Hindus used this plant for centuries as a febrifuge and as an antidote to the bites of poisonous reptiles like snakes. It was also used to treat dysentery and other painful affections of the intestinal canal. Some believed it caused uterine contraction and promoted the expulsion of the fetus. It was also mentioned as a stomachic that cures fever. In the western parts of India the root was used as a remedy for painful affections of the bowels. With Aristolochia it was given to cure cholera; with Holorrhena antidysenterica and Jatropha curcus given in colic; with Andrographis paniculata it was given for fever. In the last decade its medicinal value has been accepted by the allopathic system.
It is an evergreen, perennial, glabrous and errect undershrub grows up to a height of 60 cm (rarely more than it). Roots are tuberous with pale brown cork. Leaves are in whorls of three, elliptic to lanceolate or obovate, bright green above, pale green below, tip acute or acuminate, base tapering and slender. Petioles long. Flowers are in many flowered irregular corymbose cymes. Peduncles long but pedicels stout. Flowers white, often has violet coloured tinge. Calyx glabrous, bright red and lanceolate. Corolla is longer than calyx, tube slender, swollen a little above the middle, lobes 3, and elliptic-oblong. Disc is cup shaped. Drupes are slightly connate, obliquely ovoid and purplish black in colour.
Reserpine is the most important alkaloid present in root, stem and leaves of the plant. It varies from 1.7 to 3.0 %. The root barks has more than 90% of the total alkaloids in roots. The % of the alkaloid depends on the geographical place from where the plant is collected and also the season of collection. Generally samples from Assam have a higher % of alkaloids (2.57 %) than the other parts of India and December is the best month for the collection for getting more % of alkaloids. But, age of the plant has no effect on the % of alkaloid content (up to 4 years). Ajmalicine, ajmaline, isoajmaline, ajmalinine, chandrine, rauwolfinine, renoxidine, rescin-namine, reserpiline, reserpin, reserpinine, sarpagine, serpentine, serpentinine, tetraphyllicine, yohimbine, 3-epi-a-yohimbine are the minor alkaloids identified from samples collected from India.