Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1
Hook.f., Icon. pl. 8: t. 758 (1848).
2n = 30
Microdesmis zenkeri Pax (1897).
Origin and geographic distribution
Microdesmis puberula occurs from eastern Nigeria east to DR Congo and Uganda.
The stem bark, leaves and roots have numerous medicinal uses throughout the distribution area of Microdesmis puberula; they are similar to the uses of the closely related species Microdesmis keayana J.Léonard. Leaf sap, or crushed and burnt twigs and roots are applied to snakebites or to scarifications. Leaf sap, sometimes together with twig sap, is commonly taken orally or applied as an enema to treat diarrhoea. It is rather mild and thus prescribed for pregnant women and young children. Leaf and stem sap or an infusion of them, sometimes combined with other plants, is commonly taken to treat stomach-ache, intestinal worms and genital problems such as menstrual complaints, sterility, miscarriage, loss of virility and venereal diseases. Leaf and stem sap, or a leaf or stem infusion is also externally applied to treat skin problems such as eczema, scabies, burns, circumcision wounds, abscesses and sores from gonorrhoea.
In Central Africa pregnant women drink a beverage made of macerated leaves, sometimes mixed with salt and onions, to ease delivery. In Nigeria a leaf decoction is taken to treat acute spleen pain. In Cameroon the Baka pygmies use leaf sap as nose drops to treat malaria and cough and as eye drops to treat blurred vision. In the Central African Republic the Lissongo people drink a leaf decoction and rub the breasts with crushed leaves to calm mastitis. Legs from newborn babies are also rubbed with crushed leaves to encourage rapid stand-up and walking. The Monzombo people massage the head with leaves, mixed with leaves of several other plants, to treat fever. Heated leaves are used in massage to relieve backache. Ash from burnt stems mixed with salt and palm oil is massaged into scarifications on the hip in case of limping. The Fang people of Gabon wash the head with macerated leaves to calm severe headache. In Congo leaves are pounded in water and the liquid is drunk to prevent fainting. Chopped up young leaves are eaten to treat a sore throat and colds. Leaf sap is used as ear drops to treat ear infections. The leaves are put in vapour baths to treat rheumatism. Crushed leaves and twigs are applied on glandular swellings, and the roots or pounded young leaves mixed with the juice of sugar cane are considered to be aphrodisiac. In DR Congo the Efe and Mbuti pygmies rub burnt and powdered bark and wood into incisions on the side of the body to treat rib pain. The pounded stem is mixed with salt and rubbed on scarifications to treat pneumonia. Ash of burnt roots mixed with palm oil is rubbed into scarifications to treat renal pain and severe headache. In Rwanda and Burundi grated roots are mixed with cornflour and eaten to cure gonorrhoea. The grated root is also applied on wounds and hernia. The boiled fruits are applied to tumours. Pounded fruits mixed with Capsicum fruits are eaten by the Baka pygmies to calm cough. Seeds are eaten to provide strength.
Most pygmy groups consume the leaves as a vegetable. The fruits are sometimes eaten, although they are laxative. In Nigeria Microdesmis puberula is a common browse species of goats and cattle. In DR Congo the Efe and Mbuti pygmies use the flexible stem as fishing rods. Young shoots are used by the Aka, Baka and Mbuti pygmies for hut building, and also to make snare hooks and harps. Older stems provide hard wooden stakes for yam support, digging sticks and hooks to attach hunting nets in the undergrowth. The wood is widely used to make chairs, spring traps, handles and implements. In south-eastern Nigeria the wood is made into a type of guitar. In DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the older stems are made into arrows and bed frames. The twigs serve as chew sticks.
In many African societies Microdesmis puberula has magical uses. The vapour from burned leaves is believed to chase bad spirits from houses. The plant is reputedly deep-rooted and the Baka and Aka pygmies therefore use it as a magical protection against semi-wild yam tubers being robbed in the forest. In DR Congo the plant is used in concoctions to improve one’s luck.
In preliminary tests, traces of alkaloids were detected in stems and roots, but no further chemical or pharmacological analyses have been carried out. As a fodder shrub, Microdesmis puberula shows a high content of crude protein, 23–33%, and compares favourably with Leucaena and Gliricidia (22%). Analysis of the air-dry leaves shows the following results: dry matter 93%, crude protein 25.8%, ash 4.8%, crude fibre 19.9%, ether extract 6.3%, nitrogen-free extract 36.1%, acid-detergent fibre 21.3%, neutral-detergent fibre 46.5%, hemi-cellulose 25.2%, tannin 0.9%, phytin 25.2 mg/g, HCN 1.86 mg/g.
In different feeding experiments with broiler chickens using up to 10% Microdesmis puberula leaves in the meal, contradictory results were observed. When the leaves were used in laying hen diets, no significant differences were observed in body weight, egg shell thickness, yolk index and albumin index with up to 15% inclusion of Microdesmis puberula leaf meal. The intensity of the egg yolk coloration increased with increasing levels of the leaf meal in the diets. In a feeding experiment with dwarf goats, feeding mixed forages with a maximum of 25% Microdesmis puberula leaves led to an increase in the growth rate of goats.
The wood is brown, hard and flexible; it works easily and takes a lustrous polish.
Dioecious shrub up to 6 m tall, sometimes small tree up to 15 m tall; stem up to 8 cm in diameter; twigs usually densely short-hairy. Leaves alternate, distichous, simple; stipules linear, up to 4 mm long, persistent; petiole 4–12 mm long; blade elliptical-oblong to ovate-lanceolate or ovate, 5–15(–20) cm × 2–6(–9) cm, base asymmetrical, cuneate to rounded, apex acute to acuminate, margin finely toothed to almost entire, shiny above, short-hairy on the midrib above. Inflorescence an axillary fascicle, male fascicle 5–many-flowered, female fascicle 1–3(–5)-flowered; bracts minute. Flowers unisexual, 5-merous, regular; calyx c. 2 mm long, lobes ovate, c. 1.5 mm long, short-hairy, green; petals almost circular to ovate-oblong, c. 3 mm × 2–2.5 mm, spreading, short-hairy in upper half, pink to orange; male flowers with pedicel 3–9 mm long, filaments c. 1 mm long, fleshy, fused to the pistillode, pistillode 2–2.5 mm long, reddish orange; female flowers with pedicel 3–4 mm long, enlarging to 5–10 mm in fruit, short-hairy, ovary superior, ellipsoid, c. 1 mm long, 2(–3)-celled, sparsely to densely short-hairy, styles 2, c. 1 mm long, white. Fruit an ovoid drupe 10–12 mm × 9–11 mm, smooth when fresh, later wrinkled, hard, shiny, red, (1–)2-seeded. Seeds broadly ovate, flattened, curved. Seedling with epigeal germination.
Other botanical information
Microdesmis comprises about 11 species, 2 of which occur in Asia and the others in tropical Africa. Microdesmis puberula and Microdesmis keayana are morphologically nearly similar, their medicinal uses are largely overlapping and they might well belong to the same species. The distribution area of Microdesmis keayana links up with that of Microdesmis puberula, from Nigeria west to Senegal.
Microdesmis haumaniana J.Léonard occurs from Cameroon south to Angola. In Congo ground fresh leaves, sometimes mixed with the rhizome of ginger, are applied as an enema to treat haemorrhoids. Plant sap is taken to treat gastrointestinal disorders including colic and diarrhoea, ovarian complaints and gonorrhoea. Leaf sap is used as ear drops to treat otitis. A vapour bath with boiled leaf sap is taken to treat rheumatism. The stems are made into bows.
Wood-anatomical description (IAWA hardwood codes):
Growth rings: 2: growth ring boundaries indistinct or absent. Vessels: 5: wood diffuse-porous; 9: vessels exclusively solitary (90% or more); 12: solitary vessel outline angular; 14: scalariform perforation plates; 17: scalariform perforation plates with 20–40 bars; 18: scalariform perforation plates with ≥ 40 bars; 21: intervessel pits opposite; (24: intervessel pits minute (≤ 4 μm)); 25: intervessel pits small (4–7 μm); 30: vessel-ray pits with distinct borders; similar to intervessel pits in size and shape throughout the ray cell; 41: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 50–100 μm; 48: 20–40 vessels per square millimetre. Tracheids and fibres: 60: vascular/vasicentric tracheids present; (61: fibres with simple to minutely bordered pits); (62: fibres with distinctly bordered pits); (63: fibre pits common in both radial and tangential walls); 66: non-septate fibres present; 70: fibres very thick-walled. Axial parenchyma: 76: axial parenchyma diffuse; 77: axial parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates; 78: axial parenchyma scanty paratracheal; 91: two cells per parenchyma strand; 92: four (3–4) cells per parenchyma strand; 93: eight (5–8) cells per parenchyma strand; 94: over eight cells per parenchyma strand. Rays: 98: larger rays commonly 4- to 10-seriate; 102: ray height > 1 mm; 107: body ray cells procumbent with mostly 2–4 rows of upright and/or square marginal cells; (108: body ray cells procumbent with over 4 rows of upright and/or square marginal cells); 110: sheath cells present; 115: 4–12 rays per mm. Mineral inclusions: 136: prismatic crystals present; 137: prismatic crystals in upright and/or square ray cells; 138: prismatic crystals in procumbent ray cells; 142: prismatic crystals in chambered axial parenchyma cells.
(P. Ng’andwe, H. Beeckman & P.E. Gasson)
Growth and development
When Microdesmis puberula is cut, it resprouts profusely from the base.
Microdesmis puberula occurs in primary and secondary forest and at forest edges, also in fallow land, from sea-level up to 1100 m altitude.
Propagation and planting
Microdesmis puberula may germinate massively in fallow land. Seed dispersal is ensured mainly by monkeys.
Diseases and pests
Male inflorescences are sometimes galled and become panicle-like; male flowers can be deformed into scabs.
As a common undergrowth species, Microdesmis puberula is not at risk of genetic erosion.
Despite the extensive use of Microdesmis puberula as a medicinal plant, virtually nothing is known about its chemical composition or pharmacology, and research is warranted. Recent experiments to evaluate the effect of supplementing diets of chickens with Microdesmis puberula leaves showed contradictory results, possibly due to certain chemical compounds. As Microdesmis puberula and Microdesmis keayana resemble each other morphologically and in their medicinal uses, taxonomical studies are warranted.
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Sources of illustration
• Carter, S. & Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1988. Euphorbiaceae (part 2). In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. pp. 409–597.
Correct citation of this article:
Dounias, E., 2008. Microdesmis puberula Hook.f. ex Planch. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
1, branch with male flowers; 2, fruit.
Redrawn and adapted by Achmad Satiri Nurhaman
wood in transverse section
wood in radial section
wood in tangential section