Boerhavia diffusa (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Cereal / pulse|
|Forage / feed|
- Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 3 (1753).
- Family: Nyctaginaceae
- Chromosome number: 2n = 26, 52, 54, 116
- Boerhavia africana Lour. (1790).
- Spreading hogweed, red hogweed, tar vine, red spiderling (En).
- Agarra pinto, tangara, bredo de porco, erva tostão (Po).
- Mkwakwara, mkwayakwaya (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Boerhavia diffusa has a pantropical distribution, and possibly originates from the Old World tropics. It occurs throughout tropical Africa.
In India Boerhavia diffusa is a very popular medicinal plant, called ‘Punarnava’; especially the roots, leaves and seeds are used and the root is listed in the Indian Pharmacopoeia. Plant parts are applied as a stomachic, cardiotonic, hepatoprotective, laxative, diuretic, anthelmintic, febrifuge, expectorant and, in higher doses, as an emetic and purgative. As a diuretic it is useful in strangury, jaundice, enlarged spleen, gonorrhoea and other internal inflammations. In moderate doses it is successful in asthma. A decoction of the roots is also applied to corneal ulcers and to treat night blindness. Similar uses have been reported for Central America and South-East Asia.
In tropical Africa the boiled roots are applied to ulcers, abscesses and to assist in the extraction of Guinea worm. The boiled roots and leaves are considered expectorant and febrifuge, and in large doses emetic. A decoction of the aerial parts is also taken to treat gastro-intestinal pains, convulsions, intestinal worms and to regulate menstruation. In Mauritania the seeds are ground and made into cakes which are cooked and eaten as a remedy for dysentery. In Côte d’Ivoire the powdered leaves are made into a paste and are applied to the chest to relieve asthma. The leaves are applied to the forehead to treat violent headache and around the ears against earache. Root sap as a lotion for friction is used to treat kidney troubles, rheumatism, generalised pain and sprains. In Ghana the root decoction is also taken to treat anaemia and applied externally to yaws, while the powdered root can be mixed with butter or oil to treat abdominal tumours. A decoction of the root is also taken to treat heart troubles, palpitations and jaundice. In Congo root sap is rubbed on the neck and throat to treat mumps, laryngitis and burns. In water or palm oil, or in a decoction, it is taken to treat spleen troubles, diarrhoea, dysentery, haematuria and gonorrhoea. The root is also considered abortifacient and used to hasten parturition. The roots are also applied as a snakebite antidote, and as an aphrodisiac. A decoction of the leaves is used in DR Congo to treat gonorrhoea and to calm pain. A decoction of the root is taken in Angola to treat jaundice. In Namibia the Bergdamara people chew or boil the root to treat gastro-enteritic problems, while the Damara people take a tea made from the root to treat a prolapsed uterus.
In West and East Africa the leaves are sometimes prepared in a sauce as a vegetable, while the seeds are added to cereals in Senegal and Mali. The leaves are cooked as a vegetable in curries and soups in India as well, and the roots and seeds are added to curries and bread. The leafy stems are widely eaten by sheep and cattle, and may also be cut as a fodder.
Production and international trade
Boerhavia diffusa is mainly used at a local scale, except in India where especially the roots enter in popular medicinal formulations. Indian products are traded worldwide.
The chemistry of the bioactive compounds of Boerhavia diffusa and their pharmacological properties are poorly studied. Most research has focused on extracts. Compounds isolated from the roots of Boerhavia diffusa include the alkaloid punarnavine, punarnavoside (a glucopyranoside), ursolic acid, and the rotenoids boeravinones A1, B1, C2, D, E and F, as well as several minor components.
In India Boerhavia diffusa is included in the Pharmacopoeia as a diuretic, and this action has since been confirmed. The diuretic activity is probably due to depression of tubular excretion, inhibiting kidney succinic dehydrogenase and stimulating D-amino oxidase. An aqueous extract of the dry or fresh plant is useful in cases of oedema and ascites. In India an intravenous injection of punarnavine in cats produced a distinct and persistent rise of blood pressure and a marked diuresis. The high amounts of potassium salts present in the whole plant increase the action of punarnavine. In a clinical trial for treatment of nephrotic syndrome, the extract was found to improve diuresis, to relieve oedema, and to cause an overall improvement of the patient, including a decrease in albuminuria, rise in serum protein and fall in serum cholesterol level.
A decoction of the leaves and the fresh juice both produced a significant analgesic effect in tests with rats, but the fresh juice raised the pain threshold for much longer than the leaf decoction. The alcoholic extract showed anti-inflammatory effects against carrageenan-induced paw oedema and also increased urinary output in rats.
In tests with mice, the alkaloidal fraction of the roots inhibited hypersensitivity reactions. Extracts of the whole plant exhibited various pharmacological effects including hepatoprotective, anticonvulsant, hypotensive, myocardial depressant, and skeleton and smooth muscle stimulant activities in rats. No teratogenic effects have been detected in pregnant rats. The root extract showed noticeable reduction of the duration of menstrual flow and iron loss in monkeys. The results of tests with rats suggest that a leaf extract has significant antidiabetic activity. The ethanolic extract of the aerial parts showed protection of guinea pigs with histamine-induced asthma. An ethanolic extract of the roots showed in-vitro and in-vivo antitumour activity. Additionally, extracts showed antiviral, antifungal and allelopathic activities.
In-vitro root cultures were established from leaf segments of Boerhavia diffusa. Roots formed with 0.5 μM IAA contained 15% punarnavine on dry weight basis, while roots formed with higher concentrations of IAA contained less of the compound. In the presence of 2,4-D, leaf segments produced callus with regenerated roots, containing traces of punarnavine.
The nutritional composition of the leaves per 100 g edible portion is: water 82 g, energy 217 kJ (52 kcal), protein 4.5 g, fat 0.5 g, carbohydrate 10.3 g, fibre 2.2 g.
Adulterations and substitutes
Other species of Boerhavia, and also Trianthema portulacastrum L. (Aizoaceae) are sometimes used as a diuretic in the same way as Boerhavia diffusa.
Annual to perennial herb up to 1 m tall, sometimes with thick taproot; stem branching mainly from the base, prostrate when young, ascending to erect when flowering, fleshy, green, often flushed with red, glabrescent to short or long hairy with multicellular hairs, often glandular, especially around the swollen nodes. Leaves opposite, simple, unequal; stipules absent; petiole 1–2.5(–3.5) cm long; blade broadly ovate to elliptical, 1.5–6 cm × 0.5–5 cm, base obtuse, cordate or truncate, apex acute to obtuse, margins sinuate, pale green to whitish beneath, sometimes with red marginal glands. Inflorescence an axillary, small, often congested irregular umbel, (1–)3–5(–7)-flowered, aggregated in a large diffuse panicle up to 40(–60) cm long, by reduction of leaves appearing terminal, elongating greatly after start of flowering; bracts and bracteoles small, fimbriate, caducous. Flowers bisexual, regular; pedicel up to 1 mm long; perianth tubular-campanulate, distinctly constricted halfway, lower part obconical, surrounding the ovary, 5-ribbed, green, upper part 5-lobed, 0.5–1.5 mm × 2 mm, red or purple, soon falling; stamens 1(–3), slightly exserted; ovary superior, seemingly inferior, 1-celled, style slightly exserted, stigma head-shaped. Fruit an achene enclosed by the thickened lower part of perianth (collectively called anthocarp); anthocarp obconical or club-shaped, (2.5–)3–3.5 mm × 1–1.5 mm, apex rounded, 5-ribbed, with rounded ribs, with glandular hairs, 1-seeded. Seed obovoid, pale brown. Seedling with epigeal germination; hypocotyl well developed; cotyledons rounded, with distinct midvein; first leaves alternate, shortly hairy, purplish beneath.
Other botanical information
Boerhavia comprises 5–20 species, depending on the species concept, and includes several variable pantropical weeds with complex nomenclatural histories. Two views have been taken on the application of the name Boerhavia diffusa: a broad view regarding several Boerhavia taxa (including Boerhavia repens L. and Boerhavia coccinea Mill.) as a single very variable species, and a restricted concept in which Boerhavia diffusa is applied to the taxon with an apparently terminal panicle. This last view is followed here, but this implies that some of the literature in which the name Boerhavia diffusa is used may refer to other species.
Growth and development
Boerhavia diffusa can be found flowering and fruiting throughout the year, when sufficient water is available. The first flowers may appear 4 weeks after germination of the seeds.
Boerhavia diffusa occurs in ruderal localities and along roadsides, preferring sunny sites and a slightly seasonal climate, from sea-level up to 1200 m altitude. It is often a weed in cultivated land, usually on sandy soils, and is also found in lawns and grazing pasture.
Propagation and planting
Boerhavia diffusa is propagated by seed, which germinates with the start of the first rains and continues to germinate throughout the rainy season. When the soil of arable fields is turned, pieces of root can sprout as well. Well-drained soils and sunny conditions are required. The mucous coat of the anthocarp shows a distinct sticky swelling when ripe, with which it clings to mammals and birds. Boerhavia diffusa has been successfully propagated by in-vitro induction of adventitious roots on stem explants, leaf or shoot tip cultures.
Boerhavia diffusa is a weed of cultivated land and wasteland, often in lawns in drier areas. Although common, it is not a weed of importance. After mechanical cultivation the plant resprouts from its roots but relatively few cultivations are needed to exhaust it.
Diseases and pests
In India several host-specific diseases have been identified on Boerhavia diffusa, i.e. Cercospora diffusa causing chlorotic leaf spots, and Colletotrichum boerhaviae causing brown necrotic spots. Also in India Boerhavia diffusa is recorded as a host for the virus causing aubergine mosaic disease (EMV), and in Costa Rica as a host of zucchini yellow mosaic potyvirus (ZYMV). In Cameroon Boerhavia diffusa is an alternative host for the cotton aphid (Aphis gossypii), and in Nigeria caterpillars of Aegocera rectilinea and Hippotion celerio were found feeding almost solely on Boerhavia diffusa.
Handling after harvest
The harvested parts of Boerhavia diffusa are often used fresh, except for the roots, which may be dried in the sun for later use.
Boerhavia diffusa has a large area of distribution, often as a weed, and is not at risk of genetic erosion. There seems to be a geographical variation in the composition of pharmacological compounds, and more research is needed in order to evaluate the most promising populations. There are no known breeding programmes of Boerhavia diffusa.
Various extracts and purified compounds from Boerhavia diffusa show a range of pharmacological effects (in vitro and in vivo), e.g. diuretic, anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective activities. Few clinical data, however, are available and this merits further research in order to fully evaluate its potential for future medicinal use.
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Correct citation of this article
Muzila, M., 2006. Boerhavia diffusa L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 14 November 2018.
- See the Prota4U database.