Clutia abyssinica (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Clutia abyssinica Jaub. & Spach

Protologue: Ill. pl. orient. 5: 77, t. 468 (1855).
Family: Euphorbiaceae

Vernacular names

  • Lightning bush, smooth-fruited clutia (En).

Origin and geographic distribution

Clutia abyssinica occurs from Congo east to Eritrea and Somalia and through eastern Africa south to Zambia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa.


Roots and leaves are commonly used for medicinal purposes. In DR Congo a root decoction is taken to treat fever and cough and is taken by pregnant women as a tonic. Ground roots are applied as an enema to treat gonorrhoea. To treat headache either a root extract is rubbed on the head or a leaf extract is drunk. The sap of leafy twigs is drunk to treat chest pain, side pain and shortness of breath. An infusion of leafy twigs or leaves is drunk or the ash eaten to treat skin problems, elephantiasis, diarrhoea and tachycardia. This infusion is also used as a wash to treat these ailments. Leaf ash in water is also taken to treat cough. Leaf powder in palm oil is applied to burns to heal them. A maceration of the crushed leaves is used as nose drops to treat pneumonia. Leaf sap diluted in water is applied as an enema to treat diarrhoea in children. In Rwanda and Kenya a root decoction is drunk, sometimes in milk, against liver problems. In eastern Africa the boiled roots are made into a soup which is taken as a remedy for enlarged spleen and kidney problems, and to treat headache, stomach-ache and malaria. A root extract is drunk to cure intestinal worms, influenza, colds and fever, and as a remedy for indigestion. To treat malaria, leaves are boiled to prepare a vapour bath. In Rwanda a leaf extract is drunk to induce the process of childbirth and as an abortifacient, and also to treat sciatic pain. In South Africa leaves are rubbed on the gums to treat toothache. In Uganda powdered leaves in water are taken to treat whooping cough and a leaf decoction is taken to treat shock. In Tanzania fresh leaves are rubbed on fungal skin problems. The wood is smoked by women to treat menstrual pains. In South Africa a maceration of root bark is drunk to treat abdominal problems, as a laxative and to expel intestinal worms.

In Kenya and Tanzania the roots are boiled with food to add flavour to it.

Production and international trade

The roots, leafy stems and leaves are used at a local level only.


The roots contain a phytosterol glucoside, cluytyl alcohol, and several bicyclic diterpenoids with a 6,7-secolabdane skeleton, clutiolide, dihydroclutiolide and isodihydroclutiolide. A chloroform extract of powdered roots yielded a complex mixture of 5-methylcoumarins. γ-Cadinene was the major constituent of the essential oil from the root, while β-ionone, α-farnesene and farnesylacetone were the major volatile constituents of the leaf. The leaves yielded the flavonoids ent-16β,17-dihydroxykaurane, spinosin and the diterpene 2"-O-glycosylisovitexin.

Ethanolic leaf, stem and root extracts showed moderate antiviral activity in vitro against polio virus and Coxsackie virus, moderate antifungal activity against Aspergillus fumigatus and Fusarium culmorum, but little antibacterial activity. An ethanol extract of the dry leaves showed antifungal activity against Trichophyton mentagrophytes.

There are reports that several Clutia spp. are highly toxic to livestock.


Dioecious, erect, lax shrub up to 6 m tall, with brittle branches, glabrous to evenly hairy. Leaves alternate, simple and entire; stipules absent; petiole 1–3.5 cm long; blade ovate to elliptical-lanceolate, 2–16(–20) cm × 1–7 cm, base cuneate to rounded, apex obtuse to acute, pinnately veined with 5–12 pairs of lateral veins. Inflorescence an axillary fascicle; male inflorescence dense, many-flowered, female inflorescence 1–many-flowered; bracts triangular, up to 1 mm long. Flowers unisexual, regular, 5-merous; pedicel up to 1 cm long, extending in fruit up to 2.5 cm; male flowers with sepals elliptical-ovate, c. 2.5 mm × 1 mm, each with 3–4 glands at base, pale green, petals triangular, clawed, c. 2 mm × 1.5 mm, each with gland at base, white, stamens fused into a column c. 1 mm long, ovary rudimentary; female flowers with sepals oblong-lanceolate, c. 2 mm long, obtuse, each with yellowish gland at base, petals spoon-shaped, c. 2 mm long, white, ovary superior, nearly globose, c. 1 mm in diameter, 3-celled, smooth, styles 3, c. 1 mm long, fused at base, 2-fid and reflexed at apex, persistent. Fruit a 3-lobed capsule c. 5 mm × 4.5 mm, pale green, covered with small whitish warts, 3-seeded. Seeds ovoid, c. 3 mm × 2 mm × 1.5 mm, minutely pitted, black, shining, caruncle conical, c. 1 mm long, whitish.

Other botanical information

Clutia comprises about 60 species, of which about 20 occur in tropical Africa and about 40 in South Africa. Three varieties have been described in Clutia abyssinica, which are mainly distinguished by the hairiness of the plant, the shape of the leaves and the length of the pedicel.

Other Clutia spp. from eastern and southern Africa are also used medicinally.

Clutia angustifolia

Clutia angustifolia Knauf occurs from Burundi south to Zambia and Mozambique, and in DR Congo a leaf extract is used as a mouth wash, while leaves are rubbed in to treat toothache.

Clutia hirsuta

A leaf decoction of Clutia hirsuta (Sond.) Müll.Arg. from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, is taken to treat fever. A leaf maceration combined with other plants is taken to treat anthrax, and also gall bladder problems in livestock. Crude leaf and root extracts show moderate antimalarial activities.

Clutia lanceolata

Clutia lanceolata Forrsk. (synonyms: Clutia kilimandscharica Engl., Clutia robusta Pax) occurs from Eritrea and Somalia south to Tanzania and Zimbabwe. In Ethiopia a maceration of young twigs and leaves is drunk to treat diarrhoea. The leafy twigs are also used in fumigations to treat ophthalmia. In East Africa a root decoction in milk is taken to treat colds and rheumatism. Maasai people use pieces of wood as ear plugs.

Clutia paxii

Clutia paxii Knauf occurs from southern DR Congo south to Zimbabwe and Mozambique; a leaf infusion is drunk in DR Congo to treat angina.

Clutia pulchella

A hot leaf infusion of Clutia pulchella L. (from Zimbabwe, southern Mozambique and northern South Africa) is drunk to treat stomach-ache, diarrhoea and dysentery. Root ash is rubbed into scarifications to heal fractures and sprains. An infusion of leaves, stems and roots in milk is applied as an enema to treat stomach-ache in children.


Clutia abyssinica is common in dry forest, forest remnants, secondary forest and wooded grassland on rocky hillsides, and riverine, evergreen thickets, at 700–3700 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Clutia abyssinica is only propagated by seed.


All plant parts of Clutia abyssinica can be harvested whenever the need arises.

Handling after harvest

Leaves, leafy stems and roots are used fresh or are dried for later use.

Genetic resources

Clutia abyssinica is widespread and common and hence not threatened by genetic erosion.


Clutia abyssinica has many medicinal uses against a range of diseases. Several tests with root, stem and leaf extracts showed antifungal and antiviral activities, while the antibacterial activities showed divergent results. It would be worthwhile to evaluate the activities of the isolated compounds.

Major references

  • Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
  • Cos, P., Hermans, N., de Bruyne, T., Apers, S., Sindambiwe, J.B., Vanden Berghe, D.A., Pieters, L. & Vlietinck, A.J., 2002. Further evaluation of Rwandan medicinal plant extracts for their antimicrobial and antiviral activities. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 79: 155–163.
  • de Boer, H.J., Kool, A., Broberg, A., Mziray, W.R., Hedberg, I. & Levensfors, J.L., 2005. Anti-fungal and anti-bacterial activity of some herbal remedies from Tanzania. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 96: 461–469.
  • Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
  • Latham, P., 2007. Plants visited by bees and other useful plants of Umalila, southern Tanzania. Third edition. P.Latham, DFID, United Kingdom. 216 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1987. Euphorbiaceae (part 1). In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 407 pp.
  • Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1996. Euphorbiaceae, subfamilies Phyllantoideae, Oldfieldioideae, Acalyphoideae, Crotonoideae and Euphorbioideae, tribe Hippomaneae. In: Pope, G.V. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 9, part 4. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 1–337.
  • Vlietinck, A.J., van Hoof, L., Totté, J., Lasure, A., Vanden Berghe, D.A., Rwangabo, P.C. & Mvukiyumwami, J., 1995. Screening of hundred Rwandese medicinal plants for antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 46: 31–47.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.

Other references

  • Chifundera, K., 2001. Contribution to the inventory of medicinal plants from the Bushi area, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Fitoterapia 72: 351–368.
  • Gilbert, M.G., 1992. Notes on Tragia, Dalechampia and Clutia (Euphorbiaceae) in Ethiopia and Somalia. Nordic Journal of Botany 12(4): 389–401.
  • Ichikawa, M., 1987. A preliminary report on the ethnobotany of the Suiei Dorobo in northern Kenya. African Study Monographs, Supplement 7: 1–52.
  • Kraft, C., Jenett-Siems, K., Siems, K., Jakupovic, J., Mavi, S., Bienzle, U. & Eich, E., 2003. In vitro antiplasmodial evaluation of medicinal plants from Zimbabwe. Phytotherapy Research 17(2): 123–128.
  • Mahunnah, R.L. & Mtotmwema, K., 1985. Ethnobotany of Clutia (Euphorbiaceae) in Tanzania. Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 7(3): 505–512.
  • Waigh, R.D., Zerihun, B.M. & Euerby, M.R., 1990. Three diterpenes with a secolabdane skeleton from Clutia abyssinica. Phytochemistry 29(9): 2935–2938.
  • Waigh, R.D., Zerihun, B.M. & Maitland, D.J., 1991. Ten 5-methylcoumarins from Clutia abyssinica. Phytochemistry 30(1): 333–335.
  • Zerihun, B., Lockwood, G.B. & Waigh, R.D., 1987. Flavonoids and a diterpene from Clutia abyssinica. Journal of Natural Products 50(2): 322.
  • Zerihun, B., Lockwood, G.B. & Waigh, R.D., 1987. Volatile and non-polar constituents from leaf and root of Clutia abyssinica. Fitoterapia 58(3): 192–193.
  • Zilimwabagabo, P. & Kanayire, L., 1990. Comparaison de l’activité antibactérienne et antimycotique des plantes utilisées dans le traitement des dermatoses en médecine traditionnelle rwandaise. Bulletin de Médecine Traditionnelle et Pharmacopée 4(2): 111–115.

Sources of illustration

  • Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1987. Euphorbiaceae (part 1). In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 407 pp.


  • E.N. Matu, CTMDR/KEMRI, P.O. Box 54840–00200, Nairobi, Kenya

Correct citation of this article

Matu, E.N., 2008. Clutia abyssinica Jaub. & Spach. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 25 March 2023.