Euphorbia chamaesyce (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Euphorbia chamaesyce L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 455 (1753).
Family: Euphorbiaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 18


  • Chamaesyce canescens (L.) Prokh. (1933).

Vernacular names

  • Wood spurge, ground spurge, prostrate sandmat (En).
  • Euphorbe petit-figuier (Fr).

Origin and geographic distribution

Euphorbia chamaesyce occurs from the Canary Islands east throughout the Mediterranean region to north-western Russia and Pakistan. It is becoming naturalized in the United States and Japan. In tropical Africa it occurs in Cape Verde.


In Cape Verde large quantities of the leaves are put in water holes and canals as a fish poison. In southern Europe an infusion of the aerial parts is applied to painful scars and as eye drops to treat weak eyes.

In Turkey the whole plant is roasted and eaten.


Several ergostane-type steroids have been isolated from the plant, including obtusifoliol, as well as several triterpenoids, including lupeol, butyrospermol, wrightial, lup-20(30)-ene-3β,29-diol, 11α,12α-oxidotaraxerol and several derivatives. An ergostane-type steroid showed a potent inhibitory effect on Epstein-Barr virus early antigen activation induced by the tumour promoter 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate (TPA). Two oleananes showed strong cytotoxicity against a panel of 39 human cancer cell lines.


Monoecious, prostrate, annual herb with branches up to 30 cm long; whole plant glabrous to short-hairy. Leaves opposite, simple; stipules triangular, c. 0.5 mm long; petiole short; blade oblong to obovate, 2–8 mm × 2–4 mm, base asymmetrical, one side obliquely rounded and the other cordate, apex rounded or notched, margins entire or toothed. Inflorescence an axillary cluster of flowers, called a ‘cyathium’; cyathia almost sessile, c. 0.5 mm long, with a cup-shaped involucre, lobes triangular, minute, margin hairy; glands 4, minute, elliptical, with very small 3-lobed appendages, each involucre containing 1 female flower surrounded by many male flowers. Flowers unisexual; male flowers sessile, bracteoles linear, perianth absent, stamen tiny; female flowers with short pedicel, perianth a rim, ovary superior, glabrous, 3-celled, styles 3, minute, 2-fid. Fruit a 3-lobed capsule c. 1.5 mm × 1.5 mm, glabrous to densely short-hairy, 3-seeded. Seeds ovoid, c. 1 mm long, acutely 4-angled, without caruncle.

Other botanical information

Euphorbia comprises about 2000 species and has a worldwide distribution, with at least 750 species occurring in continental Africa and about 150 species in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands. Euphorbia chamaesyce belongs to subgenus Chamaesyce section Chamaesyce, a group of annual or sometimes perennial herbs with obvious stipules, further characterized by a main stem aborting at the seedling stage, the plant thus consisting of an expanded dichotomously branching umbel-like inflorescence, with the floral bracts appearing as normal leaves, cyathia solitary or up to 5 together in congested leafy cymes, 4 involucral glands with petal-like appendages or entire and conical seeds without a caruncle.

Euphorbia tuckeyana

Another Euphorbia from Cape Verde, Euphorbia tuckeyana Steud. ex Webb (‘Cabo Verde spurge’), is used medicinally. It is a shrub up to 3 m tall. The latex is applied to decaying teeth and also to mark animal hides. The wood is used as firewood. It is sometimes sold as an ornamental in Europe. The aerial parts contain the jatrophane diterpene polyesters tuckeyanols A and B and euphotuckeyanol, several cycloartane-type triterpenes, including cyclotucanol, cycloeucalenol and 24-methylenecycloartanol, as well as helioscopinolides A, B, D and E, naringenin, aromadendrin, coniferaldehyde, several 5-hydroxyphorbol derivatives and dehydrodiconiferyl diacetate. Simiarenone and β-sitosterol were also isolated. Several compounds have shown to be moderate inhibitors of the growth of gastric and pancreatic tumour cell lines. Several plant extracts exhibited activity against Gram-positive bacteria and Candida albicans.


Euphorbia chamaesyce occurs in dry, sandy to stony soils and along roadsides, from sea-level up to 1000 m altitude.

Genetic resources

There are no signs that Euphorbia chamaesyce is threatened by genetic erosion.


Several of the compounds present in Euphorbia chamaesyce show very potent inhibitory effects on Epstein-Barr virus and strong cytotoxicity against a range of human cancer cell lines. Therefore more research is warranted to evaluate the potential of this species for the development of lead compounds.

Major references

  • Figueiredo, E., 1996. Euphorbiaceae. In: Paiva, J., Martins, E.S., Diniz, M.A., Moreira, I., Gomes, I. & Gomes, S. (Editors). Flora de Cabo Verde: Plantas vasculares. No 54. Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, Lisbon, Portugal & Instituto Nacional de Investigação e Desenvolvimento Agrário, Praia, Cape Verde. 51 pp.
  • Kerharo, J., Guichard, F. & Bouquet, A., 1961. Les végétaux ichtyotoxiques (poisons de pêche), 2ème partie : inventaire des poisons de pêche. Bulletins et Mémoires de l’École Nationale de Médecine et de Pharmacie de Dakar 9: 355–386.
  • Tanaka, R., Kasubuchi, K., Kita, S., Tokuda, H., Nishino, H. & Matsunaga, S., 2000. Bioactive steroids from the whole herb of Euphorbia chamaesyce. Journal of Natural Products 63(1): 99–103.
  • Tanaka, R., Wada, S.-I., Yamada, T. & Yamori, T., 2006. Potent antitumor activity of 3,4-seco-8bH-ferna-4(23),9(11)-dien-3-oic acid (EC-2) and 3,4-seco-oleana-4(23),18-dien-3-oic acid (EC-4), evaluated by an in vitro human cancer cell line panel. Planta Medica 72: 1347–1349.

Other references

  • Duarte, N., Lage, H. & Ferreira, M.-J.U., 2008. Three new jatrophane polyesters and antiproliferative constituents from Euphorbia tuckeyana. Planta Medica 74(1): 61–68.
  • Ferreira, M.-J.U., Duarte, A. & Ascenso, J.R., 1996. Antimicrobial activity and phytochemical study of Euphorbia tuckeyana. Fitoterapia 67(1): 85–86.
  • Ferreira, M.-J.U., Pinto, F.C. & Ascenso, J.R., 2001. Cycloartane triterpenes from Euphorbia tuckeyana. Natural Product Letters 15(5): 363–369.
  • Ozenda, P., 1977. Flore du Sahara. Deuxième édition. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France. 622 pp.
  • Tanaka, R., Ida, T., Takaoka, Y., Kita, S., Kamisako, W. & Matsunaga, S., 1994. 3,4-seco-oleana-4(23),18-dien-3-oic acid and other triterpenes from Euphorbia chamaesyce. Phytochemistry 36(1): 129–132.
  • Tanaka, R., Kasubuchi, K., Kita, S. & Matsunaga, S., 1999. Obtusifoliol and related steroids from the whole herb of Euphorbia chamaesyce. Phytochemistry 51(3): 457–463.
  • Tosco, R.B., 2005. La flora endémica de Cabo Verde un Tesoro a conserver. Rincones del Atlantico 2.


  • 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. Euphorbia chamaesyce L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 16 November 2020.