Safe sex: Wild yam

The wild yam has greatly influenced the social and medical traditions of millions of people around the world.

Diosgenin is extracted from the rhizome (underground stem) and roots of the yam and it forms the basis of the modern birth control pill. Since its discovery in the 1930s, it has been the foundation from which a variety of human sex hormones have been produced. In this country, it is commonly taken as a supplement for menopausal women.

Multitude of uses

Traditionally, women in Central and South America used this plant for a similar purpose, taking plant extracts daily to prevent pregnancy. In India today, traditional Ayurvedic healers use Dioscorea species to treat impotence and infertility, while in China they are used to treat liver conditions and aid digestion.

Yam extracts have also been found to reduce inflammation and pain, and relax stiff muscles, and so are useful in treating arthritis and rheumatism. Recent studies in Texas have shown that they can also help alleviate symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Diosgenin is a ‘saponin’, a plant steroid which protects plants from attack by slugs and snails, insects and microbes. It is used as a natural insecticide, and in many cultures across the world it is also used to stun and catch fish. Saponins are one of the most commonly used fish poisons.

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At a glance

Distribution and Habitat

North and central America


Up to 10m (32’) high


Source of fertility treatments

Scientific name

Dioscorea discolor

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