Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder is a beautiful, native perennial that begins to blossom in the early spring. It is not only an attractive wildflower, it also has a rich history in folk medicine where it is often referred to as "Abcess Root". Some of its other common names include: Creeping Jacob's Ladder, Spreading Jacob's Ladder, False Jacob's Ladder, American Greek Valerian, Blue bells, and Sweatroot. It is known as Jacob's Ladder because of the shape of its leaves- they branch out into the shape of a ladder.

The Jacob's Ladder pictured with this article was found in the deep shade in the woods near my home on April 8, 2009. It can typically be found growing in the deep shade throughout most of the Eastern United States from early spring to the mid-summer.

The roots have long been used as a herbal medicine- many 19th century pharmacology books refer to its uses as an aid for tuberculosis (often called "consumption"), venomous snake bites, as a diuretic (which would explain the common name of "Sweat Root"), and as a treatment for bronchitis.

In the Eclectic Medical Journal, Volume 67 published by the Ohio State Eclectic MedicalAssociation in 1907, Dr. John Albert Burnett wrote an article regarding an effective use that he had discovered for treating bronchitis using a mixture containing Polemonium reptens root. He wrote:

According to my experience, bronchitis is a hard disease to treat successfully when the ordinary course of treatment is followed that is usually recommended by most writers on this disease. In my opinion the best general all-round treatment for just any and all cases of bronchitis is a mixture of amphiachyris dracunculoides (broom weed) and polemonium reptans(abscess root). In speaking of amphiachyris dracunculoides, Dr. J. M. Massie says: " I have been using this agent for the last six years in a climate where, on account of the sudden changes of temperature, we are subject to all kinds of diseases of the air passages and of the alimentary canal, and I am sure that amphiachyris excels all other agents in the treatment of these diseases. In combination with polemonium and lycopus I get the very best results. If I have a case of bronchitis, I use amphiachyris and polemonium. If a case of bronchitis where there has been some hemorrhage, I add these to lycopus. Amphiachyris is always the leading agent in my prescription, and often the only agent." Dr. Massie further says: "A man thirty-eight years of age had been troubled for several months with bronchial catarrh ; coughed quite a great deal, especially in the morning upon rising from his bed, raising quantities of mucus each day. These conditions continued until the latter part of March, when he had a slight hemorrhage from the lungs. There was a distinct spot in the right lung, in the region of the right nipple, that was very sore, and it was from this spot that the hemorrhage seemed to come. The cough continued, and just four weeks from the time that he had the slight hemorrhage referred to, he had a more distinct hemorrhage, and could determine plainly that the hemorrhage came from the spot in the right lung. There was a burning sensation there alf the time, and a tendency to hacking all the time to relieve the accumulation at that spot. He was put upon the following treatment, and being a believer in the physio-medical practice, he followed the treatment persistently: Teaspoonful every three hours continuously.

This treatment was continued for five months, with the following results: There has been no more hemorrhages, soreness at the spot referred to entirely gone, and the cough entirely stopped, and the patient has passed through the entire hot summer and has gained fifteen pounds in weight. He has now gone for two months without treatment and no return of the trouble whatever." (source)

However, before trying Dr. Burnett's "cure" for bronchitis, it is interesting to note a rebuttal of his findings by the California Medical Journal, Vol XXVIII, No.2, February 1907:

Dr. Burnett's paper is a resurrection of old time Eclectic and physiomedical uses for Polemonium reptans chiefly in the direction of its effects in respiratory diseases. The remedy is practically obsolete and its importance is questionable. (source)

But why was it used as a snake bite aid? Most likely because of its effect of causing people to sweat. According to the King's American Dispensatory, Vol. 2, 1900:

Alterative, diaphoretic, and astringent. A warm infusion of the root will, it is said, produce copious perspiration, and has been found serviceable in pleurisy, febrile and inflammatory diseases. The tincture, made of whiskey, in doses of from 1 to 2 fluid ounces, 2 or 3 times a day, has been found valuable in scrofulous diseases, and other chronic diseases where an alterative is indicated. The infusion is recommended in the bites of venomous snakes and insects, and in bowel complaints requiring the use of astringents. Reported to have cured consumption, but these cases were probably of severe bronchitis. Useful in bronchial and laryngeal affections. The plant deserves investigation. (source)

The scientific name for Jacob's Ladder is Polemonium reptans. Polemonium was named after Poleman, a 2nd century Greek philosopher. Reptans means "creeping".


Natural Moments said...

I really do enjoy looking at the traditional uses of native plants. Its like every object we see has so many unseen layers to it that can be explored from so many points of view.

Eve said...

Well that's interesting Daniel! But I just really think that is one pretty flower! Those beautiful photos really make me want to find some for my woods!