A well-loved tropical vine, known as contribo herb, is highly regarded for its various medicinal purposes. Across Central and South America, this unique plant has been used for centuries to treat a variety of health conditions and is still used in a similar fashion today.
While many locals will praise this natural healer and online herbal retailers detailing its immense power, there’s a hidden truth about contribo herb – and it may not be as safe as it’s thought.
Before we dive into the mysteries of this very unique herb, I’ll cover what this plant is and what makes it so peculiar. And, even though its medicinal properties are of topic, its ornamental value is not to be dismissed. Because of this, I’ll briefly describe its growing requirements and why this plant deserves a place in your garden.
What Is the Contribo Herb?
The contribo herb is a vine plant of the Aristolochiaceae (birthwort) family and is scientifically known as Aristolochia trilobata. It is native to Central and South America, which other Aristolochia vines also inhabit, such as the famous Aristolochia grandiflora (pelican flower).
In this region, the common name contribo is also used for other Aristolochia vines, but Aristolochia trilobata is the most common and well-documented medicinal species.
Other than contribo, common names for Aristolochia trilobata include bejuco de Santiago, Dutchman’s pipe, and birthwort.
The contribo herb is unusual because of its extraordinary flowers and distinctive, powerful smell. The birthwort family is known for its odd-shaped flowers with an unpleasant smell, and the contribo vine is no exception.
A. trilobata produces trumpet-like flowers that possess a strange smell, luckily; sources claim it isn’t as intense as other Aristolochia species (which are said to smell like rotting flesh).
The flowers appear in burgundy, bronze, and green shades and are beautiful against their mass of glossy leaves. The leaves have three lobes and are bright green. This evergreen vine has slender and woody trailing and twining branches.
It prefers moist and somewhat shady areas along river banks and streams.¹
Growth and Care
In the garden and nursery industry, contribo is more commonly known as Dutchman’s pipe. It can be selected from the other Dutchman’s pipe species through its scientific name, A. trilobata.
It can grow in USDA cold hardiness zones 9b-11+ as a tropical vine. As such, it is more common to find this plant available in warmer states such as Texas, California, and Florida.
Contribo is extremely sensitive to the cold, and in zone 9b, it may lose its leaves during the winter. It prefers part shade, especially when just getting established, as the young leaves can be scorched by direct sunlight.¹
Because its natural habitat is near rivers and stream banks, it prefers moist, well-drained, fertile soil. It can be grown in a pot or directly in the ground with the support of a trellis.
Depending on the height of your trellis or support, Dutchman’s pipe can reach heights of 12-15 feet.²
While the fascinating flowers benefit those who cherish peculiar plants, perhaps the most significant benefit of bringing contribo into your garden is that it’s a host plant for the Polydamas Swallowtail Butterfly and possibly the Pipevine Swallowtail. The former species feeds exclusively on Aristolochia vines, making contribo an excellent green herb plant for your landscape if you wish to attract this beautiful butterfly and you live in Texas or Florida.
Much of what we know about contribo comes from its rich tradition of use by herbalists and healers in Central and South America. Throughout this region, it was (and is still) used for various ailments topically and internally. For these purposes, the root and aerial parts of the plant were harvested and made into the necessary herbal preparation, depending on the condition.
Topically, a fresh poultice or compress was used for snake bites, wounds, skin infections, and insect bites. In Belize, Brazil, and Nicaragua, it was common to use contribo for dogs that were victims of snake bites or scorpion stings.³
Common internal uses include colds and flu, and to help the process of associated fever as contribo contains diaphoretic properties, which means it helps to open the pores and induce sweating.
It was also used for several gastrointestinal problems, such as to treat ulcers, stomach aches, indigestion, gastritis, and constipation. It has some effect on the liver, as it was used to combat the potency of the snake venom internally and to address liver problems.¹
In Argentina, contribo was used to support rheumatism as a circulatory stimulant and anti-inflammatory herb.⁴
Contribo was used to support the immune system’s health and as an antimalarial agent in French Guiana and Peru. In Brazil, it was used as a fungicide and in other areas to treat intestinal worms and parasites and as a first-aid antiseptic (Argentina).
Other traditional uses for contribo herb include:
- Supporting non-insulin dependent diabetes.
- Stimulating delayed menstruation as an abortifacient.
- Helping facilitate the removal of the placenta in childbirth.
As it induced vomiting in large amounts, it was used in various regions as an antidote to poisonings.⁴
For these internal conditions, an infusion of the herb was taken as a cup of tea by infusing the fresh leaves or decocting the root in a quart of water.
One of its more fascinating traditional uses was intoxicating a snake to make it harmless for a period of time. This use was practiced in the West Indies, from Honduras to Panama. In Guadeloupe, it was used for ceremonial purposes and as a protective agent against bad luck.⁴
From reviewing the compilation of contribo’s traditional uses from various sources, it’s clear that the main components of its medicine are its ability to stimulate circulation, heal wounds, ease inflammation and uterine complaints, and improve digestion function and elimination.
The Truth About Contribo Herb
While its traditional uses are still implemented today for various health conditions in Central and South America, and contribo is advertised with the above benefits by herbal retailers, there must be caution when taking contribo herb.
There is one simple reason for this caution: aristolochic acid.
Aristolochic acid is a compound found in plants in the Aristolochia genus and can cause irreparable kidney damage (nephropathy) and transitional cell carcinoma: cancer in the renal pelvis and ureter.⁵
There are many vines in the Aristolochia genus found across the world, and several of them have a rich history of medicinal use, including Aristolochia clematitis (European snakeroot; birthwort), Aristolochia indica, and Aristolochia debilis. However, the entire genus (Aristolochia spp.) appears to contain aristolochic acid in varying amounts.
This acid was first discovered in Aristolochia fangchi, an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, when it was found in an herb-based slimming formula. This formula was given in a Belgium clinic and caused more than 100 patients to be admitted to the hospital with renal failure.⁴
Modern-day researchers believe kidney failure and damage weren’t previously related to these herbs because these compounds cause slow and insidious damage. However, they now think the wideset endemic nephropathy affecting people in rural areas of Asia and Eastern Europe is due to AAs in food and herbal products. Because of this, extreme caution about using Aristolochia plants has been given throughout Europe and the United States ⁴.
Aristolochic Acid in Contribo Herb
The two types of aristolochic acid of primary concern for human health have been labeled as AAI and AAII. Unfortunately, studies on the alcohol extract of contribo stem and root confirm the presence of both these compounds, although the AAII amounts are much lesser than the AAI.⁶
Still, the amount of AAI is significant.
However, these scientific studies lack adequate research about the specific medicinal use of Aristolochia trilobata and any related reports of kidney damage or transitional cell carcinoma.
What’s even more confusing is that other studies contribute the presence of these acids to some of contribo’s anti-inflammatory activity.⁷ This study showed that the extract of contribo leaf has anti-cancer effects.⁸
It’s clear that further research is needed to explore the possible toxicity of the contribo herb as it relates to nephropathy and transitional cell cancer, especially given its wide range and local uses.
But, what’s also clear is that there is a risk of using this herb, and anyone interested in purchasing or harvesting contribo herb should take caution, as it may lead to detrimental side effects further down the road.
Despite the concern over contribo’s safety for medicinal purposes, its rich historical uses should be honored (though perhaps not continued). And, it’s still a valuable ornamental that is a delight in the garden if you have the right conditions and climate for it.
¹Balick, Michael J., and Hugh O’Brien. “Ethnobotanical and Floristic Research in Belize: Accomplishments, Challenges and Lessons Learned.” Plant Research & Conservation, 2001, https://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/pdfs/mb/resBelizeObrien04.pdf. Accessed 8 September 2023.
²“Bejuco de Santiago (Vine of St. James), Contribo – Tropical Plants.” Almost Eden, https://www.almostedenplants.com/shopping/products/3123-bejuco-de-santiago-vine-of-st-james-contribo/. Accessed 8 September 2023.
³ “Volatile constituents of Aristolochia trilobata L. (Aristolochiaceae): a rich source of sulcatyl acetate.” SciELO, https://www.scielo.br/j/qn/a/t8VQCNZdMRwpvQcQ9xdRVFh/?lang=en. Accessed 8 September 2023.
⁴ Heinrich, Michael, et al. “Local Uses of Aristolochia Species and Content of Nephrotoxic Aristolochic Acid 1 and 2.” ScienceDirect, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 17 August 2009, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874109003468?ref=pdf_download&fr=RR-2&rr=80303667ffeb118b. Accessed 8 September 2023.
⁵Qin, Zixiu, et al. “Systematic Overview of Aristolochic Acids: Nephrotoxicity, Carcinogenicity, and Underlying Mechanisms.” Frontiers, 20 May 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2019.00648/full. Accessed 8 September 2023.
⁶“Analysis of the analogues of aristolochic acid and aristolactam in the plant of Aristolochia genus by HPLC.” Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, 2004, https://www.jfda-online.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2668&context=journal. Accessed 8 September 2023.
⁷“Aristolochia trilobata: Identification of the Anti-Inflammatory and Antinociceptive Effects.” NCBI, 6 May 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7277703/. Accessed 8 September 2023.
⁸“Cytotoxic Effect of Argentine Medicinal Plant Extracts on Human Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cell Line.” Science Direct, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, March 2002, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874101004007. Accessed 8 September 2023.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.