Cynanchum viminale (PROTA)

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Cynanchum viminale (L.) L.

distribution in Africa (wild)
1, flowering twigs; 2, flower; 3, fruits. Source: Flore analytique du Bénin
Protologue: Mant. Pl. 2: 392 (1771).
Family: Asclepiadaceae (APG: Apocynaceae).
Chromosome number: 2n = 22


  • Sarcostemma viminale (L.) R.Br. (1810),
  • Sarcostemma odontolepis Balf. f. (1877),
  • Sarcostemma daltonii Decaisne (1849),
  • Cynanchum tetrapterum (Turcz.) R.A.Dyer ex Bullock (1955).

Vernacular names

  • Caustic bush, caustic creeper, caustic vine, rapunzel plant (En).
  • Liane callé, liane sans feuilles (Fr).
  • Kitupa (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Cynanchum viminale is a very variable species and is widely distributed in tropical Africa, including the Indian Ocean islands and South Africa. It also occurs from Egypt east to continental Asia and Australia.


The aerial parts and the roots are widely used for medicinal purposes, although in most areas they are used with caution because of their toxicity. In some regions, however, the toxicity is considered low, or varying with the season. The bitter latex is applied to warts, wounds, burns and skin infections. The latex is further used as ear drops to treat earache, eye drops to treat conjunctivitis and is applied to carious teeth and to wounds to keep flies away. The latex in water is taken as an emetic. A stem or root decoction is commonly taken to treat diarrhoea and stomach problems, as well as intestinal worms, oedema, scabies and venereal diseases. An infusion of the stems or latex is taken as a galactogogue, or given as an enema for this purpose. Dried and powdered latex is applied to scarifications as a galactogogue. In India the latex is recorded as being used as a milk-substitute.

In Burkina Faso a twig decoction is taken to treat vertigo. In East Africa the twigs are used as toothbrush to treat toothache and caries. In Kenya an infusion of the stems and roots is taken in soup or milk as a tonic. In Angola a root infusion is taken to treat aenemia with oedema. In Mozambique a root infusion is taken to treat tuberculosis. In Madagascar a stem decoction is taken to treat malaria. In Réunion a stem decoction, together with all parts of Physalis peruviana L., is taken to treat chronic cystitis, diarrhoea, excessive menstruation or lack of menstruation. The liquid from crushed stems in water is taken to stop vomiting of blood. On the Seychelles a decoction of the aerial parts, mixed with leaves of Eucalyptus citriodora Hook., is taken to treat contagious diseases. In Mauritius a stem infusion is taken as a diuretic in urinary infections. In South Africa and Madagascar a stem decoction is taken to treat uterine haemorrhage. In Kenya and Tanzania the latex is used as a fish-poison. The latex may cause dermatitis and oedema. A decoction of the stems and the latex is also given to cows as a galactogogue. An infusion of the stems is given to dogs to expel worms and to chickens to treat gastro-intestinal problems.

The flowers produce much nectar and are visited by bees, butterflies and flies, and in Ethiopia also by sunbirds. In Somalia and South Africa the stems are eaten, raw or cooked, and are also put into salads. In Somalia and Kenya the Maasai people chew the stems to stop thirst. The stem tastes of oxalic acid, and Somalis say that it is more bitter in the morning than in the afternoon. The fruit is reported to be edible. In Kenya the Chamus people consider the aerial parts good fodder for goats and camels throughout the year. In Somalia, southern Africa and Australia, however, cases of poisoning have been recorded in animals that ingest large quantities of the stems during the dry season. The branches are used as fuel wood and torches as the latex burns easily. Some forms flower profusely and are sweet-scented, and are sometimes planted as ornamentals. In Namibia children draw patterns on their body with the latex, which are then sprinkled with powdered charcoal, to make them resemble tattoos of adults.

Production and international trade

Plant parts of Cynanchum viminale are only locally traded.


From the stems several pregnane glycosides have been isolated, including sarcovimisides A–C. Hydrolysis of the glycosides yielded a range of deoxy sugars, including D-cymarose, D-digitoxose, lilacinobose, D-oleandrose and viminose. Viminose is a disaccharide, and is composed of D-thevetose and D-digitoxose. From the aerial parts the lignans pinoresinol and 9-α-hydroxypinoresinol were isolated, together with several triterpenoids, including β-amyrin, friedelin, viminalol and lupeol, β-sitosterol, oleanolic acid and ursolic acid. Both lignans displayed in vitro inhibitory activity against butyrylcholinesterase. A methanolic twig extract showed potent anthelmintic activity in vitro.

In several publications Sarcostemma brevistigma Wight & Arnott is considered a synonym of Cynanchum viminale, but its taxonomic status is not fully elucidated. Several tests have been done in India and Pakistan with Sarcostemma brevistigma. The pregnane glycosides brevine and brevinine have been isolated from the stems. In tests with mice, petroleum ether and ethyl acetate extracts of the stems showed good central analgesic activity, ethyl acetate and methanol extracts showed good peripheral analgesic activity and chloroform and ethyl acetate extracts showed good CNS (Central Nervous System) depressant activity. A methanolic twig extract showed moderate toxicity in Indian earthworms (Pheretima posthuma). A chloroform soluble fraction of the acetone twig extract exhibited moderate uterine relaxant activity in isolated rat uterine smooth muscles. Different extracts of the aerial parts also showed anti-allergic and bronchodilatory activities in mice. Sarcostemma brevistigma was found to contain 3.6% hydrocarbons, with a promising percentage of polyisoprene compounds.


Perennial, erect, trailing or climbing succulent herb, glabrous, up to 8(–10) m long, with or without main stem, densely branching or not; bark grey, smooth, with lenticels or warts; stems cylindrical, wrinkled during the dry season, nodes short-hairy when young, later glabrous; latex abundant. Leaves absent or rudimentary on young stems, opposite; blade triangular, 1–2 mm long, early falling. Inflorescence an axillary or extra-axillary, sessile fascicle or terminal on up to c. 2.5 cm long lateral shoots, 2–15(–30)-flowered. Flowers bisexual, regular, 5-merous, more or less fragrant; pedicel (6–)10–30 mm long, more or less densely short-hairy; calyx with small lobes; corolla up to 1.2 cm in diameter, cream-coloured, greenish-yellow or bright yellow, petals elliptical, 4–8 mm long, apex acuminate; corona white, consisting of 2 series, outer part ring-shaped, 5-angled, much shorter than gynostegium, inner part consisting of 5 inflated lobes attached to the back of the anthers, up to 2 mm long, claw-shaped; ovary superior, stigmatic head conical to depressed-conical. Fruit a single follicle or a pair of follicles, each follicle linear to fusiform, 5–10(–18) cm × 0.8–1.5 cm, apex acuminate, smooth or sparsely short-hairy, green. Seeds ovoid, 3–5 mm long, with apical tuft of hairs 2–2.5 cm long.

Other botanical information

Cynanchum comprises 250–300 species worldwide and c. 110 species occur in Africa. The major centre of diversity in Africa is Madagascar with approximately 90 species, minor centres of diversity are eastern Africa and southern Africa with 10–15 species each. In 2002 Sarcostemma was put into synonymy with Cynanchum, and species from East Africa and Madagascar have been renamed since, but several species in other regions of Africa as well as from Asia and Australia have not yet been renamed. Also, the inclusion of Sarcostemma in Cynanchum is not adopted by all taxonomists, and new species in Peninsular Arabia are still being described in Sarcostemma. Sarcostemma sensu stricto comprises a species complex with a wide distribution but there is insufficient plant material available for a worldwide revision. Cynanchum viminale is very variable and c. 8 subspecies have been described.

Several Cynanchum species endemic to Madagascar, which were formerly included in Sarcostemma or the closely related Folotsia, are not well distinguished by local people from the widely distributed Cynanchum viminale and they have similar medicinal uses.

Cynanchum antsiranense

Cynanchum antsiranense (Meve & Liede) Liede & Meve (synonym: Sarcostemma antsiranense Meve & Liede) also has potential as an ornamental plant as it produces many and very fragrant flowers.

Cynanchum decorsei

The stems of Cynanchum decorsei (Constantin & Gall.) Liede & Meve (synonym: Sarcostemma decorsei Constantin & Gall.) are browsed by cattle as it is considered not toxic.

Cynanchum grandidieri

A root infusion of Cynanchum grandidieri Liede & Meve (synonym: Folotsia sarcostemmoides Constantin & Bois) is taken to treat cough, respiratory infections, fever, rachitis and as a laxative in case of constipation. From the aerial parts the pregnane glycoside folotsoside A has been isolated.

Growth and development

Cynanchum viminale flowers during the second part of the dry season or at the beginning of the rainy season. The peak flowering period is during 2–3 weeks with individual flowers opening during 4–5 days.


Cynanchum viminale occurs in dry areas, on arid and dry soils, rocks and outcrops, from sea-level up to 1800 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Cynanchum viminale can be propagated by seeds and stem cuttings. Cuttings of Sarcostemma viminale subsp. stocksii (Hook.f.) Ali from Pakistan rooted successfully in a 1:1:1 mixture of pumice, vermiculite and potting soil, at c. 27°C.

Diseases and pests

The aphid Aphis nerii feeds on young stems of Cynanchum viminale.


The latex, roots and stems of Cynanchum viminale can be harvested whenever the need arises.

Genetic resources

Cynanchum viminale is widespread and scattered to abundant. It is not threatened by genetic erosion.


Cynanchum viminale has many traditional uses, and several phytochemical studies revealed the presence of interesting compounds. No information is available, however, concerning the validation by pharmacological research of the traditional uses. Also, there seem to be large differences in toxicity of plants from different provenances, as well as differences in toxicity during the season or even during the day. More research is warranted to evaluate the potential of the species, and of the different subspecies.

Major references

  • Ahmad, V.U., Zubair, M., Abbasi, M.A., Kousar, F., Nawaz, S.A., Choudhary, M.I. & Hussaini, S.R., 2005. Butyrylcholinesterase inhibitory lignans from Sarcostemma viminale. Proceedings of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences 42(3): 167–171.
  • Albers, F. & Meve, U. (Editors), 2002. Illustrated handbook of succulent plants. Asclepiadaceae. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany. 318 pp.
  • Arbonnier, M., 2004. Trees, shrubs and lianas of West African dry zones. CIRAD, Margraf Publishers Gmbh, MNHN, Paris, France. 573 pp.
  • Baerts, M. & Lehmann, J., 2012. Sarcostemma viminale. [Internet] Prelude Medicinal Plants Database. Metafro-Infosys, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium Accessed January 2012.
  • Boiteau, P., Boiteau, M. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1999. Dictionnaire des noms malgaches de végétaux. 4 Volumes + Index des noms scientifiques avec leurs équivalents malgaches. Editions Alzieu, Grenoble, France.
  • Bruyns, P., 2005. Sarcostemma: the oldest and newest of (perhaps) the world’s most widespread succulent. Cactus and Succulent Journal 77(5): 222–227.
  • 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.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A. & Brendler, T., 2004. Medicinal and aromatic plants of Indian Ocean Islands: Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mascarenes. Medpharm, Stuttgart, Germany. 568 pp.
  • Liede, S. & Kunze, H., 2002. Cynanchum and the Cynanchinae (Apocynaceae - Asclepiadoideae): a molecular, anatomical and latex triterpenoid study. Organisms, Diversity & Evolution 2: 239–269.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.

Other references

  • de Wet, H., Nkwanyana, M.N. & Vuuren, S.F., 2010. Medicinal plants used for the treatment of diarrhoea in northern Maputaland, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 130(2): 284–289.
  • Girme, A.S., Nirmal, S.A., Bhalke, R.D. & Chavan, M.J., 2008. Analgesic, CNS depressant and anthelmintic activity of Sarcostemma viminale. Iranian Journal of Pharmacology & Therapeutics 7(2): 153–156
  • Gonçalves, M.L., 2002. Asclepiadaceae. In: Martins, E.S., Diniz, M.A., Paiva, J., Gomes, I. & Gomes, S. (Editors). Flora de Cabo Verde: Plantas vasculares. No 70. Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, Lisbon, Portugal & Instituto Nacional de Investigação e Desenvolvimento Agrário, Praia, Cape Verde. 11 pp.
  • Kumar, P.S., Soni, K. & Saraf, M.N., 2006. In vitro tocolytic activity of Sarcostemma brevistigma Wight. Indian Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 68: 190–200.
  • Lalitha, K.G., Sethuraman, M.G. & Rajkapoor, B., 2003. Antiinflammatory activity of Sarcostemma brevistigma in rats. Indian Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 65: 210–212.
  • Lavergne, R., 2001. Le grand livre des tisaneurs et plantes médicinales indigènes de la Réunion. Editions Orphie, Chevagny sur Guye, France. 522 pp.
  • Liede, S. & Meve, U., 1993. Towards an understanding of the Sarcostemma viminale (Asclepiadaceae) complex. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 112(1): 1–15.
  • Liede, S. & Meve, U., 1995. The genus Sarcostemma R.Br. (Asclepiadaceae) in Madagascar. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 118(1): 37–51.
  • Liede, S. & Meve, U., 2001. New combinations and new names in Malagasy Asclepiadoideae (Apocynaceae). Adansonia, sér. 3, 23(2): 347–351.
  • Meve, U. & Liede, S., 1996. Sarcostemma R. Br. (Asclepiadaceae) in East Africa and Arabia. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 120(1): 21–38.
  • Mwale, M., Bhebhe, E., Chimonyo, M. & Halimani, T.E., 2005. Use of herbal plants in poultry health management in the Mushagashe small-scale commercial farming area in Zimbabwe. International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine 3(2): 163–170.
  • Pokras, R. & Lennartz, D., 1991. Cultivation of Sarcostemma from Pakistan. Cactus and Succulent Journal 63(2): 55–57.
  • Rafidison, V.M., 1999. Valorisation des plantes les plus exploitées dans la zone périphérique de la réserve naturelle intégrale d’Andohahela (Cas des villages de Ebaketra et Ihazofotsy-Bevia). Mémoire de DEA, Département Ecologie Végétale, faculté des Sciences, Université d’Antananarivo, Madagascar. 86 pp.
  • Razafiarison, C., 1993. Aperçu sur les plantes médicinales dans le sud de Madagascar : étude faite sur les enfants dans le périmètre de la réserve spéciale de Beza - Mahafaly. Thèse pour l’obtention du grade de Docteur en Médecine, Etablissement d’Enseignement Supérieur des Sciences de la Santé, Faculté de Médecine, Université d’Antananarivo, Madagascar. 93 pp.
  • Saraf, M.N. & Patwardhan, B.K., 1988. Pharmacological studies on Sarcostemma brevistigma Wight part I. Anti-allergic activity. Indian Drugs 26: 49–53.
  • Saraf, M.N. & Patwardhan, B.K., 1998. Pharmacological studies on Sarcostemma brevistigma Wight part II. Bronchodilator activity. Indian Drugs 26: 54–57.
  • Schaub, F., Kaufmann, H., Stocklin, W. & Reichstein, T., 1968. Pregnane glycosides of the epigenous parts of Sarcostemma viminale. Glycosides and aglycones 307. Communication. Helvetica Chimica Acta 51: 738–766.
  • SEPASAL, 2012. Sarcostemma viminale. [Internet] Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL) database. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. ceb/sepasal/. Accessed January 2012.
  • Torrance, J.D. & Marais, J.L.C., 1963. Triterpene constituents of Sarcostemma viminale R.Br. (Asclepiadaceae). Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 52: 439–441.
  • van Wyk, B.E., van Heerden, F. & van Oudtshoorn, B., 2002. Poisonous plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 288 pp.

Afriref references

Sources of illustration

  • Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors), 2006. Flore analytique du Bénin. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. 1034 pp.


  • N.S. Alvarez Cruz, Unidad de Medio Ambiente, Delegación del CITMA, Cor. Legón 268 / Henry Reeves y Carlos Roloff, Sancti Spiritus C.P. 60100, Cuba
  • G.H. Schmelzer, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Alvarez Cruz, N.S. & Schmelzer, G.H., 2012. Cynanchum viminale (L.) L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(2): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 2. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 27 January 2023.