Trichilia emetica (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Trichilia emetica Vahl

Protologue: Symb. bot. 1: 31 (1790).
Family: Meliaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 50


Trichilia roka Chiov. (1932).

Vernacular names

Mafura butter, Natal mahogany, Ethiopian mahogany, Christmas bells (En). Mafura (Fr). Mafurreira (Po). Mkungwina, mafura, mti maji, muwamaji, musikili, mgolimazi (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Trichilia emetica is very widely distributed in tropical Africa and occurs from Senegal east to Eritrea and south to South Africa. It also occurs naturally in Yemen and has been introduced as an ornamental into Cape Verde.


The seed of Trichilia emetica yields two kinds of oil: ‘mafura oil’ from the fleshy seed envelope (sarcotesta) and ‘mafura butter’, also called ‘mafura tallow’, from the kernel. In traditional extraction they may be extracted separately, in commercial extraction they are combined to a single product. Mafura oil is edible, but mafura butter is unsuitable for consumption because of its bitter taste. It is used in soap and candle making, as a body ointment, wood-oil and for medicinal purposes. The seed cake is only useful as fertilizer. In some areas the seed envelope is chewed as a substitute for kola.

The leaves are eaten by cattle and goats, and have been used as a soap substitute. The wood is one of the most important timbers used in woodcarving in southern Africa. It is also used for furniture, household articles, musical instruments, canoes, chew-sticks and as fuel. Trichilia emetica is grown in agroforestry as a shade tree in gardens and to control erosion. In gardens, parking lots and along roads it is grown as a fast-growing shade tree. In South Africa a pinkish dye is obtained from the bark.

In traditional medicine, various parts of Trichilia emetica are used for a wide variety of complaints. The bark soaked in water is used as an emetic, for treating intestinal ailments and as a purgative. It is used in small doses only as its effects can be violent. A decoction of the bark and roots is a remedy for colds, pneumonia and for a variety of intestinal disorders including hepatitis. In Senegal a macerate of root bark is used to treat epilepsy and leprosy, while in Mali powdered root is given to treat cirrhosis, river blindness, ascariasis and dysmenorrhoea. A decoction of the roots is also used to treat infertility and to induce labour in women. Leaves are taken in southern Senegal against blennorrhoea. In Zimbabwe the bark is used to induce abortion and as fish poison. The oil is consumed to relieve rheumatism and to treat leprosy and fractures.

Production and international trade

Mafura butter has long been exported from East Africa. The main exporter was Mozambique, from where exports continue on a small scale. Production in Mozambique in the period 2000–2004 was estimated at 100–300 t/year. Up-to-date information on economic production and trade for other countries is lacking.


The approximate nutritional composition of the seed of Trichilia emetica per 100 g dry matter (58% of fresh weight) is: energy 1897 kJ (453 kcal), crude protein 17 g, fat 23 g, fibre 8 g, carbohydrate 48 g, Mg 110 mg, P 316 mg, Fe 4.3 mg (Saka & Msonthi, 1994). Per 100 g, the envelope of the seed contains 35–60 g oil, the kernel 60–65 g fat. The fatty acid composition of the fat is: palmitic acid 34%, stearic acid 3%, oleic acid 51%, linoleic acid 11% and linolenic acid 1%; another analysis indicates: myristic acid 1%, palmitic acid 53%, stearic acid 2%, oleic acid 28%, linoleic acid 16%, linolenic acid 0.3%. The seeds are poisonous and the poisonous compounds seem to be concentrated in the seedcoat. Little is known about the chemical compounds associated with the medicinal uses of the various plant parts. An aqueous extract of the leaves has shown pronounced antifungal properties against a number of plant pathogens. Crushed seed almost completely protected cowpea seed from storage pests when mixed at a dosage of 1%.

The heartwood is pale red, pinkish brown or grey-green and darkens upon exposure. It is not distinctly demarcated from the white to yellow sapwood. The wood dries fast and easily with small to moderate shrinkage rates. At 12% moisture content the density is 560–600 kg/m3. The modulus of rupture is 50–85 N/mm2, modulus of elasticity about 8500 N/mm2 and shear 9–13 N/mm2. The wood is comparatively soft and easy to work. It saws rather slowly and with moderate blunting of sawteeth. Its veneering and moulding properties are good. The wood is not durable and is susceptible to fungal attack, borers and termites. The heartwood is moderately resistant to preservation, the sapwood is permeable.


Evergreen or deciduous, dioecious shrub to small or medium-sized tree up to 30 m tall; bole cylindrical, up to 80 cm in diameter, swollen at base, sometimes becoming fluted with age; outer bark dark grey or brown, smooth to slightly rough, irregularly fissured. Leaves alternate, imparipinnately compound with (2–)3–6 pairs of leaflets; stipules absent; petiole and rachis up to 28 cm long; petiolules up to 5 mm long; leaflets opposite, elliptical to oblong or obovate, up to 15 cm × 6 cm, base rounded or cuneate, apex rounded or slightly notched, entire, usually hairy below, pinnately veined with (7–)10–16(–22) pairs of lateral veins. Inflorescence an axillary or terminal congested or lax panicle up to 9(–14) cm long, usually many-flowered. Flowers unisexual, male and female flowers very similar in appearance, regular, 5-merous, pale green to pale yellow, fragrant; pedicel up to 5 mm long; calyx cup-shaped, lobed nearly to the base with lobes 2–6 mm long, hairy; petals free, narrowly obovate or narrowly oblong, 9–18(–20) mm long, hairy; stamens 10, 8–12 mm long, united into a tube in basal half, densely hairy inside; ovary superior, densely hairy, 3-celled, style 4–8 mm long, stigma head-shaped or disk-shaped; male flowers with rudimentary ovary, female flowers with non-dehiscing anthers. Fruit an obovoid to globose capsule, 2–4 cm long, slightly 3-lobed, with up to 1 cm long stipe, dehiscent, up to 6-seeded. Seeds 15–20 mm long, nearly black, almost completely concealed in scarlet sarcotesta. Seedling with epigeal germination; hypocotyl up to 8 mm long, epicotyl 2–4 cm long; cotyledons sessile, fleshy.

Other botanical information

Trichilia comprises about 90 species, most of them in tropical America. In continental Africa 18 species occur, in Madagascar 6. Trichilia emetica is closely related and very similar to Trichilia dregeana Sond. The two species are often confused. The latter occurs in wetter locations and can be distinguished by the absence of a stipe in the fruit. Trichilia emetica has two subspecies: subsp. emetica and subsp. suberosa Wilde. Subsp. suberosa occurs from Senegal to Uganda; subsp. emetica from Eritrea and Ethiopia to South Africa. The two subspecies co-occur round Lake Victoria, where they may hybridize. Subsp. suberosa tends to be smaller and even shrub-like and has twigs with a corky bark and more lax inflorescences.

Growth and development

Trichilia emetica is fast growing. Growth rates of 1 m/year in cooler climates and up to 2 m/year under optimal conditions have been recorded. Under optimal conditions trees start producing fruit when 6–8 years old, but in Zimbabwe 10 years is more common and even 20 years for trees growing in shady conditions. In southern Africa the flowering period is in August–October, fruiting in December–March; in Tanzania flowering is in July–November, fruit ripens in February–April and is collected in April–July. Seed production varies strongly from year to year. The tree coppices well.


Trichilia emetica grows in riverine forest and in various types of woodland. Subsp. suberosa occurs in open savanna woodland subject to grass fires, subsp. emetica on more fertile soil of river banks and floodplains. The tree grows in areas with moderate to high mean temperatures. It tolerates mean annual temperatures of 19–31°C. It is found from sea-level to 1800(–2100) m. Frost is not tolerated. It requires an annual rainfall of at least (500–)1000 mm, the lower ranges only where groundwater is available. It is capable of withstanding long periods of drought. Alluvial soils are preferred; in Tanzania it is common on vertisols. They should be well drained and have an elevated ground water table.

Propagation and planting

Trichilia emetica regenerates naturally from seed or from suckers after wounding. Seed may be dispersed by water but also by birds, including hornbills. Adequate regeneration occurs only under a canopy; regeneration is inadequate when only a few seed trees remain in large forest gaps. Young trees may grow in deep shade under the older trees and may be found in small groups of various sizes.

Seeds are perishable and should not be allowed to dry and should be sown as soon as possible. To extract the seed, ripe fruits are spread on a mesh in the shade until all fruits have opened. Seeds are then separated and the fleshy envelope is removed by maceration in water, which greatly increases the germination rate. Subsequently the seed is spread out to allow the surface to dry. Well-prepared seed germinates within 10–20 days after sowing. One kg of fruit contains about 250 g of seed; the weight of 1000 seeds is 1–2 kg. Seedlings can be planted out when 6–8 months old and initially require shade. They are best planted out under a stand of about 30 existing trees per ha to provide shade. Recommended spacing in pure stands is 3 m × 3 m for fruit production. It can also be planted at 6 m × 6 m in agroforestry systems. Propagation is possible from cuttings. Cuttings can be taken from layered branches, roots or 1-year-old coppice shoots. They can be planted in the sun, but preferably under some shade.


In plantations weed growth should be controlled since seedlings are sensitive to competition. Removal of weeds before planting is needed and several weedings should be carried out in the first few years.

Diseases and pests

Many mammals feed on the leaves as do the larvae of the white-barred charaxes butterfly (Charaxes sp.). Brown leaf scales have also been observed on leaves, resulting in circular holes of up 7 mm in diameter when the scales drop off.


Ripe fruits are best collected from the tree; fallen fruits are often of poor quality.


Seed yields of individual trees vary greatly per tree and per year and range from 20–180 kg/year, averaging 45–65 kg.

Handling after harvest

The oil and fat can be extracted from the seed separately or simultaneously. Traditionally, the seeds are immersed in hot water. The seed envelope is macerated and the oil floats to the surface and is scooped off. Then the seeds are crushed and the solid fat is expressed or also separated by boiling. Solvent extraction of the fat is also possible. Commercially oil and fat are extracted together in a single operation.

Logs should be treated soon after felling to avoid losses due to blue stain.

Genetic resources

Seed of Trichilia emetica is recalcitrant and cannot be stored for longer periods. The possibility of storing excised embryos is being investigated for Trichilia dregeana, which may offer possibilities for Trichilia emetica. No live collections of germplasm are known to exist. As Trichilia emetica is widespread, there is no danger of genetic erosion.


Trichilia emetica can be planted in plantations or agroforestry systems to attain various services and products. It is fast growing and can attain productive size within a relatively short period. The potential for production of medicines from oil, bark or roots urgently requires research attention. This tree also has potential for use as an alternative pesticide. The use of mafura butter in cosmetics deserves to be promoted.

Major references

  • Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
  • de Wilde, J.J.F.E., 1986. A revision of the species of Trichilia P. Browne (Meliaceae) on the African continent. Mededelingen van de Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen 68–2. Wageningen, Netherlands. 207 pp.
  • FAO, 1983. Food and fruit-bearing forest species. 1: Examples from Eastern Africa. FAO Forestry Paper 44/1. FAO, Rome Italy. 172 pp.
  • Grundy, I.M. & Campbell, B.M., 1993. Potential production and utilisation of oil from Trichilia spp. (Meliaceae). Economic Botany 47(2): 148–153.
  • Hines, D.A. & Eckman, K., 1993. Indigenous multipurpose trees of Tanzania: Uses and economic benefits for people. [Internet] Cultural Survival Canada, Ottawa, Canada. documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/X5327e/ x5327e06.htm. January 2006.
  • Jøker, D., 2003. Trichilia emetica Vahl. [Internet] Seed Leaflet No 68. Danida Forest Seed Centre, Humlebaek, Denmark. pdf/Seedleaflets/ Trichilia%20emetica_int.pdf. January 2006.
  • Saka, J.D.K. & Msonthi, J.D., 1994. Nutritional value of edible fruits of indigenous wild trees in Malawi. Forest Ecology and Management 64: 245–248.
  • Styles, B.T. & White, F., 1991. Meliaceae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 68 pp.
  • White, F., Styles, B.T. & Gonçalves, A.E., 1979. Meliaceae. In: Mendes, E.J. (Editor). Flora de Moçambique. No 42. Junta de Investigações Científicas do Ultramar, Lisbon, Portugal. 51 pp.

Other references

  • Bandeira, S.O., Albano, G. & Barbosa, F.M., 1999. Diversity and uses of plant species in Goba, Lebombo mountains, Mozambique, with emphasis on trees and shrubs In: Timberlake, J. & Kativu, S. (Editors). African Plants: biodiversity, taxonomy and uses, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. pp. 429–439.
  • Bolza, E. & Keating, W.G., 1972. African timbers: the properties, uses and characteristics of 700 species. Division of Building Research, CSIRO, Melbourne, Australia. 710 pp.
  • Botha, R., 2004. Trichilia emetica Vahl. [Internet] Ecoport RSA Country Programme. ep?Plant=10502&entityType=PL****&entityDisplayCategory=full. January 2006.
  • Fupi, V.W.K., 1982. Mafura nut oil and meal: processing and purification. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 59: 94–98.
  • Germanò, M.P., D’Angelo, V., Sanogo, R., Morabito, A., Pergolizzi, S. & De Pasquale, R., 2001. Hepatoprotective activity of Trichilia roka on carbon tetrachloride-induced liver damage in rats. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 53(11): 1569–1574.
  • Germanò, M.P., D’Angelo, V., Sanogo, R., Catania, S., Alma, R., De Pasquale, R. & Bisignano, G., 2005. Hepatoprotective and antibacterial effects of extracts from Trichilia emetica Vahl. (Meliaceae). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 96: 227–232.
  • Germanò, M.P., D’Angelo, V., Biasini, T., Sanogo, R., De Pasquale, R. & Catania, S., 2006. Evaluation of the antioxidant properties and bioavailability of free and bound phenolic acids from Trichilia emetica Vahl. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 105(3): 368–373.
  • Godin, V.J. & Spensley, P.C., 1971. Oils and oilseeds. Tropical Product Digest 1. Tropical Products Institute, London, United Kingdom. 170 pp.
  • Hoët, S., Opperdoes, F., Brun, R., Adjakidjé, V. & Quetin-Leclercq, J., 2004. In vitro antitrypanosomal activity of ethnopharmacologically selected Beninese plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 91: 37–42.
  • IMF, 2005. IMF Country Report 05/311. [Internet] International Monetary Fund, Washington, United States. external/pubs/ft/scr/2005/ cr05311.pdf. January 2006.
  • Keita, S.M., Arnason, J.T., Baum, B.R., Marles, R., Camara, F. & Traoré, A.K., 1995. Etude ethnopharmacologique traditionnelle de quelques plantes médicinales antihelminthiques de la République de Guinée. Revue de Médecines et Pharmacopées Africaines 9(2): 119–134.
  • Khumalo, L.W., Majoko, L., Read, J.S. & Ncube, I., 2002. Characterisation of some underutilised vegetable oils and their evaluation as starting materials for lipase-catalysed production of cocoa butter equivalents. Industrial Crops and Products 16: 237–244.
  • Lovang, U. & Wildt-Persson, T., 1998. Botanical pesticides. The effect of aqueous extracts of Melia azedarach and Trichilia emetica on selected pathogens of tomato, bean and maize. Minor Field Studies, International Office, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, No. 52. 23 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.
  • Storrs, A.E.G., 1995. Know your trees: Some common trees found in Zambia. Regional Conservation Unit, Ndola, Zambia. 380 pp.
  • Venter, F. & Venter, J.-A., 1996. Making the most of indigenous trees. Briza publications, Capetown, South Africa. 304 pp.
  • White, F. & Styles, B.T., 1963. Meliaceae. In: Exell, A.W., Fernandes, A. & Wild, H. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 2, part 1. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 285–319.

Sources of illustration

  • de Wilde, J.J.F.E., 1986. A revision of the species of Trichilia P. Browne (Meliaceae) on the African continent. Mededelingen van de Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen 68–2. Wageningen, Netherlands. 207 pp.


  • G.N. Mashungwa

Botswana College of Agriculture, Private Bag 0027, Gaborone, Botswana

  • R.M. Mmolotsi

Botswana College of Agriculture, Private Bag 0027, Gaborone, Botswana

Correct citation of this article

Mashungwa, G.N. & Mmolotsi, R.M., 2007. Trichilia emetica Vahl. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Mkamilo, G.S. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>.

Accessed 9 July 2021.