Lawsonia inermis (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Dye / tannin|
|Essential oil / exudate|
|Forage / feed|
- Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 349 (1753).
- Family: Lythraceae
- Chromosome number: 2n = 30
- Lawsonia alba Lam. (1789).
- Henna, Egyptian privet (En).
- Henné (Fr).
- Hena, hésia (Po).
- Mhina, muhina (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
The origin of Lawsonia inermis is unknown. Linguistic evidence supports an origin in the area of Baluchistan (Iran/Pakistan) to western India, where it can still be found growing in the wild. From there it would have spread eastward to the rest of India and Indonesia, and westward to the Middle East where it became one of the important plants of Islam. It was, however, already mentioned in the Bible for its perfume (‘kopher’) and in Ancient Egypt (‘kwpr’). It later followed Islamic armies and traders from Arabia reaching as far as Spain, northern Africa, Madagascar, the Moluccas, Indo-China and Japan. It is now distributed throughout the tropics and subtropics. Henna is mostly grown in home gardens and commercial production is limited to a few places in India, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Niger and Sudan. In Africa it has often become naturalized, particularly on alluvial soils along rivers. In Madagascar it has become so common along some rivers that there is no need for cultivation.
Henna is one of the oldest cosmetics in the world and its leaves are used to colour the fingernails, to paint or decorate the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, and to dye the hair. Written records of the use of henna date back more than 2500 years. Henna is of great importance in Islam, where it is used in many ceremonies, especially marriage. This latter use has been adopted also in Hinduism and Buddhism. The use of henna to dye the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet of married women has spread through most of the Muslim world and India. As part of the preparations for the marriage ceremony, the hands and feet of the bride are often very elaborately decorated, in the belief that henna purifies and protects; designs differ per region and culture, indicating for example good health, fertility, wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. In parts of Africa large, black, geometric designs are preferred. Henna is used universally as a basis for hair dyes. A wide range of shades from shining, reddish-blond to chestnut brown and intense, deep black can be obtained by the use of admixtures or by combining the treatment with other ones. Indigo is commonly added to obtain a black colour. This use of henna is not restricted to women. In Iran and Afghanistan men often use it to colour their greying hair and beards. It is even used to dye the manes and tails of horses of dignitaries for grand parades. Throughout South-East Asia and Indo-China up to Japan henna is mainly used by women as a dye for the fingernails, but in other areas this is only a secondary use.
To prepare the dye for skin, nails or hair, fresh or dried leaves or henna powder are rubbed with water to which some lemon juice and lime are added to obtain a paste. Depending on the use, the colour required and the locality, substances such as gambier, powder of areca nut, indigo or alum may be added. The paste is carefully applied to the skin or nails, or rubbed into the hair and left for 6–12 hours, covered with a damp cloth or sometimes a betel leaf. The colour is fast and cannot be removed by washing; it has to wear off. Henna was widely used to dye silk, wool and less commonly cotton, without mordanting or after a mordant bath, by putting the textiles in a hot bath of henna to which some lemon juice was added. Various orange and red colours could be obtained by adding other ingredients. This dye was often used as a ground, and then top-dyed with indigo to obtain a deep, fast black. Morocco leather is still dyed with henna.
The use of a perfume made from the flowers of henna is largely restricted to Egypt, northern India and Java. The perfume is greenish in colour and is prepared by macerating the flowers in oil (preferably oil of Moringa peregrina (Forssk.) Fiori (‘ben’), which does not easily become rancid). Henna is widely grown in gardens as an ornamental or hedge plant, appreciated for the strong, pleasant fragrance of its flowers, which is reminiscent of tea rose (Rosa chinensis Jacq.). The wood of henna is fine grained and hard and has been used to make tent pegs and tool handles in India, but is also used as firewood. The fibres of branches and stem bark are used in Kenya to make baskets, small twigs as toothbrushes in Indonesia.
In traditional medicine henna is used as a panacea against almost any disease. Only the medicinal uses that have been confirmed in clinical tests are mentioned here. Extracts of the leaves have an astringent effect on the skin, making it somewhat hydrophobic. This effect, combined with a slight bactericidal and fungicidal action, makes it a useful medicine for external use against many skin and nail complaints. Dyeing hair with henna effectively kills lice. In Arabic and Indian medicine, preparations from the leaves, sometimes including other parts of the plant (root), are effectively used to promote childbirth, as an abortifacient and as an emmenagogue. A decoction of the leaves and roots is effective against certain forms of diarrhoea. In Côte d’Ivoire and northern Nigeria the leaves are used in the treatment of trypanosomiasis.
Production and international trade
Because large quantities of henna are produced at home or for the local market, and because henna is mostly classified under categories that include several other products, it is impossible to obtain accurate estimates of production. Annual exports of powdered and dried leaves from India, Egypt and Sudan amounted to 6000–8000 t in the period 1975–1980. Total annual exports must be over 10,000 t and Dubai and Singapore are important entrepôts. The annual export from Sudan alone is estimated at 1000 t. World prices in 1992 fluctuated between 250–700 US$/t, depending strongly on quality and total supply. Demand for henna rose rapidly between 1960 and 1980, but has since levelled off. The main importers are the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia about 3000 t/year), France (250 t/year), Britain (100 t/year) and the United States (several hundred t/year). Traditionally Niger has an export link with Algeria.
In international trade, 3 henna grades are distinguished: green, black and neutral, but their composition is not always clear. Green henna is made from the young leaves, imparting a deep red colour. Black henna can be henna with a higher lawsone content in the leaves (it is the most expensive grade), but it can also be henna mixed with Indigofera leaves or the chemical compound paraphenylenediamine (PPD) to dye hair black. Neutral henna can be the lowest grade henna, but sometimes it is also used to indicate any natural hair colouring agent, e.g. leaves of Senna italica Mill. without any henna leaf.
The dyeing agent in henna is lawsone or 2-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone (naphthalenedione), which is present in dry leaves at a concentration of 0.5–2%. It attaches itself strongly to proteins, and as a result the dye is very fast. Other components in henna such as flavonoids (luteoline, acacetine) and gallic acid contribute as organic mordants to the colouring process; carbohydrates (vegetable gelatine, mucilage) give the henna paste a suitable consistency to attach to hair and possibly they also play a role in the penetration of lawsone into the hair and other tissues. The stem contains variable amounts of tannins. On steam distillation, the flowers yield 0.01–0.02% essential oil (henna oil), mainly consisting of α- and β-ionones, which can be used as a basis for perfumes. The seeds contain about 10% of a non-drying, viscous oil, composed mainly of oleic, linoleic and stearic acids. This oil is not of commercial importance, but is used, for example in Uganda, for anointing the body.
Henna showed anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic effects, but it may cause side-effects such as haemolytic anaemia in cases of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase enzyme deficiency. Tests with rats suggested hepatoprotective and anti-oxidant activities of bark extracts. Henna extracts also showed molluscicidal and trypanocidal activities. A leaf extract showed antitumour and tuberculostatic effects in tests with mice. It exhibited a broad fungitoxic spectrum when tested against various ringworm fungi, which was attributed to lawsone. In India henna preparations showed antifertility activity.
Adulterations and substitutes
Adulteration of dried, entire henna leaves is almost impossible because it is easy detectable. Commercially low quality henna leaves often contain a high percentage of rubbish in the form of parts of branches, fruits and other plants. Most adulteration occurs in powdered henna and includes powdered leaves of other species, sand, powdered shells and colorants, and microscopic analysis is needed, looking for details which cannot be present in true henna. Colorants are used to falsify the henna quality. Often used colorants are diamond green and auramine yellow, although both colorants are forbidden in foods and medicines.
Sometimes the term henna is used to indicate any hair colouring agent, often without any link with true henna. Numerous natural and chemical products are used in combination with henna, e.g. to modify the hair colour (walnut husk, logwood, turmeric, indigo, lucerne, tea, mordants, tannins, synthetic colorants), to improve the colouring (walnut husk, chamomile, lucerne, onion skin, sage, senna), as perfume (flower buds of Myrtus communis L., cloves, rose water) or to improve the penetration of the colorant (e.g. lemon juice, sour milk or beer yeast). Paraphenylenediamine in ‘black henna’ may cause serious irritation and burning of the skin.
- Much-branched, glabrous shrub or small tree up to 6(–12) m tall, with greyish-brown bark and quadrangular young branches, older plants sometimes with spine-tipped branchlets up to 3.5 cm long.
- Leaves decussately opposite, simple and entire, almost sessile; stipules minute; blade elliptical to oblong or broadly lanceolate, 1–8.5 cm × 0. 5–4 cm, cuneate at base, acute to rounded at apex, pinnately veined.
- Inflorescence a large, pyramidal, terminal panicle up to 25 cm long, many-flowered.
- Flowers bisexual, regular, 4-merous, sweet-scented; pedicel 2–4 mm long; calyx with up to 2 mm long tube and spreading, ovate lobes 2–3 mm long; petals orbicular to obovate, 1.5–4 mm × 4–5 mm, usually whitish, sometimes reddish; stamens 8, inserted in pairs on the rim of the calyx tube, filaments 4–5 mm long; ovary superior, 4-celled, style erect, up to 5 mm long, stigma head-shaped.
- Fruit a globose capsule 4–8 mm in diameter, purplish-green, indehiscent or opening irregularly, many-seeded.
- Seeds 4-angular, 2–3 mm long, with thick seedcoat.
Other botanical information
Lawsonia comprises only 1 species. Henna cultivars can be white- and red-flowered, large-leaved and small-leaved. It is often stated that small-leaved henna is of better quality and more effective than larger-leaved. Small-leaved cultivars include ‘Filalia’ and ‘Touatia’ in Morocco and ‘Gabsia’ in Libya and Tunisia. ‘Trabelsia’ is a large-leaved cultivar. The leaf size is also dependent on the availability of water. In the dry season and in dry locations the leaves can be 5–6 times smaller than in the rainy season or in wet locations.
Growth and development
Henna can grow to the size of a large shrub or even small tree, but is normally grown like lucerne (Medicago sativa L.), i.e. as a short-lived perennial crop up 70 cm tall.
Henna requires high temperatures (optimum daily average about 25°C) for germination, growth and development. It is adapted to a wide range of conditions. It tolerates poor, stony and sandy soils, but is also well adapted to heavy, fertile clay soils. Low air humidity and drought are tolerated. Naturalized plants are often found in temporarily flooded river beds and riverine thickets, but also on hillsides and in rock crevices, up to 1350 m altitude.
Propagation and planting
When grown commercially, henna is either grown from seed and transplanted, or propagated by cuttings or micropropagated plants. In northern Africa land is prepared carefully by ploughing up to 40 cm deep, and heavily manuring. Fields are then levelled and prepared for basin irrigation. In India, where production is less intensive, land is only ploughed a few times. Because of its hard seedcoat, henna seeds have to be pre-germinated before sowing. They are first steeped in water for 3–7 days, during which time the water is changed daily. They are then placed in small heaps and kept moist and warm for a few days. Care is taken to drain excess water. When the seedcoat has softened and the seed has started to swell, it is ready to be sown in a nursery. During the first days after sowing, the soil should be kept moist and daily irrigations are often required. When the plants are about 40 cm tall they are lifted, cut back to about 15 cm and transplanted. Planting densities range widely from 20,000 to 200,000 plants/ha, depending on water availability. An amount of 3–5 kg of seed per ha is needed. For propagation by cuttings, branches with 6–8 buds are used.
Under intensive commercial production, as in northern Africa, the crop is irrigated during the dry season and heavily fertilized. In India it is grown on a larger scale, less intensively, often without irrigation and rarely fertilized. Fields are hoed once or twice per year and weeded when required. Plants produce their maximum yields during the first 4–8 years after planting, but are often left in the field for 12–25(–40) years. Henna removes large quantities of nutrients from the soil. A yield of 1000 kg dry leaves removes 180–190 kg N, 100–150 kg K2O and 10–30 kg P2O5.
Diseases and pests
Very few pests and diseases attack henna. A black root rot caused by Corticium koleroga and a bacterial leaf-spot caused by Xanthomonas lawsoniae have been reported from western India.
Plants are generally harvested 2–4 times per year from the second year onwards under intensive cultivation. Harvesting starts 1 or 2 years later under extensive management. At the first harvest plants are cut at about 10–15 cm above the ground, later they are cut at ground level. Harvesting is done when the flower buds start to form.
Few reliable statistics on yields are available. Under irrigation, henna may yield 2500–3000 kg/ha per year of leaves on dry weight basis, reaching 4000 kg/ha under optimal conditions. Under rainfed conditions in northern India yields of 700–1500 kg/ha are obtained.
Handling after harvest
In many regions fresh leaves are picked from the home garden when needed and used fresh. In the Arab world and India, leafy branches are harvested, left to dry, and the leaves are separated from the branches by beating; the dry sticks may be left around the field as fencing. Drying (to about 10% water content) should be rapid and preferably in the shade to retain the green colour of the leaves, which is an indication of good quality. Dried green leaves are preferred for hand and foot colouring, brownish leaves (dried less quickly) for hair colouring. Because of the better drying conditions, leaves harvested during the hot dry season are of better quality than those from the rainy season. For export, dried leaves are packed into bales of 50 kg (to western Europe) or powdered leaves in cartons of 25–50 kg with 100–500 g sachets for direct retail sale (to Middle East markets). Dried leaves are preferred by most traders, as they are less easily adulterated. Quality and purity demands differ strongly per country and per intended use. If the odour also plays a role, a mixture of leaves and flowers is preferred; if black colouring is needed, leaves mixed with indigo are preferred. In all cases, henna should be stored dry in the dark.
Germplasm collections of henna are not known to exist. Germplasm collection is recommended to safeguard the wide genetic variation present in traditional cultivars, often associated with the location of production.
Breeding should focus on reliable cultivars with high yield and quality for various ecological circumstances.
The very low toxicity of henna and its strongly rooted traditions make it one of the few natural dyes for which demand is still considerable. The ongoing search for innocuous natural dyes may add to its present uses. With more attention given to the selection of cultivars with a high lawsone content and to the development of better drying and processing techniques, it should be possible to expand commercial henna production to more humid areas. Commercial production should be possible in most African countries, but much attention needs to be paid to quality, packaging requirements and trading structures.
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Sources of illustration
- Oyen, L.P.A., 1991. Lawsonia inermis L. In: Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Wulijarni-Soetjipto, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 3. Dye and tannin producing plants. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 83–86.
- G. Aweke, P.O. Box 4278, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- Suzanne Tapapul Lekoyiet, c/o Wolfgang Heutzen, District Agriculture Office, P.O. Box 19, Kilifi, Kenya
Correct citation of this article
Aweke, Getachew & Tapapul Lekoyiet, Suzanne, 2005. Lawsonia inermis L. In: Jansen, P.C.M. & Cardon, D. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 28 September 2023.
- See the Prota4U database.