Senna alata (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Senna alata (L.) Roxb.

Protologue: Fl. ind. ed. 1832, 2: 349 (1832).
Family: Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 28


  • Cassia alata L. (1753).

Vernacular names

  • Ringworm bush, craw-craw plant, seven golden candlesticks, christmas candle, king of the forest (En).
  • Dartrier, casse ailée, plante des cros-cros, buisson de la gale, quatre épingles (Fr).
  • Dartial, cortalinde, café beirão, fedegoso, fedegosão (Po).
  • Upupu wa mwitu (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Senna alata is native to South America, but has been planted widely for medicinal and ornamental purposes and is now pantropical. In many countries, including most countries of tropical Africa, it has become naturalized and is often considered a weed.


The main medicinal uses of Senna alata are as a laxative or purgative and in the treatment of skin problems. For laxative purposes usually a decoction of the leaves is drunk, and less often the flowers, roots or the stem are used. Skin problems treated with Senna alata include ringworm, favus and other mycoses, impetigo, syphilis sores, psoriasis, herpes, chronic lichen planus, scabies, rash and itching. Skin problems are most often treated by applying leaf sap or by rubbing fresh leaves on the skin. Other ailments treated in tropical Africa with Senna alata include stomach pain during pregnancy, dysentery, haemorrhoids, blood in the urine (schistosomiasis, gonorrhoea), convulsions, heart failure, oedema, jaundice, headache, hernia, one-sided weakness or paralysis. A strong decoction made of dried leaves is used as an abortifacient. In veterinary medicine too, a range of skin problems in livestock is treated with leaf decoctions. Such decoctions are also used against external parasites such as mites and ticks.

In India leaf decoctions are used as an expectorant in bronchitis and dyspnoea, as an astringent, a mouthwash and a wash in cases of eczema. Decoctions of the wood are used to treat liver problems, urticaria, rhinitis and loss of appetite caused by gastro-intestinal problems.

The seeds are a source of gum. The young pods are eaten as a vegetable, but only in small quantities. Toasted leaves are sometimes used as a coffee substitute. Senna alata can become a weed in pastures; it is not eaten by livestock and is reported to be poisonous, especially for goats. The bark is used as fish poison and for tanning leather. The roots and the bark are reported to be used for tattooing. Senna alata is widely appreciated as a garden ornamental and bee forage.

Production and international trade

In India Senna alata is cultivated for export purposes, e.g. to Japan, but no trade statistics are available.


From the leaves of Senna alata a number of anthraquinone derivatives have been isolated, such as aloe-emodin, chrysophanol, isochrysophanol and rhein, as well as the alkaloid tyramine and the common steroid β-sitosterol. Crude leaf extracts have shown antibacterial activity against a range of bacteria, e.g. against Dermatophilus congolensis, which causes a serious skin condition in cattle. Antifungal properties (e.g. against Pityriasis versicolor in humans) and antitumour activity have been confirmed by tests. The bark of Senna alata contains tannins. The petals contain anthraquinones, glycosides, steroids, tannins and volatile oil. Extracts of the petals have bactericidal activity against gram-positive bacteria but not against gram-negative bacteria. Emodin and chrysophanol can be produced in vitro by using root cultures of Cassia alata.

Adulterations and substitutes

Anthraquinone glycosides are also found in other species of Senna, Cassia and Aloe and are used for their laxative and purgative properties as well.


  • Shrub up to 2(–5) m tall.
  • Leaves arranged spirally, paripinnately compound with 8–20 pairs of leaflets; stipules triangular, 7–10 mm long; petiole 2–3 cm long; leaflets oblong-elliptical, 5–15 cm × 3–7 cm, base and apex obtuse, mucronate, hairy on midrib, veins and margin.
  • Inflorescence an erect, terminal raceme 20–50 cm long, many-flowered; bracts elliptical, orange, enclosing flower buds.
  • Flowers bisexual, zygomorphic, 5-merous; sepals oblong, 10–20 mm × 6–7 mm, orange-yellow; petals ovate-orbicular, 16–24 mm × 10–15 mm, bright yellow; stamens 10, the 2 lower ones largest with filaments 4 mm long and anthers 12–13 mm long, 5 medium-sized, 3 short and rudimentary; ovary superior, woolly, recurved, style slender, short.
  • Fruit a winged pod 10–15 cm × 1.5–8 cm, wings 4–8 mm large, black, glabrous, dehiscent, up to 50-seeded.
  • Seeds quadrangular, flattened, 7–8 mm × 5–8 mm, shiny.

Other botanical information

Until the early 1980s, Cassia was considered a very large genus of about 550 species, but was then split into 3 genera: Cassia s.s. with about 30 species, Chamaecrista with about 250 species and Senna with about 270 species. Senna is very similar to Cassia, but is distinguished from it by the possession of 3 adaxial stamens which are short and straight, and the pedicels which have no bracteoles.

Senna leandrii

Senna leandrii (Ghesq.) Du Puy is an endemic shrub or small tree of Madagascar, where the bark is chewed to relieve dental pain.

Growth and development

Senna alata has Scarrone’s architectural model: an indeterminate trunk with tiers of orthotropic branches, which branch sympodially because they have terminal inflorescences. Senna alata is fast growing, short-lived and produces flowers and fruits throughout the year. Ants often live in association with Senna alata.


Although Senna alata has a wide ecological amplitude, preferred habitats are disturbed, rather open vegetations such as roadsides, river banks, rain forest edges, lake shores, margins of ponds and ditches, in open forest, orchards and around villages. Senna alata is found up to 1400(–2100) m altitude, but is most abundant at lower elevations. It is reported to tolerate an annual rainfall of 600–4300 mm and average yearly temperatures of 15–30°C. It is very tender to frost. It grows well on both heavy and sandy, acid to slightly alkaline, well-drained soils.

Propagation and planting

Senna alata is propagated by seed or cuttings. Soaking the seeds overnight before sowing improves germination.


When Senna alata is grown as an ornamental, cutting back hard after flowering is recommended. It produces the nicest flower display in the year after it is pruned.

Diseases and pests

Senna alata is a host of the common spiral nematode (Helicotylenchus dihystera) and the root lesion nematode (Pratylenchus loosi).


The leaves of Senna alata are harvested when needed. The active constituents are probably most abundant prior to flowering, at which time the leaves are preferably collected.

Handling after harvest

After harvesting Senna alata leaves may be dried and stored in containers until needed. More often, however, leaves are used fresh.

Genetic resources

Senna alata is widely found wild and cultivated throughout the tropics and is neither endangered nor liable to genetic erosion. There are some accessions in genebanks.


Even within populations, there is a large variation in anthraquinone content in the leaves of Senna alata, which allows for selection. No selection or breeding for medicinal use has been documented.


As Senna alata has various medicinal properties, ornamental value and is a true multipurpose plant, it will continue to be widely planted and used. The antibacterial, antifungal and antitumour properties seem to justify more research. Leaf extracts might be useful in the treatment of opportunistic skin infections in AIDS patients.

Major references

  • Arbonnier, M., 2004. Trees, shrubs and lianas of West African dry zones. CIRAD, Margraf Publishers Gmbh, MNHN, Paris, France. 573 pp.
  • ILDIS, 2005. World database of Legumes, Version 10,01. International Legume Database & Information Service. [Internet] September 2006.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Owoyale, J.A., Olatunji, G.A. & Oguntoye, S.O., 2005. Antifungal and antibacterial activities of an alcoholic extract of Senna alata leaves. Journal of Applied Sciences & Environmental Management 9(3): 105–107.
  • Ross, I.A., 2003. Medicinal plants of the world. Chemical constituents, traditional and modern uses. Volume 1. 2nd Edition. Humana Press, Totowa NJ, United States. 489 pp.
  • Toruan-Purba, A.V., 1999. Senna Miller. 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. 442–447.

Other references

  • Adedayo, O., Anderson, W.A., Moo-Young, M., Snieckus, V., Patil, P.A. & Kolawole, D.O., 2001. Phytochemistry and antibacterial activity of Senna alata flower. Pharmaceutical Biology 39(6): 408–412.
  • 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.
  • Ali-Emmanuel, N., Moudachirou, M., Akakpo, J.A. & Quetin-Leclercq, J., 2003. Treatment of bovine dermatophilosis with Senna alata, Lantana camara and Mitracarpus scaber leaf extracts. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 86(2): 167–171.
  • Berhaut, J., 1975. Flore illustrée du Sénégal. Dicotylédones. Volume 4. Ficoidées à Légumineuses. Gouvernement du Sénégal, Ministère du Développement Rural et de l’Hydraulique, Direction des Eaux et Forêts, Dakar, Senegal. 625 pp.
  • Boampong, J.N., 1992. A preliminary investigation of the anti-asthmatic properties of ethanolic root extracts of Alchornea cordifolia and Cassia alata. B.Pharm. degree thesis, Department of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. 32 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.
  • Chatsiriwej, N., Wungsintaweekul, J. & Panichayupakaranant, P., 2006. Anthraquinone production in Senna alata root cultures. Pharmaceutical Biology 44(6): 416–420.
  • Irwin, H.S. & Barneby, R.C., 1982. The American Cassinae: a synoptical revision of Leguminosae, tribe Cassieae, subtribe Cassinae in the New World. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden 35(2): 455–918.
  • Lock, J.M., 1990. Cassia (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae) in Africa. Kew Bulletin 43(2): 333–342.
  • Luckow, M., 1996. The cultivated species of Cassia, Senna and Chamaecrista (Leguminosae). Baileya 23: 195–242.
  • Nacro, M. & Millogo-Rasolodimbi, J., 1993. Plantes tinctoriales et plantes à tanins du Burkina Faso. Editions ScientifikA, Amiens, France. 152 pp.
  • Pieme, C.A., Penlap, V.N., Nkegoum, B., Taziebou, C.L., Tekwu, E.M., Etoa, F.X. & Ngongang, J., 2006. Evaluation of acute and subacute toxicities of aqueous ethanolic extract of leaves of Senna alata (L.) Roxb (Caesalpiniaceae). African Journal of Biotechnology 5(3): 283–289.
  • Yagi, S.M., El Tigani, S. & Adam, S.E., 1998. Toxicity of Senna obtusifolia fresh and fermented leaves (kawal), Senna alata leaves and some products from Senna alata on rats. Phytotherapy Research 12(5): 324–330.

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.


  • 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., 2007. Senna alata (L.) Roxb. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 12 December 2020.