Griffonia simplicifolia (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Griffonia simplicifolia (Vahl ex DC.) Baill.

Protologue: Adansonia 6(2): 197 (1866).
Family: Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae)


  • Bandeiraea simplicifoli a (Vahl ex DC.) Benth. (1865).

Origin and geographic distribution

Griffonia simplicifolia is distributed from Liberia to Gabon.


In Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria the pulped bark is applied to syphilitic sores. A leaf decoction is used as an emetic, cough medicine and aphrodisiac. A decoction of stems and leaves is taken as a purgative to treat constipation and is used externally as an antiseptic wash to treat suppurating wounds. Leaf sap is used as eye drops to cure inflamed eyes and is drunk or applied as an enema to cure kidney problems. Stems and stem bark are made into a paste that is applied to decaying teeth, and a paste made from the leaves is applied to burns. Ground twig bark, mixed with lemon juice and Capsicum pepper, is applied to scarifications to treat intercostal pain. Chewing the stems is claimed to produce an aphrodisiac effect. The leaves are put in chicken pens to kill lice. In Nigeria an extract from the powdered roots has been used to treat sickle cell anaemia.

The wood is hard and tough and in Ghana stems are used to make walking sticks. The leaves are used in the production of palm wine, and give the wine a bitter taste. Sap that exudes from cut stems can be drunk to quench thirst. In Ghana the roots are chewed and dried to produce a white powder that is used by women to powder their face. A black dye is obtained from the leaves. The pods are made into toy whistles and spoons. The leaves are highly valued as animal feed and are said to stimulate reproduction. Free-ranging cattle browse heavily on the shrubs. The stems are used to make baskets and chicken cages, and also beaten into fibres serving as chewing sponges, a popular means of tooth cleaning in Ghana. The stems and roots are used as chew-sticks.

Production and international trade

The seed of Griffonia simplicifolia is an industrial source of 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a serotonin precursor. Trade statistics are not available. In the early 1990s the annual export from Ghana to Germany amounted to 80 t. In view of the increased demand for 5-HTP in the Western world, the trade must have expanded since then. In 1999 the wholesale price of seed was US$ 8–9 per kg.


The leaves of Griffonia simplicifolia contain a volatile oil and coumarins. The ripe seeds contain 6–14% 5-HTP. In the leaves 5-HTP is accompanied by 5-hydroxytryptamine (= serotonin), each at a concentration of 0.1–0.2%. In humans, 5-HTP increases the synthesis of serotonin in the central nervous system and has been shown to be effective in treating a wide variety of conditions, including depression, fibromyalgia, obesity, chronic headaches and insomnia. 5-HTP is poisonous to insects, i.e. bruchids (Callosobruchus maculatus). The cyanoglucoside lithospermoside (= griffonin) has been isolated from the roots; it is the active ingredient against sickle-cell anaemia.

In the seeds a number of lectins are found. One of them is of the acetylglucosamine-group which is commonly found in Poaceae and Solanaceae but is rare in Leguminosae. Some lectins have insecticidal properties. Isolectin B4 isolated from Griffonia simplicifolia is used as a marker of small primary sensory neurons in neurological research.

As a fodder Griffonia simplicifolia is appreciated for its vigour, high palatability, high crude protein content (about 16%), high P content (about 0.12%) and high Ca content (about 2.2%).

Adulterations and substitutes

Lithospermoside (= griffonin) has been isolated from several plants, e.g. from the African Lophira alata Banks ex C.F.Gaertn. and Tylosema fassoglense (Schweinf.) Torre & Hillc.


  • Shrub or large liana with glabrous, brown-black branches.
  • Leaves alternate, simple, glabrous; stipules triangular, 1 mm long, soon falling; petiole up to 1.5 cm long; blade ovate, 6–12 cm × 3–6 cm, base rounded to cordate, apex rounded to short-acuminate, 3(–5)-veined from the base, reticulate veins prominent on both sides.
  • Inflorescence an axillary, pyramidal raceme 5–20 cm long; bracts and bracteoles triangular, very small, persistent.
  • Flowers bisexual, almost regular, 5-merous; pedicel 3–4 mm long; receptacle urn-shaped, 1–1.5 cm long, pale green; calyx tube 12–15 mm long, orange, lobes triangular, up to 2 mm long; petals almost equal, elliptical, 10–12 mm long, fleshy, greenish, sparsely short-hairy on the margin; stamens 10, filaments filiform, up to 2 cm long; ovary superior, c. 4 mm long, stiped, style 1–2 mm long, persistent, stigma small.
  • Fruit an oblique-cylindrical pod c. 8 cm × 4 cm, stipe 1–1.5 cm long, inflated, leathery, 1–4-seeded.
  • Seeds orbicular, c. 18 mm × 5 mm × 6 mm, glabrous.
  • Seedling with epigeal germination.

Other botanical information

Griffonia occurs in tropical Africa. It belongs to the tribe Cercideae and comprises 4 species. Griffonia physocarpa Baill., Griffonia tessmannii (De Wild.) Compère and Griffonia speciosa (Benth.) Taub. occur from Nigeria east to DR Congo and south to Angola. They are less common than Griffonia simplicifolia. The main use of Griffonia physocarpa is as a dye plant. In DR Congo Griffonia tessmannii, Griffonia physocarpa and Griffonia speciosa have similar medicinal uses. A decoction of the aerial parts is drunk to treat gonorrhoea and stomach problems. Feverish children are bathed in the same decoction to bring down the temperature. Young leaves are chopped and eaten as an aphrodisiac and pulped they serve to massage body parts with oedema. The seeds of Griffonia physocarpa and Griffonia speciosa contain high concentrations of 5-HTP.

Growth and development

In West Africa Griffonia simplicifolia flowers from July till November. Pods ripen from August onwards.


Griffonia simplicifolia occurs in grass savanna, in coastal plains on termite mounds, in scrub thickets, secondary and disturbed forest, and along the margins of primary forest.

Propagation and planting

Propagation by seed gave poor results and different seed treatments did not improve germination, although fungicide treatment of the seed appeared beneficial for establishment. Use of stem cuttings has not been successful. In productivity trials wildlings were successfully used as planting material; this is impractical at a larger scale.


There are no indications that Griffonia simplicifolia is currently being cultivated.

Diseases and pests

Griffonia simplicifolia is a host for several lepidopteran defoliators of the important timber tree Mansonia altissima (A.Chev.) A.Chev.


For local medicinal use Griffonia simplicifolia is harvested in small quantities. Although harvesting seeds from the wild is usually fairly sustainable, there are worrying reports of lianas being cut down on a large scale to be able to collect the seeds. Harvesting for fodder is best done at intervals of 12 weeks, as total herbage yields are then considerably higher than when harvested at 6 week intervals.


In Ghana herbage yield of Griffonia simplicifolia was comparable to that of Leucaena leucocephala (Lam.) de Wit, but both were outyielded by Gliricidia sepium (Jacq.) Kunth ex Walp. There are no data available on seed yield.

Handling after harvest

The seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia are extracted in factories in the United States, Germany and probably elsewhere. The extract is either a grey-white powder or pale brown crystals containing 95–98% 5-HTP and is sold wholesale at about US$ 800 per kg (prices in 2000). It is finally sold mixed with vitamins and packed in capsules or mixed with green tea or yerba mate.

Genetic resources

Even though Griffonia simplicifolia is reportedly common, the high commercial value of the seeds forms a serious threat. Destructive harvesting combined with high grazing pressure could contribute to reduction of populations.


The insecticidal lectins of Griffonia are of interest for plant breeders who want to build in insect resistance in other crops.


Griffonia simplicifolia will remain in high demand as a natural alternative for the antidepressant Prozac. Measures for sustainable harvesting need to be enforced or developed. Research to domesticate this species is urgently needed, solving the problems with germination being a first step.

Major references

  • Aubréville, A., 1968. Légumineuses - Caesalpinioidées (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae). Flore du Gabon. Volume 15. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. 362 pp.
  • Bell, E.A., Fellows, L.E. & Qureshi, M.Y., 1976. 5-Hydroxy-L-tryptophan; taxonomic character and chemical defence in Griffonia. Phytochemistry 15(5): 823.
  • Birdsall, T.C., 1998. 5-Hydroxytryptophan: a clinically-effective serotonin precursor. Alternative Medicine Review 3(4): 271–280.
  • Bouquet, A., 1969. Féticheurs et médecines traditionnelles du Congo (Brazzaville). Mémoires ORSTOM No 36. Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer. Paris, France. 282 pp.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1995. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 3, Families J–L. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 857 pp.
  • Cunningham, A.B. & Schippmann, U., 2000. Griffonia simplicifolia, calling for information on a west African medicinal plant in trade. Medicinal Plant Conservation 6: 23–24.
  • 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.
  • Mangenot, G., 1957. Bandeiraea simplicifolia Benth. Icones Plantarum Africanarum 4, No 79. 4 pp.

Other references

  • Adjanohoun, E.J. & Aké Assi, L., 1979. Contribution au recensement des plantes médicinales de Côte d’Ivoire. Centre National de Floristique, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. 358 pp.
  • Ayensu, E.S., 1978. Medicinal plants of West Africa. Reference Publication, Michigan. 330 pp.
  • Barnes, P., 1998. Herbage yields and quality in four woody forage plants in a subhumid environment in Ghana. Agroforestry Systems 42(1): 25–32.
  • Das, Y.T., Bagchi, M., Bagchi, D. & Preuss, H.G., 2004. Safety of 5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan. Toxicology Letters 150(1): 111–122.
  • Hegnauer, R. & Hegnauer, M., 1994. Chemotaxonomie der Pflanzen. Band 11a. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, Switzerland. 529 pp.
  • Irvine, F.R., 1961. Woody plants of Ghana, with special reference to their uses. Oxford University Press, London, United Kingdom. 868 pp.
  • Iwu, M.M., 1993. Handbook of African medicinal plants. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, United States. 464 pp.
  • Kerharo, J. & Bouquet, A., 1950. Plantes médicinales et toxiques de la Côte d’Ivoire - Haute-Volta. Vigot Frères, Paris, France. 291 pp.
  • de Koning, J., 1983. La forêt de Banco. Part 2: La Flore. Mededelingen Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen 83–1. Wageningen, Netherlands. 921 pp.
  • Tra Bi, F.H., Kouamé, F.N. & Traoré, D., 2005. Utilisation of climbers in two forest reserves in West Côte d’Ivoire. In: Bongers, F., Parren, M.P.E. & Traoré, D. (Editors). Forest climbing plants of West Africa. Diversity, ecology and management. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, United Kingdom. pp. 167–181.
  • Waiton, S.R., 1986. Antibiotics and extraction of griffonin from Griffonia simplicifolia. B.Pharm. thesis, Faculty of Pharmacy, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. 96 pp.
  • Wilczek, R., Léonard, J., Hauman, L., Hoyle, A.C., Steyaert, R., Gilbert, G. & Boutique, R., 1952. Caesalpiniaceae. In: Robyns, W., Staner, P., Demaret, F., Germain, R., Gilbert, G., Hauman, L., Homès, M., Jurion, F., Lebrun, J., Vanden Abeele, M. & Boutique, R. (Editors). Flore du Congo belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Spermatophytes. Volume 3. Institut National pour l’Étude Agronomique du Congo belge, Brussels, Belgium. pp. 234–554.
  • Wobil, W., 2005. Host plants and communal cocoon characteristics of lepidopteran defoliators of Mansonia altissima (Sterculiaceae). BSc thesis, Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. 50 pp.
  • Zhu-Salzman, K., Ahn, J.E., Salzman, R.A., Koiwa, H., Shade, R.E. & Balfe, S., 2003. Fusion of a soybean cysteine protease inhibitor and a legume lectin enhances anti-insect activity synergistically. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 5(4): 317–323.

Sources of illustration

  • Mangenot, G., 1957. Bandeiraea simplicifolia Benth. Icones Plantarum Africanarum 4, No 79. 4 pp.


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

Correct citation of this article

Bosch, C.H., 2008. Griffonia simplicifolia (Vahl ex DC.) Baill. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 26 January 2022.