Euphorbia hypericifolia (PROTA)
- Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 454 (1753).
- Family: Euphorbiaceae
- Chromosome number: n = 7, 8, 16, 28; 2n = 16, 18, 22, 32
- Chamaesyce hypericifolia (L.) Millsp. (1909).
- Graceful sandmat, graceful spurge, large spotted spurge (En).
- Herbe colique (Fr).
- Lechosa, lecheleche, yerba golondrina, canchlagua (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Euphorbia hypericifolia originates from tropical and subtropical America and has spread to tropical Africa and India. Its distribution in tropical Africa is not clear as it is confused with Euphorbia indica Lam. It occurs with certainty in West Africa, Burundi and on Mauritius.
In West Africa and Burundi the latex is applied as a caustic on cuts and wounds; in West Africa the latex is taken in water as a purgative. In Burundi a vapour bath of the leaf decoction is applied to treat headache. In Mauritius a plant decoction is taken to treat diarrhoea, dysentery and colic. The plant is considered astringent and calming.
The principal use of Euphorbia hypericifolia in tropical and subtropical America is in a decoction or infusion of the leaves and roots for the treatment of a wide variety of gastro-intestinal disorders with watery and mucous discharges. Euphorbia hypericifolia is also used in the treatment of gonorrhoea, menorrhagia, leucorrhoea, pneumonia and bronchitis. The leaves have a sweetish taste, followed by a sensation of harshness.
Production and international trade
Euphorbia hypericifolia is widely traded in the United Stated in tablets and powders, mainly to treat bowel disorders. It is traded internationally through the internet.
From the aerial parts aliphatic alcohols have been isolated as have the sterols taraxerol, β-sitosterol, stigmasterol, campestol and the flavonoids kaemferol, quercetin, quercetrin (quercetin-3-rhamnoside), rhamnetin-3-galactoside, rhamnetin-3-rhamnoside and ellagic acid.
Leaf extracts showed significant growth inhibitory effect against Aspergillus flavus in vitro, and also inhibited the production of aflatoxins almost completely, with greater inhibition at higher concentrations.
Glabrous annual, branched herb, spreading or erect, up to 60 cm tall, apex of branches drooping, with latex. Leaves opposite, simple; stipules triangular, 1–2 mm long, one pair often fused, hairy at margins; petiole 1–2 mm long; blade elliptical-oblong to oblong, 1–2(–3.5) cm × 0.5–1(–1.5) cm, base cuneate, asymmetric, apex obtuse, margin obscurely toothed. Inflorescence an axillary cluster of flowers, called a ‘cyathium’, cyathia densely clustered into a head c. 1.5 cm in diameter; peduncle up to 3 cm long; cyathia almost sessile, c. 1 mm long, with a cup-shaped involucre, lobes triangular, minute, glands 4, tiny, almost round, stiped, with circular, white to pink appendage, each involucre containing 1 female flower surrounded by many male flowers. Flowers unisexual; male flowers sessile, bracteoles linear, perianth absent, stamen c. 0.5 mm long; female flowers with short pedicel, perianth a rim, ovary superior, glabrous, 3-celled, styles 3, minute. Fruit a 3-lobed capsule c. 1.5 mm in diameter, 3-seeded. Seeds ovoid, c. 1 mm long, 4-angled, slightly wrinkled, greyish purple, without caruncle.
Pollination of Euphorbia hypericifolia is probably effected by small insects and the seeds have been seen to be dispersed by ants.
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 hypericifolia belongs to subgenus Chamaesyce section Hypericifoliae, a group of annual herbs with obvious stipules, further characterized by the main stem aborting at the seedling stage. The plant thus consists of an expanded dichotomously branching inflorescence, with the floral bracts appearing as normal leaves, cyathia clustered 10 or more in stalked, head-like cymes, 4 involucral glands with petal-like appendages or entire and conical seeds without a caruncle.
Euphorbia indica Lam. also belongs to section Hypericifoliae. It originates from India and Sri Lanka and has been introduced as a weed in East and southern Africa, as well as in Réunion and Mauritius. It was mistakenly considered to be synonymous with Euphorbia hypericifolia L., but it differs by having stipules that are not fused and a hairy fruit. In East Africa the latex is used as a purgative and as a caustic on skin lesions. In Kenya the latex is applied to the eyes to treat eye infections and catarrh. In Tanzania ground plants are added to bath water to treat oedema. In Mauritius a plant decoction is taken to treat diarrhoea and dysentery.
Euphorbia hypericifolia occurs along roadsides, stony river sides, in waste places and as a weed in cultivation, from sea-level up to 600 m altitude.
Euphorbia hypericifolia has a large area of distribution and is weedy of nature. Therefore it is not threatened by genetic erosion.
Euphorbia hypericifolia has considerable value as a medicinal plant, although more research needs to be done to evaluate its chemistry and pharmacology.
- 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.
- Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1996. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 2. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 532 pp.
- Hasan, H.A.H. & Abdel Mallek, A.Y., 1994. Inhibitory effect of aqueous leaf extracts of some plants on growth and aflatoxin production by Aspergillus flavus. Dirasat, Series B, Pure and Applied Sciences 21(3): 215–219.
- Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
- Ehrenfeld, J., 1976. Reproductive biology of three species of Euphorbia subgenus Chamaesyce (Euphorbiaceae). American Journal of Botany 63(4): 406–413.
- Ehrenfeld, J., 1979. Pollination of three species of Euphorbia subgenus Chamaesyce, with special reference to bees. American Midland Naturalist 101(1): 87–98.
- 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.
- V.E. Emongor, Department of Crop Science and Production, Botswana College of Agriculture, Private Bag 0027, Gaborone, Botswana
Correct citation of this article
Emongor, V.E., 2008. Euphorbia hypericifolia L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 13 November 2020.
- See the Prota4U database.