Ficus exasperata (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Ficus exasperata Vahl

Protologue: Enum. pl., 2: 197 (1805).
Family: Moraceae

Vernacular names

  • Forest sandpaper fig, forest sandpaper tree, sandpaper tree, sandpaper leaf tree, white fig tree (En).
  • Papier de verre (Fr).
  • Msasa, mkuyu (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Ficus exasperata is widely distributed in tropical Africa, from Senegal eastward to Ethiopia and Djibouti and southward to Mozambique and Angola. It also occurs in Yemen, India and Sri Lanka.


The rough leaves are widely used as sandpaper for polishing wooden, metal or ivory articles, such as kitchen utensils, gourds, sticks, bows, spear shafts, chairs, boards and bracelets.

The wood is used for making canoes, house posts, furniture, stools, utensils, containers and drums, and is also used as fuelwood and for making charcoal. Young branches are used for making pipe stems. Although the leaf is sometimes recorded to be poisonous to goats and sheep, it is often fed to ruminants, especially in Ghana. In Nigeria the fresh leaf is locally added to oil palm fruits in the milling or pounding stage, to improve the quality and stability of the oil obtained. Ficus exasperata has been planted as an avenue shade tree, and wild trees are sometimes maintained as a shade tree in banana, coffee or cocoa plantations.

Ficus exasperata is widely used in African traditional medicine. Root decoctions are taken for the treatment of urinary tract ailments, gonorrhoea, asthma and tuberculosis. The root is chewed in case of cough. The root bark is used against eye problems. The body is rubbed with root scrapings as a tonic. In Ghana the root is an ingredient in a prescription to expel worms. Wood ash or charcoal is applied on lesions caused by leprosy. Sap from the stem bark is used for the treatment of wounds, sores, abscesses, eye ailments, stomach-ache and for the removal of spines, but some traditional healers consider it corrosive to the skin and dangerous to ingest. The ash of burnt stem bark is sprinkled on wounds. Decoctions of the bark are taken against worms, haemorrhoids and abnormal enlargement of the spleen. They are also used as ingredients in the treatment of heart problems. A tisane or decoction of the bark is taken to relieve cough. A cold bark extract is drunk in case of dizziness. A maceration of the bark with Senna occidentalis (L.) Link and Setaria megaphylla (Steud.) T.Durand & Schinz is taken to facilitate childbirth or to heal gonorrhoea. Sap from the bark is used to halt bleeding. Scrapings from the bark are made into an embrocation with stimulant and tonic properties. The stem bark is locally applied on the body for the treatment of malaria. A maceration of the young shoot is drunk as an emetic. A decoction of the leafy shoot is taken for the treatment of dysentery. The leafy shoot is used in preparations applied externally against jaundice or drunk as a diuretic. Leaf pulp or sap is externally applied for the treatment of rash, wounds, leprous sores, fungal infections, itching, oedema, ringworm, rheumatism, and lumbar and intercostal pain. The powder of the dried leaf is sprinkled on burns. The young leaf is chewed and swallowed in case of gastric ulcers. The leaf juice or a decoction of the leaf is applied as an enema for the treatment of stomach-ache, and as an antidote to poison. Decoctions of fresh or dried leaves are taken for the treatment of diseases of the kidneys and urinary tract. Leaves cooked with bananas are eaten for the treatment of gonorrhoea; the cooking water is drunk for the same purpose. In Nigeria a decoction or maceration of the leaf is taken to lower blood pressure, and the fresh leaf is used as an ingredient of preparations for the treatment of heart diseases. Leaf preparations are taken for the treatment of cough, colds, flu and asthma, and they are a mouthwash against thrush, inflammation of the gums and other mouth and throat ailments. The head is rubbed with warmed leaves for the treatment of headache; tumours are also rubbed with warmed leaves. In case of severe headache, the patient’s head is washed with a decoction of the leaf. The leaf pulp diluted in water is credited with analgesic properties and applied for the treatment of eye ailments; water in which a leaf has been shaken is used similarly. A maceration of the leaf is taken as an oxytocic, while a decoction or infusion of the leaf is drunk as an abortifacient. The abrasive leaf surface is used to scarify the skin to promote penetration of medicines, and to scour the tongue and throat for the treatment of mouth and throat ailments. The leaf is also used to scratch itching parts of the body and is ingested for mechanical treatment of diarrhoea and intestinal worms. The fruit is eaten against cough and venereal diseases. Powder of the dried fruit is added to porridge for the treatment of sterility in women. Water with seed powder is drunk as a tonic in case of fever.

In veterinary medicine a decoction of the bark is given to cows to hasten expulsion of the afterbirth. The stem bark and the leaf are ingredients of arrow-poisons. In Nigeria a maceration of the leaf is sprayed on crops against insect attack.


Although the leaves are widely used as sandpaper, they are not as abrasive and strong as commercial sandpaper. Reports on the wood properties are contradictory. The fibre length of wood from Nigeria is 1.5–2.2 mm, with a diameter of 21.5–23.5 μm, a lumen diameter of 11–13 μm and a cell wall thickness of 4–7 μm.

In Nigeria Ficus exasperata forage (leaves plus stems less than 6 mm in diameter) contained 14.6 g and 19.9 g crude protein per 100 g dry matter in the wet and dry season, respectively. Leaves collected at the end of the rainy season in southern Ghana contained 4.1 g N per 100 g dry matter. The leaves are said to be harmful to cattle due to their roughness.

The inclusion of Ficus exasperata leaves in the processing of oil palm resulted in better stabilization of the oil in Nigeria. The anti-oxidant activities were enhanced whereas saponins, where present, were eliminated and sterols reduced.

Aqueous extracts of the leaf showed in-vivo gastrointestinal protective effects, diuretic activity and lipid-lowering effects in rats, and hypotensive effects in rabbits. At higher concentrations they stimulated contractions of the isolated rat uterus, whereas at lower concentrations they inhibited oxytocin-induced uterine contractions. An ethanolic extract of the leaf showed in-vivo analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity and weak antipyretic activity in mice, chicks and rats, respectively. Methanolic plant extracts have shown in-vitro antitumour activity and inhibition against trypsin activity. Aqueous and ethanolic extracts of the leaf did not show any toxicity in various bioassays. Aqueous and methanolic extracts were inactive against several gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. A compound with nematicidal activity, 5-methoxysporalen, has been isolated from the leaf. The content was six times higher in young leaves than in mature leaves.

Cowpea pods treated with Ficus exasperata leaf powder before being stored under traditional conditions showed decrease in both the percentage of beans with Callosobruchus maculatus and the number of emerged beetles. The stem and leaf contain alkaloids, flavonoids, tannins and cyanogenic glycosides. The fruit contains flavonoids and xanthones.

Adulterations and substitutes

Ficus asperifolia Miq. is similarly used in traditional medicine and the preparation of arrow poisons.


Deciduous, dioecious shrub or small to medium-sized tree up to 20(–30) m tall; bole up to 50 cm in diameter, sometimes fluted or buttressed; outer bark smooth, pale grey-green to brownish, inner bark creamy white to pale brown, without latex, but exuding a clear, viscid, non-milky sap on cutting; crown spreading; young branches hispidulous. Leaves almost distichous and alternate, sometimes almost opposite, simple; stipules free, lanceolate, up to 0.5 cm long, covered with stiff hairs, caducous; petiole 0.5–6 cm long, scabrid; blade ovate to elliptical or obovate, sometimes oblong or subcircular, in young plants often lobed, 2.5–17.5(–20) cm × 1–12 cm, base acute to obtuse, sometimes almost cordate, apex shortly acuminate, acute or obtuse, margin toothed to entire, papery or leathery, upper surface scabrid, lower surface scabrid and hairy, pinnately veined with 2–5(–6) pairs of lateral veins, with glandular spots in the axils of the main lateral veins below. Inflorescence a fig, the flowers enclosed within, figs 1–2 together in the leaf axils, just below the leaves or on older wood, globose to ovoid, 1–3 cm in diameter, often stiped, hispidulous, pink, purplish, yellow, orange or red at maturity; peduncle 0.5–1(–2.5) cm long, scabrid; bracts broadly ovate, 1–5 scattered on the peduncle (basal bracts) and 1–4 on the outer surface of the receptacle (lateral bracts). Flowers unisexual; male flowers with 3–6-lobed perianth and 1–3 stamens; female flowers with 4–6 tepals, seed flowers and gall flowers distinct.

Other botanical information

Ficus comprises about 750 species, with about 100 species in Africa, 500 species in tropical Asia and Australia, and 150 species in tropical America. Ficus exasperata is often confused with Ficus asperifolia because both species have scabrid leaves. Ficus exasperata is distinguished by its leaf blade being more uniformly symmetrical and having 3–4 pairs of prominent, up-curving lateral veins, whereas that of Ficus asperifolia tends to be asymmetric and to have 6–8 less prominent lateral veins.

Growth and development

The fig is not a fruit but a fruit-like structure (syconium) developed from an inside-out flower stalk containing many flowers inside. Ficus exasperata trees are either female, with inflorescences bearing long-styled female flowers, or hermaphrodite, with inflorescences bearing male and short-styled female flowers (gall flowers). The hermaphrodite trees are functionally male, because the contents of their pollinated ovaries are consumed by wasp larvae, and they do not produce seeds. Ficus exasperata is pollinated by the wasp Kradibia gestroi, which lays eggs in the short-styled female flowers, but cannot lay eggs in the long-styled flowers of the female trees. Fruiting is usually in the dry season, in Ghana in December–March.


Ficus exasperata occurs from sea level up to 2300 m altitude in forest, often at edges, in secondary vegetation, in rocky places and along rivers, sometimes persisting in cleared land. It is also found in abandoned fields and along roads.

Propagation and planting

Ficus exasperata can be propagated by seed and cuttings. Wildlings are also used.


After having been cut, trees regenerate through sprouting from the stump.

Genetic resources

In view of its wide distribution, occurrence in secondary vegetation and ability to persist in cleared land, Ficus exasperata seems not threatened by genetic erosion. However, local over-exploitation has been recorded, for instance in central Uganda, where wild trees are logged for making drums and on-farm planting of the tree is recommended.


Ficus exasperata is widely used as local source of sandpaper and as a medicinal plant. Its role as a source of sandpaper is unlikely to go beyond local use, because of the availability of commercial sandpaper, which is more abrasive and stronger. However, the plant may become more important as a source of medicine, as various extracts have shown anti-ulcer, hypotensive, lipid-lowering, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic activity.

Major references

  • Akah, P.A., Orisakwe, O.E., Gamaniel, K.S. & Shittu, A., 1998. Evaluation of Nigerian traditional medicines 2: effects of some Nigerian folk remedies on peptic ulcer. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 62(2): 123–127.
  • Arbonnier, M., 2004. Trees, shrubs and lianas of West African dry zones. CIRAD, Margraf Publishers Gmbh, MNHN, Paris, France. 573 pp.
  • Ayinde, B.A., Omogbai, E.K. & Amaechina, F.C., 2007. Pharmacognosy and hypotensive evaluation of Ficus exasperata Vahl (Moraceae) leaf. Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica - Drug Reserach 64(6): 543–546.
  • Berg, C.C. & Hijman, M.E.E., 1989. Moraceae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 95 pp.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1997. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 969 pp.
  • Friis, I., 1989. Moraceae. In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia. Volume 3. Pittosporaceae to Araliaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 271–301.
  • Katende, A.B., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 1995. Useful trees and shrubs for Uganda: identification, propagation and management for agricultural and pastoral communities. Technical Handbook 10. Regional Soil Conservation Unit, Nairobi, Kenya. 710 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 1998. Afrikanische Arzneipflanzen und Jagdgifte. Chemie, Pharmakologie, Toxikologie. 2nd Edition. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Stuttgart, Germany. 960 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Woode, E., Poku, R.A., Ainooson, G.K., Boakye-Gyasi, E., Abotsi, W.K.M., Mensah, T.L. & Amoh Barimah, A.K., 2009. An evaluation of the anti-inflammatory, antipyretic and antinociceptive effects of Ficus exasperata (Vahl) leaf extract. Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology 4(4): 138 151.

Other references

  • Adesope, A.A.A., Ajala, O.O., Idumah, F.O. & Koyejo, O.A., 2006. Evaluation of the fibre characteristics of Ficus exasperata Valh. In: Popoola, L. (Editor). Forestry at crossroads in Nigeria. Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of the Forestry Association of Nigeria, 20–25 November 2006, Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria. Forestry Association of Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria. pp. 25–29.
  • Aké Assi, L., 1990. Utilisation de diverses espèces de Ficus (Moraceae) dans la pharmacopée traditionelle Africaine en Côte d’Ivoire. In: Ihlenfeldt, H.D. (Editor). Proceedings of the 12th plenary meeting of AETFAT, Hamburg, September 4–10, 1988. Mitteilungen aus dem Institut für Allgemeine Botanik Hamburg 23b: 1039–1046.
  • Amonkan, K.A., Kati-Coulibaly, S., Kouadio Yatti, J. & Offoumou, A.M., 2005. Comparaison du potentiel diurétique et électrolytique de l’extrait aqueux de Ficus exasperata (Moraceae) et du furosémide chez le rat. Le Pharmacien d’Afrique 186: 15–22.
  • Apori, S.O., Castro, F.B., Shand, W.J. & Ørskov, E.R., 1998. Chemical composition, in sacco degradation and in vitro gas production of some Ghanaian browse plants. Animal Feed Science and Technology 76 (1–2): 129–137.
  • Bafor, E.E. & Igbinuwen, O., 2009. Acute toxicity studies of the leaf extract of Ficus exasperata on haematological parameters, body weight and body temperature. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 123(2): 302–307.
  • Bafor, E.E., Omogbai, E.K., Ozolua, R.I., 2009. Evaluation of the uterotonic activity of the aqueous leaf extract of Ficus exasperata Vahl (Moraceae). Research Journal of medicinal Plants 3(2): 34–40.
  • Betti, J.L., 2001. Vulnérabilité des plantes utilisées comme antipaludiques dans l'arrondissement de Mintom au sud de la réserve de biosphère du Dja (Cameroun). Systematics and Geography of Plants 71: 661-678.
  • Boeke, S.J., Kossou, D.K., van Huis, A., van Loon, J.J.A. & Dicke, M., 2004. Field trials with plant products to protect stored cowpea against insect damage. International Journal of Pest Management 50(1): 1–9.
  • Igoli, J.O., Ogaji, O.G., Tor-Anyiin, T.A. & Igoli, N.P., 2005. Traditional medicine practice amongst the Igede people of Nigeria. Part 2. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines 2(2): 134–152.
  • Irvine, F.R., 1961. Woody plants of Ghana, with special reference to their uses. Oxford University Press, London, United Kingdom. 868 pp.
  • Koshimizu, K., Ohigashi, H., Huffman, M.A., Nishida, T. & Takasaki, H., 1993. Physiological activities and the active constituents of potentially medicinal plants used by wild chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. International Journal of Primatology 14(2): 345–356.
  • Larbi, A., Smith, J.W., Kurdi, I.O., Adekunle, I.O., Raji, A.M. & Ladipo, D.O., 1998. Chemical composition, rumen degradation, and gas production characteristics of some multipurpose fodder trees and shrubs during wet and dry seasons in the humid tropics. Animal Feed Science and Technology 72(1–2): 81–96.
  • Lovett, J.C., Ruffo, C.K., Gereau, R.E. & Taplin, J.R.D., 2007. Field guide to the moist forest trees of Tanzania. [Internet] Centre for Ecology Law and Policy, Environment Department, University of York, York, United Kingdom. projects/ tzforeco/. June 2009.
  • Nimenibo-Uadia, R., 2003. Ficus exasperata: effects on diabetes mellitus in an experimental rat model. Global Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences 9(4): 529–532.
  • Omeja, P., Obua, J. & Cunningham, A.B., 1995. Demand and supply of wood for drum making in central Uganda. International Forestry Review 7(1): 21–26, 78, 80.
  • Patel, A., 1996. Variation in a mutualism: phenology and the maintenance of gynodioecy in two Indian fig species. Journal of Ecology 84(5): 667–680.
  • Rodriguez, E. & Wrangham, R., 1993. Zoopharmacognosy: the use of medicinal plants by animals. In: Downum K.R., Romeo, J.T. & Stafford, H.A. (Editors). Phytochemical potential of tropical plants. Recent advances in phytochemistry. Vol. 27. Plenum Press, New York, United States. pp. 89–105.
  • Sowemimo, A.A., Fakoya, F.A., Awopetu, I., Omobuwajo, O.R. & Adesanya, S.A., 2007. Toxicity and mutagenic activity of some selected Nigerian plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 113(3): 427–432.
  • Umerie, S.C., Ogbuagu, A.S., & Ogbuagu, J.O., 2004. Stabilization of palm oils by using Ficus exasperata leaves in local processing methods. Bioresource Technology 94(3): 307–310.
  • Yamada, T., 1999. A report of the ethnobotany of the Nyindu in the eastern part of the former Zaire. African Study Monographs 20(1): 1–72.

Sources of illustration

  • Berg, C.C., Hijman, M.E.E. & Weerdenburg, J.C.A., 1984. Moraceae. Flore du Gabon. Volume 26. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 276 pp.


  • R. Niangadouma, Herbier National du Gabon, CENAREST/IPHAMETRA, B.P. 1156, Libreville, Gabon

Correct citation of this article

Niangadouma, R., 2010. Ficus exasperata Vahl. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>.

Accessed 2 March 2020.