Biblioteca de los Sistemas de Salud de la OMS
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WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants - Volume 1
(295 pages)

Índice de contenido
Ver el documentoAcknowledgements
Ver el documentoIntroduction
Ver el documentoBulbus Allii Cepae
Ver el documentoBulbus Allii Sativi
Ver el documentoAloe
Ver el documentoAloe Vera Gel
Ver el documentoRadix Astragali
Ver el documentoFructus Bruceae
Ver el documentoRadix Bupleuri
Ver el documentoHerba Centellae
Ver el documentoFlos Chamomillae
Ver el documentoCortex Cinnamomi
Ver el documentoRhizoma Coptidis
Ver el documentoRhizoma Curcumae Longae
Ver el documentoRadix Echinaceae
Ver el documentoHerba Echinaceae Purpureae
Ver el documentoHerba Ephedrae
Ver el documentoFolium Ginkgo
Ver el documentoRadix Ginseng
Ver el documentoRadix Glycyrrhizae
Ver el documentoRadix Paeoniae
Ver el documentoSemen Plantaginis
Ver el documentoRadix Platycodi
Ver el documentoRadix Rauwolfiae
Ver el documentoRhizoma Rhei
Ver el documentoFolium Sennae
Ver el documentoFructus Sennae
Ver el documentoHerba Thymi
Ver el documentoRadix Valerianae
Ver el documentoRhizoma Zingiberis
Ver el documentoAnnex. Participants in the WHO Consultation on Selected Medicinal Plants

Radix Rauwolfiae


Radix Rauwolfiae is the dried root of Rauvolfia serpentina (L.) Benth. ex Kurz (Apocynaceae) (1–4).


Ophioxylon obversum Miq., O. sautiferum Salisb., O. serpentinum L., Rauvolfia obversa (Miq.) Baill., R. trifoliata (Gaertn.) Baill. (3–5).

Selected vernacular names

Most commonly called "rauwolfia". Acawerya, aika-wairey, akar-tikos, arsol, bhudra, bongmaiza, chandmaruwa, chandra, chandrika, chotachand, chotachard, chundrika, chundrooshoora, churmuhuntree, chuvannayilpuri, covanamilpori, covannamipori, dhanbarua, dhannerna, dogrikme, eiya-kunda, ekaweriya, garudpathal, hadki, harkai, harkaya, ichneumon plant, Indian snakeroot, indojaboku, karai, karavi, karuvee, makeshwar chadrika, makeshwar churna, matavi-aloos, nogliever, nundunee, pagla-ka-dawa, palalganni, patalaagandhi, poelé pandak, poeleh pandak, pushoomehnunkarika, ra-yom, radix mungo, radix mustelae, raiz de mongo alba, rametul, ratekaweriya, rayom noi, rauvolfia, rauwalfia, rauwolfia, Rauwolfiawurzel, sanochado, sapasan, sarpagandha, sarpgandha, serpentina, sjouanna-amelpodi, snakeroot, sung, suvapaval-amepodi, talona, vasoopooshpa, vasura (5–8).


Small, erect, glabrous shrub, 30–60 cm high. Leaves whorled, 7.5–17.5 cm long, lanceolate or oblanceolate, acute or acuminate, tapering gradually into the petiole, thin. Flowers white or pinkish; peduncles 5.0–7.5 cm long; pedicels and calyx red. Calyx lobes 2.5 mm long, lanceolate. Corolla about 1–1.3cm long; tube slender; inflated slightly above middle; lobes much shorter than tube, obtuse. Drupes about 6 mm (diameter), single or didymous and more or less connate, purplish black when ripe (1).

Plant material of interest: root

General appearance

The root occurs as segments 5–15cm in length and 3–20mm in diameter, subcylindrical to tapering, tortuous or curved, rarely branched, occasionally bearing twisted rootlets, which are larger, more abundant, and more rigid and woody on the thicker parts of the roots. Externally light brown to greyish yellow to greyish brown, dull, rough or slightly wrinkled longitudinally, yet smooth to the touch, occasionally showing rootlet scars on the larger pieces, with some exfoliation of the bark in small areas that reveals the paler wood beneath. Bark separates easily from the wood on scraping. Fracture short but irregular, the longer pieces readily breaking with a snap, slightly fibrous marginally. The freshly fractured surfaces show a rather thin layer of greyish yellow bark, and the pale yellowish white wood constitutes about 80% of the radius. The smooth transverse surface of larger pieces shows a finely radiate stele with three or more clearly marked growth rings; a small knob-like protuberance is frequently noticeable in the centre. The wood is hard and of relatively low density (1).

Organoleptic properties

Root odour is indistinct, earthy, reminiscent of stored white potatoes, and the taste is bitter (1).

Microscopic characteristics

A transverse section of the root shows externally 2–8 alternating strata of cork cells, the strata with larger cells alternating with strata made up of markedly smaller cells. Each stratum composed of smaller cells includes 3–5 tangentially arranged cell layers. In cross-sectional view, the largest cells of the larger cell group measure 40–90µm radially and up to 75µm tangentially, while the cells of the smaller group measure 5–20µm radially and up to 75µm tangentially. The walls are thin and suberized. The secondary cortex consists of several rows of tangentially elongated to isodiametric parenchyma cells, most densely filled with starch grains; others (short latex cells) occur singly or in short series and contain brown resin masses. The secondary phloem is relatively narrow and is made up of phloem parenchyma (bearing starch grains and less commonly tabular to angular calcium oxalate crystals up to 20µm in length; also, occasionally, with some brown resin masses in outer cells and phloem rays) interlaid with scattered sieve tissue and traversed by phloem rays 2–4 cells in width. Sclerenchyma cells are absent in root (a distinction from other Rauvolfia species). Cambium is indistinct, narrow, dark, and wavering. The secondary xylem represents the large bulk of the root and shows one or more prominent annual rings with a dense core of wood about 500µm across at the centre. The xylem is composed of many wood wedges separated by xylem rays, and on closer examination reveals vessels in interrupted radial rows, much xylem paren- chyma, many large-celled xylem rays, few wood fibres, and tracheids, all with lignified walls. The xylem fibres occur in both tangential and radial rows. The xylem rays are 1–12, occasionally up to 16 cells in width (1, 3).

Powdered plant material

Powdered Radix Rauwolfiae is brownish to reddish grey. Numerous starch grains (simple, 2- to 3-compound, occasionally 4-compound) present; simple grains spheroid, ovate, plano- to angular-convex, or irregular; hilum simple, Yshaped, stellate, or irregularly cleft; unaltered grains 6–34µm in diameter; altered grains up to about 50µm; large unaltered grains clearly show polarization cross; calcium oxalate prisms and cluster crystals scattered, about 10–15µm in size; brown resin masses and yellowish granular secretion masses occur occasionally; isolated cork cells elongated, up to 90µm in length; phelloderm and phloem parenchyma cells similar in appearance; vessels subcylindrical, up to 360µm in length and about 20–57µm in diameter, the vessel end walls oblique to transverse, generally with openings in the end walls, some vessels showing tyloses; tracheids pitted, with moderately thick, tapering, beaded walls, with relatively broad lumina, polygonal in cross-section; xylem parenchyma cells with moderately thick walls with simple circular pits, cells polygonal in crosssection, bearing much starch, sometimes with brown resin masses; xylem fibres with thick heavily lignified walls showing small transverse and oblique linear pits and pointed simple to bifurcate ends, measuring about 200–750µm in length. No phloem fibres or sclereids are present in root (colourless non-lignified pericycle or primary phloem fibres, single or in small groups, may be present from rhizome or stem tissues) (1).

Geographical distribution

The plant is found growing wild in the sub-Himalayan tracts in India and is also found in Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand (3).

Overcollection of Radix Rauwolfiae in India has significantly diminished supply and since 1997 there has been an embargo on export of this drug from India. Reserpine is currently either extracted from the roots of Rauvolfia vomitoria of African origin or produced by total synthesis.

General identity tests

Macroscopic and microscopic examinations (1–3) and thin-layer chromatographic analysis for the presence of characteristic indole alkaloids (2, 3).

Purity tests


The test for Salmonella spp. in Radix Rauwolfiae products should be negative. The maximum acceptable limits of other microorganisms are as follows (9–11). For preparation of decoction: aerobic bacteria-not more than 107/g; moulds and yeast-not more than 104/g; Escherichia coli-not more than 102/g; other enterobacteria -not more than 104/g. Preparations for internal use: aerobic bacteria- not more than 105/g; moulds and yeast-not more than 103/g; Escherichia coli-not more than 101/g; other enterobacteria-not more than 103/g.

Foreign organic matter

Not more than 2.0% of stems, and not more than 3.0% of other foreign organic matter (1).

Total ash

Not more than 10% (2).

Acid-insoluble ash

Not more than 2.0% (1, 2).


Not more than 12% (2).

Pesticide residues

To be established in accordance with national requirements. Normally, the maximum residue limit of aldrin and dieldrin in Radix Rauwolfiae is not more than 0.05 mg/kg (11). For other pesticides, see WHO guidelines on quality control methods for medicinal plants (9) and guidelines for predicting dietary intake of pesticide residues (12).

Heavy metals

Recommended lead and cadmium levels are no more than 10 and 0.3mg/kg, respectively, in the final dosage form of the plant material (9).

Radioactive residues

For analysis of strontium-90, iodine-131, caesium-134, caesium-137, and plutonium-239, see WHO guidelines on quality control methods for medicinal plants (9).

Other purity tests

Chemical, alcohol-soluble extractive and water-soluble extractive tests to be established in accordance with national requirements.

Chemical assays

Contains not less than 1% total alkaloids (2, 3); and a minimum of 0.1% alkaloids of the reserpine–rescinnamine group (3).

Thin-layer chromatography to detect the presence of the reserpine– rescinnamine group of alkaloids (2, 3, 13). Quantitative analysis of total and reserpine–rescinnamine group of alkaloids can be performed by spectrophotometric analysis (2, 3) or by high-performance liquid chromatography (14, 15).

Major chemical constituents

Radix Rauwolfiae contains more than 60 indole alkaloids; the principal hypotensive alkaloids are identified as reserpine and rescinnamine (1, 6).

Dosage forms

Crude drug and powder. Package in well-closed containers and store at 15– 25°C (9) in a dry place, secure against insect attack (1).

Medicinal uses

Uses supported by clinical data

The principal use today is in the treatment of mild essential hypertension (16– 22). Treatment is usually administered in combination with a diuretic agent to support the drug's antihypertensive activity, and to prevent fluid retention which may develop if Radix Rauwolfiae is given alone (18).

Uses described in pharmacopoeias and in traditional systems of medicine

As a tranquillizer for nervous and mental disorders (4, 5).

Uses described in folk medicine, not supported by experimental or clinical data

As a tonic in states of asthenia, a cardiotonic and antipyretic; against snake and insect bites; and for constipation, liver diseases, flatulence, insomnia, and rheumatism (8).


Experimental pharmacology

It is well accepted that the pharmacological effects of Radix Rauwolfiae are due to its alkaloids, especially the reserpine–rescinnamine group. The experimental pharmacology of reserpine and related compounds has been well documented (5, 16–18, 23). Powdered Radix Rauwolfiae, as well as various forms of extracts (ethanolic, dried), has been reported to lower the blood pressure of experimental animals (dogs or cats) by various routes of administration (5).

Clinical pharmacology

Radix Rauwolfiae and its major alkaloids probably lower high blood pressure by depleting tissue stores of catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) from peripheral sites. By contrast, their sedative and tranquillizing properties are thought to be related to depletion of catecholamines and serotonin (5- hydroxytryptamine) from the brain. Following absorption from the gastrointestinal tract the active alkaloids concentrate in tissues with high lipid content. They pass the blood–brain barrier and the placenta. Radix Rauwolfiae products are characterized by slow onset of action and sustained effect. Both the cardiovascular and central nervous system effects may persist following withdrawal of the drug. The active alkaloids are metabolized in the liver to inactive compounds that are excreted primarily in the urine. Unchanged alkaloids are excreted primarily in the faeces (16).


Radix Rauwolfiae products are contraindicated in patients who have previously demonstrated hypersensitivity to the plant or its alkaloids. They are also contraindicated in patients with a history of mental depression (especially those with suicidal tendencies) during or shortly after therapy with monoamine oxidase inhibitors; active peptic ulcer, sinus node disorders, ulcerative colitis; epilepsy; or decreased renal function; and in patients receiving electroconvulsive therapy (16, 18).


Radix Rauwolfiae products may cause mental depression (24). Recognition of depression may be difficult because this condition may often be disguised by somatic complaints (masked depression). The products should be discontinued at first signs of depression such as despondency, early morning insomnia, loss of appetite, impotence, or self-deprecation. Drug-induced depression may persist for several months after drug withdrawal and may be severe enough to result in suicide. Sensitivity reactions may occur in patients with or without a history of allergy or bronchial asthma. The use of Radix Rauwolfiae products may impair alertness and make it inadvisable to drive or operate heavy machinery (16, 18).



Because Radix Rauwolfiae preparations increase gastrointestinal motility and secretion, they should be used cautiously in persons with a history of peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, or gallstones where biliary colic may be precipitated. Persons on high doses should be observed carefully at regular intervals to detect possible reactivation of peptic ulcer (16).

Caution should be exercised when treating hypertensive patients with renal insufficiency since they adjust poorly to lowered blood-pressure levels (16).

Drug interactions

When administered concurrently, the following drugs may interact with or potentiate Radix Rauwolfiae and its alkaloids (16, 18): alcohol or other central nervous system depressants, other antihypertensives or diuretics, digitalis glycosides or quinidine, levodopa, levomepromazine, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, sympathomimetics (direct-acting) and tricyclic antidepressants.

Concomitant use of Radix Rauwolfiae products and anaesthetics may provoke a fall in blood pressure (4, 17, 25) and add to the β-adrenoceptor–blocking activity of propranolol (25).

Drug and laboratory test interactions

Chronic administration of Radix Rauwolfiae preparations may increase serum prolactin levels and decrease excretion of urinary catecholamines and vanilmandelic acid. Therefore, any diagnostic tests performed for these determinations should be interpreted with caution (16).

Radix Rauwolfiae preparations slightly decrease absorbance readings obtained on urinary steroid colorimetric determinations (e.g. modified Glenn– Nelson technique or Holtorff Koch modification of Zimmermann reaction), and thus false low results may be reported (16).

Preoperative withdrawal of Radix Rauwolfiae products does not necessarily ensure circulatory stability during the procedure, and the anaesthetist must be informed of the patient's drug history (4, 17, 25).

Caution is indicated in elderly patients and also in those suffering from coronary and cerebral arteriosclerosis. Administration of products including Radix Rauwolfiae preparations at doses that might precipitate a sharp decrease in blood pressure should be avoided (17).

Carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, impairment of fertility

Animal carcinogenicity studies using reserpine at doses 50 times as high as the average human dose have been conducted with rats and mice. Carcinogenic effects associated with the administration of reserpine include an increased incidence of adrenal medullary phaeochromocytomas in male rats, unidentified carcinomas of the seminal vesicles in male mice, and mammary cancer in female mice; carcinogenic effects were not seen in female rats (14, 23, 26). Bacteriological studies to determine mutagenicity using reserpine showed negative results (16). The extent of risk to humans is uncertain (16, 26–28).

Pregnancy: teratogenic effects

Reserpine, the major active alkaloid in Radix Rauwolfiae, administered parenterally has been shown to be teratogenic in rats at doses up to 2mg/kg and to have an embryocidal effect in guinea-pigs at 0.5 mg daily (27). There are no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women.

Pregnancy: non-teratogenic effects

Increased respiratory secretions, nasal congestion, cyanosis, hypothermia, and anorexia have occurred in neonates of mothers treated with Radix Rauwolfiae (16, 28, 29). Therefore, the use of Radix Rauwolfiae is not recommended during pregnancy.

Nursing mothers

Rauwolfia alkaloids are excreted in human milk. Because of the potential for serious adverse reactions in nursing infants, use of Radix Rauwolfiae during lactation is not recommended.

Paediatric use

Safety and effectiveness in children have not been established (16).

Adverse reactions

The following adverse reactions have been observed, but there are insufficient data to support an estimate of their frequency. The reactions are usually reversible and disappear when the Radix Rauwolfiae preparations are discontinued (16, 18).

Cardiovascular system: bradycardia, arrhythmias, particularly when used concurrently with digitalis or quinidine, angina-like symptoms. Water retention with oedema in persons with hypertensive vascular disease may occur rarely, but the condition generally clears with cessation of therapy, or the administration of a diuretic agent. Vasodilation produced by rauwolfia alkaloids may result in nasal congestion, flushing, a feeling of warmth, and conjunctival congestion.

Central nervous system: sensitization of the central nervous system manifested by optic atrophy, glaucoma, uveitis, deafness, and dull sensorium. Other reactions include depression, paradoxical anxiety, nightmares, nervousness, headache, dizziness, drowsiness. Large doses have produced parkinsonian syndrome, other extrapyramidal reactions, and convulsions.

Gastrointestinal system: hypersecretion and increased intestinal motility, diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, anorexia, and dryness of mouth. Gastrointestinal bleeding has occurred in isolated cases.

Respiratory system: dyspnoea, epistaxis, nasal congestion.

Hypersensitivity: purpura, pruritus, rash.

Other: dysuria, muscular aches, weight gain, breast engorgement, pseudolactation, impotence or decreased libido, gynaecomastia.


Powder, 200 mg daily in divided doses for 1–3 weeks; maintenance 50–300mg daily (1). Doses of other preparations should be calculated accordingly. Doses of Radix Rauwolfiae should be based on the recommended dosage of rauwolfia alkaloids, which must be adjusted according to the patient's requirements and tolerance in small increments at intervals of at least 10 days. Debilitated and geriatric patients may require lower dosages of rauwolfia alkaloids than do other adults (18). Rauwolfia alkaloids may be administered orally in a single daily dose or divided into two daily doses (18).


1. National formulary XIV. Washington, DC, National Formulary Board, American Pharmaceutical Association, 1975.

2. Deutsches Arzneibuch 1996. Stuttgart, Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, 1996.

3. Pharmacopée française. Paris, Adrapharm, 1996.

4. Reynolds JEF, ed. Martindale, the extra pharmacopoeia, 30th ed. London, Pharmaceutical Press, 1993.

5. Hänsel R, Henkler G. Rauwolfia. In: Hänsel R et al., eds. Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, Vol. 6, 5th ed. Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1994:361–384.

6. Monachino J. Rauwolfia serpentina: Its history, botany and medical use. Economic botany, 1954, 8:349–365.

7. The Indian pharmaceutical codex. Vol. I. Indigenous drugs. New Delhi, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, 1953.

8. Farnsworth NR, ed. NAPRALERT database. Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, IL, March 15, 1995 production (an on-line database available directly through the University of Illinois at Chicago or through the Scientific and Technical Network (STN) of Chemical Abstracts Services).

9. Quality control methods for medicinal plant materials. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1998.

10. Deutsches Arzneibuch 1996. Vol. 2. Methoden der Biologie. Stuttgart, Deutscher Apotheker Verlag, 1996.

11. European pharmacopoeia, 3rd ed. Strasbourg, Council of Europe, 1997.

12. Guidelines for predicting dietary intake of pesticide residues, 2nd rev. ed. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1997 (unpublished document WHO/FSF/FOS/97.7; available from Food Safety, WHO, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland).

13. Clarke's isolation and identification of drugs in pharmaceuticals, body fluids, and post-mortem material, 2nd ed. London, Pharmaceutical Press, 1986.

14. Cieri UR. Identification and estimation of the alkaloids of Rauwolfia serpentina by high performance liquid chromatography and thin layer chromatography. Journal of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists, 1983, 66:867–873.

15. Cieri UR. Determination of reserpine and rescinnamine in Rauwolfia serpentina preparations by liquid chromatography with fluorescence detection. Journal of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists, 1987, 70:540–546.

16. Physicians' desk reference. 45th ed. Montvale, NJ, Medical Economics Company, 1991.

17. Goodman and Gilman's the pharmacological basis of therapeutics, 8th ed. New York, Pergamon Press, 1990.

18. American Hospital Formulary Service drug information 94. Bethesda, MD, American Society of Health System Pharmacists, 1994.

19. Bein HJ. The pharmacology of Rauwolfia. Pharmacology review, 1956, 8:435–483.

20. Vakil RJ. A clinical trial of Rauwolfia serpentina in essential hypertension. British heart journal, 1949, 11:350–355.

21. Wilkins RW, Judson WE. The use of Rauwolfia serpentina in hypertensive patients. New England journal of medicine, 1953, 248:48–53.

22. Kline NS. Use of Rauwolfia serpentina Benth. in neuropsychiatric conditions. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1954, 59:107–132.

23. Rand MJ, Jurevics H. The pharmacology of Rauwolfia alkaloids. In: Gross F, ed. Antihypertensive agents. New York, Springer-Verlag, 1977:77–159.

24. Howes LG, Louis WJ. Rauwolfia alkaloide (reserpine). In: Ganten D, Mulrow PJ, eds. Pharmacology of antihypertensive therapeutics. Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1990:263–276.

25. Physicians' desk reference, 49th ed. Montvale, NJ, Medical Economics Company, 1995.

26. Shapiro S et al. Risk of breast cancer in relation to the use of Rauwolfia alkaloids. European journal of clinical pharmacology, 1984, 26:143–146.

27. Weiss RF. Herbal medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden, AB Arcanum, 1988.

28. Budnick IS et al. Effect in the new-born infant of reserpine administrated ante partum. American journal of diseases of children, 1955, 90:286–289.

29. Rogers SF. Reserpine and the new-born infant. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1956, 160:1090.


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