Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1
Adansonia 6(2): 197 (1866).
Caesalpiniaceae (Leguminosae - Caesalpinioideae)
Bandeiraea simplicifoli a (Vahl ex DC.) Benth. (1865).
Origin and geographic distribution
Griffonia simplicifolia is distributed from Liberia to Gabon.
In Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria the pulped bark is applied to syphilitic sores. A leaf decoction is used as an emetic, cough medicine and aphrodisiac. A decoction of stems and leaves is taken as a purgative to treat constipation and is used externally as an antiseptic wash to treat suppurating wounds. Leaf sap is used as eye drops to cure inflamed eyes and is drunk or applied as an enema to cure kidney problems. Stems and stem bark are made into a paste that is applied to decaying teeth, and a paste made from the leaves is applied to burns. Ground twig bark, mixed with lemon juice and Capsicum pepper, is applied to scarifications to treat intercostal pain. Chewing the stems is claimed to produce an aphrodisiac effect. The leaves are put in chicken pens to kill lice. In Nigeria an extract from the powdered roots has been used to treat sickle cell anaemia.
The wood is hard and tough and in Ghana stems are used to make walking sticks. The leaves are used in the production of palm wine, and give the wine a bitter taste. Sap that exudes from cut stems can be drunk to quench thirst. In Ghana the roots are chewed and dried to produce a white powder that is used by women to powder their face. A black dye is obtained from the leaves. The pods are made into toy whistles and spoons. The leaves are highly valued as animal feed and are said to stimulate reproduction. Free-ranging cattle browse heavily on the shrubs. The stems are used to make baskets and chicken cages, and also beaten into fibres serving as chewing sponges, a popular means of tooth cleaning in Ghana. The stems and roots are used as chew-sticks.
Production and international trade
The seed of Griffonia simplicifolia is an industrial source of 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a serotonin precursor. Trade statistics are not available. In the early 1990s the annual export from Ghana to Germany amounted to 80 t. In view of the increased demand for 5-HTP in the Western world, the trade must have expanded since then. In 1999 the wholesale price of seed was US$ 8–9 per kg.
The leaves of Griffonia simplicifolia contain a volatile oil and coumarins. The ripe seeds contain 6–14% 5-HTP. In the leaves 5-HTP is accompanied by 5-hydroxytryptamine (= serotonin), each at a concentration of 0.1–0.2%. In humans, 5-HTP increases the synthesis of serotonin in the central nervous system and has been shown to be effective in treating a wide variety of conditions, including depression, fibromyalgia, obesity, chronic headaches and insomnia. 5-HTP is poisonous to insects, i.e. bruchids (Callosobruchus maculatus). The cyanoglucoside lithospermoside (= griffonin) has been isolated from the roots; it is the active ingredient against sickle-cell anaemia.
In the seeds a number of lectins are found. One of them is of the acetylglucosamine-group which is commonly found in Poaceae and Solanaceae but is rare in Leguminosae. Some lectins have insecticidal properties. Isolectin B4 isolated from Griffonia simplicifolia is used as a marker of small primary sensory neurons in neurological research.
As a fodder Griffonia simplicifolia is appreciated for its vigour, high palatability, high crude protein content (about 16%), high P content (about 0.12%) and high Ca content (about 2.2%).
Adulterations and substitutes
Lithospermoside (= griffonin) has been isolated from several plants, e.g. from the African Lophira alata Banks ex C.F.Gaertn. and Tylosema fassoglense (Schweinf.) Torre & Hillc.
Shrub or large liana with glabrous, brown-black branches. Leaves alternate, simple, glabrous; stipules triangular, 1 mm long, soon falling; petiole up to 1.5 cm long; blade ovate, 6–12 cm × 3–6 cm, base rounded to cordate, apex rounded to short-acuminate, 3(–5)-veined from the base, reticulate veins prominent on both sides. Inflorescence an axillary, pyramidal raceme 5–20 cm long; bracts and bracteoles triangular, very small, persistent. Flowers bisexual, almost regular, 5-merous; pedicel 3–4 mm long; receptacle urn-shaped, 1–1.5 cm long, pale green; calyx tube 12–15 mm long, orange, lobes triangular, up to 2 mm long; petals almost equal, elliptical, 10–12 mm long, fleshy, greenish, sparsely short-hairy on the margin; stamens 10, filaments filiform, up to 2 cm long; ovary superior, c. 4 mm long, stiped, style 1–2 mm long, persistent, stigma small. Fruit an oblique-cylindrical pod c. 8 cm × 4 cm, stipe 1–1.5 cm long, inflated, leathery, 1–4-seeded. Seeds orbicular, c. 18 mm × 5 mm × 6 mm, glabrous. Seedling with epigeal germination.
Other botanical information
Griffonia occurs in tropical Africa. It belongs to the tribe Cercideae and comprises 4 species. Griffonia physocarpa Baill., Griffonia tessmannii (De Wild.) Compère and Griffonia speciosa (Benth.) Taub. occur from Nigeria east to DR Congo and south to Angola. They are less common than Griffonia simplicifolia. The main use of Griffonia physocarpa is as a dye plant. In DR Congo Griffonia tessmannii, Griffonia physocarpa and Griffonia speciosa have similar medicinal uses. A decoction of the aerial parts is drunk to treat gonorrhoea and stomach problems. Feverish children are bathed in the same decoction to bring down the temperature. Young leaves are chopped and eaten as an aphrodisiac and pulped they serve to massage body parts with oedema. The seeds of Griffonia physocarpa and Griffonia speciosa contain high concentrations of 5-HTP.
Growth and development
In West Africa Griffonia simplicifolia flowers from July till November. Pods ripen from August onwards.
Griffonia simplicifolia occurs in grass savanna, in coastal plains on termite mounds, in scrub thickets, secondary and disturbed forest, and along the margins of primary forest.
Propagation and planting
Propagation by seed gave poor results and different seed treatments did not improve germination, although fungicide treatment of the seed appeared beneficial for establishment. Use of stem cuttings has not been successful. In productivity trials wildlings were successfully used as planting material; this is impractical at a larger scale.
There are no indications that Griffonia simplicifolia is currently being cultivated.
Diseases and pests
Griffonia simplicifolia is a host for several lepidopteran defoliators of the important timber tree Mansonia altissima (A.Chev.) A.Chev.
For local medicinal use Griffonia simplicifolia is harvested in small quantities. Although harvesting seeds from the wild is usually fairly sustainable, there are worrying reports of lianas being cut down on a large scale to be able to collect the seeds. Harvesting for fodder is best done at intervals of 12 weeks, as total herbage yields are then considerably higher than when harvested at 6 week intervals.
In Ghana herbage yield of Griffonia simplicifolia was comparable to that of Leucaena leucocephala (Lam.) de Wit, but both were outyielded by Gliricidia sepium (Jacq.) Kunth ex Walp. There are no data available on seed yield.
Handling after harvest
The seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia are extracted in factories in the United States, Germany and probably elsewhere. The extract is either a grey-white powder or pale brown crystals containing 95–98% 5-HTP and is sold wholesale at about US$ 800 per kg (prices in 2000). It is finally sold mixed with vitamins and packed in capsules or mixed with green tea or yerba mate.
Even though Griffonia simplicifolia is reportedly common, the high commercial value of the seeds forms a serious threat. Destructive harvesting combined with high grazing pressure could contribute to reduction of populations.
The insecticidal lectins of Griffonia are of interest for plant breeders who want to build in insect resistance in other crops.
Griffonia simplicifolia will remain in high demand as a natural alternative for the antidepressant Prozac. Measures for sustainable harvesting need to be enforced or developed. Research to domesticate this species is urgently needed, solving the problems with germination being a first step.
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Sources of illustration
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Correct citation of this article:
Bosch, C.H., 2008. Griffonia simplicifolia (Vahl ex DC.) Baill. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
1, flowering branch; 2, fruit; 3, seed.
Redrawn and adapted by Iskak Syamsudin