PROTA homepage Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes mιdicinales 1
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Azima tetracantha Lam.

Encycl. 1(1): 343 (1783).
Chromosome number
2n = 22
Azima spinosissima Engl. (1894).
Vernacular names
Bee sting bush, fire thorn, needle bush (En). Mdunga ndewe, mswaki ndume, mpilipili tawa (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Azima tetracantha occurs naturally in central, eastern and southern Africa as well as in the Indian Ocean islands, and extends through Arabia to tropical Asia.
In East Africa the pounded roots of Azima tetracantha are applied directly to snakebites and an infusion is taken orally as a treatment for them, while in Zimbabwe a mixture of roots and leaves is used similarly. The Bajun people of the Kenyan coast use a root decoction to treat stomach disorders. In Madagascar an infusion of the leaves is used to treat venereal diseases. In the Cape Province of South Africa the juice of the berries is applied directly into the ear to treat earache and the dried root is ground, put in cold water and given to cows to facilitate difficult parturition. The Zulu people of South Africa apply the sap of the plant directly to treat toothache and bleeding gums after tooth extraction and also as a disinfectant. In India and Sri Lanka the root, root bark and leaves are added to food as a remedy for rheumatism. The plant is considered diuretic and is also used to treat dropsy, dyspepsia, chronic diarrhoea and as a stimulant tonic. In western India juice of the leaves is applied as eardrops against earache and crushed leaves are placed on painful teeth.
The fruit is edible. Azima tetracantha is browsed by livestock. It is planted as live fence in Bangalore (India). In Malaysia pickled leaves are used as an appetizer and against colds. The plant is promoted as an ornamental in the United States.
The dimeric piperidine alkaloids azimine, azcarpine and carpaine have been isolated from all plant parts. Terpenoids are present in the roots and the leaves, while the seeds contain a complex mixture of about 25 flavonoids, predominantly as glycosides and acyl-glycosides, the most important being quercetin, isorhamnetin, rhamnetin and rhamnazin. All parts contain glucosinolates. These are hydrolyzed into thiocyanates and isothiocyanates, and the resulting compounds have anti-oxidant and sometimes anticarcinogenic activities. The seed and roots of Azima tetracantha contain high concentrations of N-methoxy-3-indolylmethyl-glucosinolate, whereas the stem and young leaves contain lower concentrations. Seed oil contains the fatty acids myristic acid 0.2%, palmitic acid 5%, stearic acid 15%, arachidic acid 7%, behenic acid 2%, oleic acid 32%, linoleic acid 18% and eicosenoic acid 21%, indicating that the oil could be suitable as an edible oil. Despite the traditional uses, the leaves of Azima tetracantha have tested negative in antibacterial and antifungal tests. The anti-inflammatory activity of leaf powder has been confirmed in tests on oedema in rats, and the wound-healing activity of a methanol extract was confirmed both as ointment and when injected in rats.
When Azima tetracantha is eaten by domestic stock, it imparts a very pronounced flavour to milk and butter. Pricks from thorns produce unpleasant burning sensations comparable to bee stings. The wood is avoided as fuel wood because the smoke is considered poisonous.
Dioecious, erect shrub up to 90 cm tall with (1–)2 spines 0.5–5 cm long in each leaf axil, sometimes scandent with stems up to 8 m long; branchlets terete or quadrangular, glabrous to densely hairy. Leaves decussately opposite, simple and entire; stipules absent or rudimentary; petiole short; blade elliptical-oblong to ovate-oblong or orbicular, 1.5–5.5 cm Χ 0.5–4.5 cm, base rounded or somewhat narrowed, apex mucronate, pinnately veined with one pair of lateral veins from near the base. Inflorescence an axillary, sometimes terminal spike or cyme up to 3 cm long or flowers solitary; bracts ovate, often with long and spinous mucro. Flowers unisexual, regular, 4-merous, usually sessile; calyx campanulate, 2–4 mm long, with triangular lobes; petals linear-oblong to oblong, greenish to yellowish, the upper part reflexed over the calyx, 2–5 mm long; male flowers with stamens inserted at the base of the rudimentary ovary, exserted; female flowers with staminodes and superior ovary, up to 4.5 mm long with a broad sessile stigma. Fruit a globose berry, 0.5–1 cm in diameter, 1–2-seeded, green turning white, with persistent stigma. Seeds disk-like, brown to black.
Other botanical information
Azima comprises about 4 species in mainland Africa, Madagascar and Asia and is characterized by long axillary spines. Over the range of its distribution Azima tetracantha varies considerably, yet it is an easily recognizable and distinct species. In southern Africa the male plants lack spines, or have poorly developed ones, while female specimens have long spines.
Growth and development
The scandent, straggling growth habit and its spines make Azima tetracantha a useful species for hedges. The hedge tends to open up underneath but pruning will keep it in shape. It coppices readily and spreads through underground runners.
Azima tetracantha is found in bush, scrub and forest, along rivers and at the coast, up to 1100 m altitude. In East Africa it is common along banks of seasonal rivers where the soil is saline, notably in the edges of mangrove. In South Africa Azima tetracantha occurs on hillsides, in shrub savanna, often on termitaria, and at the coast.
Propagation and planting
A few specialist nurseries in the United States offer seeds of Azima tetracantha for sale for ornamental purposes. Multiplication through cuttings is possible.
The South African Department of Agriculture considers Azima tetracantha an indicator of bush encroachment. Land users in certain areas are required to control the species to prevent deterioration and maintain the productivity of pastoral land. Overgrazing is the main reason for encroachment.
When used as a hedge or barrier plant, it needs to be pruned regularly to keep a compact shape.
Genetic resources
Azima tetracantha is a common, widespread pioneer and thus there is no immediate risk of overharvesting for human use.
The use of Azima tetracantha appears to be limited and only occasional in Africa. As all parts contain glucosinolates, further research on medicinal applications is warranted.
Major references
• Dold, A.P. & Cocks, M.L., 2000. Indigenous plant use of the amaXhosa people on the eastern border of the Great Fish River Reserve, Eastern Cape. Annals of the East Cape Museums 1: 26–53.
• Dold, A.P. & Cocks, M.L., 2001. Traditional veterinary medicine in the Alice District of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 97: 375–379.
• Fox, F.W. & Norwood Young, M.E., 1988. Food from the veld: edible wild plants of southern Africa botanically identified and described. Delta Books, Craighall, South Africa. 422 pp.
• Hutchings, A., Haxton Scott, A., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A., 1996. Zulu medicinal plants: an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. 450 pp.
• Ismail, T.S., Gopalakrishnan, S., Begum, V.H. & Elango, V., 1997. Anti-inflammatory activity of Salacia oblonga Wall. and Azima tetracantha Lam. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 56(2): 145–152.
• Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
• Verdoorn, I.C., 1963. Salvadoraceae. In: Dyer, R.A. & Codd, L.E. (Editors). Flora of southern Africa. Volume 26. Botanical Research Institute, Department of Agricultural Technical Services, Pretoria, South Africa. pp. 128–134.
• Vickery, A.R., 1983. Salvadoraceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 7, part 1. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 374–380.
• Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
Other references
• Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
• Bennett, R.N., Mellon, F.A. & Kroon, P.A., 2004. Screening crucifer seeds as sources of specific intact glucosinolates using ion-pair high-performance liquid chromatography negative ion electrospray mass spectrometry. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 52(3): 428–438.
• Bennett, R.N., Mellon, F.A., Rosa, E.A., Perkins, L. & Kroon, P.A., 2004. Profiling glucosinolates, flavonoids, alkaloids, and other secondary metabolites in tissues of Azima tetracantha L. (Salvadoraceae). Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 52(19): 5856–5862.
• Brown, D.H., Lent, P.C., Trollope, W.S.W. & Palmer. A.R., 2003. Browse selection of black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in two vegetation types of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, with particular reference to Euphorbiaceae. In: Allsopp, N., Palmer, A.R., Milton, S.J., Kirkman, K.P., Kerley, G.I.H., Hurt, C.R. & Brown, C.J. (Editors). Proceedings of the 7th international rangelands congress 26 July–1 August 2003, Durban, South Africa. pp. 509–512.
• Carlquist, S., 2002. Wood and bark anatomy of Salvadoraceae: ecology, relationships, histology of interxylary phloem. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 129(1): 10–20.
• Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
• Dahir, A.M., 1999. Salvadoraceae. In: Thulin, M. (Editor). Flora of Somalia. Volume 2. Angiospermae (Tiliaceae-Apiaceae). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 122–126.
• Dale, I.R. & Greenway, P.J., 1961. Kenya trees and shrubs. Buchanan’s Kenya Estates Limited, Nairobi, Kenya. 654 pp.
• den Outer, R.W. & van Veenendaal, W.L.H., 1981. Wood and bark anatomy of Azima tetracantha Lam. (Salvadoraceae) with description of its included phloem. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 30(3): 199–207.
• Friis, I., 1992. Forests and forest trees of northeast tropical Africa: their natural habitats and distribution patterns in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Kew Bulletin, Additional Series 15, H.M.S.O., London, United Kingdom. 396 pp.
• Guerra dos Santos, M., 1989. The chromosomes of Azima tetracantha (Salvadoraceae). Plant Systematics and Evolution 168(1–2): 83–86.
• Hebbar, S.S., Harsha, V.H., Shripathi, V. & Hegde, G.R., 2004. Ethnomedicine of Dharwad District in Karnataka, India: plants used in oral health care. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 94(2–3): 261–266.
• Henderson, L., 1987. Barrier plants of southern Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical survey of South Africa No 55. 97 pp.
• Jaswanth, A., Begum, V.H., Akilandeswari, S., Begum, T.N., Manimaran, S. & Ruckmani, K., 2001. Effects of Azima tetracantha on dermal wound healing in rats. Hamdard Medicus 44(3): 13–16.
• Perrier de la Bβthie, H., 1946. Salvadoracιes (Salvadoraceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 118. Imprimerie Officielle, Tananarive, Madagascar. 9 pp.
• Ramaswamy, S.V. & Razi, B.A., 1973. Flora of Bangalore District. University of Mysore, Mysore, India. 739 pp.
• Rodman, J.E., Karol, K.G., Price, R.A. & Sytsma, K.J., 1996. Molecules, morphology, and Dahlgren's expanded order Capparales. Systematic Botany 21(3): 289–307.
• Schatz, G.E., 2001. Generic tree flora of Madagascar. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 477 pp.
• Vonshak, A., Barazani, O., Sathiyamoorthy, P., Shalev, R., Vardy, D. & Golan-Goldhirsh, A., 2003. Screening south Indian medicinal plants for antifungal activity against cutaneous pathogens. Phytotherapy Research 17(9): 1123–1125.
Sources of illustration
• Vickery, A.R., 1983. Salvadoraceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 7, part 1. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 374–380.
• A.P. Dold
Selmar Schonland Herbarium, Albany Museum, P.O. Box 101, Grahamstown 6140, South Africa

• G.H. Schmelzer
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
• A. Gurib-Fakim
Faculty of Science, University of Mauritius, Rιduit, Mauritius
Associate editors
• C.H. Bosch
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
• M.S.J. Simmonds
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB, United Kingdom
• R. Arroo
Leicester School of Pharmacy, Natural Products Research, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, United Kingdom
• A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
General editors
• R.H.M.J. Lemmens
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
• L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
Photo editor
• A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
Dold, A.P., 2006. Azima tetracantha Lam. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes mιdicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map wild

1, male flowering branch; 2, female inflorescence; 3, fruit.
Redrawn and adapted by Iskak Syamsudin

flowering branches CopyLeft EcoPort

flowering branch CopyLeft EcoPort

inflorescence CopyLeft EcoPort