Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1
Ann. Naturhist. Mus. Wien 15: 51 (1900).
Three-forked euphorbia (En).
Origin and geographic distribution
Euphorbia matabelensis occurs in Somalia, southern Kenya, Tanzania and throughout southern Africa.
In Malawi a root decoction together with leaves of Dichrostachys cinerea (L.) Wight & Arn. is drunk to treat depression, high blood pressure and swollen lymph glands. In Zimbabwe root powder is rubbed into scarifications on the breasts as a galactagogue for foster mothers. A decoction of the chopped roots or latex is taken as a purgative in case of poisoning and to induce abortion. The latex is put into drinking water of chickens to treat diarrhoea and Newcastle disease.
In Tanzania the boiled latex is used as birdlime or sometimes as chewing gum.
An ingenol diterpene isolated from the latex exhibited irritant activity in the mouse ear test.
Monoecious, slightly succulent, deciduous shrub up to 3(–8) m tall with abundant latex; bark greyish brown, peeling; branches ascending, drooping at apex, young branches densely short-hairy, usually spine-tipped, branching trichotomous at apex. Leaves arranged spirally or crowded at branch apex, simple and entire; stipules glandular, minute; petiole 1–5 mm long; blade oblanceolate to obovate, c. 5.5 mm × 2.5 mm, base cuneate, apex rounded, lower surface short-hairy when young. Inflorescence an axillary cyme consisting of clusters of flowers, each cluster called a ‘cyathium’, in 3–7-branched umbels; branches up to 10 mm long; bracts leaf-like, c. 5 mm long, yellowish green; cyathia almost sessile or central one of an umbel on a peduncle up to 5 mm long, c. 3.5 mm × 6 mm, with a cup-shaped involucre, lobes c. 1.5 mm long, rounded, deeply fringed, glands 5, shallowly saucer-shaped, 2–2.5 mm in diameter, yellow, each involucre containing 1 female flower surrounded by many male flowers. Flowers unisexual; male flowers sessile, bracteoles fringed, perianth absent, stamen c. 4.5 mm long; female flowers with pedicel c. 5 mm long in fruit, ovary superior, densely short-hairy, 3-celled, styles 3, c. 2 mm long, fused at base, apex 2-fid. Fruit an obtusely 3-lobed capsule c. 7 mm × 8 mm, densely short-hairy, green becoming red, 3-seeded. Seeds globose, c. 3.5 mm in diameter, smooth, brown, obscurely speckled.
Euphorbia comprises about 2000 species and has a worldwide distribution, with at least 750 species occurring in continental Africa and about 150 in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands. Euphorbia matabelensis belongs to section Lyciopsis, a group of tuberous herbs or shrubs, characterized by glandular stipules, terminal or axillary cymes in large umbels, almost sessile capsules and seeds without a caruncle. Several other species with medicinal uses belong to this section or occur in the region. Euphorbia cuneata Vahl occurs from Guinea east to Somalia and south through East Africa to Mozambique; it also occurs throughout the Arabic Peninsula. In East Africa the latex is applied to warts, wounds and sores. The latex in water is given to calves with hepatitis. A decoction of the stem bark and roots is given to cattle for the expulsion of a retained placenta. The plants are sometimes browsed by camels, goats and sheep. The stem is used to make earrings and knife handles. The stems are used for fencing during ceremonies. The sticky latex is used to remove dust from the eye. Euphorbia espinosa Pax is a shrub from Kenya, Tanzania and southern Africa. Latex in milk, porridge or egg is taken as an emetic in case of suspected poisoning or indigestion. Euphorbia joyae Bally & S.Carter is a shrub endemic to Kenya, where the Boran people take a root decoction to treat coughs. Euphorbia namibiensis Marloth has a short, strongly tuberculate, succulent stem with short branches and occurs in Namibia and Botswana. In Botswana a decoction of the aerial parts is taken to treat venereal diseases and stomach-ache, or smoke of the burning plant is inhaled for these purposes. A root decoction is taken to induce vomiting after ingestion of poison. Euphorbia radiifera L.C.Leach has annual stems arising from an elongate tuber; it is endemic to Angola. Painful legs are massaged with the crushed plant and hot water.
Euphorbia matabelensis occurs in open deciduous woodland, in sandy soils, often on rocky outcrops and hillsides, at 450–1900 m altitude.
Genetic resources and breeding
There are no signs that Euphorbia matabelensis is threatened by genetic erosion. As a succulent Euphorbia species, its trade is controlled under CITES appendix 2.
Ingenol diterpenes can cause skin irritation and have tumour promoting properties. The use of the latex of Euphorbia matabelensis for medicinal purposes should therefore be discouraged.
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Correct citation of this article:
Schmelzer, G.H., 2008. Euphorbia matabelensis Pax. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.