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Philenoptera cyanescens (Schumach. & Thonn.) Roberty

Bull. Inst. Franç. Afr. Noire, Sér. A, 16(2): 354 (1954).
Papilionaceae (Leguminosae - Papilionoideae, Fabaceae)
Chromosome number
2n = 22
Lonchocarpus cyanescens (Schumach. & Thonn.) Benth. (1860).
Vernacular names
Gara, West African wild indigo, Yoruba indigo (En). Gara, liane-indigo (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Philenoptera cyanescens is widespread in western Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea (Bioko). It is also cultivated, particularly in Sierra Leone and Ghana, and occasionally elsewhere in the tropics.
All aerial parts of Philenoptera cyanescens yield an indigo dye used in West Africa at least since the 11th century. It is still used to dye blue to blue-black cotton cloth, bark cloth (formerly), raffia and other vegetable fibres, leather, hair and wood carvings. This dyeing is still practised in many countries. It is very popular among the Baoulé dyers of central Côte d’Ivoire. In south-western Nigeria, Yoruba women use the plant, locally called ‘elu’, as their source of indigo dye in the art of making ‘adire cloth’, a decorative technique similar to batik (a method of dyeing a fabric by which the parts of the fabric not intended to be dyed are covered with removable wax), creating pale blue patterns on a dark blue ground. The dye is also very important in the cottage industry in Sierra Leone where ‘gara cloth’ is made. ‘Gara’ is the Madinka word for the traditional indigo dye found in many types of textiles of Sierra Leone. The source of this dye is the ‘gara’ leaf obtained from Philenoptera cyanescens. At present the word ‘gara’ is used both for the dyeing process (using both synthetic and natural dyes) and for the dyed products. It is believed that in the middle of the 19th century Susu and Madinka traders from Guinea, who came to settle in Kabala in the northern province of Sierra Leone, encouraged the native Temne women to develop gara dyeing. Traditionally woven cloth known as ‘country cloth’ dyed with gara was used by chiefs for ceremonial dresses, bridal dowry, burial clothes, court fines and gifts to important visitors. At present gara is worn by a much wider circle of people for aesthetic and cultural reasons. It is used for daily and ceremonial uniforms in some schools and offices. In the hotel industry gara is used widely as napkins, tablecloths, bedspreads, curtains and as backdrop for conference halls and lounges. Philenoptera cyanescens still plays an important role in gara dyeing.
Leaves chewed with potash stain the teeth black. In Senegal the leaves are used as a condiment eaten with couscous. Philenoptera cyanescens is also used in traditional medicine. The leaves and roots are applied as a poultice or dressing to treat skin diseases and ulcers; in Ghana it is believed that the roots are more effective. In Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau leaves and roots have been considered as a possible cure for leprosy. Leaves and bark are used as a laxative. In Benin leaf sap is drunk against intestinal disorders and dysentery. A decoction of leafy twigs and roots is given to women during or after childbirth and is also taken as an aphrodisiac. In Nigeria this decoction is used to treat arthritic conditions, venereal diseases and diarrhoea. Ground root is applied to yaws and washing with water containing powdered root helps to cure sores.
Production and international trade
Formerly there was an export trade of dried Philenoptera cyanescens plant material to Europe, e.g. from Liberia. At present about 3000 people in Sierra Leone are engaged in gara production and trade and it has gained the status of a national identity symbol. Gara cloth, in addition to being used locally, is exported to the United States, United Kingdom and many African countries, but production statistics are not available.
The leaves contain 0.1–0.3% of precursors of indoxyl and can yield an indigo dyestuff which contains up to 43% indigotin. During the dyeing process, in addition to indigotin and indirubin, a series of yellow flavonoid colorants such as quercetin, a quercetin glycoside, kaempferol and rhamnetin also become attached to the fibre, but they gradually disappear through wearing of the cloth, exposure to the sun and repeated washing. This loss of secondary compounds makes it difficult to determine which plant source has been used for the indigo dye in ancient African textiles: Indigofera or Philenoptera. In Ghana the fruits are believed to yield a better dye than the leaves. The anti-inflammatory activity of Philenoptera cyanescens has been confirmed by animal tests and is attributed to the presence of oleanane derivatives and glycyrrhetinic acid. A triterpene component of the plant has been found active against arthritis.
Adulterations and substitutes
Several Indigofera spp. also yield indigo and are used similarly.
Deciduous scandent shrub up to 4 m tall (in cultivation usually up to 2.5 m) or liana up to 20 m long; bark grey to very pale brown, slash yellowish; branchlets silky when young. Leaves alternate, imparipinnately compound with 3–5 pairs of opposite leaflets, often drying bluish; stipules caducous; petiole 5–15 cm long, thickened at base; stipels filiform, early falling; petiolule 4–6 mm long; leaflets elliptical to ovate, 8–16 cm × 4–8 cm, base rounded to cuneate, apex usually pointed, margin entire, with 6–12 pairs of lateral veins, basal leaflets usually smaller than the other ones and the terminal leaflet largest. Inflorescence a terminal or axillary panicle up to 90 cm long, with short lateral branches. Flowers bisexual, papilionaceous; pedicel up to 2 mm long; calyx 3–4 mm long with pitcher-like tube and short teeth; corolla up to 1 cm long, white with blue markings to purplish or dark blue, glabrous, sweet scented; stamens 10, united into a tube; ovary superior, shortly stalked, 1-celled, style curved, stigma minute. Fruit a flat, more or less oblong pod 10–15 cm × 3–4 cm, pointed at both ends, with reticulate venation particularly prominent above seeds, long persisting on the plant, often drying bluish, 1– 5-seeded. Seeds oblong to kidney-shaped, laterally flattened.
Other botanical information
Philenoptera belongs to the tribe Millettieae and comprises 12 species confined to Africa and Madagascar. Formerly these species were grouped in Lonchocarpus, a genus now considered to be confined to tropical America, except Lonchocarpus sericeus (Poir.) Humb., Bonpl. & Kunth, which occurs in tropical America and Africa. Lonchocarpus differs in its inflorescences with flowers grouped in pairs or fascicles (singly in Philenoptera), hairy corolla and often truncate calyx.
Growth and development
Flowering is at the beginning of the rainy season, more or less at the same time when new leaves appear.
Philenoptera cyanescens is found in coastal, riverine and fringing evergreen forest and thicket, and in wooded grassland and scrub vegetation, from sea-level up to 400 m altitude.
Young, tender leafy twigs are collected whenever needed. It is believed that the best time for harvesting is just before flowering.
Handling after harvest
Leaves and young shoots are bruised to a pulp and made up into balls about 10–12 cm in diameter, called ‘arô’ in Yoruba. These balls are dried in the sun and sold on markets. Sometimes only dry broken leaves and twigs are sold, not pulped into balls. The dye bath is prepared by soaking crushed balls in hot water, the number of balls depending on the desired intensity of the blue colour. Yoruba women in south-western Nigeria use from 50 balls for a bright blue up to 150 for a blue-black colour. The necessary alkalinity is obtained by adding lye from wood-ash. The solution is left to ferment for 6–8 days and the dye bath is then usually ready for the cloth to be steeped in it. The Wolof people in Senegal, who use a similar procedure, stimulate the fermentation process by adding some powdered root bark of Morinda geminata DC. (‘vanda’) which darkens the blue obtained and gives a reddish shine. A wide range of blue tones can be obtained depending on the number of dippings given to the cloth. In the Yoruba art of ‘adire eleko’, the cloth is patterned by applying a starch resist either free-hand with a comb or through a metal stencil. The starch paste used is made from the local glutinous cassava flour, always conveniently to hand as it is a common cooking ingredient. Then the cloth is folded gently and dipped into the indigo vat. It is kept still in it for about 3 minutes. Then the cloth is lifted out, hung up to drain and aired to help the indigo colour to develop on the cloth. It is usually folded again and dipped several times to produce pale blue patterns on a dark blue ground. Special patterns are reserved for ceremonial dresses of officials. In Sierra Leone two containers of 200 l are used to prepare an indigo vat, which is locally called ‘setting the drum’. Gara leaves are put in the first drum and the second one is filled with the barks of the roots of Morinda geminata DC. and of the stems of Jatropha curcas L. and Mangifera indica L. The amount of Morinda root bark should be twice that of the other barks. The second drum is then filled with water, wood-ash lye or caustic soda is added, and the mixture is boiled for 6 hours. The resulting dark brown, hot liquid is poured on the gara leaves in the first drum and left to stand for 3 days. The resulting dye bath is dark green and ready for use. Nowadays, most dyers add some synthetic indigo at this stage and wait again until it is dissolved and reduced in the gara fermentation ‘drum’. Dyeing itself is a multi-stage process, the number of stages depending on the techniques used for creating the design. If the design is waxed on to the fabric (using the batik technique) a cold dye bath is used. The fabric is first dipped into water before putting it into the dye bath to ensure an even colour. It is then left to soak (from 30 minutes up to 2 days) until the desired depth of colour is obtained. After being lifted out of the dye bath, the fabric is hung or spread out to dry to ensure complete oxidation, absorption and fixing of the dye. After drying, the fabric is washed with cold water several times until the water runs clear. It is then starched using cooked cassava starch and left to dry in the sun. When dried, the fabric is folded and beaten by a process known as calendering (‘tapraka’) to smoothen out all creases and give it a sheen and a permanent press finish.
Genetic resources
Philenoptera cyanescens is widespread and not in danger of genetic erosion. In regions where it is much used and not cultivated it can become rare.
Higher yielding cultivars are relatively easy to obtain by mass selection because of available great differences, but no breeding programmes are known to exist.
Philenoptera cyanescens as source of the important gara dye in the cottage industry in Sierra Leone and as the indigo source in the ‘adire’ art of Yoruba in Nigeria is likely to gain more importance because of increasing popularity of the dyed products. Research for optimum cultivation methods and breeding of higher yielding cultivars is recommended.
Major references
• Balfour-Paul, J., 1998. Indigo. British Museum Press, London, United Kingdom. 264 pp.
• Barbour, J. & Simmonds, D., 1971. Adire cloth in Nigeria. Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. 104 pp.
• Burkill, H.M., 1995. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 3, Families J–L. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 857 pp.
• Cardon, D., 2003. Le monde des teintures naturelles. Belin, Paris, France. 586 pp.
• Polakoff, C., 1980. Into indigo - African textiles and dyeing techniques. Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, United States. 243 pp.
• Schrire, B.D., 2000. A synopsis of the genus Philenoptera (Leguminosae - Millettieae) from Africa and Madagascar. Kew Bulletin 55: 81–94.
• Spencer, S., 1996. Developing an understanding of science from the Sierra Leonean traditional gara dyeing process. [Internet] Paper presented at the Gender and Science and Technology Association Conference, GASAT 8, January 1996, Ahmedabad, India. Accessed November 2004.
Other references
• Berhaut, J., 1976. Flore illustrée du Sénégal. Dicotylédones. Volume 5. Légumineuses Papilionacées. Gouvernement du Sénégal, Ministère du Développement Rural et de l’Hydraulique, Direction des Eaux et Forêts, Dakar, Senegal. 658 pp.
• Hepper, F.N., 1958. Papilionaceae. In: Keay, R.W.J. (Editor). Flora of West Tropical Africa. Volume 1, part 2. 2nd Edition. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 505–587.
• Irvine, F.R., 1961. Woody plants of Ghana, with special reference to their uses. Oxford University Press, London, United Kingdom. 868 pp.
• Jukema, J., Wulijarni-Soetjipto, N., Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Hildebrand, J.W., 1991. Minor dye and tannin-producing plants. In: Lemmens, R.H.M.J. & Wulijarni-Soetjipto, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 3. Dye and tannin producing plants. Pudoc, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 132–142.
• Miège, J., 1992. Couleurs, teintures et plantes tinctoriales en Afrique occidentale. Bulletin du Centre Genevois d’Anthropologie 3: 115–131.
Sources of illustration
• Hepper, F.N., 1958. Papilionaceae. In: Keay, R.W.J. (Editor). Flora of West Tropical Africa. Volume 1, part 2. 2nd Edition. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 505–587.
D. Cardon
CNRS, CIHAM-UMR 5648, 18, quai Claude-Bernard, 69365 Lyon, Cedex 07, France
P.C.M. Jansen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

P.C.M. Jansen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
D. Cardon
CNRS, CIHAM-UMR 5648, 18, quai Claude-Bernard, 69365 Lyon, Cedex 07, France
General editors
R.H.M.J. Lemmens
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
Iskak Syamsudin
PROSEA Network Office, P.O. Box 332, Bogor 16122, Indonesia

Correct citation of this article:
Cardon, D. & Jansen, P.C.M., 2005. Philenoptera cyanescens (Schumach. & Thonn.) Roberty In: Jansen, P.C.M. & Cardon, D. (Editors). PROTA 3: Dyes and tannins/Colorants et tanins. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map wild

1, part of flowering branch; 2, fruit
Redrawn and adapted by Iskak Syamsudin