Aristolochia rotunda – round-leafed birthwort

A bizarre-looking plant with a brownish-purple flap over the flower, which makes it both hard to photograph and slightly sinister. As soon as she saw it in the ditch where I found it, Chaiselongue said ‘That looks poisonous’.  Maybe it’s the colour – that yellowy purple-brown.

It’s  my plant of the week – because I’ve never seen one before.  Not even in those days when I had to take my turn with the school vasculum and collect plants over the weekend, ready for dissection and identification in the double-Botany slot on Monday afternoons.  Not surprising: there are related species in Britain, but this one is Mediterranean, as this map (courtesy of the French site Tela Botanica) shows.

Distribution of Aristolochia rotunda in France

So, to the names.  Why birthwort?  Aristolochia comes from the Greek aristos (best – I know, I don’t agree either) and locheia (childbirth), because the herb was apparently used to assist childbirth by speeding contractions, probably by analogy with the flower (a calyx, i.e. sepals, the plant has no petals) which has a long tube with a seed at the end. Rotunda for the shape of the leaves.  Now of the three plants I’ve featured so far the first (viola) symbolised love, the second (garlic) health and sex, and now birth: clearly we’ve turned to plants to help us with the major experiences of life.  All three are associated with signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Taurus and Libra, respectively) – a reminder of the outlook which saw the shapes  of the natural world, the heavenly bodies and human wellbeing all as part of the same fabric. I am finding that investigating plants and their names is an express route back to the middle ages and the classical world.

Aristolochia is well known in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which suggests that the genus came from Asia originally, though it was also known to the Greek Theophrastus.  It was introduced to North America by Europeans. However, plants of this genus seem pretty unhealthy and have been linked to renal cancers (see here).

It is apparently pollinated by small midges which, attracted by the colour and scent, enter the tube and can’t get out because there are downward-facing hairs inside which only relax after pollination.  It’s a feisty plant.

I was more interested to read that it is the only host plant (food source) for the caterpillars of Zerynthia polyxena, which is a stunning butterfly.  I suppose that’s the caterpillar you can see in this picture.  Eating the leaves makes them poisonous to birds.

So to sum up: avoid eating it, even if your Chinese herbalist recommends it – unless you’re being attacked by  birds.

Coming up in a post soon – a book that was in print for 1500 years and two meanings of a snake’s name.

Jazz seems relatively poor in songs about childbirth – I’m sure you can think of reasons as well as I can.  So to r&b, with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and their ‘Annie had a baby’ from 1954.

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8 Comments

Filed under Aristolochia

8 responses to “Aristolochia rotunda – round-leafed birthwort

  1. Two comments from me. First, I see you think it was called “best childbirth” because of its shape. That leads me to wonder if there is any reason you suspect that it doesn’t speed contractions. Maybe it still does, if taken in the right way in the right quantity. Those old herbal healers were often right. Not that I would encourage anyone to experiment with it now; I’m just wondering why you think it’s the shape that accounts for the name.

    Second, I had never heard of Hank Ballard, and that song really rings my bells. I looked him up to learn more. How sad that he didn’t get credit for the Twist in the popular imagination! I’ve always heard it attributed to Chubby Checker. I lived in New Orleans for twelve years and developed a great love for this kind of music while living there. This takes me right back. I will now go to Youtube and make all of his Favorites there.

  2. Yes, I think it may well have an effect on labour – I was just following my impressions (which may well be wrong) that Chinese and Greek herbalists worked from their theories first, rather than starting with experiment and observation as we might today. So I suppose they said to themselves ‘everything in the universe is connected, so anything with a womb shape relates somehow to all wombs, so let’s try this plant out’. I don’t know for sure, and that’s one thing I hope I’ll know more about after a year of this blog if I last out! And the problem with carcinogens is the disease develops later so without a controlled study you wouldn’t know it was a poison.
    Next music will be from Harlem, but there’s sure to be some New Orleans gumbo soon.

  3. Ceridwen

    Ah birthwort! Many years ago, when we lived in Oxford, we went searching for this rare species which was said to grow around the ruins of Godstow nunnery. We soon recognised those characteristic arrow-shaped leaves in a damp ditch. Its association with the nunnery (the place of captivity for Fair Rosamund) may not be co-incidental since the (not-so)cloistered inmates would tend and treat the sick and needy, which may well have included women in childbirth, or girls with unwelcome pregnancies. In addition, from what we now know of the activities of members of religious orders they may at times have needed recourse to the plant’s medicinal properties on their own account. It would surely have be cultivated or nurtured as a part of their pharmacological resource and there it remains long after nunnery has been in ruins. See http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/222754

    • Liked the Gothic ambience of the Godstow nunnery picture. I imagine that the species you found might be A. clematitis, with stalked leaves and smaller yellow flowers, which is found in Britain and known simply as Birthwort (my reference is Geoffrey Grigson’s Dictionary of English plant names). I’m going to feature this plant soon. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Pingback: Aristolochia clematitis – birthwort | an entangled bank

  5. The use of Aristolochia in childbirth is a result of the Doctrine of Signatures the notion that a plant looks like the condition it will treat.

    It is based on the arrogant assumption that the world was created purely for mankind’s benefit so everything else has some relation to our species.

    Aristolochia is extremely dangerous and has been shown to cause both kidney failure and urethral cancer.

    There are no records of causes of death from the past but death in childbirth was very common.

    • I agree with your warning, and I am concerned that many alternative medicine/herbal sites I came across underplay or don’t mention the risks. Bottle labels may be regulated, but not the net. I’m glad you mention the Doctrine of Signatures – had forgotten what it was called.

  6. That settles it then! Hooray for LoJ for attracting that comment to make the record clear. The Doctrine of Signatures. Got it.

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