Heliotropium indicum (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Heliotropium indicum L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 130 (1753).
Family: Boraginaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 22, 24

Vernacular names

  • Indian heliotrope, turnsole (En).
  • Herbe papillon, monte au ciel, herbe à verrues (Fr).
  • Heliotrópio-indiano, borragem brava, fedegoso (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Heliotropium indicum has a pantropical distribution, but is probably native of tropical America. It is widespread and common throughout Africa.


Heliotropium indicum has been used widely for centuries on warts and to treat inflammations and tumours. Throughout tropical Africa it is used as an analgesic (rheumatism), diuretic and for numerous skin problems (e.g. yaws, urticaria, scabies, ulcers, eczema, impetigo). There is ample variation in plant parts used, and in methods of preparation and administration. In Nigeria, an infusion of the plant is used as an eye-lotion and to clean ulcers. In Gabon the powdered leaves are used to treat infected gums. The Ngoni of Tanzania drink an extract made from the roots to treat yaws. In Madagascar a plant infusion is used as a strong diuretic. In the Seychelles the leaves are applied as an analgesic to treat stomach-ache in adult patients after operations. In Mauritius a leaf infusion is taken against kidney infections and as a diuretic. A poultice made from the leaves is applied to rheumatic limbs, to wounds and insect bites. A flower decoction is an emmenagogue in small doses and an abortifacient in large doses. Prostate infections are treated with a decoction made from a mixture with other plants.

In Gambia the whole plant is buried and after the fleshy tissue has rotted away the remaining fibre is used to make false hair for women.


Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are a common constituent of various genera belonging to the Boraginaceae and Asteraceae and the papilionoid genus Crotalaria. They exhibit pronounced toxic effects on liver and lungs, but cytotoxic effects and other mutagenic and carcinogenic activities have also been reported.

From Heliotropium indicum the pyrrolizidine alkaloids indicine, indicine-N-oxide, acetyl-indicine, indicinine, heleurine, heliotrine, supinine, supinidine and lindelofidine have been isolated, all of them with hepatoxic activity. Furthermore the alkaloids trachelanthamidine and retronecine and the pyrrolizidine precursor amines (in leaves and inflorescence) putrescine, spermidine and spermine were isolated. The seeds contain 12% oil and 1.8% nitrogen. The nitrogen-containing lipid fraction contained C16 and C18 acids esterified with 1-cyano- 2-hydroxymethylprop-1-en-3-ol.

Heliotropium indicum grown under greenhouse conditions showed the highest content of alkaloids at the beginning of the flowering period. The young leaves, seedlings and inflorescences showed high alkaloid levels and with ageing, the level of alkaloids decreased 20 fold in the leaves. The highest alkaloid content was found in the roots and inflorescence and these also had the highest relative amounts of N-oxide, ranging from 60–90% of the total alkaloid content. No significant age-dependent differences in N-oxides were found.

Extracts of Heliotropium indicum have been shown to have strong antibacterial and antitumour activities, but no antifungal activity. Furthermore, they showed wound healing activity in rats. The active principle was found to be indicine-N-oxide which has been synthesized in an efficient way. Indicine N-oxide has reached Phase I clinical trials in advanced cancer patients.

Aqueous leaf extracts of Heliotropium indicum had an allelopathic effect on rice seedlings; phenolic compounds may be held responsible for this.

Ingestion of Heliotropium is dangerous. Fatal accidental poisoning in humans by drinking herbal tea, consuming grain contaminated with Heliotropium seeds, and as a result of medicinal use has been recorded. Additionally, pyrrolizidine alkaloids are excreted in milk, and the use by lactating mothers is a toxicity hazard to babies. The plants are considered toxic to livestock with several records of fatal poisoning.

Adulterations and substitutes

Many other species of Heliotropium contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids and are often used as substitutes for Heliotropium indicum.


  • Annual or perennial, erect herb, up to 1.5 m tall, woody at the base, usually much branched.
  • Leaves alternate or opposite, simple; stipules absent; petiole 1–7 cm long; blade ovate to elliptical, (1.5–)3–16 cm × (0.5–)1.5–10 cm; base truncate but narrowly decurrent; apex acute or acuminate; margin irregularly undulate, bristly hairy.
  • Inflorescence a scorpioid, simple, many-flowered cyme, 2.5–45 cm long.
  • Flowers bisexual, regular, 5-merous; calyx with almost free, unequal lobes, bristly, white hairy; corolla salver-shaped, tube 3–4.5 mm long, lobes rounded, c. 1 mm long, pale-violet, blue or white; stamens included in corolla tube, with very short filaments; ovary superior, 4-celled.
  • Fruit 2–3 mm long, splitting into 4 nutlets.
  • Seedling with epigeal germination; cotyledons leafy, rounded.

Other botanical information

Heliotropium comprises about 250 species and is distributed in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate zones of all continents. The classification suffers from the absence of a recent taxonomic revision covering Old World and the New World species. Heliotropium is of special interest in eastern and northern East Africa as it is associated with the initial swarming areas of migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria). Likewise butterflies are often associated with Heliotropium as they require certain pyrrolizidine alkaloids as precursor for their pheromones.

Heliotropium amplexicaule

Heliotropium amplexicaule Vahl is native to South America, but is now found throughout the tropics. In pastures it can cause fatal poisoning in cattle. In Mauritius, where it is locally a weed in sugarcane, a decoction of the plant is drunk to cure cough and fever.

Heliotropium curassavicum

Heliotropium curassavicum L. is another native of the New World which has been introduced in the Old World tropics. It is less widespread in tropical Africa than Heliotropium indicum and no medicinal uses have been reported from Africa. In the Americas, however, uses similar to those of Heliotropium indicum are recorded. In Madagascar, Heliotropium curassavicum is burnt in the fields, as it provides good ash. Its English names, ‘alkali heath’, ‘salt heliotrope’ and ‘seaside heliotrope’, and its French name, ‘verveine bord-de-mer’, refer to its preferred habitat: saline lake- and seashores.

Growth and development

Heliotropium indicum may flower throughout the year. The flowering season is very long and new flowers develop apically within the cyme while mature nutlets are already present at the base of the inflorescence.


Heliotropium indicum is found in sunny localities, on waste land, in periodically desiccating pools and ditches and anthropogenic habitats, generally below 800 m altitude. It is widely considered a weed of fields and pastures.


For medicinal uses Heliotropium indicum is exclusively collected from the wild.

Handling after harvest

The plants are generally collected when fully grown and can be used either dry or fresh.

Genetic resources

Heliotropium indicum is widespread both in the Old World and New World, and there is no risk of genetic erosion.


Heliotropium alkaloids have been considered as potential agents in chemotherapy and clinical trials have been executed. However, the applications in cancer therapy are limited by the toxic effects, in particular the hepatotoxic effect, of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids. External application to promote wound healing and to fight infections seems less hazardous, but more research is needed.

Major references

  • Adjanohoun, E.J., Abel, A., Aké Assi, L., Brown, D., Chetty, K.S., Chong-Seng, L., Eymé, J., Friedman, F., Gassita, J.N., Goudoté, E.N., Govinden, P., Keita, A., Koudogbo, B., Lai-Lam, G., Landreau, D., Lionnet, G. & Soopramanien, A., 1983. Médecine traditionelle et pharmacopée - Contribution aux études ethnobotaniques et floristiques aux Seychelles. Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique, Paris, France. 170 pp.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • Catalfamo, J.L., Martin Jr, W.B. & Birecka, H., 1982. Accumulation of alkaloids and their necines in Heliotropium curassavicum, Heliotropium spathulatum and Heliotropium indicum. Phytochemistry 21(11): 2669–2675.
  • Iwu, M.M., 1993. Handbook of African medicinal plants. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, United States. 464 pp.
  • Jelager, L., Gurib-Fakim, A. & Adsersen, A., 1998. Antibacterial and antifungal activity of medicinal plants of Mauritius. Pharmaceutical Biology 36(3): 153–161.
  • Kugelman, K., Liu, W.C., Axelrod, M., McBride, T.J. & Rao, K.V., 1976. Indicine-N-oxide: the antitumor principle of Heliotropium indicum. Lloydia 39(2–3): 125–128.
  • Misawa, M., Hayashi, M. & Takayama, S., 1983. Production of antineoplastic agents by plant tissue cultures: 1. Induction of callus tissues and detection of the agents in cultured cells. Planta Medica 49(2): 115–119.
  • Rajangam, M., 1997. Allelopathic effects of Heliotropium indicum on paddy var. IR-20 and Ponmani. Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Monitoring 7(3): 207–209.
  • Verdcourt, B., 1991. Boraginaceae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 125 pp.
  • Wongsatit Chuakul, Noppamas Soonthornchareonnon & Promjit Saralamp, 1999. Heliotropium L. In: de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(1). Medicinal and poisonous plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 292–296.

Other references

  • Ahmad, I., Ansari, A.A. & Osman, S.M., 1978. Cyanolipids of Boraginaceae seed oils. Chemistry and Industry 16: 626–627.
  • Bernardo, G.Q. & Oliver, N., 2000. Antiseptic and healing properties of indigenous plants from the Philippines. PCARRD Highlights ’99: 62.
  • Birecka, H., DiNolfo, T.E., Martin, W.B. & Frohlich, M.W., 1984. Polyamines and leaf senescence in pyrrolizidine alkaloid-bearing Heliotropium plants. Phytochemistry 23(5): 991–998.
  • Carballo, M., Mudry, M.D., Larripa, I.B., Villamil, E. & d’Aquino, M., 1992. Gentoxic action of an aqueous extract of Heliotropium curassavicum var. argentinum. Mutation Research 279: 245–253.
  • Davicino, J.G., Pestchanker, M.J. & Giordano, O.S., 1988. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids from Heliotropium curassavicum. Phytochemistry 27(3): 960–962.
  • Decary, R., 1946. Plantes et animaux utiles de Madagascar. Annales du Musée Colonial de Marseille, 54e année, 6e série, 4e volume, 1er et dernier fascicule. 234 pp.
  • Fernandez, T.J., Ceniza, E.E. & Amihan, D.N., 1994. Utilization of a weed for infectious Coryza in chicken. In: Pest Management Council of the Philippines. Integrated pest management; learning from experience: 58.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Sewraj, M., Guého, J. & Dulloo, E., 1993. Medical ethnobotany of some weeds of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 39(3): 177–185.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1995. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 1. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 495 pp.
  • Hartmann, T., 1999. Chemical ecology of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Planta 207(4): 483–495.
  • Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
  • Le Gall, P., Djihou, Z., Tchenga, G. & Lomer, C.J., 2003. Diet of Zonocerus variegatus (Linné, 1758) (Orth., Acrididae) in cassava fields in Bénin. Journal of Applied Entomology 127(7): 435–440.
  • Martins, E.S. & Brummitt, R.K., 1990. Boraginaceae. In: Launert, E. & Pope, G.V. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 7, part 4. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 59–110.
  • Ogawa, T., Niwa, H. & Yamada, K., 1993. An efficient enantioselective synthesis of indicine N-oxide, an anti-tumor pyrrolizidine alkaloid. Tetrahedron 49(8): 1571–1578.
  • Ohnuma, T., Sridkar, K.S., Ratner, L.H. & Holland, J.F., 1982. Phase I study of indicine N-oxide in patients with advanced cancer. Cancer Treatment and Report 66(7): 1509–1515.
  • Raponda-Walker, A. & Sillans, R., 1961. Les plantes utiles du Gabon. Paul Lechevalier, Paris, France. 614 pp.
  • Reddy, J.S., Rao, P.R. &, Reddy, M.S., 2002. Wound healing effects of Heliotropium indicum, Plumbago zeylanica and Acalypha indica in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 79(2): 249–251.
  • Srinivas, K., Rao, M.E.B. & Rao, S.S., 2000. Anti-inflammatory activity of Heliotropium indicum Linn. and Leucas aspera Spreng. Indian Journal of Pharmacology 32(1): 37–38.
  • van Weeren, P.R., Morales, J.A., Rodriguez, L.L., Cedeno, H., Villalobos, J. & Poveda, L.J., 1999. Mortality supposedly due to intoxication by pyrrolizidine alkaloids from Heliotropium indicum in a horse population in Costa Rica: a case report. Veterinary Quarterly 21(2): 59–62.

Sources of illustration

  • Wongsatit Chuakul, Noppamas Soonthornchareonnon & Promjit Saralamp, 1999. Heliotropium L. In: de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(1). Medicinal and poisonous plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 292–296.


  • A. Gurib-Fakim, Faculty of Science, University of Mauritius, Réduit, Mauritius

Correct citation of this article

Gurib-Fakim, A., 2006. Heliotropium indicum L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 8 July 2021.