Prota 2: Vegetables/Légumes
Mant. pl.: 308 (1771).
2n = 40, 60
Marsilea senegalensis A.Braun ex Baker (1887).
Water clover (En). Marsilée, marsiléa, marsilia, fougère d’eau (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Marsilea minuta is found throughout Africa, Madagascar and the Comoros. It also occurs widely in tropical Asia and as a weed in the southern United States.
The bright green leaves of Marsilea minuta are tender and eaten as a potherb in Senegal, Gambia and India. In Nigeria the extract of whole Marsilea plants is used as aphrodisiac and for increased fertility. In India the leaf juice of Marsilea minuta is used to stop nose bleeding, indigestion is treated by eating the pounded leaves cooked with rice, and swelling of the gums is reduced by applying leaves that have been boiled rolled in a leaf of Shorea robusta P.Gaertn. Water clover is planted as an ornamental potplant and is used more commonly as a garden plant for pond decoration.
No studies of the nutritional value or plant constituents are known. When fed to gerbils, a leaf extract of Marsilea minuta reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels in blood and liver substantially. Moreover, the treatment prevented the accumulation of these compounds in liver and aorta and dissolved atheromatous plaques of thoracic and abdominal aortas.
Small creeping fern with erect 4-foliolate leaves, arising solitary from the nodes on a long creeping rhizome, rooting at the nodes. Leaves composed of 4 obdeltoid leaflets, 0.4–2.5 cm long and wide, all inserted at the top of the slender 2–8(–25) cm long petiole. Sporocarps crowded or in groups of 2–3, arising at the base of the petiole, on stalks of (2–)3–7 mm long, laterally flattened, very variable in size, 3–4(–6) mm × 2.5–3(–4.5) mm, circular to elliptical, densely appressed-pilose when young, quite glabrous and dark brown to almost black when mature, with two distinct teeth and 8–12 sori.
Marsilea minuta is the widest distributed species of the genus and also the most variable. Var. incurva (A.Braun) Launert is found from Senegal to Ghana and differs from var. minuta in the angle between stalk and sporocarp, which exceeds 90°. The numerous misidentifications in Marsilea hinder the interpretation of scientific work.
Marsilea quadrifolia L., a circumboreal species, is often mentioned as occurring in Africa, but this is certainly not correct for sub-Saharan Africa, and all information published for Marsilea quadrifolia in this area must be attributed to other species.
Marsilea minuta grows in swamps, stagnant water, edges of rivers and seasonally flooded land. It also occurs in wet rice fields, where it sometimes becomes a nuisance because it forms large and dense colonies.
In Nigeria Marsilea is recorded as being grown near the house for ready use as an aphrodisiac and as an ornamental.
Genetic resources and breeding
Marsilea minuta is widespread and not threatened by genetic erosion. No germplasm collections of Marsilea are known.
Marsilea is traded on a limited scale as an ornamental because of its peculiar leaves. However, because of the fact that they have four leaflets, which by tradition brings good luck if found in clovers, the plant may remain a specialty for a long time to come.
• Afriastini, J.J., 2003. Marsilea crenata C.Presl. In: de Winter, W.P. & Amoroso, V.B. (Editors). Plant Resources of South East Asia No 15(2). Cryptogams: ferns and fern allies. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 133–135.
• Burkill, H.M., 2000. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 5, Families S–Z, Addenda. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. 686 pp.
• Gupta, R.S., Kumar, P., Sharma, A., Bharadwaj, T.N. & Dixit, V.P., 2000. Hypocholesterolemic activity of Marsilea minuta in gerbils. Fitoterapia 71(2): 113–117.
• Nwosu, M.O., 2002. Ethnobotanical studies on some Pteridophytes of Southern Nigeria. Economic Botany 56(3): 255–259.
• Tattersall, S.L., 1978. The lesser-known food plants of the Gambia - a study. Mimeo, Department of Agriculture, Gambia. p. 12.
• Alston, A.H.G., 1959. The ferns and fern-allies of West Tropical Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 89 pp.
• Launert, E., 1968. A monographic survey of the genus Marsilea Linnaeus. Senckenbergiana Biologica 49: 273–315.
• Launert, E., 1984. A revised key to and new records of African species of the genus Marsilea. Garcia de Orta, Série de Botânica 6: 119–140.
• Swaminathan Research Foundation, M.S., undated. Farmers' Rights Information Service: Marsilea minuta L. [Internet] http://www.mssrf.org/fris9809/fris1340.html. Accessed March 2003.
Correct citation of this article:
van der Burg, W.J., 2004. Marsilea minuta L. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.