Endodeca serpentaria (L.) Raf.

Virginia Snakeroot

Endodeca serpentaria plant

Family - Aristolochiaceae

Habit - Rhizomatous perennial forb.

Stems - Ascending, to 60 cm, usually appearing zigzag, glabrous or hairy.

Leaves - Alternate, petiolate, simple, entire. Petioles to 3.5 cm. Leaf blades 5-14 cm long, lanceolate to oblong-ovate or narrowly triangular, sharply pointed, cordate or arrowhead-shaped at the base, the main veins pinnate above a somewhat palmate base, the undersurface sometimes hairy.

Endodeca serpentaria leafLeaf.

Inflorescence - Flowers solitary at the tips of short, scaly stalks produced near the base of the aerial stem, often submerged beneath a thin layer of soil or leaf detritus.

Flowers - Zygomorphic with a well-developed calyx tube, this 1-3 cm long, hairy, hooked or S-shaped, expanded at both ends, purple to brown above a white to tan base, the lobes ascending to spreading, unequal, shallow, broadly triangular, purple and glabrous on the inner (upper) surface. Stamens 6, the filaments fused with the style into a column. Ovary with 3 locules. Stigmas appearing as a low, irregular, 3-lobed crown at the tip of the stylar column.

Endodeca serpentaria flowerFlower.

Endodeca serpentaria flower2

Fruits - Capsules 0.8-1.8 cm long, globose, 6-ribbed, dehiscing longitudinally. Seeds 4-5 mm long, concave and with a longitudinal ridge on one side, rounded on the other, ovate in outline, brown, with a lighter pattern of wrinkled ridges and finely pebbled bumps.

Endodeca serpentaria fruitFruit.

Flowering - May - July.

Habitat - Rich or rocky woods, thickets, ravines, slopes.

Origin - Native to U.S.

Other info. - This small species can be found throughout south and central Missouri, but is apparently absent from the northwestern third of the state. It is common throughout most of the eastern U.S. The plant is often overlooked because it grows low to the ground and the flowers are rarely seen except by deliberate, close examination. Careful removal of the leaf litter around the base of the plant will reveal the interesting flowers.

The sap of Aristolochia species is yellowish and bitter in taste, and contains compounds, such as aristolochic acid, implicated in mutagenesis and other severely adverse effects. Traditionally this species has been used to treat toothache, fevers, colds, rheumatism, worms, snakebites, and to expel the placenta following childbirth. However, use of Aristolochia-containing preparations such as herbal weight-loss supplements has been responsible for over 100 cases of kidney failure in European countries, and may also lead to liver cancer. Aristolochic acid contains a nitro group within its structure, which is an unusual feature in a natural product, and which is well known to medicinal chemists for its propensity to impart toxicity to compounds containing it.

Bruised plant parts emit a faint, turpentine-like aroma, whereas the flowers of some species sometimes emit an odor similar to the scent of rotten meat. Pollination in most species involves small flies which become trapped overnight in the calyx tubes until stiff, downwardly pointing hairs in the narrower portion of the calyx tube relax, releasing the insect. The insect, which has been coated with pollen, goes on to repeat the process with another flower. The leaves of Missouri species are a principal larval food source for the eastern pipevine swallowtail butterfly, and it is not uncommon to find these larvae on partially eaten plant specimens. At one time A. serpentaria was widely collected but it will grow in cultivation and should be left alone in the wild.

An older name for this species is Aristolochia serpentaria.

Photographs taken in Brown Summit, NC., 5-18-02.


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