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Wild Yam

  • Dioscorea villosa L.
  • Dioscoraceae
  • Yam family

Common Names

herbsAluka (Sanskrit name)
herbsChina root
herbsColic root
herbsDevil's bones
herbsMexican wild yam
herbsPleurisy root
herbsRheumatism root
herbsShan-yao (Chinese name)

Parts Usually Used

Dried root (rhizome)

Description of Plant(s) and Culture

Wild yam is a perennial vine; the long, slender, knotted, contorted, woody, tuberous rootstock is crooked and laterally branched and twining stems. Broadly ovate and cordate, the heart-shaped, leaves are from 2-6 inches long and about three-fourths as wide, glabrous on top, and finely fairy underneath on long stems. They are usually alternate, but the lower leaves sometimes grow in twos and fours. The tiny, greenish-yellow flowers, cinnamon scented, grow on branched stalks from the axils of the leaves, male and female on separate plants, blooms during June and July, the male flowers in drooping panicles, the female in drooping spicate racemes. The fruit is a three-winged (triangular) capsule containing winged seeds.

There are nearly 150 varieties of Dioscorea many of them developing edible tubers like potatoes. An ornamental variety is D. batatas, sometimes known as the Chinese yam, the red velvet yam, or the cinnamon yam. In using D. villosa, do not confuse oriental tonic wild yams.

Where Found

Grows in the United States from Rhode Island to Minnesota, Florida and Texas. Twining in thickets, over fences, over trees and shrubs in the woods, in hedges and over bushes, the thin, woolly, reddish-brown stem grows from 5-18 feet long.

Medicinal Properties

Analgesic, antibilious, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, emetic in large doses, hepatic, nutritive tonic

Biochemical Information

Glycoside saponins and diosgenin, which are hormone precursors, especially progesterone and other cortical steroids that effect the female menstrual cycle and help to reduce pain.

Legends, Myths and Stories

Used to make the original contraceptive pills when synthetic hormone production was not a commercial proposition. Mexican wild yam (D. villosa) contains hormonal substances very similar to progesterone. It also relaxes smooth muscle; hence another of its common names, colic root (Alestris farinosa L.). Many other yams are used as a starter arterial to produce hydrocortisones for non-prescription eczema creams.


It was once commonly prescribed for bilious colic. Wild yam is said to be soothing to the nerves and beneficial for neuralgia, neuritis, and pains in the urinary tract. Some have considered it an antispasmodic, for pain, and recommended it for cramps. Is effective for the liver and gall bladder, indigestion. During pregnancy, small frequent doses will help allay nausea. It will help expel gas from the stomach and bowels. Relieves gastrointestinal irritations, asthma, spasmodic hiccough, and "chronic gastritis of drunkards". Contains diosgenin, used to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. Most of the steroid hormones used in modern medicine, especially those in contraceptives, were developed from elaborately processed chemical components derived from yams. Drugs made with yam-derived components (diosgenins) relieve arthritis, eczema, regulate metabolism and control fertility. Synthetic products manufactured from diosgenins include human sex hormones (contraceptive pills), drugs to treat menopause, impotency, prostate hypertrophy, and psycho-sexual problems, as well as high blood pressure, arterial spasms, migraines, and other ailments. Widely prescribed cortisones and hydrocortisones were indirect products of the genus Dioscorea. They are used for Addison's disease, some allergies, bursitis, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, sciatica, brown recluse spider bites, insect stings, etc.

These steroid-like substances and this may explain why it relieves rheumatism pains, and other inflammations. It can be taken to relieve muscle spasms. Native Americans used wild yam to relieve labor pains.

Formulas or Dosages

Infusion: steep 1 tsp. root in 1 cup water for 30 minutes. Take 1 cup in the course of a day, a mouthful at a time.

Tincture: take 10-30 drops in water, 3-4 times a day as needed.


Fresh plant may induce vomiting and other undesirable side effects.

In using, do not confuse oriental tonic wild yams.

Care should be taken when using this herb if there is an excess of mucous or congestion in the body.

Avoid large doses of D. villosa in pregnancy unless under medical supervision; may be taken during labor.

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