Cassia abbreviata (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Carbohydrate / starch|
|Dye / tannin|
|Forage / feed|
Cassia abbreviata Oliv.
- Protologue: Fl. trop. Afr. 2: 271 (1871).
- Family: Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae)
- Longtail cassia, long-pod cassia, sjambok pod (En).
- Mbaraka, mkakatika (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Cassia abbreviata is indigenous from Gabon east to Somalia and throughout southern Africa to South Africa. It has been introduced into Mauritius.
Cassia abbreviata has been used for many ailments. The leaves are smoked as a treatment for haematuria, whereas the smoke of smouldering twigs is inhaled to cure headache. A root infusion is kept in the mouth, or roots are chewed and swallowed to relieve toothache. A root decoction or the dried powdered roots in water are drunk to treat gastrointestinal disorders, stomach-ache, bilharzia, venereal diseases, pneumonia, uterus complaints, heavy menstruation, snakebites, and as a purgative, stomachic, aphrodisiac, abortifacient and vermifuge. Malaria (including blackwater fever) is also treated with extracts from the roots. A water extract of the roots is used as an eyewash to cure ophthalmia. The powdered stem bark is applied to abscesses and added to food to cure diarrhoea. A decoction of the stem bark is used as a purgative and to cure malaria and diarrhoea. The seed is used as a tonic.
The wood is used to make furniture, pestles and joinery. It is termite resistant and therefore the poles are preferred for house construction. The wood is also a useful source of charcoal and firewood Cassia abbreviata is important in soil conservation and as a shade tree. The flowers are highly appreciated as bee forage. The stem bark is used for tanning and dyeing.
Production and international trade
A decoction of Cassia abbreviata roots was formerly produced commercially and sold in southern Africa as a cure for blackwater fever and schistosomiasis. Trade of roots and bark for local use is still important in East and south-eastern Africa. Traditional healers nowadays rely on commercial traders for their supply, whereas in the past they harvested the required material themselves. High demand and destructive harvesting have led to steep price increases, at least in Malawi.
From the root bark, stem bark, leaves and flowers, a number of anthraquinones, triterpenoids, flavanol derivatives and organic acids have been isolated. Extracts of both roots and leaves showed high antiplasmodial activity in vitro. Injection of crude extract of the stem bark in rats caused a drop in blood pressure which was dose-dependent. Tests on pregnant mice and rats showed no abortifacient activity of stem bark extract at doses which are not toxic to the animals. Methanol, acetone and water extracts of the stem bark showed significant inhibition against a number of gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. Tests of a root extract showed only modest levels of cytotoxicity.
The wood is heavy and dark brown. The heartwood has a coarse texture and shows pale blotches.
Adulterations and substitutes
As a purgative Cassia abbreviata is often replaced by other Cassia, Senna and Aloe species.
- Shrub or small tree up to 10(–15) m tall, deciduous; young twigs glabrous or hairy.
- Leaves arranged spirally, paripinnately compound with 5–12 pairs of leaflets; stipules linear, c. 1.5 mm long, caducous; leaflets ovate-elliptical to oblong-elliptical, 3–6 cm × 1–3 cm, base rounded to obtuse, apex obtuse to subacute.
- Inflorescence a terminal, lax raceme, 0.5–9 cm long, many-flowered; bracts persistent during flowering.
- Flowers bisexual, slightly zygomorphic, 5-merous, fragrant; sepals obtuse; petals oblanceolate to obovate, 15–35 mm × 7–18 mm, yellow; stamens 10, 3 with filaments c. 3 cm long, 4 shorter, 3 rudimentary; ovary superior, stipitate, style very short, stigma small.
- Fruit a pendulous cylindrical pod 30–90 cm × 1.5–2.5 cm, transversely partitioned, dehiscent by 2 valves, woody, black, many-seeded with seeds embedded in pulp.
- Seeds ellipsoid, 9–12 mm long, brown to black.
- Seedling with epigeal germination.
Other botanical information
Until the early 1980s, Cassia was considered a very large genus of about 550 species, but was then split into 3 genera: Cassia s.s. with about 30 species, Chamaecrista and Senna. In Cassia abbreviata 3 subspecies are distinguished: subsp. abbreviata, subsp. beareana (Holmes) Brenan and subsp. kassneri (Baker f.) Brenan. They differ morphologically and in ecological requirements. Cassia abbreviata hybridizes with Cassia burttii Baker f., which is found in Tanzania and Mozambique. Cassia afrofistula Brenan has been erroneously considered synonymous with Cassia abbreviata; it is native to Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. Both Cassia burttii and Cassia afrofistula have similar medicinal uses in East Africa as Cassia abbreviata. It is probable that these 3 species have been confused.
Growth and development
Cassia abbreviata is moderately fast growing. It has potential for intercropping as it roots deeply and probably causes only limited competition with crops for nutrients and water. Flowering occurs on the bare tree at the end of the dry season and fruits are ripe about 7 months later. Cassia abbreviata does not form root nodules but has a high N-content in its leaves. It has been suggested that it may fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with ectomycorrhizas.
Cassia abbreviata commonly occurs in Acacia - Commiphora bushland and also in woodland and wooded grassland. It is usually found on termite mounds and clayey soils. Mature trees are fire resistant, but seedlings are vulnerable. It is drought tolerant and it can withstand moderate frost.
Propagation and planting
Cassia abbreviata is propagated by seed or wildlings. Soaking in hot water improves seed germination. Seeds germinate 4–10 days after sowing. They are sown in a sand-compost mixture (1:1) and should be kept warm and moist. It is better not to use seeding trays, but to sow seed directly into polythene bags or into the ground. Before transplanting, 1–2 weeks after sowing, root trimming is necessary because the plants develop a long taproot early.
Pollarding, coppicing, trimming and pruning are recommended management strategies for Cassia abbreviata. Over-watering results in poor flowering.
Diseases and pests
The leaves of Cassia abbreviata are attacked by powdery mildew caused by Phyllactinia cassiae.
Removal of the bark of Cassia abbreviata should be done in small pieces and not by ring barking, as is commonly done. Harvesting the roots is even more destructive.
Handling after harvest
The harvested bark is dried in the shade for future use.
In Malawi and Zambia excessive cutting of the bark of Cassia abbreviata for medicinal use has killed many trees near homesteads. Populations in Kenya and Tanzania are also under severe pressure. Measures to protect natural stands are long overdue.
In view of the many and widespread medicinal uses of Cassia abbreviata, the amount of scientific research on the species is disappointing. The enormous demand for roots and bark mean that the wild populations are being depleted at a high rate. Protection measures and domestication are required urgently.
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Sources of illustration
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- V. Kawanga, Zambian Branch, Commonwealth Forestry Association, Private Bag RW 359X, Ridgeway, 15102 Lusaka, Zambia
Correct citation of this article
Kawanga, V., 2007. Cassia abbreviata Oliv. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 8 July 2021.
- See the Prota4U database.