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What Is Pipsissewa?

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  • Written By: N. Phipps
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 March 2014
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Pipsissewa is a small evergreen plant that commonly grows in wooded areas throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. The plant comes from the genus Chimaphila, which means "winter loving." Within this genus are two known varieties, the striped wintergreen (C. umbellate) and spotted wintergreen (C. maculate). Other common names include ground holly, ground ivy, prince's pine, and rheumatism root. This interesting little plant was popular among various native people for its use in herbal medicine as well as a source of folklore.

Both species' names derive from the Cree Indian word pipsisikweu, which translates to "breaking into small pieces." It was believed that the leaves of pipsissewa could be used as an herbal remedy to break up kidney stones. However, this proved to be more of a myth than actual truth. Nonetheless, the plant did indeed possess medicinal value.

During the 19th century, pipsissewa was once listed in the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), which sets standards for prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. In early folk medicine, the plant could be taken internally or applied externally. It was generally used as an astringent and diuretic, though its tonic was often an essential remedy found in many homes.

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Pipsissewa was mostly used for treating urinary tract problems, as it could stimulate urine flow. Tea produced from the leaves also found popularity among Native Americans and pioneers who used the remedy to relieve rheumatism symptoms and stomach ailments. Additionally, the fresh leaves were often applied externally to rheumatic joints or muscles. Crushed leaves applied as a poultice served the same purpose in addition to treating blisters, wounds, and swellings.

Some Native American tribes used the plant’s extract as a remedy for backaches as well. A decoction could also be made from the root of pipsissewa and used as eye drops. In addition, Native Americans would boil the roots and leaves, ingesting the tonic to help alleviate cold symptoms.

Today, pipsissewa is commonly used in homeopathic medicine. The herbal remedy is available in tea form, fresh extract, and tinctures. It can also be found in lotions or creams. Interestingly, the plant has a long history of use as root beer flavoring too. It can still be found as an ingredient in root beer and is occasionally used to flavor candy.

While this plant is considered safe for most people, its leaves may have a tendency to cause redness and irritation in those who are sensitive. As with any herbal remedy, it is always advised to consult with a qualified homeopathic practitioner prior to use.

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