Euphorbia thymifolia (PROTA)
- Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 454 (1753).
- Family: Euphorbiaceae
- Chromosome number: 2n = 18
- Thyme-leaf spurge, Gulf sandmat, chamber bitter (En).
- Petite rougette, euphorbe à feuilles de thym (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Euphorbia thymifolia is native to tropical America and is now widely distributed throughout the tropics and subtropics. It is widespread in West Africa and the Indian Ocean islands, and advancing in eastern and southern Africa.
Euphorbia thymifolia is widely used in Africa in decoction or infusion against dysentery, enteritis, diarrhoea and venereal diseases. The dried leaves and seeds are slightly aromatic and are used as a stimulant, astringent, anthelmintic and laxative. A decoction of fresh aerial parts is applied externally to treat dermatitis, eczema and skin inflammations. An infusion of the leafy stems is taken as a bitter diuretic. Women with heavy menstruation drink the latex as a tonic. Fresh crushed plants are applied as a plaster for healing sprains. The latex is applied to warts. In Sierra Leone the leaves are pulped with water and applied to the head to treat headache. The leaves are used in a decoction to treat cystitis and kidney ailments. In Côte d’Ivoire and Congo a decoction of the whole plant is drunk to treat lung problems. In Congo ground fresh leaves are rubbed in to treat intercostal pain. A maceration of the dried leaves is drunk for facilitating childbirth; it is claimed to stimulate contractions of the uterus.
In Mauritius plant and seed decoctions are also taken as a galactagogue, and to treat hypertension and venereal diseases. A decoction of the whole plant is taken to treat absence of menstruation and applied externally as an eye wash to treat conjunctivitis. On Rodrigues the crushed plant is applied to measles and other skin eruptions.
In South America and continental Asia similar medicinal uses as above are recorded. In southern India the latex is applied as a remedy for ringworm and scabies. The plant is also used in the treatment of impotence. Crushed plants are rubbed on the scalp for strengthening the skull bones of children to enable them to carry loads on their heads as adults, and also as mild irritating rubefacient products to treat alopecia. In Trinidad a decoction of the plant is taken to treat fever, influenza, hypertension and venereal diseases.
In East Africa the latex is applied to treat scabies in sheep.
From an aqueous acetone extract of the dried whole plant a range of hydrolysable tannins, including ellagitannins and gallotannins, were isolated. These tannins are pedunculagin, 1-desgalloyleugeniin, eugeniin, rugosin B, corilagin, geraniin, bixanin, 5-desgalloylstachyurin, casuariin, several derivatives of galloyl-β-D-glucose, several derivatives of hexahydroxydiphenoyl-D-glucose, mallotinic acid, as well as 1-O-galloyl-3,6-(R)-valoneayl-β-D-glucose, an isomer of mallotinic acid. Flavonoids isolated from the aerial parts include: kaempferol, cosmosiin (apigenin-7-glucoside), quercetin, quercetin-3-β-galactoside, quercetin-3-rhamnoside as well as β-amyrine, β-sitosterol, campesterol, stigmasterol, epitaraxerol, n-hexacosanol, euphorbol, 24-methylene cycloartenol and cholesterol. Furthermore, the following compounds were isolated from the aerial parts: 12-deoxy-4-β-hydroxyphorbol-13-dodecanoate-20-acetate, 12-deoxy-4-β-hydroxyphorbol-13-phenylacetate-20-acetate and 12-deoxyphorbol-13,20-diacetate. Both flavonoids and tannins have been reported to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, haemostatic, antithrombic, antioxidant and vasoprotective actions. The flavonoids furthermore have antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and antitumour properties. The essential oil from the leaves has a pungent odour and irritating taste, and contains cymol, carvacrol, limonene, sesquiterpenes and salicylic acid. The essential oil is put into medicinal soaps for treatment of erysipelas, sprays to keep off flies and mosquitoes, and a vermifuge for dogs.
An extract prepared with 1.5% HCl inhibited the growth of gram-positive (Bacillus subtilis) and gram-negative (Escherichia coli) bacteria. Ethyl acetate and chloroform extracts of the aerial parts inhibited the growth of Escherichia coli and Shigella flexneri in vitro. The ethyl acetate extract was also found to be active against Shigella flexneri in vivo; 80% of the infected mice were cured when given 1500 μg/day orally. The ethanol and water extracts of the whole plant showed significant antifungal activity against the dermatophytes Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Trichophyton verrucosum in vitro and in vivo in calves. The ether extract of the whole plant showed significant activity against the Sarcoptes scabei mite, which causes scabies.
Several extracts from the whole plant as well as pure compounds (3-O-galloyl-4,6-(S)- hexahydroxydiphenoyl-D-glucose, rugosin B and 1,3,4,6-tetra-O-galloyl-K-β-D-glucose) possessed antioxidant activities. In addition, 3-O-galloyl-4,6-(S)-hexahydroxydiphenoyl-D-glucose and the ethyl acetate fraction of the extract also showed significant activity against Herpes simplex virus type 2 in vitro in a dose-dependent manner. The ethyl acetate extract significantly reduced virus infectivity at a concentration of 4 μg/ml, whereas 3-O-galloyl-4,6-(S)-hexahydroxydiphenoyl-D-glucose obviously diminished virus infectivity at a concentration of 0.5 μg/ml. Several derivatives of galloyl-β-D-glucose show significant cytotoxicity against a range of human tumour cell lines.
In pot tests, infection of Vigna radiata (L.) R.Wilczek by tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) was prevented by spraying the plants first with water extracts of whole Euphorbia thymifolia plants.
Adulterations and substitutes
Euphorbia thymifolia resembles Euphorbia prostrata L. and has similar medicinal uses.
- Monoecious, prostrate, annual herb with branches up to 25 cm long, with numerous adventitious roots; stems with latex.
- Leaves opposite, distichous, simple; stipules linear, c. 1 mm long, deeply 2–3-toothed; petiole c. 0.5 mm long; blade ovate, up to 8 mm × 4 mm, base unequal, one side cuneate, the other side rounded, apex rounded, margins shallowly toothed, glabrous above, sparsely long-hairy beneath.
- Inflorescence a terminal or axillary cluster of flowers, called a ‘cyathium’, on short leafy shoots; cyathia almost sessile, c. 0.5 mm × 0.5 mm, with a funnel-shaped involucre, lobes triangular, minute, margin hairy, glands 4, minute, almost circular, red, with very small red appendages, each involucre containing 1 female flower surrounded by few male flowers.
- Flowers unisexual; male flowers sessile, bracteoles hair-like, perianth absent, stamen c. 1 mm long; female flowers almost sessile, perianth a rim, ovary superior, glabrous, 3-celled, styles 3, minute, 2-fid.
- Fruit an acutely 3-lobed, almost sessile capsule c. 1 mm × 1 mm, base truncate, short-hairy, 3-seeded.
- Seeds conical, c. 0.5 mm in diameter, acutely 4-angled, shallowly transversely wrinkled, reddish brown, without caruncle.
Other botanical information
Euphorbia comprises about 2000 species and has a worldwide distribution, with at least 750 species occurring in continental Africa and about 150 species in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands. Euphorbia thymifolia belongs to subgenus Chamaesyce, section Chamaesyce, a group of annual or sometimes perennial herbs with obvious stipules, further characterized by a main stem aborting at the seedling stage, the plant thus consisting of an expanded dichotomously branching umbel-like inflorescence, with the floral bracts appearing as normal leaves, cyathia solitary or up to 5 together in congested leafy cymes, 4 involucral glands with petal-like appendages or entire and conical seeds without a caruncle. Several other Euphorbia spp. belonging to this section are medicinally used.
Euphorbia glanduligera Pax occurs in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. In Namibia fresh or sun-dried leaves are pounded and rubbed into scarifications in the chest to increase milk flow in lactating women.
Euphorbia polycnemoides Hochst. ex Boiss. occurs from Senegal east to Somalia and south to Malawi and Zambia. It also occurs on the Arabian Peninsula. In Nigeria the medicinal uses are similar to those of Euphorbia convolvuloides Hochst.; crushed leaves, mixed with palm oil, are applied to dry up the rashes associated with measles, chickenpox and formerly smallpox. The crushed leaves are taken to treat diarrhoea and an infusion of the dried leaves is taken against dysentery. In contrast, an infusion of the whole plant is taken orally or as an enema for its laxative effects. An extract of the plant is taken to treat coughs, a sore throat, asthma and bronchitis. In Tanzania a decoction of the whole plant, together with the whole plant of Euphorbia convolvuloides, is taken to treat dysentery. The latex is rubbed on the breasts to stimulate milk flow. The plant is browsed by sheep and camels.
Growth and development
Euphorbia thymifolia grows very rapidly and completes its life cycle in 3–4 months; it can be found flowering and fruiting throughout the year in warm tropical conditions. Pollination is effected by insects.
Euphorbia thymifolia is a common weed of cultivated and waste ground, often on sandy or gravelly soils, up to 1650 m altitude.
Propagation and planting
Seed germination of Euphorbia thymifolia occurs at the start of rainy season, or throughout the year if enough water is available.
Diseases and pests
Euphorbia thymifolia is a host to the root-knot nematodes Meloidogyne javanica and Rotylenchulus reniformis.
Handling after harvest
Plant material is washed and used fresh, or dried for later use.
Euphorbia thymifolia has a pantropical distribution and is weedy; therefore it is not threatened by genetic erosion.
Euphorbia thymifolia has many local medicinal uses and showed antibacterial and antifungal activities as well as inhibitory effects against Herpes virus type 2. Although considerable chemical and pharmacological research has been done so far, more research is still needed to evaluate its potential.
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Sources of illustration
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- D.M. Mosango, c/o Laboratory of Natural Sciences, Lycée Français Jean Monnet de Bruxelles (LFB), Avenue du Lycée Français 9, 1180 Brussels, Belgium
Correct citation of this article
Mosango, D.M., 2008. Euphorbia thymifolia L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 3 October 2022.
- See the Prota4U database.