Phyllanthus reticulatus (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Dye / tannin|
|Forage / feed|
Phyllanthus reticulatus Poir.
- Protologue: Encycl. 5: 298 (1804).
- Family: Euphorbiaceae (APG: Phyllanthaceae)
- Chromosome number: 2n = 26
- Kirganelia reticulata (Poir.) Baill. (1858).
- Potato plant, potato smell, seaside laurel (En).
- Mwino, mfuungozi, mkasiri, mchunguchungu, mviongozi, mzizima (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Phyllanthus reticulatus is widespread in the Old World tropics, from tropical Africa to India, China and South-East Asia, and south to Queensland (northern Australia). It has been introduced into the West Indies. It occurs throughout tropical Africa, except in the most humid, equatorial areas, and also in Egypt and northern South Africa.
The Asante people in Ghana give a soup made of Phyllanthus reticulatus leaves boiled with palm oil to women after childbirth. Sap from the stem is used as eye drops to cure conjunctivitis and soreness. In southern Africa powdered leaves are topically applied to sores, including venereal sores, burns, suppurations and chafes. In Tanzania crushed leaves are rubbed on the body of malaria patients. In Sudan and southern Africa the leaves and bark are reputed to be diuretic and cooling. In Zanzibar the plant is considered a remedy for anaemia and intestinal haemorrhage. Sap from pounded roots is used as ear drops to treat ear infections. Powdered root is sprinkled on infected wounds and chancre. A decoction of the roots is drunk against dysmenorrhoea and to increase fertility. It is also taken to treat abscesses, general pain or spasms, and is used as a purgative and as part of treatment against hookworm. The Sukuma people of Tanzania drink water mixed with the pounded roots against headache. Leaves and roots also enter in a treatment of paralysis. In Tanzania the fruit and root are used for criminal poisoning.
In India the powdered leaves are pounded with cubebs (Piper cubeba L.) and camphor into tablets for sucking against bleeding gums; the leaves are also used in the treatment of diabetes. In the Philippines leaves are applied locally against pinworms. A root decoction is taken against gonorrhoea and other venereal diseases and also against diarrhoea accompanied by mild anal bleeding. In the Malaysia the stem and leaves are rubbed on the chest against asthma; a leaf decoction is drunk to treat a sore throat, against snakebites, mental problems and diarrhoea.
The foliage and young shoots are browsed by all livestock, e.g. in Kenya and Tanzania. The fruits are edible. They are traded in Freetown (Sierra Leone) as sour grapes and are occasionally eaten in East Africa, but probably only as an emergency food.
In Sudan and East Africa a red or black dye is obtained from the fruit, bark and roots; it is used for tanning and dyeing fishing lines and nets. In Angola a mixture of crushed leaves and black mud is used traditionally to dye cloth. In Indonesia a decoction of stems and leaves is used for dyeing cotton black. It was also used as a mordant. In India the root is reported to produce a red dye. In the Philippines a black ink is prepared from the ripe fruits. The Swahili name ‘mwino’ suggests a similar use in East Africa. Stems are used in Nigeria as roof binders. Twigs are widely used as chew sticks. The wood is suitable for local construction and as firewood or tinder; it produces charcoal of good quality. In Tanzania it is used to make flails for threshing, utensils and other small objects and was formerly used in fire-drills.
Production and international trade
Phyllanthus reticulatus is of subsistence value in most parts of Africa, and root bark, stem bark and leaves are collected and traded in local markets. Production figures are not available.
Phyllanthus reticulatus contains tannins, which are partly responsible for its medicinal and dyeing properties. A number of triterpenoids have been isolated from the stems and leaves, including sitosterol, friedelin and betulinic acid. The stem bark contains pentacosane, 21-α-hydroxyfriedelan-3-one, taraxerol and lupene-24-diol.
Petroleumether and ethanol extracts of the leaves showed hypoglycaemic effects in alloxan-induced diabetic mice. An ethanolic extract of the stem bark showed in-vitro antiviral properties against polio and measles viruses, and antitumour activity. In Kenya extracts of the leaves showed promising antiplasmodial activity against chloroquine-resistant and -sensitive malaria parasites.
Phyllanthus reticulatus has been a test plant in trials to remove heavy metals from contaminated soil. Although it was effective, Pluchea indica (L.) Less. performed significantly better.
The wood is fairly hard and tough, and greyish white to reddish.
Monoecious, deciduous, much-branched shrub or small tree up to 5(–10) m tall; bole up to 25 cm in diameter; bark pale reddish brown, longitudinally fissured; branches slender, spreading and drooping almost to the ground, pale grey or brownish white, lateral leafy shoots up to 25 cm long. Leaves alternate, distichous, simple and entire; stipules linear to narrowly lanceolate, 1–1.5 mm long, pale brown; petiole 1–4 mm long; blade elliptical to ovate-oblong or nearly orbicular, 1–5 cm × 0.5–3 cm, base cuneate to rounded or truncate, apex acute or notched, usually glabrous, pinnately veined with 7–13 pairs of lateral veins. Inflorescence a fascicle on lateral shoots, with 1 female and several male flowers per fascicle, or female flowers solitary in upper leaf axils. Flowers unisexual, regular, 5(–6)-merous, fragrant; perianth lobes elliptical-ovate to obovate-orbicular, c. 2 mm × 1–2 mm, glabrous or short-hairy outside, white with a green or yellowish green median stipe, sometimes tinged pinkish to purplish; male flowers with pedicel 2–4 mm long, disk glands 5(–6), free, stamens 5(–6), usually free, c. 1.5 mm long; female flowers with shorter and stouter pedicels, disk c. 1 mm in diameter, 5-lobed, ovary superior, almost globose, 1–1.5 mm in diameter, 3–4(–many)-celled, smooth, styles 3–8, free, apex shortly 2-fid. Fruit a depressed globose, fleshy berry 3–5 mm × 4–6 mm, 3–many-lobed, smooth, green turning reddish purple or bluish black, 6–many-seeded. Seeds irregularly ovoid-trigonous, 2–2.5 mm long, minutely ridged, shiny, reddish brown.
Other botanical information
Phyllanthus is a large genus comprising about 750 species in tropical and subtropical regions, with about 150 species in mainland tropical Africa and about 60 in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands.
Growth and development
In the Sahel region flowering occurs towards the end of the dry season, shortly after the plants have come into leaf, and continues during the rainy season. In Sudan Phyllanthus reticulatus flowers in March–October and fruits in October–December. In southern Africa it is reported to flower before or when coming into leaf, mainly in September–October, but flowering may start as early as July. The flowers have a very characteristic smell of potatoes.
Phyllanthus reticulatus occurs in rainforest and mixed deciduous forest, miombo woodland, on river banks, in forest fringes, mostly on deep moist soil. It is also found in littoral scrub and dune vegetation and occasionally on termite mounds. It often forms thickets, e.g. in floodplain grassland. Phyllanthus reticulatus can become an invasive weed of cultivated land.
In Africa Phyllanthus reticulatus only occurs in the wild, but in India it is occasionally also cultivated. It can be coppiced.
Phyllanthus reticulatus is common and widespread; it is therefore not in danger of genetic erosion.
The numerous medicinal uses of Phyllanthus reticulatus warrant much more detailed studies of its chemical and pharmacological properties. The dye and tannin properties also deserve attention.
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Sources of illustration
- Phuphathanaphong, L., 1991. Phyllanthus reticulatus Poiret. In: Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Wulijarni-Soetjipto, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 3. Dye and tannin producing plants. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 109–110.
- A. Maroyi, Department of Biological Sciences, Bindura University of Science Education, P.B. 1020, Bindura, Zimbabwe
Correct citation of this article
Maroyi, A., 2008. Phyllanthus reticulatus Poir. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 19 July 2021.
- See the Prota4U database.