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The name Bistort (Latin bis = twice, torta = twisted) bears reference to the twice-twisted character of the root-stock, an old local name, 'Twice-Writhen,' being a literal translation of the Latin. Its twisted, creeping nature is also the origin of the names Snakeroot, Adderwort and Snakeweed. It was at one time called Serpentaria, Columbrina, Dracunculus and Serpentary Dragonwort, and has been thought to be the Oxylanathum Britannicum and Limonium of the ancients.
Externally, the root-stock is black, but internally is coloured red and is rich in tannic and gallic acids, which makes it a powerful astringent and has enabled it to be used in tanning leather, when procurable in sufficient quantity.
The root-stock, as it appears in commerce, is about 2 inches long and 3/5 inch broad, twice bent, as in the letter S, more or less annulate, bearing a few slender roots, otherwise smooth, reddish brown internally, dark purplish or blackish brown externally, depressed or channelled on the upper surface, convex and with depressed root-scars below with a thick bark surrounding a ring of small woody wedges, which encloses a pith equal in thickness to the bark.
The drug has an astringent and starchy taste, but no odour.
Besides being one of the strongest vegetable astringents among our native plants, the roots contain much starch, and after being steeped in water and subsequently roasted have been largely consumed in Russia, Siberia and Iceland in time of scarcity and are said after such preparation to be nutritious and a useful article of food, bread having been made of the root-flour of this and another Siberian species of Polygonum.
Where established, the Bistort becomes often a noxious weed in low-lying pastures, frequently forming large patches difficult to extirpate on account of its creeping root-stock.
---Description---A number of tuberous roots are produced from the S-shaped root-stock from the upper side of which spring directly large oval leaves, with heart-shaped bases, of a bluish-green colour on the upper side and ash-grey, tinged with purple, underneath, both leaf-stalks and blades being about 6 inches long. The upper part of the leafstalk is winged. The flower-stalk, 12 to 18 inches high, is very erect, slender, unbranched, and bears leaves smaller than the root-leaves and few in number, broader at their base and on very short stalks. The stems terminate in a dense, cylindrical spike of striking flesh-coloured flowers, which consist of five coloured sepals, eight stamens and an ovary with two to three styles. The flowers are grouped in twos, one flower complete, the other with normal stamens, but only a rudimentary ovary. The styles of the complete flower do not mature and become receptive of pollen from visiting insects, till their stamens have shed their pollen and fallen, cross-fertilization thus being ensured. The flowers are produced in May and June and again in September and October. The fruit is three-seeded, the ripe seeds are small, brown and shining. Birds commonly feed upon the seeds, which can be employed to fatten poultry.
---Cultivation---The plant may be propagated by division of the root-stock, in early autumn or spring. Bistort is sometimes used to ornament moist parts of the rockery and shady border. When grown in bold masses, it is a handsome and attractive plant.
When it has a corner in the kitchen garden, it is well to pluck it now and then, even when it is not immediately required for culinary purposes, as the plant has a strong tendency to disappear.
---Constituents---Bistort root has never been carefully analysed, but it is known to contain about 20 per cent. of tannin and a large amount of starch, as well as some gallic acid and gum. Its virtues are extracted by water and its decoction becomes inky black on the addition of a persalt of iron and with gelatine it forms a precipitate. Red colouring matter is also present.
---Medicinal Action and Uses---Bistort root is one of the strongest astringent medicines in the vegetable kingdom and highly styptic and may be used to advantage for all bleedings, whether external or internal and wherever astringency is required. Although its use has greatly been superseded by other astringents of foreign origin, it is of proved excellence in diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera and all bowel complaints and in haemorrhages from the lungs and stomach, and is a most effectual remedy for bleeding from the nose and exceedingly useful in dealing with haemorrhoids. It is used - as a medicine, injection and gargle - in mucous discharges, as well as for haemorrhages.
A teaspoonful of the powdered root, in a cupful of boiling water, may be drunk freely as required.
The decoction, often also used, is made from 1 OZ. of the bruised root boiled in 1 pint of water. One tablespoonful of this is given every two hours in passive bleedings and for simple diarrhoea. The decoction is also useful as an injection in profuse menstruation and in leucorrhoea and is a useful wash in ulcerated mouth and gums, and as a gargle. It is also used as a lotion to ulcers attended with a discharge.
Bistort is considered valuable for diabetes, given in conjunction with tonics, and has itself tonic action.
The older herbalists considered both the leaves and roots to have 'a powerful faculty to resist poison.' Combined with the bitter flag root (calamus), the root was used to cure intermittent fever and ague. Green (Universal Herbal, 1832) cites its frequent use in intermittent fever, both alone and with gentian, 3 drachms daily being administered.
It was used, dried, and powdered on cuts and wounds to stop bleeding. The decoction in wine, made from the powder, was drunk freely 'to stay internal bleedings and fluxes,' and was considered 'available against ruptures, burstings and bluises from falls and blows'- also to 'help jaundice, expel the venom of the plague, smallpox, measles or other infectious disease, driving it out by sweating.' A distilled water of the leaves and roots was used to wash any part stung or bitten by a venomous creature, or to wash running sores or ulcers; also as a gargle in sore throat and to harden spongy gums, attended with looseness of teeth and soreness of the mouth. Gerard stated that the root would have this effect, 'being holden in the mouth for a certaine space and at sundry times.' He also states that 'the juice of Bistort put into the nose prevaileth much against the disease called Polybus.'
The root was also employed externally as a poultice.
The powdered leaves were employed to kill worms in children.
In Salmon's Herbal the following preparations are given, with their uses:
---Dosage---The root is generally administered in powder, the dose being from 1/4 to 1/2drachm in water.
A fluid extract is also prepared from the root, the dose being 1/2 to 1 drachm.
A decoction is also much employed.
SOME MODERN HERBAL RECIPES IN WHICH BISTORT IS AN INGREDIENT---Infants' Diarrhcea Syrup---
1 OZ. Bistort root, 1/4 oz. Cloves, 1/2 oz. Marshmallow root, 1/4 oz. Angelica powder, 1/4 oz. best Ginger powder.
Bruise the root and cloves small. Add 1 1/2 pint boiling water and simmer down to a pint. Then pour boiling mixture upon the powder, mix well and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to get cold, strain and add lump sugar, sufficient to form a syrup, boil up again, skim, and when cold bottle for use.
This may be given to children in a little Raspberry Leaf Tea, 3 to 6 teaspoonfuls daily, according to age of child. If bleeding from bowels, or flux, a tea of Cranesbill is recommended instead of Raspberry Tea. (SKELTON) .
Mix the powders thoroughly and then form into a stiff paste with treacle. Preserve in a jar and take a small quantity (about the size of a bean) three times a day. When constipation is present, 1/4 oz. Turkey rhubarb powder may be added to the other powdered roots. For the blind piles, 1/2 oz. Barberry bark should be added.
Pile Ointment should be applied at the same time, made as follows: 1/2 oz. Bistort root, 1/2 oz. Cranesbill herb, cut up fine.
Simmer gently for an hour with 2 OZ. lard and 2 OZ. mutton suet. Strain through a coarse cloth and squeeze out as much strength as possible. Add 1 OZ. Olive oil and mix well. Allow to cool gradually. This is equally good for Chapped Hands, Sore Lips, etc. (SKELTON.)
---Decoction for Piles---
Bruise the roots, add 2 quarts of water and boil 20 minutes, then add the herbs, Cloves and Cinnamon and boil 10 minutes longer. Strain and sweeten with brown sugar.
Dose, a wineglassful four times a day. Also use Celandine (Pilewort) Ointment. (Medical Herbalist.)
---Gargle for Ulcerated Tonsils---
Use as gargle, or spray the throat.
---Compound Bistort Wash---
Infuse the powder in 8 oz. of boiling water let it remain until cold, strain the liquid off clear, add the tincture and use freely morning, noon and night.
In inflamed mucous discharges from the ears, nose, vagina, urethra or any other part, this wash is exceedingly useful. (National Botanic Pharmacopoeia.)
Put the whole into a 12-OZ, bottle and fill with distilled water. Dose, 1 tablespoonful every four hours after meals. (Medical Herbalist.)
CULINARY USE---Recipe for Bistort Pudding---
The Herb Pudding still eaten in Cumberland and Westmorland, where Bistort is common in moist meadows and is also cultivated, is a very wholesome dish and very suitable in May, when ordinary green vegetables used to be scarce.
The chief constituents are Bistort shoots and Nettles, and the younger and fresher these greens are the more satisfactory is the resultant food. Allow about 1 1/2 lb. of Bistort to 1 lb. of Nettles. A few leaves of Black Currant and Yellow Dock may be added and a sprig of Parsley. Wash the vegetables thoroughly (in salt and water in the last rinsing), then chop them fairly fine. Place them in a bowl and mix in about a teacupful of barley (washed and soaked), half a teacupful of oatmeal, salt and pepper to flavour, and if liked, a bunch of chives mixed. Boil the whole in a bag for about 2 1/2 hours, to allow the barley to get thoroughly cooked. The bag should be tied firmly, for while the greens shrink, the barley swells. Turn out into a very hot bowl, add a lump of butter and a beaten egg: the heat of the turned-out pudding is sufficient to cook the egg.
---Other Species---About forty species of Polygonum are recorded as having been medicinally employed. A number of species yield blue or yellow dyestuffs.
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