Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1
Ann. Sci. Nat., Bot. sér. 3, 15: 256 (1851).
Euphorbiaceae (APG: Phyllanthaceae)
n = 13
Heart-fruit (En). Cœurs-volants (Fr). Uapau (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Hymenocardia acida occurs throughout tropical Africa, from Senegal east to Ethiopia and south to South Africa.
The acidic leaves, stem bark and roots are commonly used as medicines. A leaf infusion is taken to treat chest complaints and smallpox, a leaf and root infusion is taken to treat oedema caused by malnutrition and an extract of the leafy twigs is rubbed in to strengthen sickly children. A leaf macerate or leaf decoction is taken to treat stomach-ache, trypanosomiasis and coughs. A leaf decoction or leaf sap is used as eye drops to treat eye infections; together with honey they are taken to treat gall bladder problems and fever, and also as a bath to treat fever and haemorrhoids. Leaf sap is also used as ear drops to treat otitis. Leaf powder is taken as snuff to treat headache; the vapour of the boiling leaves is inhaled to treat headache. Leaf powder is topically applied in friction to treat rheumatic pains, toothache and fever; it is also sprinkled on sores after washing. Leaf powder in food is taken to treat asthma. A leaf decoction is taken as an emetic and to treat snakebites. A decoction of the leafy twigs is used for bathing to treat tetanus, convulsions and exhaustion.
The bitter stem bark is slightly astringent and causes copious salivation when chewed. In West Africa it is chewed together with kola (Cola spp.) to treat dysentery. A bark decoction is widely taken to treat pulmonary affections, including tuberculosis; it is also used as a steam bath, alone or with the fruits, to treat breathing difficulties and colds. The powdered bark, together with parts of other plants, is used as a macerate to treat fractures. The powdered bark with copper dust is sprinkled on syphilitic sores. Powdered bark in water or pulped bark is taken internally to treat abdominal pains, diarrhoea, dysentery, menstrual pains, female infertility, painful swellings, cough and epileptic fits. The powdered bark in water or a bark decoction is applied as a poultice to treat colic, abscesses and tumours, eye infections, migraine and also skin afflictions such as itch, prickly heat, parasites and leprosy.
A root decoction or a leaf infusion is drunk against threatened abortion, as an aphrodisiac and to treat severe stomach-ache. A root decoction or root bark in porridge is taken as a febrifuge, to treat malaria, arterial hypertension and amoebic dysentery. It is also drunk or used as a mouth wash to treat toothache and infected gums. Root sap and fruit juice are used as ear drops to treat earache and also to treat toothache. Root ash is also applied to treat toothache. Root powder is applied to skin diseases. In southern Africa steam inhalations from the root powder are considered cleansing for the stomach. Powdered root in porridge is given to breast-feeding women to diminish the milk flow. Powdered fresh roots are also taken to treat anaemia, including sickle cell anaemia. Pulped roots and leaves are applied to haemorrhoids and rectal prolapse. A fresh root decoction is also taken to treat haemorrhoids. A root or stem bark decoction is taken as an antidote for plant poisoning.
In Central Africa a brownish red dye obtained from the bark is used to colour raffia work and cloth; the bark contains much tannin and is used for tanning leather. The young leaves and twigs are commonly browsed by cattle and in DR Congo they are eaten by edible caterpillars. Bees commonly visit the flowers for nectar and pollen. The young fruits are eaten by children, although they are rather sour. In West and Central Africa, the wood is considered brittle, and not much used as a timber. In East and southern Africa the wood is known for its hardness and resistance to termites; it is used to make house posts, poles, pestles and tool handles. The wood is commonly used as fuel and for charcoal production; it burns slowly with a hot flame and little smoke. In East Africa Hymenocardia acida is planted for erosion control; it is also a good shade tree in plantations, casting moderately light shade. Young leafy shoots of Hymenocardia acida are sometimes eaten as a condiment. The twigs are used as toothbrush. The stem bark is made into rope.
Preliminary studies of the chemistry of Hymenocardia acida showed the presence of saponins. From the root bark the cyclopeptide alkaloid hymenocardine was isolated. All plant parts contain tannin, the stem bark being richest (up to 12%). The bark contains amphiphile lupane-type triterpenoids, which are associated with its antimalarial and anti-inflammatory activities.
A dichloromethane extract of the leafy twigs showed significant antitrypanosomal activity; different root and leaf extracts only showed moderate activity. Methylene chloride and methanolic stem bark and root extracts showed moderate activity against Plasmodium falciparum in vitro. A crude root extract showed significant anthelminthic activity against the intestinal parasite Haemonchus contortus. In an in-vitro test of plants from DR Congo, water extracts, and to a lesser extent ethanol extracts, of the leaves showed significant effect against sickle cell formation. An ethanolic root extract showed marked antibacterial activity against Klebsiella pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus mutans and Salmonella enterica in vitro, as well as spasmolytic and anti-inflammatory activities in vivo in mice and rats. An aqueous stem bark extract showed significant anti-ulcer activity against induced gastric lesions in rats. A methanolic leaf extract showed very high radical scavenging activity, comparable to tocopherol. Methanol extracts from the root bark exhibited moderate cytotoxic activity against 60 human cell lines of the National Cancer Institute of the United States.
The wood is pale brown or pink, darkening to orange, hard, with fine texture and conspicuous annual rings.
Dioecious, deciduous shrub or small tree up to 6(–10) m tall, often straggling; bole up to 30 cm in diameter, often stunted or contorted; bark smooth, pale brown or grey, flaking off, showing a powdery reddish to orange inner bark; upper branches spreading, lower branches drooping; young shoots short-hairy. Leaves alternate, simple and entire; stipules 1–3 mm long, linear, soon falling; petiole 0.5–1.5 cm long, short-hairy; blade elliptical-ovate to oblong-oblanceolate, 2.5–9.5 cm × 1.5–5 cm, base rounded, apex rounded to obtuse, short-hairy to almost glabrous above, densely soft-hairy below or almost glabrous except main veins, sparingly to evenly yellowish gland-dotted. Male inflorescence a dense axillary spike up to 7 cm long, solitary or fascicled; female inflorescence a terminal few-flowered raceme up to 3 cm long, usually several together, or flowers solitary. Flowers unisexual, petals absent, disk absent; male flowers sessile, calyx 1.5–2 mm in diameter, shallowly 5-lobed, lobes obtuse, ciliate, pinkish, stamens 4–6, c. 1.2 mm long, free; female flowers with pedicel c. 1 mm long, extending up to 2 cm in fruit, sepals 5–9, linear, 1.5–4 mm long, sometimes fused at base, soon falling, pinkish, ovary superior, obovoid, 2-winged in upper half, gland-dotted, glabrous to densely short-hairy, glaucous to red, 2-celled, styles 2(–3), 2–20 mm long, free. Fruit a V-shaped, flattened capsule, 2–3.5 cm × 2.5–4 cm, with 2 apical divergent rounded to rhomboid membranous striate wings, rounded to cordate at base, glabrous to hairy, gland-dotted or not, yellow-green at first, turning pink then reddish brown, 2-seeded, on a stipe up to 2 mm long. Seeds compressed circular, c. 10 mm × 5 mm, smooth, shiny, dark purplish brown, streaked with black.
Other botanical information
Hymenocardia comprises 6 species, 5 of which occur in continental Africa and 1 in South-East Asia. Hymenocardia shows similarities in wood anatomy and pollen morphology to Ulmaceae which, coupled to the winged fruits, caused some botanists to place it in a family of its own, Hymenocardiaceae. Closer examination has shown that most similarities are superficial and possibly the result of convergence. Two varieties are distinguished in Hymenocardia acida: var. acida, which is distributed throughout tropical Africa, and var. mollis (Pax) Radcl.-Sm., with short-hairy fruits, which occurs from DR Congo south to Mozambique. Hymenocardia heudelotii Müll.Arg. is also medicinally used in West Africa. In Sierra Leone the leaf sap is used as eye drops to treat ophthalmia.
Growth and development
Hymenocardia acida starts flowering mainly during the second half of the dry season, when new leaves also develop. In Benin it flowers from January to October and fruits from February to October; in Zambia it flowers in September–November and seeds mature in June–September.
Hymenocardia acida occurs in savanna and deciduous woodland, also on lakeshore sand dunes. It occurs mainly on sandy, loamy or clayey soils, from sea-level up to 1750 m altitude.
Propagation and planting
Hymenocardia acida is propagated by seed and by wildlings. The fruits are dewinged and soaked in cold water for 48 hours before sowing. Direct seeding is possible.
Hymenocardia acida can be coppiced.
Diseases and pests
Hymenocardia acida is a host for the fungus Coniella diplodiella, which causes white rot of grapes (Vitis vinifera L.).
The stem bark and roots of Hymenocardia acida can be harvested whenever the need arises. The leaves can be harvested during the rainy season, as the species is deciduous.
Hymenocardia acida is widely distributed throughout tropical Africa, and is locally common. It is therefore not threatened by genetic erosion.
Hymenocardia acida is an important medicinal plant throughout tropical Africa, and the effectiveness of many traditional uses has been confirmed by preliminary pharmacological research. However, not much is known about the active compounds, and therefore more research is warranted.
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Sources of illustration
• Akoègninou, A., van der Burg, W.J. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors), 2006. Flore analytique du Bénin. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. 1034 pp.
Correct citation of this article:
Schmelzer, G.H., 2008. Hymenocardia acida Tul. 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, female flower; 3, infructescence.
Source: Flore analytique du Bénin
young tree habit
obtained from P. Ekpe NSBP
obtained from P. Ekpe NSBP
obtained from P. Ekpe NSBP