Spigelia anthelmia (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Spigelia anthelmia L.

Protologue: Sp. pl 1: 149 (1753).
Family: Loganiaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 32

Vernacular names

  • Wormgrass, wormbush, West Indian pinkroot (En).
  • Brinvillière, herbe à vers, herbe à la brinvilliers (Fr).
  • Lombrigueira, pó vermifugo, pimenta d’água, arapabaca (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

Spigelia anthelmia originates from tropical and subtropical America, but is widely naturalized in tropical Africa and Indonesia. In Africa it occurs from Senegal east to DR Congo and Ethiopia.


Spigelia anthelmia combats intestinal worms. Both roots and leaves are anthelminthic. In the Americas Spigelia anthelmia is said to be one of the best vermifuges, and is renowned as a medicine against spasmodic and nervous attacks. It is also used to cause transpiration, while a decoction of the plant is applied against thrush and hypertension. In the German homeopathic pharmacopoeia, an extract of the aerial parts is official as a remedy for neuralgic and cardiac disorders. Despite its relatively recent introduction in Africa, the plant has found a place in traditional medicine. In Benin and Nigeria a decoction of fresh leafy twigs is taken as an anthelmintic. Caution is needed not to apply high doses, as these cause convulsions. Because of the toxicity of the plant, it is essential that immediately after a dose is taken to treat worm infections, a strong purge is taken as a chaser. Some fatal cases have been reported, especially in children. In Congo a plant decoction is gargled to treat sore throat and plant sap is rubbed into scarifications to treat chest complaints.

The fresh plant serves as rat poison and fruiting plants eaten in large quantities are poisonous to cattle, causing death 2–3 hours after ingestion. However, the intake of sufficient other forage, may cancel out the toxic effects.

Production and international trade

On the internet, dried Spigelia anthelmia plants cost US$ 31/kg, dried roots US$ 62/kg, or US$ 44/kg for larger quantities. Seeds are sold at US$ 6 per 100.


Spigelia anthelmia contains quaternary alkaloids, the major ones being spiganthine, ryanodine and structurally related compounds. The highest concentrations of alkaloids are present in the roots and in the fruit wall. Spiganthine and ryanodine are the main cardioactive principles. The effect is characterized by a delay in contraction development of the heart muscle.

Several fractions of an ethanol extract of aerial parts were tested in screening tests. Hypotensive and bradycardiac effects in anaesthetized cats and rats were observed, as well as contractions of isolated guinea-pig and rat ileums. An intravenously applied infusion of aerial parts in rats produced a dose-dependent, prompt, more or less short-lasting hypertension or led to acute lethal intoxication with signs of cardio-respiratory depression. An ethyl acetate extract of aerial parts was shown to induce tonic paralysis in vivo; it decreased amplitude of twitches and increased tonus of skeletal muscle in vitro. Effects of an overdose of Spigelia anthelmia medicines in humans include excitement, dizziness, delirium, dilation of the pupils, vomiting and convulsions.

Spiganthine, ryanodine and related compounds (e.g. ryanoid diterpenes) demonstrated antifeedant activity against some beetles. In addition, considerable insecticidal activities were observed. An ethyl acetate extract and a methanol extract of the aerial parts had a significant inhibitory effect on egg hatching and larval development of the sheep and goat nematode Haemonchus contortus. Anthelmintic trials against Nippostrongylus braziliensis in rats using the aqueous fraction showed a progressive decrease in worm count with increasing dose. Crude ethanol extracts of leaves showed significant mortality in the tick Boophilus microplus.


  • Annual herb, up to 50(–90) cm tall, few-branched at base; stem erect, hollow, glabrous.
  • Leaves opposite, with an apical pseudo-whorl of 2 decussate pairs, simple and entire; stipules united, broad-triangular; petiole up to 1 cm long; blade ovate-oblong to ovate-lanceolate, 4–18 cm × 1–6 cm, base obtuse to cuneate, apex acuminate.
  • Inflorescence a terminal or axillary spike up to 15 cm long, many-flowered; peduncle very short; bracts sepal-like.
  • Flowers bisexual, regular, 5-merous, sessile; sepals free, slightly unequal, 2–6 mm long, pale green; corolla 8–17 mm long, tube 6–15 mm long, lobes equal, triangular, 2–2.5 mm long, lilac to white, or tube white and lobes pale pink, with or without 5 pairs of reddish lines inside; stamens inserted just below the middle of the corolla tube, included; ovary superior, globose, glabrous, 2-celled, style slightly exserted.
  • Fruit a capsule consisting of 2 ellipsoid parts, 4–5 mm × 5–6 mm, sharp-warty, green, lobes dehiscent with 4 valves, a boat-shaped base remaining in the persistent calyx, few-seeded.
  • Seeds obliquely ellipsoid or ovoid, 3 mm × 2 mm, dull brown, warty.

Other botanical information

Spigelia comprises about 50 species, all originating from tropical America. American wormwood or pinkroot (Spigelia marilandica (L.) L.) has ornamental value, having showy flowers with scarlet red tubes and lobes yellow inside. It was collected almost to extinction as a cure for roundworms. It is also traditionally used to protect stored food grains from storage pests.

Growth and development

Spigelia anthelmia can be found flowering and fruiting throughout the year. The flowers open in the afternoon and are self-pollinating.


Spigelia anthelmia occurs mainly along roadsides, in waste places, arable land, gardens, rice fields and on riverbanks, from sea-level up to 600 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Propagation is by seed, which remain fully viable up to 3 years, and up to 57% germination was obtained after storage for 48 months. Fresh seeds and those stored for 6 months show dormancy.


As a weed in maize, cowpea, millet and sorghum, Spigelia anthelmia can be controlled by hand-weeding; some tests with herbicides (e.g. alachlor) were not successful.


Plants are simply pulled up and normally used fresh.

Handling after harvest

Dried plant parts should be stored in airtight containers.

Genetic resources

Spigelia anthelmia is widely distributed and of a weedy nature; it is not threatened by genetic erosion.


Spigelia anthelmia will likely spread into more African countries and in spite of the risk of poisoning, its local use as an anthelmintic will spread as well. Extracts may be useful in the control of gastrointestinal nematodes of sheep and goats. More research on the pharmacological activities of the different compounds in the leaves, fruits and roots is needed, especially on the anthelmintic and cardiac effects. Further potential uses, such as in insecticides and acaricides, also need to be explored.

Major references

  • 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.
  • Dalziel, J.M., 1937. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 612 pp.
  • Leeuwenberg, A.J.M., 1961. The Loganiaceae of Africa. 3. Spigelia L. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 10: 460–465.
  • Leeuwenberg, A.J.M. (Editor), 1980. Angiospermae: Ordnung Gentiales. Fam. Loganiaceae. Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien. Second Edition. Band 28 b-1. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, Germany. 255 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H., 2003. Spigelia anthelmia L. In: Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(3). Medicinal and poisonous plants 3. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 379–380.

Other references

  • Abbiw, D.K., 1990. Useful plants of Ghana: West African uses of wild and cultivated plants. Intermediate Technology Publications, London and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 337 pp.
  • Achenbach, H., Hübner, H., Vierling, W., Brandt, W. & Reiter, M., 1995. Spiganthine, the cardioactive principle of Spigelia anthelmia. Journal of Natural Products 58: 1092–1096.
  • Adegoke, E.A., Akinsaya, A. & Naqvi, H.Z., 1968. Studies of Nigeria medicinal plants: a preliminary survey of plant alkaloids. Journal of the West African Science Association 13: 13–33.
  • Assis, L.M., Bevilaqua, C.M., Morais, S.M., Vieira, L.S., Costa, C.T. & Souza, J.A., 2003. Ovicidal and larvicidal activity in vitro of Spigelia anthelmia Linn. extracts on Haemonchus contortus. Veterinary Parasitology 117(1–2): 43–49.
  • Bouquet, A., 1969. Féticheurs et médecines traditionnelles du Congo (Brazzaville). Mémoires ORSTOM No 36. Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer. Paris, France. 282 pp.
  • Bouquet, A. & Debray, M., 1974. Plantes médicinales de la Côte d’Ivoire. Travaux et Documents No 32. ORSTOM, Paris, France. 231 pp.
  • Camurca-Vasconcelos, A.L., Nascimento, N.R., Sousa, C.M., Melo, L.M., Morais, S.M., Bevilaqua, C.M. & Rocha, M.F., 2004. Neuromuscular effects and acute toxicity of an ethyl acetate extract of Spigelia anthelmia Linn. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 92(2–3): 257–261.
  • Esposito-Avella, M., Brown, P., Tejeira, I., Buitrago, R., Barrios, L., Sanchez, C., Gupta, M.P. & Cedeño, J., 1985. Pharmacological screening of Panamanian medicinal plants Part 1. International Journal of Crude Drug Research 23–1: 17–25.
  • Gonzalez-Coloma, A., Gutierrez, C., Hübner, H., Achenbach, H., Terrero, D. & Fraga, B.M., 1999. Selective insect antifeedant and toxic action of ryanoid diterpenes. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 47(10): 4419–4424.
  • Hübner, H., Vierling, W., Brandt, W., Reiter, M. & Achenbach, H., 2001. Minor constituents of Spigelia anthelmia and their cardiac activities. Phytochemistry 57(2): 285–296.
  • Jegede, O.C., Ajanus, I. J.O., Adaudi, A.O. & Agbede, R.I., 2006. Anthelmintic efficacy of extracts of Spigelia anthelmia Linn on experimental Nippostrongylus braziliensis in rats. Journal of Veterinary Science 7(3): 229–232.
  • Wagner, H., Seegert, K., Gupta, M.P., Avella, M.E. & Solis, P., 1986. Cardiotonically active principles from Spigelia anthelmia. Planta Medica 5: 378–381.

Sources of illustration

  • van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H., 2003. Spigelia anthelmia L. In: Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(3). Medicinal and poisonous plants 3. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 379–380.


  • L.J.G. van der Maesen, Biosystematics Group, Wageningen University, Gen. Foulkesweg 37, 6703 BL Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

van der Maesen, L.J.G., 2007. Spigelia anthelmia L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 1 February 2023.