Mother Earth Living

Herb to Know: Wild Yam

By Anita B. Stone
February/March 2007
Add to My MSN

Wild yam is useful during pregnancy, though it also was used in the first prescription contraception.
Photo by Janet Novak

Content Tools

Related Content

The Herbal Artist: Hibiscus Tea Recipe For Your Health

Hibiscus tea may lower blood pressure in patients with mild hypertension, according to some studies....

Natural Lip Balm: Addicted to Lip Balm: Skincando Luxe Brew Lip Balm

Freelance writer and natural beauty expert Kim Wallace feeds her lip balm addiction with Brew, a new...

Try This Out: Salty Nettle Chips

These nettle chips are deliciously unique and packed with nutrients. Try this perfectly satisfying s...

How To: Grow Lavender Plants

This spring, guest blogger Patsy Bell Hobson is expanding her lavender collection to extend the bloo...

Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is a versatile herb that might not win any beauty contests. Its rootstocks grow crooked and bear horizontal branches of long, creeping runners with thin reddish-brown stems that grow to a length of over 30 feet. 

The plant has winged seed pods and clusters of small, drooping yellow-green flowers that bloom from June to August. The heart-shaped leaves are long and broad with furrowed veins, which run lengthwise from the center top of the heart shape and fan outward. The leaves are usually alternate, but sometimes grow in twos and fours near the base of the plant. The upper surface of the leaf is smooth while the underside is downy. 

In medical usage, the herb is best known for chemical components used in the first prescription contraceptive pills. Wild yam root contains diosgenin, which can be converted to synthetic progesterone.

Despite its contraceptive uses, wild yam also is used during pregnancy. Because the herb nourishes the female endocrine system, herbalists believe wild yam can help prevent miscarriage and is one of the best herbs to relieve general pain during pregnancy. Early settlers used the small tubers, as they fell away from the vine, to ease labor pains, colic and leg cramps and to prevent morning sickness and miscarriage.

Wild yam is the basis for many herbal and pharmaceutical remedies and was used widely throughout history in many cultures. The pharmaceutical industry has used yam root as a basis for steroids and cortisone, anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the swelling caused by rheumatism and hydrocortisone cream to treat eczema. The 16th-century herbalist John Gerard believed it outranked other wild herbs because of its value as a treatment for colic and liver ailments.   

Wild yam, which should not be confused with a sweet potato, has been used medicinally in China, Japan and throughout Southeast Asia for at least 2,000 years. It forms part of “The Pill of Eight Ingredients” traditionally prescribed in Chinese medicine to treat hypothyroidism and diabetes. Herbalists also prescribe the herb for exhaustion, lack of appetite, chronic thirst, chronic coughs and wheezing. The herb was popular with the ancient Aztec and Mayan people primarily as a source of food and for pain relief. Colonial doctors learned about this herb from Native Americans and used it as a treatment for rabies, epilepsy and nervous ailments.

Some physicians brewed the flowers into a mild tea for bronchial conditions. Make a decoction by covering the root with boiling water and simmering for half an hour before straining and refrigerating.

The herb has a bitter taste and its most common culinary use is to enhance soups. The root also can be eaten as a boiled vegetable, though it can cause an upset stomach.
This perennial, native to North America, prefers damp woods, swamps and thickets, and grows best in partial shade. Find young tubers in the leaf axils in late summer. Plant them immediately in individual pots and keep them inside until spring. The herb is easy to propagate from root cuttings taken in the late fall or winter. If you plant wild yam near a wall, the leaves will climb gracefully and form a trellis of quiltlike greenery.

Anita B. Stone is a certified master gardener, horticultural therapist and partners an herb business in North Carolina.

Previous | 1 | 2 | Next

Post a comment below.


Subscribe today and save 58%

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living!

Welcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $14.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $19.95.