aristolochic acid is carcinogenic and toxic to the kidneys (see Research below).
History & Folklore
Aristolochia means “excellent birth,” and refers to the traditional use of the fresh juice to induce labor. Theophrastus (c. 372–286 BCE) records that the plant was used to treat disorders of the uterus, reptile bites, and sores on the head.
Medicinal Actions & Uses
No longer in use today and banned in Europe and North America, birthwort was formerly used to treat wounds, sores, and snake bite. It has been taken after childbirth to prevent infection and is also a potent menstruation-inducing herb and a (very dangerous) abortifacient. A decoction was taken to encourage healing of ulcers. Birthwort has also been used for asthma and bronchitis.
Birthwort illustrates the fact that though a plant is natural, this has no bearing on its safety. Aristolochic acid (present within birthwort) is a kidney toxin that induces kidney failure and cancer within the kidneys and urinary tract. However, the slow rate of development of symptoms has meant that in the past no connection was made between these kidney symptoms and the herb.
These toxic effects apply to birthwort and all Aristolochia species that contain aristolochic acid. Kidney failure and death from aristolochic acid is relatively rare in the West but is “reaching potentially epidemic proportions in the East,” according to research published in Taiwan in 2013. Many species of Aristolochia continue to be used in Oriental herbal medicine in countries such as China, Japan, and Taiwan. All species of Aristolochia are banned in most Western countries.
Under no circumstance use birthwort or any Aristolochia species as medicines.