Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1
Hook., Niger Fl.: 507 (1849).
n = 9
Origin and geographic distribution
Alchornea hirtella is widespread in tropical Africa and occurs from Senegal east to Kenya and Tanzania and south to South Africa.
In Senegal and Congo the leaf sap is inhaled through the nose or applied to scarifications on the temples to treat headache. A decoction of the aerial parts is taken to treat ovarian trouble and gastro-intestinal afflictions. In Guinea an infusion of the leaves and stem pith is taken as an anti-cough agent and is locally applied as an antiseptic. In Sierra Leone the leaves are chewed to treat toothache, and the leaf sap is swallowed to treat diarrhoea. Bark scrapings ground with white lime are applied to treat river blindness. In Côte d’Ivoire a root decoction is taken as a sedative to treat pain; the sap is also topically applied. A root decoction is taken to treat stomach-ache and as a purgative. In DR Congo root scrapings are chewed to treat tiredness after intoxication. Dried and powdered leaves soaked in water are applied as a poultice to broken limbs. In southern Uganda an infusion of the inflorescences is taken to expel worms.
In Uganda Alchornea hirtella is one of the most favoured sources of bean stakes and branches are used in house construction. A branch split in 2 or 3 is used as a rim in basketry. Sometimes the wood is used as firewood.
The dried root bark of Alchornea hirtella yields 1.5 mg/g crude alkaloids and the dried stem bark 0.15 mg/g, both with the imidazopyrimidine alkaloid alchorneine as major component. Alchorneine causes parasympathic paralysis of autonomous ganglions because of its strong inhibition of both the vagus nerve and intestinal peristalsis in anaesthetized dogs.
Spindly, scandent to straggling shrub or small tree up to 9(–12) m tall, usually dioecious; bark smooth, pale grey; young shoots long hairy to shortly appressed hairy. Leaves alternate, simple; stipules 2–5 mm long, bristly hairy; petiole 0.5–2(–3.5) cm long, thickened at base, bent at top; blade elliptical to oblanceolate, 5–20(–25) cm × 2–8.5 cm, base cuneate, apex shortly acuminate, margins remotely and shallowly glandular-toothed, glandular at base, glabrous to roughly hairy, pinnately veined. Male inflorescence a usual terminal panicle up to 30 cm long, bracts minute; female inflorescence a terminal, lax spike up to 10 cm long, few-flowered, bracts c. 2 mm long, glandular at base. Flowers unisexual, sessile; male flowers with 2 cup-shaped, reflexed, reddish sepals, petals absent, stamens 8, filaments united into a basal plate; female flowers with 5 lanceolate, c. 1.5 mm long, acute, slightly toothed sepals, petals absent, ovary superior, 3-lobed, c. 1 mm × 1.5 mm, smooth, shortly hairy, styles 3, up to 2 cm long, united at base, red. Fruit a 3-lobed capsule 5–9 mm × 7–8 mm, smooth, dark green, slightly shortly hairy, 3-seeded. Seeds ovoid to almost globose, c. 4.5 mm × 4 mm, smooth, shiny, pale brown and mottled.
Alchornea is pantropical and comprises about 50 species, of which 6 occur in tropical Africa. Another Alchornea species with medicinal uses in DR Congo is Alchornea yambuyaensis De Wild. A leaf decoction, together with leaves of Psidium guajava L., is taken as an enema to treat fever.
Alchornea hirtella occurs often gregariously in the understorey of evergreen forest, also in secondary forest and riverine forest, sometimes also in associated bushland, at 400–2500 m altitude.
Alchornea hirtella is fast growing, and sticks used for bean support root quickly.
Genetic resources and breeding
Alchornea hirtella is common throughout its very wide distribution area and therefore not threatened by genetic erosion.
Alchornea hirtella has several interesting medicinal uses, e.g. for pain relief and as a purgative. Very little is known about its phytochemistry and pharmacology, besides the presence of the alkaloid alchorneine, and more research is warranted.
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Correct citation of this article:
Schmelzer, G.H., 2007. Alchornea hirtella Benth. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.