Cleome viscosa (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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1, flowering and fruiting branch; 2, flower; 3, fruit; 4, detail of dehiscing fruit; 5, seed. Source: PROSEA

Cleome viscosa L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 2: 672 (1753).
Family: Capparaceae (APG: Brassicaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 20


  • Cleome icosandra L. (1753).

Vernacular names

  • Tickweed, wild mustard, spiderplant (En).
  • Cléome visqueuse, cléome gluante (Fr).
  • Musambe (Po).
  • Mgagani (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Cleome viscosa occurs in northern tropical Africa, from Cape Verde and Senegal to Egypt, Ethiopia and Zanzibar; it is absent in southern Africa, but present in Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands. Outside Africa it is widespread in peninsular Arabia, tropical Asia, Australia and tropical and subtropical America.


In tropical Africa and elsewhere, Cleome viscosa is occasionally used as a leaf vegetable. The bitter leaves are locally popular and eaten fresh, dried or cooked. The pickled young fruits are also eaten. In India the seeds, which have a pleasant flavour, are used as a condiment substitute for mustard seed and cumin in the preparation of pickling spices, sausages, vegetables, curries and pulses.

Cleome viscosa is not grazed by cattle. In areas where it occurs in abundance it can be used as a cover plant and as a green manure (e.g. in Ghana). In Africa and Asia the leaves and seeds are used as a rubefacient and vesicant, and to treat infections, fever, rheumatism and headache. The whole herb is rubbed on the body against rheumatism. Bruised leaves are considered counter-irritant when applied externally to treat herpes infections. Leaf juice mixed with butter is used in the treatment of inflammation of the middle ear and applied on wounds and ulcers. A decoction is used as an expectorant and digestive stimulant (e.g. to cure colic and dysentery) and the vapour from a steaming decoction of the whole plant is inhaled to treat headache. The seeds are carminative but excessive use results in flatulence and distension of the stomach. A decoction of the seeds is used to treat rheumatism, gonorrhoea, diarrhoea and dysentery, and as a wash to treat piles. The seed and its oil have anthelminthic properties, but they are ineffective in treating roundworm infections. The roots are a remedy for scurvy and rheumatism.


Fresh leaves of Cleome viscosa contain per 100 g: water 80.4 g, protein 5.6 g, Ca 880 mg, P 73 mg, Fe 24 mg, ascorbic acid 204 mg (CSIR, 1950). The seed oil (yield 18–37%) contains linoleic acid up to 70%, oleic acid 14%, palmitic acid 10%, stearic acid 5% as well as some volatile components. Rats fed on the oil did not show abnormal growth or reproductive performance or altered liver lipid levels, and it is therefore suggested that the oil might be used safely by humans. A series of coumarino-lignans (cleomiscosins) have been isolated from the seeds. These exhibited anti-hepatotoxic properties in tests with rats. An aqueous seed extract displayed significant analgesic activity in mice and local anaesthetic activity in guinea pigs. The aerial parts showed antibacterial activity and completely inhibited the growth of Acromonas hydrophylla and Bacillus cereus. The extracts contain saponins, but alkaloids and tannins are absent. In tests with rats the antipyretic and anti-diarrhoeal activities of the extracts have been confirmed. Cleome viscosa seed and shoot extracts have an allelopathic effect on seed germination and growth of pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R.Br.).


  • Annual, erect, branched herb up to 1 m tall, with yellowish, glandular hairs, viscid, with a strong smell when bruised; stem angular-striate, sometimes becoming woody at base.
  • Leaves alternate, digitately compound with 3–5 leaflets; petiole up to 6 cm long; leaflets obovate-lanceolate, 1–5.5 cm × 0.5–2 cm, gradually becoming smaller in higher leaves.
  • Inflorescence a leafy raceme up to 40 cm long in fruit; bracts leaf-like, 3-foliolate.
  • Flowers bisexual, 4-merous; pedicel up to 2 cm long in fruit; sepals lanceolate-oblong, 3–7 mm × 2 mm; petals oblong-obovate, 4–12 mm × 2–3 mm, glabrous, yellow; stamens usually 10–20, filaments c. 7 mm long; ovary superior, cylindrical, sessile, 1-celled, style filiform, short, stigma large, head-like.
  • Fruit a cylindrical, erect capsule 1.5–10 cm × 4 mm, glandular hairy, dehiscing with 2 valves up to the middle.
  • Seeds circular-reniform in outline, up to 1.5 mm in diameter, with strong transverse ribs and fine longitudinal concentric ribs, red-brown, fragrant.

Cleome comprises 150–200 species, with the majority in tropical America, whereas about 50 are known from tropical Africa. It is classified in the subfamily Cleomoideae, sometimes considered a separate family Cleomaceae. Cleome viscosa is easy to identify with its small yellow flowers, its fruits only opening up to halfway and its sticky indumentum.

The seeds have no dormancy and germinate readily after shedding. Plants start flowering 3–4 weeks after germination and the life cycle is about 3 months. The flowers are ephemeral, opening in the morning and closing in the afternoon.


Cleome viscosa occurs in woodland and grassland, and is a weed of fallow land, fields, roadsides and wasteland, often occurring on sandy soils, but sometimes on calcareous and rocky soils. It is found both under seasonal dry and humid conditions, from sea-level up to 1000 m altitude.


Cleome viscosa leaves are collected from the wild in Africa. In India the plant is rarely cultivated, but is gaining in popularity as a low-cost substitute for cumin. Its cultivation is promoted for degraded or marginal agricultural land where it can be cultivated with less difficulty than traditional crops. In pure stands (35,000 plants/ha), seed yields of 600 kg/ha have been obtained. The crop is not attacked by insect pests nor damaged by wildlife because of its sticky nature and strong pungent odour. In-vitro mass propagation for medicinal purposes has been done successfully. In some regions (e.g. United States), Cleome viscosa is considered a noxious weed. It is a host for the papaya ringspot potyvirus, which also attacks melons, and for the nematodes Meloidogyne incognita and Meloidogyne javanica.

Genetic resources

Cleome viscosa is widespread and does not seem to be in danger of genetic erosion.


Cleome viscosa will remain a minor leaf vegetable used in times of food scarcity. Its gain in popularity as a seed condiment in India might be interesting for Africa as well. Its nutritional and medicinal properties are promising and deserve more investigation.

Major references

  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • CSIR, 1950. The wealth of India. A dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products. Raw materials. Volume 2: C. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. 427 pp.
  • Kers, L.E., 1986. Capparidaceae. Flore du Cameroun. Volume 29. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 141 pp.
  • Maikhuri, R.K., Semwal, R.L., Rao, K.S., Nautiyal, S. & Saxena, K.G., 2000. Cleome viscosa, Capparidaceae: a weed or a cash crop? Economic Botany 54(2):150–154.
  • Windadri, F.I., 2001. Cleome L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 167–171.

Other references

  • Berhaut, J., 1974. Flore illustrée du Sénégal. Dicotylédones. Volume 2. Balanophoracées à Composées. Gouvernement du Sénégal, Ministère du Développement Rural et de l’Hydraulique, Direction des Eaux et Forêts, Dakar, Senegal. 695 pp.
  • Devi, B.P., Boominathan, R. & Mandal, S.C., 2002. Evaluation of anti-diarrheal activity of Cleome viscosa L. extract in rats. Phytomedicine 9(8): 739–742.
  • Devi, B.P., Boominathan, R. & Mandal, S.C., 2003. Evaluation of antipyretic potential of Cleome viscosa Linn. (Capparidaceae) extract in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 87(1): 11–13.
  • Elffers, J., Graham, R.A. & Dewolf, G.P., 1964. Capparidaceae. In: Hubbard, C.E. & Milne-Redhead, E. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 88 pp.
  • Hadj-Moustapha, M., 1965. Capparidacées (Capparidaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 83. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 71 pp.
  • Kers, L.E., 2000. Capparidaceae. In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse, Demissew Sebsebe & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 2, part 1. Magnoliaceae to Flacourtiaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 74–120.
  • Parimaladevi, B., Boominathan, R. & Mandal, S.C., 2003. Studies on analgesic activity of Cleome viscosa in mice. Fitoterapia 74(3): 262–266.
  • Rukmini, C., 1978. Chemical, nutritional and toxicological evaluation of the seed oil of Cleome viscosa. Indian Journal of Medical Research 67(4): 604–607.
  • Saxena, B.R., Koli, M.C. & Saxena, R.C., 2000. Preliminary ethnomedical and phytochemical study of Cleome viscosa L. Ethnobotany 12: 47–50.
  • Singh, P.D.A. & West, M.E., 1991. Pharmacological investigations of sticky viscome extract (Cleome viscosa L.) in rats, mice and guinea-pigs. Phytotherapy Research 5(2): 82–84.

Sources of illustration

  • Windadri, F.I., 2001. Cleome L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 167–171.


  • P.C.M. Jansen, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Jansen, P.C.M., 2004. Cleome viscosa L. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands.

Accessed 22 March 2023.