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Euphorbia heterophylla L.

Sp. pl. 1: 453 (1753).
Chromosome number
n = 12, 14, 19, 27, 28; 2n = 46, 54, 56
Euphorbia geniculata Ortega (1979).
Vernacular names
Fiddler’s spurge, mole plant, annual poinsettia, wild poinsettia, Japanese poinsettia (En). Caca poule (Fr). Flor do poeta (Po). Kisawanyemungo (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Euphorbia heterophylla is native to Central and South America, but now widely distributed throughout the tropics and subtropics. It occurs throughout most of tropical Africa and the Indian Ocean islands, as well as in the Mediterranean region and South Africa.
Euphorbia heterophylla is widely used in traditional African medicine and elsewhere in tropical countries. In Africa a decoction or infusion of the stems and fresh or dried leaves is taken as a purgative and laxative to treat stomach-ache and constipation, and to expel intestinal worms. A leaf infusion is used as a wash to treat skin problems, including fungal diseases, and abscesses. In Nigeria the latex and preparations of the leaves and root are applied to treat skin tumours. In East Africa the roots are used in the treatment of gonorrhoea or to increase milk production in breast-feeding women. The latex is irritant to the skin and eyes and may be employed as a rubefacient and to remove warts. However, the latex is also used as an antidote against the irritation caused by the latex of other Euphorbia species. In peninsular Malaysia a leaf extract is taken to treat body pain. The latex is used in the preparation of arrow poison and fish poison.
In Benin the leaves are eaten as a vegetable or famine food, despite their laxative action. The plant is grazed by livestock, and can be fed to guinea pigs as an addition to fresh forage. Honey bees collect the nectar from the flowers.
All parts of Euphorbia heterophylla contain latex: leaves 0.42%, stems 0.11%, roots 0.06% and whole plant up to 0.77%. In Sudan it is reported to have been exploited during World War II as a substitute for rubber, but this has never been followed up. The plant furthermore contains lectins and carbohydrates. A dimeric N-acetylgalactosamine-specific lectin was isolated from the seeds. Germinating seeds contain endo-1,4-β-glucanases which degrade carboxymethylcellulose. The red colouring matter of the coloured leaves and bracts is porcetin. The ethylacetate fraction of a leaf decoction contained quercetin tetracetate. The butanolic fraction had laxative action and contained saponins, phenols and terpenes including phorbolic diterpenes. The residual aqueous solution contained mainly sugars. The purgative action was found to be a joint action of both the phorbols and the bulk-forming laxative sugars. A water extract from the leaves exhibited strong purgative effects when given orally to rats. In-vitro experiments with guinea-pig ileum suggest that the effect is caused by an increase in intestinal motility.
The hexane, chloroform and ethyl acetate extracts from the roots showed significant antinociceptive activity in rats at doses of 150–300 mg/kg. An aqueous decoction of the leaves showed significant antinociceptive activity in rats at doses of 50–150 mg/kg. The crude water extracts of the aerial parts, given orally to rats, caused anorexia, anaemia and excitement followed by dullness. They also caused leucocytosis and a significant increase in the level of albumin.
The butanol extract of the dried leaves exhibited marked inhibitory action on the growth of Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Bacillus subtilis at 100 mg/ml. A methanol extract of the aerial parts showed moderate antiplasmodial activity. A leaf extract showed significant nematicidal activity against Meloidogyne graminicola. An extract of the aerial parts given orally to goats showed moderate activity against several intestinal nematodes, such as Haemonchus, Trichostrongylus, Bunostomum and Oesophagostomum.
Extracts from the fresh shoots produced inhibitory effects on the early seed germination of tomato, pepper and cowpea.
Monoecious, annual, sparsely branched herb up to 100 cm tall; stems often tinged red towards the apex, with copious latex. Leaves arranged spirally, crowded at stem apex, simple; stipules modified into purplish glands; petiole up to 2(–4) cm long; blade ovate to lanceolate, up to 12 cm × 6 cm, base cuneate, apex obtuse to slightly acuminate, margins with minute gland-tipped teeth, glabrous to sparsely hairy on the main veins; upper leaves often with whitish or reddish base. Inflorescence a compact axillary or terminal cyme consisting of clusters of flowers, each cluster called a ‘cyathium’, forking c. 5 times, rays becoming progressively shorter; basal bracts similar to the leaves but paler green, progressively smaller and more lanceolate, almost sessile; cyathia almost sessile, c. 3.5 mm × 2.5 mm, with an urn-shaped involucre, lobes circular, c. 1.5 mm long, toothed, margin hairy; gland 1, peltate, funnel-shaped, c. 1 mm in diameter, red-rimmed, each involucre containing 1 female flower surrounded by many male flowers. Flowers unisexual; male flowers sessile, bracteoles few, fringed, perianth absent, stamen c. 4 mm long; female flowers with pedicel c. 6 mm long in fruit, perianth a rim, ovary superior, glabrous, 3-celled, styles 3, c. 1 mm long, 2-fid. Fruit a deeply 3-lobed capsule c. 4.5 mm × 5.5 mm, glabrous, 3-seeded. Seeds ovoid, c. 2.5 mm in diameter, warty, blackish brown. Seedling with epigeal germination; cotyledons elliptical, c. 1.5 cm long, apex acute; hypocotyl, up to 4 cm long; first leaves nearly opposite, lanceolate, later alternate, toothed or not.
Other botanical information
Euphorbia comprises about 2000 species and has a worldwide distribution, with at least 750 species occurring in continental Africa and about 150 species in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands. Euphorbia heterophylla belongs to the subgenus Poinsettia, section Poinsettia, a group of herbs or shrubs, with stipules modified into glands, further characterized by cyathia in densely branching cymes, large and leafy bracts, 1 funnel-shaped involucral gland with 5 lobes, capsules exserted on reflexed pedicels and seeds without a caruncle. Several species from this section are planted as ornamentals because of the brightly coloured bracts. Euphorbia heterophylla and Euphorbia cyathophora Murray, also originating from tropical America, are now regarded as two distinct species, but have not been treated as such in older literature. Therefore much of the older literature cannot be regarded as referring to either of these species. Euphorbia cyathophora is grown as an ornamental, especially in the United States. In Brazil, the red-coloured leaves are used as a dye.
The leaves of Euphorbia heterophylla occurring in East Africa show little of the variation characteristic of this widespread species. Elsewhere in tropical Africa more variation in leaf shape is present.
Growth and development
Euphorbia heterophylla is an annual with a life cycle of 45–50 days, and is thus capable of several life cycles per rainy season. It can be found flowering and fruiting throughout the year if enough water is available.
Euphorbia heterophylla grows in disturbed localities, as a weed of cultivation and waste land, in gardens and along roadsides, from sea-level up to 3000 m altitude. It prefers full sun but is shade-tolerant.
Propagation and planting
Euphorbia heterophylla is propagated by seed. Fresh seed germinates readily under tropical conditions, but remains dormant under temperate circumstances. Both light and temperature influence the breaking of dormancy. The turning of soil favours germination and seeds germinate even when at a depth of 10 cm in the soil.
Experiments with the post-emergence herbicide glyphosate, sprayed on top of potted soil did not affect the emergence of seeds planted 2 cm deep; glyphosate at 1.5 kg/ha even stimulated the emergence of seeds on the soil surface. This stimulatory effect of direct contact with glyphosate on germination of the seeds was confirmed in laboratory tests.
Euphorbia heterophylla is a common and troublesome, nitrophilic weed in arable land in tropical Africa, and should be controlled. Hand weeding is commonly used, as chemical control is too costly.
Sphaceloma poinsettiae, a scab-causing fungus that attacks Euphorbia heterophylla, could be used as a mycoherbicide, as on several occasions this fungus has been observed to cause devastating epidemics in the field on this host.
Diseases and pests
Euphorbia heterophylla is a host of several crop viruses, including cassava common mosaic potexvirus (CsCMV), Euphorbia mosaic bigeminivirus (EuMV), tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV) and mungbean yellow mosaic virus (MYMV). It is moderately susceptible to root-knot nematodes, Meloidogyne spp.
Handling after harvest
The leaves may be dried, powdered and kept for future use.
Genetic resources
Euphorbia heterophylla has a large area of distribution and is a weed; it is therefore not under threat of genetic erosion.
Euphorbia heterophylla is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental with brightly coloured upper leaves and bracts.
Although Euphorbia heterophylla is an important medicinal plant in Africa, it is considered a noxious weed and, as such, it is often weeded. More research on its chemistry and pharmacology is needed to fully evaluate its potential.
Major references
• Burkill, H.M., 1994. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 2, Families E–I. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 636 pp.
• Carter, S. & Leach, L.C., 2001. Euphorbiaceae, subfamily Euphorbioideae, tribe Euphorbieae. In: Pope, G.V. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 9, part 5. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 339–465.
• Falodun, A. & Agbakwuru, E.O.P., 2004. Phytochemical analysis and laxative activity of the leaf extracts of Euphorbia heterophylla L. (Euphorbiaceae). Pakistan Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research 47(5): 345–348.
• Falodun, A., Okunrobo, L.O. & Uzoamaka, N., 2006. Phytochemical screening and anti-inflammatory evaluation of methanolic and aqueous extracts of Euphorbia heterophylla L. (Euphorbiaceae). African Journal of Biotechnology 5(6): 529–531.
• Hamill, F.A., Apio, S., Mubiru, N.K., Mosango, M., Bukenya-Ziraba, R., Maganyi, O.W. & Soejarto, D.D., 2000. Traditional herbal drugs of southern Uganda, 1. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 70: 281–300.
• Kokwaro, J.O., 1993. Medicinal plants of East Africa. 2nd Edition. Kenya Literature Bureau, Nairobi, Kenya. 401 pp.
• Nechet, K.L., Barreto, R.W. & Mizubuti, E.S.G., 2004. Sphaceloma poinsettiae as a potential biological control agent for wild poinsettia (Euphorbia heterophylla). Biological Control 30(3): 556–565.
• Nguyen Nghia Thin & Sosef, M.S.M., 1999. Euphorbia L. In: de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(1). Medicinal and poisonous plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 263–272.
• SEPASAL, 2008. Euphorbia heterophylla. [Internet] Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL) database. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. ceb/sepasal/. Accessed March 2008.
• Vamsidhar, I., Mohammed, A.H, Nataraj, B., Rao, C.M. & Mullangi, R., 2000. Antinociceptive activity of Euphorbia heterophylla roots. Fitoterapia 71(5): 562–563.
Other references
• Aarestrup, J.R., Karam, D. & Fernandes, G.W., 2008. Chromosome number and cytogenetics of Euphorbia heterophylla L. Genetics and Molecular Research 7(1): 217–222.
• Aarestrup, J.R., Karam, D. & Fernandes, G.W., 2008. Chromosome number and cytogenetics of Euphorbia heterophylla L. Genetics and Molecular Research 7(1): 217–222.
• Adedapo, A.A., Abatan, M.O. & Olorunsogo, O.O., 2004. Toxic effects of some plants in the genus Euphorbia on haematological and biochemical parameters of rats. Veterinarski Archiv 74(1): 53–62.
• Adjanohoun, E.J., Adjakidjè, V., Ahyi, M.R.A., Aké Assi, L., Akoègninou, A., d’Almeida, J., Apovo, F., Boukef, K., Chadare, M., Cusset, G., Dramane, K., Eyme, J., Gassita, J.N., Gbaguidi, N., Goudote, E., Guinko, S., Houngnon, P., Lo, I., Keita, A., Kiniffo, H.V., Kone-Bamba, D., Musampa Nseyya, A., Saadou, M., Sodogandji, T., De Souza, S., Tchabi, A., Zinsou Dossa, C. & Zohoun, T., 1989. Contribution aux études ethnobotaniques et floristiques en République Populaire du Bénin. Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique, Paris, France. 895 pp.
• Adjanohoun, E.J., Ahyi, M.R.A., Aké Assi, L., Alia, A.M., Amai, C.A., Gbile, Z.O., Johnson, C.L.A., Kakooko, Z.O., Lutakome, H.K., Morakinyo, O., Mubiru, N.K., Ogwal-Okeng, J.W. & Sofowora, E.A., 1993. Traditional medicine and pharmacopoeia - contribution to ethnobotanical and floristic studies in Uganda. Scientific, Technical and Research Commission of the Organization of the African Unity (OAU/STRC). 433 pp.
• Akah, P.A., 1989. Purgative potentials of Euphorbia heterophylla. Fitoterapia 60(1): 45–48.
• Bannon, J.S., Baker, J.B. & Rogers, R.L., 1978. Germination of wild poinsettia, Euphorbia heterophylla. Weed Science 26(3): 221–225.
• Clarkson, C., Maharaj, V.J., Crouch, N.R., Grace, O.M., Pillay, P., Matsabisa, M.G., Bhagwandin, N., Smith, P.J. & Folb, P.I., 2004. In vitro antiplasmodial activity of medicinal plants native to or naturalised in South Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 92: 177–191.
• Eke, A.O. & Okereke, O.U., 1996. Seed germination and growth of Eleusine indica and Euphorbia heterophylla as influenced by depth of planting and glyphosate. Ghana Journal of Agricultural Science 20–23: 77–83.
• Eniola-Tijani, H. & Fawusi, M.O.A., 1991. Influence of extracts from fresh samples of five tropical weeds on seed germination and early seedling development of selected crop species. Ife Journal of Agriculture 13(1–2): 38–48.
• Falodun, A., Agbakwuru, E.O.P. & Ukoh, G.C., 2003. Antibacterial activity of Euphorbia heterophylla L. (Family - Euphorbiaceae). Pakistan Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research 46(6): 471–472.
• Gill, L.S., 1992. Ethnomedical uses of plants in Nigeria. University of Benin Press, Benin City, Nigeria. 276 pp.
• Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1996. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 2. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 532 pp.
• Ipou, I.J., 2005. Biologie et écologie d’Euphorbia heterophylla L. (Euphorbiaceae) en culture cotonnière, au nord de la Côte d’Ivoire. Thèse de doctorat de l’Université de Cocody, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. 168 pp.
• Latham, P., 2005. Some honeybee plants of Bas-Congo Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. DFID, United Kingdom. 167 pp.
• Le Bourgeois, T. & Merlier, H., 1995. Adventrop. Les adventices d’Afrique soudano-sahélienne. CIRAD-CA, Montpellier, France. 637 pp.
• Nsimba-Lubaki, M., Peumans, W.J. & Carlier, A.R., 1983. Isolation and partial characterisation of a lectin from Euphorbia heterophylla seeds. Journal of Biochemistry 215(1): 141–145.
• Saimo, M.K., Bizimenyera, E.S., Bwanika, A., Ssebuguzi, F., Weny, G. & Lubega, G.W., 2003. Ethnoveterinary practices in Uganda: use of medicinal plants in treating helminthosis and coccidiosis in rural poultry and goats in Uganda. Bulletin of Animal Health and Production in Africa 51(3): 133–138.
• Suda, C.N.K. & Giorgini, J.F., 2003. Multiple forms of endo-1,4-b-glucanases in the endosperm of Euphorbia heterophylla L. Journal of Experimental Botany 54(390): 2045–2052.
• Tabuti, J.R.S., Lye, K.A. & Dhillion, S.S., 2003. Traditional herbal drugs of Bulamogi, Uganda: plants, use and administration. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 88: 19–44.
• Wome, B., 1985. Recherches ethnopharmacognosiques sur les plantes médicinales utilisées en médecine traditionnelle à Kisangani (Haut-Zaïre). PhD thesis, Faculty of Sciences, University of Brussels, Brussels, Belgium. 561 pp.
Sources of illustration
• Nguyen Nghia Thin & Sosef, M.S.M., 1999. Euphorbia L. In: de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(1). Medicinal and poisonous plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 263–272.
D.M. Mosango
c/o Laboratory of Natural Sciences, Lycée Français Jean Monnet de Bruxelles (LFB), Avenue du Lycée Français 9, 1180 Brussels, Belgium

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, Réduit, 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:
Mosango, D.M., 2008. Euphorbia heterophylla L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map naturalized

1, flowering branch; leaf showing variability in shape; 3, cyathium; 4, seed.
Source: PROSEA

fruiting plant

top of flowering and fruiting plant
obtained from
Plants of Hawaii

infructescences CopyLeft EcoPort

infructescences CopyLeft EcoPort

infructescences CopyLeft EcoPort