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Bersama abyssinica Fresen.

Mus. Senckenberg. 2: 281 (1837).
Bersama engleriana Gόrke (1892).
Vernacular names
Winged bersama, bitter bark (En). Mwangwakwao, mtata (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Bersama abyssinica is distributed from Guinea Bissau through the coastal countries of West Africa except Benin, east to Eritrea and Ethiopia and south to Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
All parts of Bersama abyssinica are poisonous and have been implicated in killing humans and livestock. For internal use the dosage is therefore critical. Bark, leaf and root decoctions are widely taken as a purgative to treat a range of stomach disorders, such as abdominal pain, colic, diarrhoea, cholera, intestinal worms, amoebiasis and dysentery. Rabies, syphilis, gonorrhoea and malaria are also treated with these decoctions. A stem bark decoction is drunk to cure cancer and rheumatism. As an aphrodisiac, powdered bark is added to beer or leaves are chewed. A bark poultice is applied to the back, a leaf decoction is drunk or a root decoction is used as a wash to cure lumbago. Stem bark and leaves are used to treat diabetes mellitus. Leaf decoctions are also taken to treat feverish pains, loss of appetite, debility, jaundice and leprosy. Extracts of growing shoots are used for external treatment of burns, ulcers and to clean wounds. To treat convulsions and snakebites, leaves are pounded and mixed with water, and the mixture is drunk and applied the body. A root bark infusion is drunk, stem bark powder is sniffed, leaf sap is applied as eye drops or leaf powder is sniffed to treat migraine, headache and colds. A root decoction is used to treat haemorrhoids and epilepsy. Shoots and leaves are pounded and used to control stalk borers in maize.
The wood is used for poles in house building, as firewood and for making charcoal. Branches are used in living fences. Bersama abyssinica is further valued as an ornamental shade tree, for bee forage and in agroforestry. Seeds are used as a substitute for soap.
The stem bark of Bersama abyssinica collected in Kenya and Uganda contained 2 bufadienolides, which are cardiac glycosides with anti-tumour activity, as well as sterols and the xanthone mangiferin. Differences between provenances were detected in the glycoside fractions. Two hellebrigenin derivatives identified in an ethanol extract of the bark have shown inhibitory activity against human carcinoma of the nasopharynx in cell cultures. Cardiac glycosides and unsaturated sterols were identified in tests in Ethiopia on stem bark and root bark. Leaf extracts have cardiogenic, spasmolytic and hypoglycaemic activities. Crude bark extracts slow down growth of Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella flexineri and Shigella dysenteria, a root bark extract slows down that of Bacillus subtilis. An aqueous stem bark extract showed antispasmodic effects on isolated guinea-pig ileum. A methanolic leaf extract had an inhibitory effect on HIV-1 replication.
From the roots the bufadienolide abyssinin (an insect antifeedant against Helicoverpa zea), 3 other bufadienolides, bersenogenin, berscillogenin, and 3-epiberscillogenin, all with in-vitro cytotoxicity, and glucuronide triterpene saponins have been isolated.
Methanol fractions of the leaves of Bersama abyssinica showed significant free radical scavenging capacity. Phytochemical investigation resulted in the isolation of five flavonol glycosides and the xanthone mangiferin. The last compound also has cytoprotective properties.
The wood is white to brownish grey without differentiation between sapwood and heartwood; the texture is moderately coarse. The wood is hard and works easily. The density is about 800 kg/m³ at 12% moisture content.
Evergreen shrub to small tree up to 12(–25) m tall; bark grey, brown or mottled, scaly. Leaves alternate, imparipinnately compound with up to 12 opposite pairs of leaflets, up to 1 m long; stipules 0.5–5 cm long; rachis usually with wide wings; leaflets nearly sessile, lanceolate to oblong or ovate-oblong, 3.5–22 cm Χ 1–8 cm, base cuneate to rounded, apex acuminate, margin entire to sharply and conspicuously toothed, glabrous to hairy, with 10–12 pairs of lateral veins. Inflorescence an upright, dense, axillary raceme up to 35 cm long. Flowers bisexual or often functionally unisexual, zygomorphic, 4–5(–6)-merous, scented; sepals 4–5, c. 6 mm long, 2 anterior ones fused; petals 5, free, narrowly oblong, 10–20 mm long, white, yellowish or purple-pink, stamens 4–6, free or fused at base; ovary superior, densely hairy, 4–5-celled, style simple. Fruit a woody capsule 1–3 cm in diameter, 4–5-lobed, yellowish to reddish, 4–5-seeded. Seed up to 11 mm Χ 8 mm, bright red with cup-shaped yellow or orange aril.
Bersama comprises about 8 species, all occurring in Africa. The large variation in Bersama abyssinica has led to the naming of numerous species, subspecies and varieties. Bersama lucens (Hochst.) Szyszyl. occurs in Mozambique and South Africa, and in South Africa powder from its stem bark is sniffed to cure headache and a stem bark maceration is drunk to treat menstrual pain, nervousness, venereal diseases and impotence. The stem bark extract is also used to kill lice. An aqueous stem bark extract showed significant antifungal activity against Candida albicans. A stem bark extract of Bersama tysoniana Oliv., a South African endemic, is drunk to treat fever and hysteria; the bark is probably overharvested.
Bersama abyssinica grows in lowland bush savanna, gallery forests and montane forests, from sea-level up to 2700 m altitude. It behaves as a pioneer species and is considered a weed in forest plantations.
Bersama abyssinica can be propagated by seed, cuttings, wildlings or root suckers. There are about 1200 seeds in a kg. Seeds can be stored after removal of the aril and retain viability for 2 months at room temperature. They are sensitive to freezing. Management practices may include coppicing, lopping and pollarding. Bersama abyssinica produces root suckers.
The only important disease recorded is tar spot, caused by the fungus Phyllachora bersamae; it affects the leaves.
Genetic resources and breeding
Bersama abyssinica is widespread, but nowhere abundant. Increased use especially of roots and stem bark could pose a threat in the future.
The taxonomy of Bersama is still far from clear. The large morphological variation in Bersama abyssinica is fairly well described, but variation in chemical properties is poorly understood. The medicinal properties warrant further research.
Major references
• Burkill, H.M., 1997. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 969 pp.
• Maundu, P. & Tengnδs, B. (Editors), 2005. Useful trees and shrubs for Kenya. World Agroforestry Centre - East and Central Africa Regional Programme (ICRAF-ECA), Technical Handbook 35, Nairobi, Kenya. 484 pp.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
• Tapondjou, A.L., Miyamoto, T. & Lacaille-Dubois, M.A., 2006. Glucuronide triterpene saponins from Bersama engleriana. Phytochemistry 67(19): 2126–2132.
• Verdcourt, B., 1989. Melianthaceae. 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. 511–512.
Other references
• Asres, K., Bucar, F., Kartnig, T., Witvrouw, M., Pannecouque, C. & De Clercq, E., 2001. Antiviral activity against human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and type 2 (HIV-2) of ethnobotanically selected Ethiopian medicinal plants. Phytotherapy Research 15(1): 62–69.
• Asres, K., Gibbons, S. & Bucar, F., 2006. Radical scavenging compounds from Ethiopian medicinal plants. Ethiopian Pharmaceutical Journal 24(1): 23–30.
• Buwa, L.V. & Van Staden, J., 2006. Antibacterial and antifungal activity of traditional medicinal plants used against venereal diseases in South Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 103(1): 139–142.
• Dharani, N., 2002. Field guide to common trees and shrubs of East Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 320 pp.
• Geyid, A., Abebe, D., Debella, A., Makonnen, Z., Aberra, F., Teka, F., Kebede, T., Urga, K., Yersaw, K., Biza, T., Haile Mariam, B. & Guta, M., 2005. Screening of some medicinal plants of Ethiopia for their anti-microbial properties and chemical profiles. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 97(3): 421–427.
• Kitula, R.A., 2007. Use of medicinal plants for human health in Udzungwa Mountains Forests: a case study of New Dabaga Ulongambi Forest Reserve, Tanzania. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3: 7.
• Latham, P., 2007. Plants visited by bees and other useful plants of Umalila, southern Tanzania. Third edition. P.Latham, DFID, United Kingdom. 216 pp.
• Makonnen, E. & Hagos, E., 1993. Antispasmodic effect of Bersama abyssinica aqueous extract on guinea-pig ileum. Phytotherapy Research 7(2): 211–212.
• Mikkelsen, K.S. & Seberg, O., 2001. Morphometric analysis of the Bersama abyssinica Fresen. complex (Melianthaceae) in East Africa. Plant Systematics and Evolution 227(3–4): 157–182.
• Njike, G.N., Watcho, P., Nguelefack, T.B. & Kamanyi, A., 2005. Hypoglycaemic activity of the leaves extracts of Bersama engleriana in rats. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines 2(3): 215–221.
• C.H. Bosch
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

• 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:
Bosch, C.H., 2008. Bersama abyssinica Fresen. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes mιdicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
fruiting tree

fruiting branch

opened fruits with seeds