Elaeophorbia drupifera (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Elaeophorbia drupifera (Thonn.) Stapf

Protologue: Prain, Icon. pl. 29: t. 2823 (1906).
Family: Euphorbiaceae


  • Euphorbia drupifera Thonn. (1827).

Vernacular names

  • Pago olho de marcaçao (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Elaeophorbia drupifera occurs from Guinea east to Uganda and south to DR Congo and perhaps Angola.


The latex is commonly applied to ringworm, snakebites, insect stings and scorpion stings to relieve the pain. It is applied to warts because of its caustic effects. It is also applied to the gums against toothache. Ground leaves with salt and chopped onions are applied to Guinea worm sores, to extract the worms. In Côte d’Ivoire a leaf decoction is taken as a purgative, or applied as an enema for the same purpose. In West Africa and Gabon the latex dissolved in water is drunk or latex is eaten in manioc porridge or on a piece of sugar cane as a purgative. In Congo a bark decoction is used as mouth wash to treat toothache. In DR Congo root bark sap is rubbed in and scrapings are used as a dressing to treat craw-craw wounds. A leaf decoction is drunk to treat cough and whooping cough, and is also used to wash leprous sores.

The latex or crushed leaves are widely used as a fish poison or as an ingredient of arrow poison. In Ghana the fruit is also used as fish poison. The latex is also used as ordeal poison.

Throughout West Africa and in Gabon Elaeophorbia drupifera is planted near villages for use in religious rituals. Mixed with oil the latex is applied to the eyeball, which affects the optic nerve and causes strange visual effects and confusion. It can also lead to severe eye damage. The plants are planted near houses and on graves to protect against bad spirits and lightning. In West Africa Elaeophorbia drupifera is also planted as a live fence around home gardens. In Ghana the soft wood is used to smoke fish.


The stem latex contains 0.3–0.5% of the diterpene alcohol ingenol and several ingenol diterpene esters. Ingenol is also present in Euphorbia spp. The esters are toxic and co-carcinogens. The triterpenes euphol, tirucallol and euphorbol were also isolated as major components. The latex contains the lectins euphorbain d1 and euphorbain d2, which agglutinate erythrocytes in vitro.

Extracts of the latex were found to inhibit replication and cytopathicity of several HIV-1 and HIV-2 strains, even after delayed treatment. The latex was also selectively toxic to Molt-4/HIV cells and inhibited HIV-1 reverse transcriptase.

A crude leaf extract evoked significant dose-dependent contractions in isolated guinea-pig ileum and rat uterine preparations. It significantly reduced blood glucose levels in rats. A crude root extract decreased both the blood pressure and heart rate in a dose-dependent manner in anaesthetized rats. Also, the extract was found to prolong acetylcholine-induced hypotension in rats. In-vitro studies using isolated arterial strips revealed that the extract had a dose-dependent relaxant effect on vascular smooth muscle tissue. The water extract of leaves administered orally in graded doses to rats did not show adverse changes in liver and kidney.

A crude leaf extract administered intraperitoneally showed an LD50 of 135 mg/kg in mice, and a crude root extract an LD50 of 145 mg/kg.


Monoecious, glabrous, small to medium-sized tree up to 22 m tall, with copious white latex; bole stout, up to 60 cm in diameter, often low-branching; bark grey, rough; branches spreading, forming a large rounded crown, branchlets obtusely 5-angled, becoming cylindrical, with conspicuous leaf scars. Leaves arranged spirally, crowded at branch apex, simple and entire; stipules soon falling; petiole up to 2.5 cm long, subtended by a pair of prickles up to 3 mm long; blade oblanceolate, up to 28 cm × 10 cm, base cuneate, apex rounded to emarginate, fleshy, pinnately veined. Inflorescence an axillary cyme, usually 3 together, 1–2-forked, consisting of cyathia; peduncle up to 4.5 cm long and branches up to 2.5 cm long; bracts broadly deltoid, c. 7 mm long, paired, persistent; cyathia sessile, c. 4 mm × 12 mm, involucre widely funnel-shaped, 5-lobed, with large glands c. 2.5 mm × 6 mm, brownish yellow, each cyathium containing 1 female flower surrounded by many male flowers. Flowers unisexual, perianth absent; male flowers with fan-shaped bracteoles, consisting of a single stamen c. 4 mm long; female flowers consisting of a superior ovary, 3-celled, smooth, merging into the pedicel, styles 3, c. 1.5 mm long, fused, stigmas flattened, reflexed. Fruit an almost sessile, obovoid, slightly 3-lobed, fleshy drupe up to 5 cm × 3.5 cm, green becoming yellow; stone grooved, 1–3-seeded. Seeds ovoid, 7–8 mm × 4.5 mm, with 2 ridges, smooth, greyish brown.

Other botanical information

Elaeophorbia comprises 3–5 species in tropical Africa. It is sometimes included in Euphorbia, from which it differs in lacking a perianth in the female flowers, in the ovary merging into the pedicel, and in its large indehiscent drupe-like fruits in contrast to the dry dehiscent fruits of Euphorbia. Elaeophorbia drupifera and Elaeophorbia grandifolia (Haw.) Croizat are closely related and the common occurrence of intermediate specimens e.g. in Ghana indicates that it could represent a single variable species.

In Central Africa Elaeophorbia drupifera is sometimes confused with Euphorbia teke Schweinf. ex Pax.


Elaeophorbia drupifera occurs in forest edges, flooded coastal plains and occasionally rainforest, on brown-black humid soil, often near termitaria, at 700–1000 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Elaeophorbia drupifera is propagated by seed or wildlings. Elaeophorbia grandifolia is also propagated by stem cuttings, and this may be a suitable propagation method for Elaeophorbia drupifera.


The leaves, bark, roots and latex can be harvested whenever the need arises.

Handling after harvest

All plant parts that are harvested are used fresh, as is the latex. The latex may also be used after coagulation.

Genetic resources

Elaeophorbia drupifera is widespread and relatively common, and therefore not likely threatened by genetic erosion.


The latex of Elaeophorbia drupifera is caustic and co-carcinogenic, and it should therefore be used with extreme care. However, the anti-HIV tests in vitro are promising, and more research should be done to evaluate the possible development of lead compounds for the pharmaceutical industry. Biosystematic studies are needed to clarify the status of Elaeophorbia drupifera and Elaeophorbia grandifolia.

Major references

  • Ayisi, N.K. & Nyadedzor, C., 2003. Comparative in vitro effects of AZT and extracts of Ocimum gratissimum, Ficus polita, Clausena anisata, Alchornea cordifolia, and Elaeophorbia drupifera against HIV-1 and HIV-2 infections. Antiviral Research 58: 25–33.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1994. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Families E–I. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 636 pp.
  • Carter, S. & Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1988. Euphorbiaceae (part 2). In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. pp. 409–597.
  • Hall, J.B. & Swaine, M.D., 1981. Distribution and ecology of vascular plants in a tropical rain forest: forest vegetation of Ghana. W. Junk Publishers, the Hague, Netherlands. 383 pp.
  • Hawthorne, W. & Jongkind, C., 2006. Woody plants of western African forests: a guide to the forest trees, shrubs and lianes from Senegal to Ghana. Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. 1023 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 1996. African ethnobotany: poisons and drugs. Chapman & Hall, London, United Kingdom. 941 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Nielsen, P.E., Nishimura, H., Liang, Y. & Calvin, M., 1979. Steroids from Euphorbia and other latex-bearing plants. Phytochemistry 18: 103–104.
  • Ponsinet, G. & Ourisson, G., 1968. Etudes chimiotaxonomiques dans la famille des Euphorbiacées 3. Répartition des triterpenes dans les latex d’Euphorbia. Phytochemistry 7: 89–98.

Other references

  • Abo, K.A., 1994. Characterisation of ingenol: an inflammatory diterpene from some Nigerian Euphorbia and Elaeophorbia species. African Journal of Medicine and Medical Sciences 23(2): 161–163.
  • Ahiahonu, P.W. & Goodenowe, D.B., 2007. Triterpenoids from leaves of Elaeophorbia drupifera. Fitoterapia 78(5): 337–341.
  • Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors), 2006. Flore analytique du Bénin. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. 1034 pp.
  • Akpanabiatu, M.I., Igiri, A.O., Eyong, E.U. & Eteng, M.U., 2003. Biochemical and histological effects of Eleophorbia drupifera leaf extract in Wistar Albino rats. Pharmaceutical Biology 41(2): 96–99.
  • Ayensu, E.S., 1978. Medicinal plants of West Africa. Reference Publication, Michigan. 330 pp.
  • Bruyns, P.V., Mapaya, R.J. & Hedderson, T., 2006. A new subgeneric classification for Euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae) in southern Africa based on ITS and psbA-trnH sequence data. Taxon 55(2): 397–420.
  • Eno, A.E. & Itam, E.H., 1998. Stimulation of autonomic cholinoceptors in the rat uterus by a crude extract from Eleophorbia drupifera leaves. Pharmaceutical Biology 36(2): 97–102.
  • Eno, A.E. & Itam, E.H., 1999. Hypoglycaemic agents in leaves of Elaeophorbia drupifera. Phytotherapy Research 10(8): 680–682.
  • Eno, A.E. & Owo, O.I., 1999. Cardiovascular effects of an extract from the roots of a shrub Elaeophorbia drupifera. Phytotherapy Research 13(7): 549–554.
  • Eno, A.E., Owo, O.I., Itam, E.H., Ettarh, R.R., Mfem, C.C. & Owu, D.U., 1999. Contraction of the isolated guinea pig ileum induced by the crude extract from Elaeophorbia drupifera leaves. Global Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences 5(1): 45–51.
  • Gassita, J.N., Nze Ekekang, L., De Vecchy, H., Louis, A.M., Koudogbo, B. & Ekomié, R. (Editors), 1982. Les plantes médicinales du Gabon. CENAREST, IPHAMETRA, mission ethnobotanique de l’ACCT au Gabon, 10–31 juillet 1982. 26 pp.
  • Keay, R.W.J., 1958. Euphorbiaceae. In: Keay, R.W.J. (Editor). Flora of West Tropical Africa. Volume 1, part 2. 2nd Edition. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 364–423.
  • Lynn, K.R. & Clevette-Radford, N.A., 1985. Two proteases from the latex of Elaeophorbia drupifera. Phytochemistry 24: 2843–2845.
  • Lynn, K.R. & Clevette-Radford, N.A., 1986. Lectins from latices of Euphorbia and Elaeophorbia species. Phytochemistry 25(7): 1553–1558.
  • Lynn, K.R. & Clevette-Radford, N.A., 1987. Acid phosphatases from latices of Euphorbiaceae. Phytochemistry 26(3): 655–658.
  • Lynn, K.R. & Clevette-Radford, N.A., 1987. Biochemical properties of latices from the Euphorbiaceae. Phytochemistry 26(4): 939–944.
  • Terashima, H. & Ichikawa, M., 2003. A comparative ethnobotany of the Mbuti and Efe hunter-gatherers in the Ituri forest, Democratic Republic of Congo. African Study Monographs 24(1–2): 1–168.

Sources of illustration

  • Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors), 2006. Flore analytique du Bénin. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. 1034 pp.


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

Correct citation of this article

Schmelzer, G.H., 2008. Elaeophorbia drupifera (Thonn.) Stapf. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 19 November 2020.