Argemone mexicana (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Argemone mexicana L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 508 (1753).
Family: Papaveraceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 28, 42, 56


  • Argemone ochroleuca Sweet (1828).

Vernacular names

  • Mexican poppy, prickly poppy, yellow thistle, Mexican thistle (En).
  • Argémone, pavot épineux, pavot du Mexique, tache de l’œil, chardon du pays (Fr).
  • Papoila mexicana, papoula do México, cardo santo (Po).
  • Mtunguja bonde (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Argemone mexicana is native in Mexico and the West Indies, but has become pantropical after accidental introduction or introduction as an ornamental. It is naturalized in most African countries, from Cape Verde east to Somalia, and south to South Africa.


Throughout the tropics Argemone mexicana is widely used as a medicinal plant. It is considered a painkiller, diuretic, cholagogue and anti-inflammatory. The seed oil is used as a purgative and as a pomade. Both the seed oil and leaf infusions are drunk to relieve cough. Root and leaf decoctions are applied to the skin to cure oedema, inflammation, muscle pain, ulcers, yaws, to remove warts, to kill Guinea worm and to promote wound healing. A root decoction is used as a mouthwash and eye bath to treat infections. Leaf sap is used as eardrops to cure ear inflammation. Flowers, leaves and seeds are used in alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for their psycho-active properties.

In Nigeria the seed oil is applied to protect wood from termite attack, whereas in India, Mexico and the West Indies the seed oil is sometimes used to make soap, for greasing and for illumination. The seed oil of Argemone mexicana, called ‘argemone oil’ or ‘katkar oil’, is sometimes added to mustard oil in India to increase the pungency. Larger amounts are sometimes used to adulterate mustard oil or sesame oil, which may lead to oedema and glaucoma in people who consume the oil.

Cattle do not graze the plant as it is spiny, but they can be poisoned if they consume it in hay or the chaff. Sheep and goats eat it when other vegetation is in short supply, while ostriches relish it. The value of wool decreases when it is contaminated by the prickly fruits.

Argemone mexicana is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental.

Production and international trade

Argemone mexicana is only used locally and is not traded internationally. In Africa cultivation for its oil for the domestic market has been reported from Mali and Eritrea.


Argemone mexicana contains numerous isoquinoline alkaloids of the protoberberine type and related types, including sanguinarine. The total alkaloid fraction in the dried roots and stems is 0.25%, mainly consisting of protopine and berberine. The alkaloid 6-acetonyldihydrochelerythrine has recently been isolated from whole plant extracts and was found to have significant anti-HIV activity. The alkaloids berberine, protopine, protopine hydrochloride, sanguinarine and dihydrosanguinarine have been isolated from the seeds. Protopine is considered a narcotic and it reduces morphine-withdrawal effects significantly. Protopine and sanguinarine showed molluscicidal properties against Lymnaea acuminata and Biomphalaria glabrata. Berberine has improving effects on the circulation in small doses and also has hallucinogenic properties. An overdose, however, produces death by paralysis of the central nervous system. Other pharmacological effects of berberine include spasmolytic, antibacterial and to some degree antifungal and antiprotozoal activities. Most berberine is formed in the flowers. The alkaloid fraction from the roots showed anti-inflammatory activity in rabbits and rats. Leaf extracts showed in-vitro anti-plasmodial activity.

The seeds of Argemone mexicana contain 35–40% of an orange-yellow oil which consists mainly of linoleic acid (54–61%) and oleic acid (21–33%). It also contains poisonous sanguinarine in concentrations as high as 10 g/l. Accidental mixing of Argemone mexicana seed with grain and oil seeds has caused deaths in several countries, including South Africa. The seed oil has a significant nematicidal effect on larvae of the genus Meloidogyne. An aqueous mixture of the oil (0.2%) applied to the soil of okra (Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench) significantly reduced nematode infection and nematode concentrations in roots and soil, thereby increasing okra growth. When sprayed on the leaves the effect was even more striking, showing the systemic effect of the spray.

Leaf extracts show antifeedant activity against insects, including the large cabbage-heart caterpillar (Crocidolomia binotalis), the cluster caterpillar (Spodoptera litura), the cotton aphid (Aphis gossypii) and also larvae of the southern house mosquito (Culex quinquefasciatus). Dried plant extracts significantly reduced nematode damage on seedlings of tomato and eggplant. Tomatoes treated with a leaf extract showed significantly less fruit rot caused by Aspergillus niger. A flower extract induced a high level of resistance to tomato virus × in Chenopodium album L. Extracts also showed antibacterial activity in vitro against Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli and Streptococcus faecalis.

Aqueous leaf and flower extracts inhibit the germination and growth of many cultivated crops, such as tomato, cucumber, mustard, radish and pearl millet. Allelopathic effects of the residues on Bambara groundnut and sorghum have been observed in the field.


  • Erect, branched, annual herb up to 50(–100) cm tall, glabrous, containing yellow latex; taproot firm; stem with scattered prickles.
  • Lower leaves in a rosette and with short petiole, stem leaves alternate, sessile, auricled, obovate in outline, 5–22 cm × 3–7 cm, margin wavy to more or less deeply lobed, sharply toothed, lobes curled upwards, white variegated along the main veins, bluish green elsewhere, prickles scattered along the margin and on the veins below.
  • Flowers solitary, regular, 3-merous; bracts 3, leafy; sepals vaulted, terete, with few prickles, horn just below apex, caducous; petals 6, obovate, 1.5–3 cm long, pale to bright yellow; stamens many, 7–12 mm long, free; ovary superior, ovoid, 8–10 mm long, with long soft bristles, style very short, stigma 3–6-lobed, dark red.
  • Fruit an ellipsoid, 3–6-lobed capsule 2.5–4 cm long, valves 3–6, dehiscing from the apex to about 1/3, covered with sharp prickles, many-seeded.
  • Seeds globular, 1.5–2 mm in diameter, finely net-veined, black-brown, hilum prominent, pale.
  • Seedling with epigeal germination; cotyledons linear, up to 2 cm long.

Other botanical information

Argemone comprises 6–9 species all from tropical America. Some authors consider Argemone ochroleuca Sweet a distinct species that can be distinguished by paler petals, thicker leaves and narrower fruits. However, it is widely accepted that it is the tetraploid form (or sometimes triploid form) of Argemone mexicana.

Growth and development

In the tropics, Argemone mexicana flowers and fruits throughout the year. The flowers open early in the morning, and last for 2–3 days. Small stingless bees are the main pollinators, but Argemone mexicana is predominantly self-pollinated. Most seeds fall around the base of the parent plant where they may form a carpet of seedlings. The seed is light, has a waxy coat and is pitted, and may be dispersed by wind and water and is known to spread quickly in irrigation schemes. Dispersal also occurs by soil adhering to farm machinery and by man and livestock. Seeds can remain dormant for many years.


Argemone mexicana occurs mainly in regions with a pronounced dry season, on open waste ground, along roadsides and railways, in fields as a weed, mostly at sea-level, but sometimes up to 3000 m altitude. It is locally abundant, but on the whole scattered. It tends to grow well in soils of low fertility.

Propagation and planting

Argemone mexicana is propagated by seed. Seed production can be 18, 000–36,000 seeds per plant. Seeds germinate best in moist soil with a temperature of up to 25°C. In some regions they germinate throughout the year if enough moisture is available.


Argemone mexicana is hardly cultivated and generally considered a weed. As a weed in cultivated land it is generally not an aggressive competitor. It is reported as a weed in pulses, cereals, tobacco, tea, sugarcane, tomatoes, cotton and Irish potato. Hand harvesting of field crops can be painful in the presence of Argemone mexicana. In areas were it was introduced fairly recently its potential impact as a weed is often underestimated. A biological control programme has been initiated in Australia. In Mexico several predatory insects were identified including an extremely damaging species of root-breeding and leaf-feeding weevil.

Diseases and pests

In some areas Argemone mexicana is attacked by leafspot caused by Xanthomonas campestris pv. papavericola. Argemone mexicana is a host of collar rot (Aspergillus niger), the reniform nematode (Rotylenchulus reniformis) and the tobacco budworm (Helicoverpa assulta).


The desired plant parts of Argemone mexicana are harvested whenever the need arises.


Under favourable conditions, Argemone mexicana can produce a fresh weight of 6–9 t/ha.

Handling after harvest

Harvested material of Argemone mexicana is used fresh or is dried for later use.

Genetic resources

Argemone mexicana is not at risk of genetic erosion as it is a widely distributed weed.


Several compounds of Argemone mexicana display interesting pharmacological effects as purified compounds, making further research desirable. Argemone mexicana might be of interest as a natural source of berberine. The toxic effects of seed oil, flowers and to a lesser extent leaf sap make their use for medicinal purposes hazardous, but they will probably continue to be used extensively.

Major references

  • Abebe, D. & Hagos, E., 1991. Plants as a primary source of drugs in the traditional health practices of Ethiopia. In: Engels, J.M.M., Hawkes, J.G. & Worede, M. (Editors). Plant genetic resources of Ethiopia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. pp. 101–113.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1997. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 969 pp.
  • Hyde, M. & Wursten, B., 2002. Argemone mexicana L. [Internet ] Flora of Zimbabwe. speciesdata/ genus.php?genus_id=611. January 2007.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Seegeler, C.J.P., 1983. Oil plants in Ethiopia, their taxonomy and agricultural significance. Agricultural Research Reports 921. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. 368 pp.
  • Tran Cong Khanh, 2001. Argemone mexicana 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. 82–85.

Other references

  • Boiteau, P. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1993. Plantes médicinales de Madagascar. Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique, Paris, France. 135 pp.
  • Capasso, A., Piacente, S., Tommasi, N.D., Rastrelli, L. & Pizza, C., 2006. The effect of isoquinoline alkaloids on opiate withdrawal. Current Medicinal Chemistry 13(7): 807–812.
  • Carrillo-Rosario, T. & Díaz de Ramirez, A., 2005. Actividad antimalárica de extractos crudos de plantas en ratones infectados con Plasmodium berghei. Revista de la Facultad de Farmacia (Venezuela) 47(1): 2–9.
  • Chang, Y.-C., Hsieh, P.-W., Chang, F.-R., Wu, R.-R., Liaw, C.-C., Lee, K.-H. & Wu, Y.-C., 2003. Two new protopines argemexicaines A and B and the anti-HIV alkaloid 6-acetonyldihydrochelerythrine from Formosan Argemone mexicana. Planta Medica 69(2): 148–152.
  • Chaturvedi, M., Datta, K. & Pal, M., 1999., 1999. Pollen anomaly: a clue to natural hybridity in Argemone (Papaveraceae). Grana 38(6): 339–342.
  • Das, M. & Khanna, S.K., 1997. Clinicoepidemiological, toxicological, and safety evaluation studies on argemone oil. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 27(3): 273–297.
  • Diallo, D., Willcox, M., Flaquet, J., Graz, B. & Sidibe, O., 2005. Decoction of Argemone mexicana is clinically effective in uncomplicated falciparum malaria. In: Abstract Book of the International Medicine and Health in the Tropics Congress, 11–15 September 2005, Marseille, France. 315 pp.
  • Freiburghaus, F., Kaminsky, R., Nkunya, M.H.H. & Brun, R., 1996. Evaluation of African medicinal plants for their in vitro trypanocidal activity. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 55: 1–11.
  • Gupta, R.S., Dixit, V.P. & Dobhal, M.P., 1990. Antifertility studies of isoquinoline alkaloids with special emphasis on structure activity relationship. Fitoterapia 61(1): 67–71.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Sewraj, M., Guého, J. & Dulloo, E., 1993. Medical ethnobotany of some weeds of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 39(3): 177–185.
  • Sharma, V. & Nathawat, G.S., 1987. Allelopathic effect of Argemone mexicana L. on species of Triticum, Brassica, Raphanus and Pennisetum. Current Science (India) 56(9): 427–428.
  • Upreti, K.K., Das, M. & Khanna, S.K., 1991. Biochemical toxicology of argemone oil. 1. Effect on hepatic cytochrome P-450 and xenobiotic metabolizing enzymes. Journal of Applied Toxicology 11(3): 203–209.
  • van Wyk, B.E., van Heerden, F. & van Oudtshoorn, B., 2002. Poisonous plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 288 pp.

Sources of illustration

  • Tran Cong Khanh, 2001. Argemone mexicana 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. 82–85.


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

Correct citation of this article

Bosch, C.H., 2007. Argemone mexicana L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 11 November 2020.