Senna petersiana (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Senna petersiana (Bolle) Lock

Protologue: Kew Bull. 43(2): 340 (1988).
Family: Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 28


  • Cassia petersiana Bolle (1861).

Vernacular names

  • Dwarf cassia, eared cassia, monkey pod (En).
  • Mbaraka, mpingawaume (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Senna petersiana occurs from Cameroon east to Ethiopia and south to South Africa. It has been introduced in several Indian Ocean islands and is widely naturalized in Madagascar.


Senna petersiana is widely used as a purgative to treat constipation, stomach-ache and intestinal worms by drinking an infusion or decoction of the roots, or less often, by using fresh leaves. In southern Africa medicinal uses include the treatment of malaria, schistosomiasis, gonorrhoea and syphilis. In southern Africa the sweet fruit pulp is eaten raw by children and in Malawi the pods are soaked, boiled and eaten as a gruel. In Mozambique the seeds and fruits are made into an alcoholic drink. In Zambia and probably elsewhere, the wood is used as firewood.


The active constituents of leaves, bark, roots and pods of Senna petersiana are anthraquinone glycosides. These compounds are responsible for the purgative activity. The seeds contain the flavone luteolin. The ethanol extract of the seeds and luteolin were tested for antiviral activity and showed some activity at the highest non-toxic concentrations; luteolin also showed antibacterial activity. The methanol and water extract of the leaves showed some schistosomicidal activity in vitro. Both leaves and roots have shown antimalarial activity in vitro.

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


Shrub or small tree up to 12 m tall. Leaves arranged spirally, paripinnately compound, with 4–10(–13) pairs of leaflets; stipules kidney-shaped, 1–2.5 cm long, acuminate, persistent; petiole up to 4 cm long; leaflets lanceolate or ovate-lanceolate, 3–10 cm × 1–4 cm, apex acuminate, variably hairy. Inflorescence an erect, terminal or axillary panicle 15–20 cm long, many-flowered. Flowers bisexual, zygomorphic, 5-merous; sepals unequal, up to 6 mm long, rounded at apex; petals unequal, obovate, 1.5–3 cm long, bright yellow; stamens 10, 3 long, 4 medium-sized and 3 rudimentary; ovary superior. Fruit a somewhat compressed, linear pod 12–25 cm × 1–1.5 cm, indehiscent, sutures transversely cracked, many-seeded. Seeds compressed, ovoid to orbicular, 5–7 mm × 4–6 mm, with an olive-coloured areole.

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 petersiana is very variable and in East Africa 3 types can be distinguished that are geographically separated and differ by their hairiness. In southern Africa intermediates between the 3 types occur and therefore a formal distinction between them is not justified.


Senna petersiana occurs at the margins of rainforest, in riverine forest, deciduous woodland, coastal evergreen bushland and wooded grassland up to 2500 m altitude.

Genetic resources

In view of its wide distribution Senna petersiana is not considered threatened. In areas where the roots and bark are intensively used, monitoring of the populations is recommended. It will be worthwhile to try to link the medicinal uses to the variation in morphology, as there are no recorded medicinal uses in Ethiopia, few in Kenya and Tanzania, but many in southern Africa.


Senna petersiana will remain locally important as a purgative, but has many substitutes. More research into its potential as an anti-malaria and anti-bilharzia medicine is recommended.

Major references

  • Brenan, J.P.M., 1967. Leguminosae, subfamily Caesalpinioideae. In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 230 pp.
  • Clarkson, C., Maharaj, V.J., Crouch, N.R., Grace, O.M., Pillay, P., Matsabisa, M.G., Bhagwandin, N., Smith, P.J. & Folb, P.I., 2004. In vitro antiplasmodial activity of medicinal plants native to or naturalised in South Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 92: 177–191.
  • Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • 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.

Other references

  • Coetzee, J., Mciteka, J., Malan, E. & Ferreira, D., 2000. Structure and synthesis of the first procassinidin dimers based on epicatechin, and gallo- and epigallo-catechin. Phytochemistry 53(7): 795–804.
  • Connelly, M.P.E., Fabiano, E., Patel, I.H., Kinyanjui, S.M., Mberu, E.K. & Watkins, W.M., 1996. Antimalarial activity in crude extracts of Malawian medicinal plants. Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology 90(6): 597–602.
  • Gelfand, M., Mavi, S., Drummond, R.B. & Ndemera, B., 1985. The traditional medical practitioner in Zimbabwe: his principles of practice and pharmacopoeia. Mambo Press, Gweru, Zimbabwe. 411 pp.
  • Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
  • Sparg, S.G., van Staden, J. & Jäger, A.K., 2000. Efficiency of traditionally used South African plants against schistosomiasis. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 73(1-2): 209–214.
  • Steenkamp, V., 2003. Traditional herbal remedies used by South African women for gynaecological complaints. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 86: 97–108.
  • Storrs, A.E.G., 1979. Know your trees: some of the common trees found in Zambia. Forest Department, Ndola, Zambia. 380 pp.
  • Thulin, M., 1989. Fabaceae (Leguminosae). In: Hedberg, I. & Edwards, S. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia. Volume 3. Pittosporaceae to Araliaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 49–251.
  • Williamson, J., 1955. Useful plants of Nyasaland. The Government Printer, Zomba, Nyasaland. 168 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 petersiana (Bolle) Lock. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 20 July 2021.