Rauvolfia caffra (PROTA)

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wood in transverse section
wood in tangential section
wood in radial section

Rauvolfia caffra Sond.

Protologue: Linnaea 23: 77 (1850).
Family: Apocynaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 44


  • Rauvolfia macrophylla Stapf (1894).

Vernacular names

  • Quinine tree (En).
  • Mseswe, msesawe, mwembe mwitu, mkufi (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Rauvolfia caffra occurs from Togo east to southern Sudan, Uganda and Kenya and south through Central and East Africa to eastern South Africa.


In East Africa the bark is commonly used in local medicine. The crushed bark is applied against measles or itching rash. A bark decoction is taken as an astringent, purgative or emetic to treat fever, swellings, rheumatism, hepatitis, pneumonia, abdominal pain and as a tranquilizer. A piece of bark is chewed to cure cough and toothache. Dried pulverized leaves are sniffed to cure headache. A root decoction is taken to treat fever, swollen legs, insomnia and palpitation of the heart. The root is used for treating insomnia and insecurity. A root or bark decoction cooked in porridge is applied to hardened abscesses, whereas the powdered unopened inflorescences are applied to sores. A stem or root bark decoction is taken to treat internal parasites, such as roundworm and tapeworm. Root sap, mixed with honey, is applied to fractures. In Tanzania a root decoction is taken to treat abdominal pain, constipation and irregular periods or hypertension. The vapour of a bark decoction is inhaled to treat epilepsy and eye diseases. In Zambia stem bark is used to treat venereal diseases. In Zimbabwe the sap of pounded fruits is used as ear drops to cure earache. In South Africa a decoction of the bark is taken as a tranquilizer for hysteria, and to treat insomnia.

In the Arusha and Kilimanjaro districts of Tanzania the root extract and ground stem bark are added to a local beer made from cooking bananas to add a bitter flavour and increase the alcohol percentage of the drink. The wood is suitable for making fruit boxes, kitchen furniture and shelving. Household utensils and drums are sometimes carved from it. In Kenya poles are used in hut building and for making bee hives. Rauvolfia caffra is used as a shade tree in coffee plantations, and is an important species in bee keeping in Tanzania due to its multitude of flowers. The tree is a good source of fuel wood. The thickened latex is used as a bird lime in Kenya. The bark contains a fibre which is used in Cameroon and Gabon to make bow strings and cords. Rauvolfia caffra is a decorative fast-growing tree for sheltered gardens. It is planted as an ornamental shade tree in southern Africa.


Rauvolfia caffra contains a large number of indole alkaloids. The total alkaloid content of young root bark is 3%, with as major components ajmaline (1.25%) and serpentine (1.09%), followed by ajmalicine (0.16%), reserpine (0.08%), reserpinine (0.02%) and reserpiline (0.01%). The principal alkaloids from the stem bark are ajmaline, norajmaline, ajmalicinine, ajmalicine, and geissoschizol. The principal alkaloids isolated from the leaves are from the less common indolenine type (raucaffrinoline, perakine and vomilenine) and from the peraksine type (peraksine and dihydroperaksine). The seeds yielded 0.012% alkaloids, comprising mainly yohimbine and related compounds, and normacusine B. Five of the Rauvolfia alkaloids are used in Western medicine: reserpine, reserpinine, deserpidine, ajmalicine and ajmaline. Reserpine, now no longer widely used, is a well-known antihypertensive, antipsychotic and sedative, although an important side effect is depression. Reserpinine and deserpidine are reserpine analogues. Both alkaloids have the same effects as reserpine, and can be used to treat the same conditions, but their side effects are reported to be less pronounced. Ajmalicine is an α-adrenergic blocking spasmolytic which, at high doses, reverses the effects of adrenaline, and moderates the activity of the vasomotor centres, especially in the brain stem. It causes an increase of the blood flow to the brain. Ajmalicine is mainly used in products that treat the psychological and behavioural problems associated with senility, as well as stroke and head injuries. Ajmaline is an anti-arrhythmic, which substantially decreases the rate of depolarization of atrial and ventricular cells. Its toxicity has limited its uses and it is mainly prescribed against rapid irregular cardiac beat, and some other cardiac dysfunctions. Because of its toxicity it is no longer marketed in several countries.

The root extract showed antibacterial activity against Enterobacter cloacae in vitro, but was not active against a range of other human pathogens. The stem bark extract showed antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus in vitro. The root extract showed low to moderate activity against Plasmodium falciparum in vitro.

The wood is yellowish-white, soft and moderately light weight (density about 540 kg/m³ at 15% moisture content).

Adulterations and substitutes

Commercially, Rauvolfia alkaloids are obtained from Rauvolfia vomitoria Afzel. and to a lesser extent from Rauvolfia serpentina (L.) Benth. ex Kurz.


Medium-sized to fairly large tree up to 40 m tall; bole up to 1 m in diameter; bark grey to brown, smooth or rough and corky, fissured; branchlets often 4–5-angular or 4–5-winged, with conspicuous leaf scars. Leaves in whorls of 3–6, crowded at the top of branches, simple and entire; stipules absent; petiole up to 6 cm long; blade narrowly elliptical to narrowly obovate, 2–50(–70) cm × 1–15(–20) cm, base decurrent into the petiole, apex acute, glabrous. Inflorescence a congested cyme, in terminal whorls of 1–4, many-flowered; peduncle 1.5–13.5 cm long, glabrous. Flowers bisexual, regular, 5-merous, fragrant; pedicel up to 2 mm long; sepals fused at base, unequal, ovate, 0.5–1.5 mm long; corolla tube cylindrical, 3–5.5 mm long, glabrous outside, inside glabrous in the basal 1.5–4.5 mm, then shortly hairy to the mouth and hairy at the base of the lobes inside, lobes ovate to obovate, 0.5–1.5 mm long, white, greenish white or yellowish white; stamens inserted at 2–4 mm above the corolla base, included; ovary superior, globose to obovate, composed of 2 partly fused or free carpels, style 0.5–3 mm long, pistil head cylindrical with a basal collar and a stigmoid apex. Fruit a globose to ellipsoid drupe 5–20 mm long when 1 carpel developed, obcordate, 2-lobed, 10–30 mm long when both carpels developed, dark red, 1– 2-seeded. Seeds ellipsoid, 7–13 mm long, laterally compressed.

Other botanical information

Rauvolfia is a pantropical genus of about 60 species, of which 7 occur in continental Africa, 2 in Madagascar, and 1 in Madagascar and the Comoros.

Rauvolfia mombasiana

Rauvolfia mombasiana Stapf occurs in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, mainly along the coast. A decoction from the root or sometimes from the bark is taken to treat malaria, venereal diseases, asthma, tuberculosis, stomach complaints and skin problems. The ground leaves are applied to breast abscesses. Dried grated root bark mixed with coconut oil is applied externally to treat scabies. Root powder mixed with porridge is taken to treat constipation and abdominal pain. In Kenya and Tanzania the grated root or stem bark is used with cassava flour as a rat poison. It is also used as a suicide poison. Rauvolfia mombasiana contains similar alkaloids to those of Rauvolfia vomitoria Afzel.

Rauvolfia volkensii

Rauvolfia volkensii (K.Schum.) Stapf is an endemic of north-eastern Tanzania. Its root and bark are locally taken in infusion to treat snakebites, gonorrhoea and to increase lactation in nursing mothers. The principal alkaloids in the roots are reserpiline (0.15%) and ajmaline (0.08%); the reserpine content in the roots is very low.


Wood-anatomical description (IAWA hardwood codes):

  • Growth rings: 2: growth ring boundaries indistinct or absent.
  • Vessels: 5: wood diffuse-porous; 9: vessels exclusively solitary (90% or more); 13: simple perforation plates; 22: intervessel pits alternate; 25: intervessel pits small (4–7 μm); (26: intervessel pits medium (7–10 μm)); 29: vestured pits; 30: vessel-ray pits with distinct borders; similar to intervessel pits in size and shape throughout the ray cell; 41: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 50–100 μm; 42: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 100–200 μm; 48: 20–40 vessels per square millimetre.
  • Tracheids and fibres: 62: fibres with distinctly bordered pits; 63: fibre pits common in both radial and tangential walls; 66: non-septate fibres present; 69: fibres thin- to thick-walled; (70: fibres very thick-walled).
  • Axial parenchyma: 76: axial parenchyma diffuse; 77: axial parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates; 92: four (3–4) cells per parenchyma strand; 93: eight (5–8) cells per parenchyma strand.
  • Rays: 98: larger rays commonly 4- to 10-seriate; 106: body ray cells procumbent with one row of upright and/or square marginal cells; 107: body ray cells procumbent with mostly 2–4 rows of upright and/or square marginal cells; (114: 4 rays per mm); 115: 4–12 rays per mm.
  • Mineral inclusions: 136: prismatic crystals present; 137: prismatic crystals in upright and/or square ray cells; 140: prismatic crystals in chambered upright and/or square ray cells; 154: more than one crystal of about the same size per cell or chamber.
(M. Thiam, P. Détienne & E.A. Wheeler)

Growth and development

In Tanzania Rauvolfia caffra flowers during the long rainy season, extending into the dry season up to the onset of the short rainy season; fruit ripens during the dry season extending into the short rainy season up to the long dry season.

When established, the plants have a fast growth rate, up to 1.5 m/year. Rauvolfia caffra needs shade when young; old trees, however, do not tolerate shade.


Rauvolfia caffra occurs in rainforest, riverine forest, montane forest and old secondary forest, from sea-level up to 2500 m altitude. It is frost-sensitive. It appears to prefer fairly fertile soils that are well drained. It grows on loamy sands to sandy clay-loam soils. When growing away from rivers and streams it is always associated with the availability of ground water.

Propagation and planting

Rauvolfia caffra regenerates by seed, cuttings and suckers. The number of seeds/kg is 4500–5000. Before sowing, the fruit pulp is removed by washing the seeds in water. The seeds are sown in seedling trays filled with a mixture of river sand and compost (1:1), and covered with a thin layer of sand or left on the surface. Germination is fast and reaches up to 80% after two weeks. The seedlings are transplanted into nursery bags when they reach the 3-leaf stage and are 25–30 cm tall. They need regular watering for the first 3 months after transplanting into the field. Seeds retain viability only for a short period of about 1 month at room temperature, although other sources mention that seed germinates even after staying on the forest floor for a long time.

Vegetative propagation of Rauvolfia caffra from leaf explants in vitro is successful.


Rauvolfia caffra can be coppiced or pollarded. Trees should not be grown near houses, as some parts may be toxic to children and livestock. Its large size and invasive root system make it unsuitable for smaller gardens.


Roots may be harvested annually in a non-destructive way by cutting them 10 cm from the taproot. All plant parts are harvested whenever the need arises.

Handling after harvest

The stem bark or roots of Rauvolfia caffra can be used fresh or dried and powdered and stored in a closed container for later use. The leaves are usually used fresh.

Genetic resources

Rauvolfia caffra is relatively common throughout its distribution area, and not in danger of genetic erosion.


Rauvolfia caffra has multiple uses in local medicine. More research is needed to validate these uses. As the quantity of pharmacologically interesting compounds is lower than in Rauvolfia vomitoria, Rauvolfia caffra has no future for large-scale exploitation. Its prospects as a shade tree in agroforestry systems in East Africa, especially highland systems with coffee and banana, are promising, although its invasive root system requires further study.

Major references

  • 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.
  • FAO, 1986. Some medicinal forest plants of Africa and Latin America. FAO Forestry Paper 67. Rome, Italy. 252 pp.
  • Iwu, M.M., 1993. Handbook of African medicinal plants. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, United States. 464 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • van Dilst, F.J.H. & Leeuwenberg, A.J.M., 1991. Rauvolfia L. in Africa and Madagascar. Series of revisions of Apocynaceae 33. Bulletin du Jardin Botanique Nationale de Belgique 61(1–2): 21–69.
  • van Wyk, B.E. & Gericke, N., 2000. People’s plants: a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 351 pp.

Other references

  • Akinloye, B.A. & Court, W.E., 1981. The alkaloids of Rauwolfia volkensii. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4: 99–109.
  • Amer, M.M.A. & Court, W.E., 1981. Root wood alkaloids of Rauwolfia macrophylla. Planta Medica 43(1): 94–95.
  • Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
  • Hines, D.A. & Eckman, K., 1993. Indigenous multipurpose trees for Tanzania: uses and economic benefits for people. FAO Forestry Paper, Rome, Italy.
  • Höft, M.G., Verpoorte, R. & Beck, E., 1998. Growth and alkaloid patterns of roots of Tabernaemontana pachysiphon and Rauvolfia mombasiana as influenced by environmental factors. Botanica Acta 111(3): 222–230.
  • Iwu, M.M. & Court, W.E., 1978. The alkaloids of Rauwolfia mombasiana leaves. Planta Medica 33(3): 232–236.
  • Iwu, M.M. & Court, W.E., 1979. Alkaloids of Rauwolfia mombasiana stem bark. Planta Medica 36(3): 208–212.
  • Iwu, M.M. & Court, W.E., 1980. The alkaloids of Rauwolfia mombasiana roots. Planta Medica 38(3): 260–263.
  • Madati, P.J., Kayani, M.J., Pazi, H.A.M. & Nyamgenda, A.F.D., 1977. Alkaloids of Rauvolfia caffra Sond. 1. Phytochemical and toxicological studies. Planta Medica 32(3): 258–267.
  • Mbuya, L.P., Msanga, H.P., Ruffo, C.K., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 1994. Useful trees and shrubs for Tanzania: identification, propagation and management for agricultural and pastoral communities. Technical Handbook 6. Regional Soil Conservation Unit/SIDA, Nairobi, Kenya. 542 pp.
  • Nasser, A.M.A.G. & Court, W.E., 1983. Alkaloids of Rauwolfia caffra seeds. Planta Medica 47(4): 242–243.
  • Nasser, A.M.A.G. & Court, W.E., 1983. Leaf alkaloids of Rauwolfia caffra. Phytochemistry 22(10): 2297–2300.
  • Nasser, A.M.A.G. & Court, W.E., 1984. Stem bark alkaloids of Rauvolfia caffra. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11(1): 99–117.
  • Omino, E.A., 2002. Apocynaceae (part 1). In: Beentje, H.J. & Ghazanfar, S.A. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 116 pp.
  • Omino, E.A. & Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Ethnobotany of Apocynaceae species in Kenya. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 40: 167–180.
  • Tshikalange, T.E., Meyer, J.J.M. & Hussein, A.A., 2005. Antimicrobial activity, toxicity and the isolation of a bioactive compound from plants used to treat sexually transmitted diseases. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 96(3): 515–519.
  • Upadhyay, N., Makoveychuk, A.Y., Nikolaeva, L.A. & Batygina, T.B., 1992. Organogenesis and somatic embryogenesis in leaf callus culture of Rauwolfia caffra Sond. Journal of Plant Physiology 140(2): 218–222.
  • World Agroforestry Centre, undated. Agroforestree Database. [Internet] World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya. http://www.worldagroforestry.org/ Sites/TreeDBS/ aft.asp. April 2005.
  • Zirihi, G.N., Mambu, L., Guédé-Guina, F., Bodo, B. & Grellier, P., 2005. In vitro antiplasmodial activity and cytotoxicity of 33 West African plants used for the treatment of malaria. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 98: 281–285.

Sources of illustration

  • Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors), 2006. Flore analytique du Bénin. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. 1034 pp.


  • N.P. Mollel, Tropical Pesticides Research Institute, National Herbarium of Tanzania, P.O. Box 3024, Arusha, Tanzania

Correct citation of this article

Mollel, N.P., 2007. Rauvolfia caffra Sond. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 21 July 2021.