Large-conductance calcium-dependent potassium (maxi-K) channels play an important role in regulating the tone of airway smooth muscle and the release of bronchoconstrictive substances from nerves in the lung. Crude extracts of Desmodium adscendens, a medicinal herb used in Ghana as a treatment for asthma, inhibit binding of monoiodotyrosine charybdotoxin (125I-ChTX) to receptor sites in bovine tracheal smooth muscle membranes that have been shown to be associated with maxi-K channels. Using this assay, three active components have been purified and identified by NMR and MS. Comparison with authentic samples revealed the three active components as the known triterpenoid glycosides dehydrosoyasaponin I (DHS-I), soyasaponin I, and soyasaponin III. The most potent of these compounds, DHS-I, is a partial inhibitor of 125I-ChTX binding (Ki = 120 nM, 62% maximum inhibition). Inhibition of 125I-ChTX binding is primarily due to a decrease in the observed maximum number of binding sites, with a smaller decrease in affinity. DHS-I increases the rate of toxin dissociation from its receptor, suggesting that modulation of ChTX binding occurs through an allosteric mechanism. DHS-I reversibly increases the open probability of maxi-K channels from bovine tracheal smooth muscle incorporated into planar lipid bilayers when applied to the intracellular, but not the extracellular, side of the membrane at concentrations as low as 10 nM. In contrast, DHS-I had no effect on several other types of potassium channels or membrane transporters. This natural product is the first example of a high-affinity activator of calcium-dependent potassium channels and is the most potent known potassium channel opener.