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Chapter: Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry : Drugs Containing Alkaloids

Rauwolfia consists of dried roots of Rauwolfia serpentina Benth., belonging to family Apocynaceae.






Sarpagandha, Chandrika; Chootachand; Indian snake root.


Biological Source


Rauwolfia consists of dried roots of Rauwolfia serpentina Benth., belonging to family Apocynaceae.


Geographical Source


It is an erect, evergreen, small shrub native to the Orient and occurs from India to Sumatra. It is also found in Burma, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Paki-stan and Java. In India it occurs in the sub-Himalayan tracts from Sirhind eastwards to Assam, especially in Dehradun, Siwalik range, Rohelkhand, Gorakhpur ascending to 1,300 m, east and west ghats of Tamil Nadu, in Bihar (Patna and Bhagalpur), Konkan, Karnataka and Bengal.


Cultivation and Collection


Rauwolfia grows in tropical forests at an altitude of 1,200– 1,300 m at temperature 10–40°C. There should be enough rain or irrigation for its cultivation. The soil should be acidic (pH 4–6), clayey and manure is applied for better crop. Propagation is done by planting seeds, root cuttings or stem cuttings. Better drug is obtained when the propaga-tion is carried out with fresh seeds. The plants should be protected from nematodes, fungus and Mosaic virus.


The drug is collected mainly from wild plants. Roots and rhizomes are dug out in October–November when the plant roots are two to four years old. The aerial parts and roots are separated. The roots are washed and dried in air. The roots containing moisture up to 12% should be protected from light. Seasonal variation, genetic differences, geographic location, improper handling and drying, and other factors account for percentage differences in alkaloid amount. Rauwolfia should be packaged and stored in well-closed containers in a cool, dry place that is secure against insect attack.




The roots and rhizomes are almost identical in external characters. The drug occurs in cylindrical or slightly tapering, tortuous pieces, 2–10 cm long, 5–22 mm in diameter. The roots are rarely branched. Rootlets, 0.5–1 mm in diameter, are rare. The outer surface is greyish-yellow, light-brown or brown. Young pieces contain slight wrinkles while old pieces have longitudinal ridges. Circular scars of root-lets are present. Bark exfoliation is present in old samples leaving behind patches of exposed wood. The fracture is short. A narrow, yellowish-brown bark and a dense pale yellow wood are present on the smooth transverse surface at both the ends. Pieces of rhizome closely resemble the root but may be identified by a small central pith. They are attached to them with small pieces of aerial stem. Slight odour is felt in recently dried drug which decreases with age; taste is bitter.


                 Root and twig of Rauwolfia serpentina



Transverse section of the root shows a stratified cork, which is divided, into two to eight alternating zones. It consists of one to seven layers of smaller and radially narrower, suberised, nonlignified cells alternating with one to three layers of larger radially broader, lignified cells. The phelloderm is composed of about ten to twelve layers of tangentially elongated to isodiametric, cellulosic parenchymatous cells. Cells of secondary cortex are parenchymatous and contain starch grains, simple and compound (two to four components), spherical with a distinct hilum in the form of a split. Phloem is narrow and consists of parenchyma with scattered sieve tissue; parenchyma alternate with broader medullary rays composed of large cells and usually two to four cells wide. Xylem is wide, entirely lignified and usually shows two to five annual rings. Medullary rays, one to five cells wide, contain starch grains and alternate with secondary xylem consisting of vessels, tracheids, fibres and parenchyma. Xylem vessels have pitted thickening.

        Transverse section of Rauwolfi a root

Chemical Constituents


Rauwolfia contains about 0.7–2.4% total alkaloidal bases from which more than 80 alkaloids have been isolated. The prominent alkaloids isolated from the drug are reserpine, rescinnamine, ψ-reserpine, rescidine, raubescine and deserpidine. The other alkaloidal components are ajmalinine, ajmaline, ajmalicine (8-yohimbine), serpentine, serpentinine, tetrahydroreserpine, raubasine, reserpinine, isoajamaline and yohambinine.


The other substances present are phytosterols, fatty acids, unsaturated alcohols and sugars.




Rauwolfia in used as hypnotic, sedative and antihypertensive. It is specific for insanity, reduces blood pressure and cures pain due to affections of the bowels. It is given in labours to increase uterine contractions and in certain neuropsychiatric disorders. Ajmaline, which has pharmacological properties similar to those of quinidine, is marketed in Japan for the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.

Reserpine is a white or pale buff to slightly yellow, odourless, crystalline powder that darkens slowly when exposed to light and rapidly when in solution. Reserpine is an antihypertensive and tranquilizer. Rescinnamine is the methyl reserpate ester of 3,4,5-trimethoxy cinnamic acid. The usual antihypertensive dose of rescinnamine is 500 μg, two times a day. Higher doses may cause serious mental depression. Deserpidine is 11-des-methoxyreserpine. It is a wide-range tranquilizer and antihypertensive and is free from the side effects.


Marketed Products


It is one of the ingredients of the preparations known as Confido, Lukol, Serpina (Himalaya Drug Company) and Sarpagandhan bati (Baidyanath).


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