Rauvolfia serpentina is an upright perennial shrub 20-60 cm in height. The stem is green, erect, usually unbranched and slender. Leaves are generally in whorls of 3-4, and more condensed in the upper part of the stem, simple, glabrous, lanceolate or obovate. The inflorescence is generally a terminal, dense flowered cyme forming a hemispheric head on the ends of the peduncles. The flowers are whit to pinkish in color. Fruits are drupaceous, sometimes single but generally didymous, united halfway, oval, 4-5 mm long and 3-4 mm broad. Ripe fruit is purple black in color. The seeds are single in each fruit, oval, with a rough and dull surface.
The species is commonly found in open places or deciduous forests, from lowlands up to 1200m a.s.l. Clayey to clay loam soil is most suitable for good growth. Where the species grows in a natural state the soil has a pH 4. In the northern part of Central Java and most areas of Central Java, populations are usually found under stands of Tectonia grandis.
Found naturally in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands. In Java, based on records in the Herbarium Bogoriense, R. Serpentina has been found naturally in East and Central Java, including Purwakarta, Cirebon, Pekalongan, Tegal, Semarang, Rembang, Jepara, Pasuruan, Kediri, Madiun and Ngawi.
Since ancient times, extracts from R. Serpentina have been recommended for the treatment of a great variety of diseases. The bark of the roots is commonly used as:
Decoctions of the leaves can also be applied externally to injuries, ulcers and scabies. The latex is also used as a Trachome.
Although roots contain numerous other chemicals, Reserpine is the main active principle of R. Serpentina. This alkaloid was isolated for the first time by Muller, Schlitter and Bein in 1952. Bein demonstrated that Reserpine has sedative and hypotensive actions one year later. It is reported that there is a relationship between the Reserpine content of R. Serpentina and locality and time of year. According to Bisset (1958), the roots of R. Serpentina contain not less than 21 kinds of alkaloids.
R. Serpentina is listed on Appendix II of CITES, which means it could become threatened if the trade were not regulated. International commercial trade in wild material is permitted, although an Export Permit is required. Nasution et al (1992) assigned a conservation status code of 2 (Rare) to R. Serpentina in Indonesia.
Threats to Survival
The major threat to the survival of Rauvolfia serpentina is the overharvesting of wild populations for roots by the traditional medicine ('Jamu') industry. The Bureau for the Research of Spice and Medicinal Plants (BALITTRO - Balai Penelitian Tanaman Rempah dan Obat) has reported that during the years 1984-1990, 11,057.34 kg. of R. Serpentina roots were harvested for the Jamu industry. On average, this represents 1,579.62 kg per year and 131.64 kilograms per month, however, it is widely believed that the demand for R. Serpentina is increasing and will continue to do so. In order to ensure the survival of the species in the wild, particularly in Java, the protection of wild populations is essential, as is the need for cultivation of the species for use by industry.