Rumex abyssinicus (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Rumex abyssinicus Jacq.

Protologue: Hort. bot. vindob. 3: 48, t. 93 (1777).
Family: Polygonaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 54


Rumex schimperi Meisn. (1856).

Vernacular names

Sorrel, dock, Spanish rhubarb (En). Oseille d’Abyssinie, oseille sango, surelle (Fr). Azedinha brava (Po). Mchachu, mchumvichumvi (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Rumex abyssinicus is widespread in tropical Africa, most commonly in the highlands, particularly in central and eastern Africa, and Madagascar.


The tender shoots and leaves of Rumex abyssinicus are edible and widely used as a vegetable. They have an acid taste and are eaten fresh or cooked, alone or together with other vegetables. In Tanzania the stem is chewed like sugar cane for its sweetness and the leaves are eaten as an acidic snack by herdsmen, farmers and children. The rhizomes yield a yellow and red dye. The dye is used in Ethiopia in butter as a condiment, to give it a rich yellow colour and as protection against rancidness. The dye is also used to impart a red colour to the feet and hands of women. In Uganda the plant is occasionally cultivated to obtain the red dye for colouring wickerwork and mats of grass and raffia, in Rwanda to obtain the yellow dye. The plant is browsed by livestock.

Sap of the aerial parts is applied as a treatment for pneumonia and cough in eastern Africa. In Ethiopia the plant is used to treat jaundice and related liver diseases, scrofula, stomach-ache, neckache and low blood pressure, and as a wound dressing, haemostatic and depurative; the rhizome is used as a taenifuge. In DR Congo a leaf-compress is applied to areas of rheumatism, an infusion is taken as a purgative and root sap is applied against scabies. In Tanzania the stem and rhizome are believed to act as a galactagogue. The whole plant, fresh or dried, is ground up in Tanzania and placed on sores and parts affected by scabies. An extract of the rhizome is taken to control mild forms of diabetes in eastern Africa and, with water, to cure stomach-ache. Pounded rhizomes and roots are applied on wounds and are also considered to have purgative properties. In Rwanda and Tanzania crushed plants are used to scour clean cooking pots blackened over the fire and to remove grease.


There is no information on the nutritional composition, but it is probably comparable to garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa L.), which is widespread in temperate regions. The following constituents have been found in Rumex abyssinicus: oxalic acid, chrysophanic acid, chrysophanol, emodine and physcion. Several substances are toxic, e.g. chrysophanic acid. The roots possess antibacterial activity against Streptococcus pyogenes (causing several dangerous infections and diseases) and anti-inflammatory activity by inhibiting the synthesis of prostaglandin (a substance produced by invaders counteracting defensive activities of the body). Rumex abyssinicus has strong antiviral activity against Coxsackie virus (causing a disease resembling poliomyelitis) and influenza A virus. In vitro it demonstrated proliferation of murine macrophage cells, suggesting that it may have a role in improving the immune system of the body and in the process of wound healing (promoting regeneration of epithelial cells).


Very stout perennial herb up to 4 m tall, with fleshy rhizome and glabrous, red-green, grooved stem up to 3 cm in diameter at base. Leaves alternate, simple; ocrea funnel-shaped, 2–2.5 cm long, brown, easily torn; petiole often as long as the blade; blade triangular-hastate, basal leaves up to 25 cm × 20 cm with palmate venation, stem leaves much smaller. Inflorescence a large and richly branched, leafless panicle up to 50 cm long, with flowers in small clusters. Flowers usually bisexual; pedicel slender, up to 5 mm long; tepals 6, outer 3 ovate, 1.5 mm long, reflexed in fruit, brown, membranous, inner 3 cordate, 1–1.5 mm long during flowering, enlarging in fruit up to 6 mm long, green with red margins and distinct reticulate veins, red-brown in fruit. Fruit a sharply trigonous nut 2–4 mm long, shiny pale to dark brown.

Rumex comprises about 200 species, many originating from northern temperate regions. Rumex abyssinicus is variable, particularly in the leaves, and numerous varieties have been distinguished, but these are of little practical value because of many intermediates.


Other botanical information


Rumex abyssinicus is a common weed in fields and plantations. It also occurs along paths and water, in secondary scrub, grassland and margins of rain forest, up to 3300 m altitude. In Tanzania it thrives on volcanic soils and sandy loams, where annual rainfall is 1100–2200 mm.

Propagation and planting


Rumex abyssinicus is usually collected from the wild. As a weed it is often tolerated in fields and plantations. In Gabon, DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda it is cultivated as a vegetable or as a dye producer. It can be propagated by seeds and after establishment by division. For optimum leaf production the inflorescences should be removed. Leaves are usually collected in the rainy season whenever needed.

Genetic resources

Rumex abyssinicus is rather widespread and not in danger of genetic erosion. A large germplasm collection is kept in Germany (Gatersleben).


Rumex abyssinicus will remain locally an important vegetable from the wild. Its nutritive and medicinal properties deserve better investigation, also because related plants have been used in treating schistosomiasis.

Major references

  • 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.
  • Graham, R.A., 1958. Polygonaceae. In: Turrill, W.B. & Milne-Redhead, E. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 40 pp.
  • Hedberg, O., 2000. Polygonaceae. In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse, Demissew Sebsebe & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 2, part 1. Magnoliaceae to Flacourtiaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 336–347.
  • Katende, A.B., Ssegawa, P. & Birnie, A., 1999. Wild food plants and mushrooms of Uganda. Technical Handbook No 19. Regional Land Management Unit/SIDA, Nairobi, Kenya. 490 pp.
  • Ruffo, C.K., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 2002. Edible wild plants of Tanzania. Technical Handbook No 27. Regional Land Management Unit/ SIDA, Nairobi, Kenya. 766 pp.

Other references

  • Cavaco, A., 1953. Polygonacées (Polygonaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 65. Firmin-Didot et cie., Paris, France. 22 pp.
  • Getie, M., Gebre-Mariam, T., Rietz, R., Höhne, C., Huschka, C., Schmidtke, M., Abate, A. & Neubert, R.H.H., 2003. Evaluation of the anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory activities of the medicinal plants Dodonaea viscosa, Rumex nervosus and Rumex abyssinicus. Fitoterapia 74: 139–143.
  • Jansen, P.C.M., 1981. Spices, condiments and medicinal plants in Ethiopia, their taxonomy and agricultural significance. Agricultural Research Reports 906. Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, Netherlands. 327 pp.
  • Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
  • Nguyen Thi Do, 2001. Rumex L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 480–484.
  • Raponda-Walker, A. & Sillans, R., 1961. Les plantes utiles du Gabon. Paul Lechevalier, Paris, France. 614 pp.
  • Rechinger, K.H., 1954. Monograph of the genus Rumex in Africa. Botaniska Notiser 3, supplement 3. 114 pp.
  • Stevels, J.M.C., 1990. Légumes traditionnels du Cameroun: une étude agrobotanique. Wageningen Agricultural University Papers 90–1. Wageningen Agricultural University, Wageningen, Netherlands. 262 pp.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
  • Westphal, E., 1975. Agricultural systems in Ethiopia. Agricultural Research Reports 826. Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, Netherlands. 278 pp.


  • P.C.M. Jansen

PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Jansen, P.C.M., 2004. Rumex abyssinicus Jacq. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>.

Accessed 2 March 2020.