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Contrayerba

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Contrayerba - Other Names, Past and Present

Afrikaans: smelterbossie (lit. 'smelter's bush')
Chiapas: selmuch
Puebla: acsisilics (Totonac dialect variant)
Veracruz: fall-very (pronounced 'fhal-vahree')
Yucatan: yana / ixkambalhaw / kambahau / kambajan / kanbalhau
Mayan: xkambahau / xkampahaw / xkampalhau / x-kambajau (Quintana Roo variant)
San Luis Potosi: k'ubak k'wa' (Tenek dialect)
Guarani: tarope / fique / matagusanos / valda / walda
Tulpi: caapia
Chilean: sinapaya / chinapaya / chinaspaya / kinapaya
Bolivian: kellu kellu / anco anco
Spanish: contrayerba / contrayerva / resistencia / Avalos / dauda / daldal / contrahierba / cresta de gallo / cabaiahuache
English: contrayerba (adapted) / cockscomb / grass toad / leaf callus / frog hand / lion-frog's hand / crestilla
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Dorstenia brasiliensis / Dorstenia contrajerva / Flaveria bidentis / Trixis antimenorrhoea / Isoplexis canariensis / Aristolochia macruora (the latter four are unrelated to the former two, and are unrelated to each other; the last two being a probable type of contrayerba in the sense that it is employed in a similar way, or is possessed of similar properties to the first three herbs)

Contrayerba - Background and History

The name contrayerba refers to a number of various related and un-related plant species, most commonly found in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and some select parts of Spain. Various herb species which are referred to as contrayerba are often found growing in forested areas of Mexico, but more so in Central and South America. The plants may even thrive in some areas of the Amazon, although due to the sheer size of the area, there are as yet a number of interrelated and non-related species which may possess contreyerba-like properties that are yet to be accounted for in the known western taxon, but that may already have had some history of unrecorded enthnobotanical usage.



Because the term contrayerba is meant to describe medicinal qualities more so than any specific herb, it can be hard to describe herbs that have been employed as contrayerba. The most common sources for contrayerba however are Dorstenia brasiliensis and it's varietal Dorstenia contrajerva, or Flaveria bidentis, Trixis antimenorrhoea, and sometimes (albeit only rarely) Isoplexis canariensis. The species Dortensia are hardy plants that often grow in rocky soil, and have a penchant for even springing out of racks in rocks. Often found on the side of mountains or hills, it is characterised by broad, semi-transparent leaves that slightly resemble larger versions of the maple leaves, possessed of a number of visible veins and generally sporting a mottled green to yellow-green hue - the same colouration sported by its flowers. It is said that this variety of contrayerba, being most popular in South and Central America, is the most commonly employed contrayerba, playing a very strong and integral role in Pueblo, Anasazi, and general Mexican ethnobotanical practices.

The second source of contrayerba is the Flaveria bidentis - a genus of plants that belong to the Asteraceae (sunflower) family. Found throughout much of the Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa, these plants are often referred to as 'yellowtops' due to their distinctive yellow to golden-hued inflorescence. It is also known for its small, dark-green hued leaves. Measuring no more than three to four inches n length, it sports a rough, leathery texture and a slightly aromatic nature. It is said that this variant of contrayerba was employed by Mayan civilisations in lieu of plants from the Dortensia genus.

Other plant species which are employed as contrayerba include Trixis antimenorrhoea - a relatively obscure plant species said to belong to the Asteraceae family which may still be employed for the synthesis of some forms of prescription drugs, although due to its obscurity, not much is known as to the plant's current usage, only that it was ascribed as being a type of contrayerba in the past, said to have been employed by the Inca and the Toltec.

Another reputed source of contrayerba is the genus Isoplexis canariensis which belongs to the family Digitalis. This potentially dangerous and toxic herb is now considered rare, and is no longer so easily found in the wild. Endemic to the Canary Islands, the plant was once very prolific, and is highly distinctive for its unique inflorescence, which sported an uncanny shape (a very distinctive large 'upper lip' in contrast to relatively smaller flower petals beneath. The plant is notable for its palm-like fronds and for the penchant of its red-orange flowers to grow atop stalks, branching out in even mirrored pairs. Called the Canary Island foxglove, it is sometimes cultivated for horticultural and ornamental purposes, although such incidents are rare. While it is believed to be endemic to the Canary Islands, it may have also grown wild in Texcoco, Mexico. It is said that this variant of contrayerba was the herb of choice by most Aztecs and Olmec peoples.

The last type of contrayerba is said to be obtained from the Aristolochia macroura - a species climbing vine from the family Aristolochiaceae. Referred to often as the 'Dutchman's pipe', this relatively hardy plant grows to between ten to twelve feet in length and is known for its uniquely shaped flowers, which resemble gnarled, knobby, dun-brown, pale-pink, to dark-violet shaped 'horns' or pipes, and for its evergreen, somewhat velvety-textured leaves. Like the Isoplexis canariensis, Aristolochia macuroura is sometimes considered endangered and is now only rarely seen thriving in the wild. This variety of contrayerba may have been employed by the Incans alongside Trixis antimenorrhoea. Due to the sheer diversity of sources for contrayerba, there can truly be no 'true' contrayerba plant, the closest to any 'true' species being Dorstenia brasiliensis. In spite of the various sources for contrayerba, when employed for ethnobotanical purposes, they all possess the same medicinal attributes - at least, in the eyes of the ancient peoples who employed them. It must be noted that two to three of the five types of contrayerva and known to be poisonous (namely, Aristolochia macuroura / Isoplexis canariensis / and Flabveria bidentis), and their employment is strongly discouraged, with the usage of the latter only under extreme caution or with the proper guidance of an expert herbalist or traditional yerberos or cuanderos (shamanic healers) who have a known and long-standing reputation for employing the herbs.

Contrayerba - Common / Popular Uses

Regardless of the source of contrayerba, within the ethnobotanical and traditional applications of the herb, all variants are employed (and are believed to possesses) a similar capacity to help detoxify the body. The very name itself is an amalgam of two Hispanic words contra (to counter) and yerba (herb) [lit. 'herb that counters'], denoting its long-standing reputation as a remedy for poison. It is worthy of note however that only one to two species of contrayerba-resource has a documented history of use aside from ascriptions and folkloric application.

The first of these two species being the Dorstenia brasiliensis / contrajerva which was recorded as being among one of the most integral medicinal plants for the majority of Central and South America's indigenous population, with the earliest accounts being from Spanish missionaries, botanists, and adventurers dating from the mid-to-late-16th century. [1] The leaves were believed to possess the strongest medicinal constituents, and were generally decocted although accounts of its being dried and later being simply allowed to infuse in hot water is also recorded, although the roots of the plant were also employed medicinally. Its primary function seemed to be as a remedy for snakebite, a cure for rabies, and as a general antidote for all forms of poisoning. [2] The leaf, whether fresh or dried, was often decocted or infused strongly, sweetened with honey, and administered to the ailing person every hour. It possesses a highly tannic, bitter taste, which is why it was often sweetened with honey and, later, molasses, to make it more palatable. Application often involves both internal consumption and external application of the decoction to onto the affected area - more commonly done for individuals who have been bitten by mad dogs, foxes, wolves, and large felids as it prevents any possible infection or the onset of sepsis. When employed for snakebite, it is often only taken internally, although washing the affected area with a decoction of the leaves, roots, or more commonly, a combination of the two, is not at all uncommon as it helps to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. [3]

The employment of contrayerba was adopted from the Native populace by the colonisers which peopled their land, although it is interesting to note that the colonisers only knew of one variety of contrayerba - the D. Brasiliensis / contrayerva, while other areas steadfastly maintained their secrecy of other herbs which could be employed in like manner. In a similar light, the Mayan and Pueblo cultures which employed D. Brasiliensis / contrayerva may have even perhaps misled the colonisers to the employment of another herb which was wholly unrelated to any of their contrayerba sources. The contrayerba that soon spread throughout much of the Hispanic populated colonies and the upper class was prescribed as a stimulant, a tonic, a febrifuge, and a sudorific - all properties which many contrayerba varieties share - although writer Virgil J Vogel in his work 'American Indian Medicine' suggested that this herb was not among the now known contrayerba species.



A plain infusion of the root is employed as a remedy for spasms, dyspepsia, tremors, and chills. This was often combined with another type of contrayerba Aristolachia maxima / Aristolachia macroura, which was often powdered. It must be noted that the efficiency of this combination is doubtful, as the plant species under the genus Aristolachia can be toxic. The sole use of the roots persisted until the early 19th century, where it was given as a cure for dysentery, indigestion, smallpox, and mumps.

The use of contrayerba spread to the general medicinal practice of the colonisers by the latter part of the sixteenth century, and contrayerba sourced from Dorstenia brasiliensis was soon attributed other medicinal properties, among them the capacity to treat rashes, boils, and tremors. Its usage had somewhat spread to Europe in select circles, primarily in the then still burgeoning pharmaceutical industry of the apothecaries, as a remedy for fevers, rheumatism, ague, and chronic bouts of diarrhoea. By the eighteenth century, most European applications for contratyerba veered towards its use as a primary treatment for various feminine complaints, among them menstrual cramps, irregular menstruation, and as an aide for facilitating childbirth. It was also during this time that the dried and powdered leaves of D. Brasiliensis soon came to be used as a remedy for dropsy and even anxiety, although its efficiency to treat either two seem dubious at best.

The use of D. brasiliensis / contrayerva persisted in Westernised areas until well into the mid-1800s, where decoctions and specialised preparations of the plant where employed to treat everything from fevers, ocular diseases (specifically diseases of the cornea), gangrene, dermal problems, angina, tumours, smallpox, and even syphilis. Modern applications for this variant of contrayerba still exists in the present day, albeit with a very limited occurrence, specifically only in areas where the plant thrives, especially in Mexico and its surrounding territories.

The second source of contrayerba, Flaveria bidentis, is favoured by the Mayan civilisations for various medicinal applications. Noted for its slightly aromatic nature, it is employed in a similar manner to D. brasiliensis / contrayerva, and, if infused or decocted, can be drunk as a remedy for coughs, fever, and flu. Mild infusions (in dried form) or decoctions (in fresh form) of the herb is also taken as a digestif and an appetite stimulant much like D. brasiliensis, and, like the former, is also partaken of and highly valued as an antidote for a variety of poisons ranging from snakebite to insect bites, although no extant account report its usage as a treatment for rabies unlike D. brasiliensis. [4] Very potent decoctions of the herb have also been employed as an emmenagogue, anthelmintic, and as a diaphoretic. Perhaps the most unique applications of F. bidentis is in its use as a poultice for highly infected and festering wounds. It is said that the leaves of the plant, when crushed and mixed with rock salt, is an excellent means to treat wounds that have been infested with maggots (although from the ingredients alone, it would have no doubt been a very painful remedy). [5] It is interesting to note that the flowers of F. bidentis, otherwise useless for medicinal employ, is instead used as a dyeing agent for the treatment of various types of fabric, and even leather. There is very little usage of the herb outside of its enthnobotanical applications, although it is mentioned in several herbals from the Regency Period up until the Victorian Era, suggesting, if not a degree of usage, then at least a familiarity with F. bidentis and its ethnobotanical applications. Other than its rare mention in some herbals dating from the 17th until the mid-18th century, there is very little usage of F. bidentis within the pharmacopoeia of the West, although it can be argued that it may have played quite a lifesaving role for the colonials of Mesoamerica, where its usage, to this day, still persists among the still extant yerberos and local shamans who still practice their old ways.

The third type of contrayerba is derived from the singularly mysterious plant Trixis antimenorrhoea, of which very little extant records of use exist today. The plant has been credited by some herbals dating from the mid-1700s as a type of contrayerba favoured by the Inca and Toltec civilisations, although how it was employed and for what purposes still remains a mystery to this day. [6]

The fourth source for contrayerba comes from the flowering plant Isoplexis canariensis - a species of plant native to the Canary Islands, some parts of South America, a small part of Mexico, and a select part of Asia. This gaudy flowering plant is now relatively rare, and is considered a prize among horticulturists. The roots of the plant were traditionally employed by the Aztecs (especially those of the Texcoco groups) and the Olmec as their own variant of contrayerba. A decoction of the fresh root, or an infusion of the ground, dried one was drunk daily prior to meals as a regular tonic which was said to aid in digestion, help with the assimilation of nutrients, and boost one's immunity against disease. Unlike the other varieties of contrayerba, I. canariensis is rarely employed as an antidote for poison, although it is strongly favoured for the treatment of various contagious diseases. It was the choice beverage for the treatment of mumps, measles, and smallpox, although it has the penchant for worsening the disease prior to the onset of healing (which is actually nothing more than hastening the process of healing). [7] Outside of its internal applications, it can also be applied topically to treat ulcerations and sores, and, akin to F. bidentis, it is an excellent remedy for infected or gangrenous wounds. [8] While the roots are its most commonly employed constituent, the leaves and the flowers themselves have no known medicinal value. They are, however, highly toxic and may have been employed ethnobotanically as a primitive form of poison.

The last source for contrayerba comes from the Aristolochia macroura - a gaudy ornamental plant that is found throughout much of the Americas, some parts of Eastern Europe, and a great part of Mainland China. Not generally a proper contrayerba, it was employed by the Europeans and Americans who had heard of the herb as an alternative to, or a variant of contrayerba. Much like the majority of contrayerba varieties, A. macruoura is reputed to be abhorrent to snakes, so much so that it was often employed to deter snakes and other reptiles. [9] A decoction of its leaves, bark, and gaudy flowers was drunk as a remedy for snakebite. Milder decoctions of the same constituents were given as an anthelmentic, as an emmenagogue, and as a general disinfectant for various topical maladies. [10] A. macruoura is also employed in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a remedy for arthritis and edema, and was often given to women prior to delivery to help ease the expelling of the placenta - a practice which it shares with many European ethnobotanical applications. [11] The herb is, unfortunately, toxic, and its employment for medicinal purposes is not advised. The whole plant (and all species related to it) contains aristolochic acid, a highly lethal substance which attacks the livers and the kidneys and is known to cause acute kidney failure. Aristolochic acid is also a carcinogen, and may cause several forms of renal, oral, and urotehelial cancers if employed too freely or taken regularly. To this day, it is said to still be in use by some cuanderos and yerberos in Pueblo societies, while, in the past, it was believed to have been the favoured contrayerba of the Mazatec peoples.

The use of contrayerba regardless of the variants is, nowadays, exceedingly rare, with only a few remaining individuals (particularly traditional herbalists and healers) who still continue to employ it in as medicinal sense. It, nevertheless, still plays a strong role in the traditional medicine of various Native American peoples, and in some select European, Eurasian, and Asiatic cultures.

Contrayerba - Esoteric / Magickal Uses

With a very long and coloured history of ethnobotanical usage, it is not surprising that contrayerba (especially the D. brasiliensis, F. bidentis, and A. macroura varieties) play a very strong and integral role in the shamanic practices of various First Peoples. It is commonly carried upon one's person, or otherwise dried, powdered, and placed in a medicine pouch as a hunter's amulet. It is said to protect the wearer from mishaps and to make one immune to snakebite, if at all snakes will go near the person, as it is said that the plant possesses magickal powers that dispel snakes, other reptiles, and all sorts of dread animals. It is also incorporated into fixing spells, warding spells, aphrodisiac potions, and love philtres, although the exact how-to's of the spellworking remains vague and closely guarded by the yerberos or cuanderos who employ it. [12] It is among the many herbs employed during a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, as it is believed to not only purify the body of negativity, but to even cure the body of various ailments while participating in the ritual. [13] The more toxic types of contrayerba are also employed by shamans in their hallucinogenic mixtures, if not taken by itself as an entheogen in its own right (albeit one which possesses very negligible hallucinogenic properties). There is very little, if any, applications for contrayerba in the Western sphere of ceremonial or shamanic magick, although they may be incorporated into one's practice, as is the wont of some neo-shamanic schools of thought.

Contrayerba - Safety Notes

While some varieties of contrayerba are considerably safe to use, a couple of the above-mentioned variants are highly toxic or may contain compounds which can be detrimental to health. As a general precaution, pregnant and nursing women are not advised to partake of any variant of contrayerba in order to avoid possible complications. Children below the age of ten, and elderly individuals should likewise not be given any variant of contrayerba lest it cause adverse reactions that may compromise their health. Because contrayerba can be sourced from a variety of plants, it is important to always exercise caution when partaking of remedies unless it is prepared by an expert herbalist. While the plants have had a long history of employment as antidotes for poison, it should not be employed as the only means of antidote. If one is bitten by a snake or any other poisonous animal, it is best to seek immediate professional help and not rely solely on contrayerba's theriac-properties.

Contrayerba - References:

[1] [2] [3] http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorstenia_brasiliensis

[4-5] http://arbolesdelchaco.blogspot.com/2011/01/contrayerba.html

[6] http://www.kew.org/science/tropamerica/boliviacompositae/genera/Trixis.htm

[7 - 8] http://ip.aaas.org/tekindex.nsf/2a9c4e44835b04ea85256a7200577a64/fa74794487a72e6885256bd800706df3/Body/M1?OpenElement

[9] [10] [11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristolochia

[12 - 13] http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/5333926/Protegete-contra-la-mala-onda-y-gualichos-con-este-yuyo.html

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2014

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