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Piper umbellatum L.

Sp. pl. 1: 30 (1753).
Chromosome number
2n = 24, 26, 28
Piper subpeltatum Willd. (1797), Pothomorphe subpeltata (Willd.) Miq. (1840), Pothomorphe umbellata (L.) Miq. (1840).
Vernacular names
Cow-foot leaf (En). Bois d’anisette, grand baume (Fr). Algodãozinho do campo, pariparoba (Po). Mtunda ya mbwa (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Piper umbellatum originates from tropical America, and has been introduced and widely naturalized throughout the tropics, including mainland tropical Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands. In mainland Africa it occurs from Guinea and Sierra Leone east to Ethiopia and south to Angola and Mozambique.
In tropical Africa and elsewhere in the tropics the leaves of Piper umbellatum are widely used as an emollient, vulnerary and antiseptic. They are employed in poultices on swellings, boils and burns; the juice is taken as an emmenagogue, galactagogue and diuretic, or used as ear drops against earache. A decoction of the leaves or roots is taken to relieve jaundice, malaria, urinary and kidney problems, syphilis and gonorrhoea, leucorrhoea, menstrual problems and stomach-ache, and is also applied on wounds and inflamed tumours. The root is considered stimulant, diuretic and to promote the flow of bile. A root decoction is used as a powerful digestive and as a treatment for dyspepsia, constipation and stomach-ache. Throughout Africa, the leaves are used in massages for migraine and other forms of headache, and in decoction as a wash for feverish children. In Liberia an infusion of young ground leaves is taken to treat severe colic. In Côte d’Ivoire and Central Africa the aerial parts are commonly given to women to regulate menses and prevent abortion; as an enema the crushed leaves are applied to treat rectal prolapse. In Ghana the leaf pulp or roots are macerated in alcohol and taken to treat rheumatism. In Cameroon a leaf decoction is given to treat hypertension and toothache. The plant is used to expel tapeworms, e.g. in Guinea, whereas in DR Congo the leaves are considered a vermifuge. In the Central African Republic pounded twigs and seeds mixed with salt are taken against intestinal worms and in Congo suppositories of the leaves are given against pinworms. In Madagascar the leaves are applied in friction to relieve rheumatic pain. In Brazil Piper umbellatum is much used in baths to subdue oedema and uterine complaints. In Peninsular Malaysia the fruits are chewed with betel leaves (Piper betle L.) to treat cough. In the Philippines the juice of the leaves is applied in the eyes against conjunctivitis. In Indo-China the leaves and fruits are used to treat pain in the kidneys, oedema, anaemia and colic. In south-western Côte d’Ivoire, South-East Asia and South America Piper umbellatum is an ingredient of an arrow poison. In Ghana the plant is said to attract fish and is used in bait mixtures in game traps. It is a fetish for many peoples, e.g. in Gabon, where it is used for provoking compassion.
In many parts of the tropics the young leaves and inflorescences are eaten raw, steamed or boiled as a vegetable or condiment with fish or meat and rice. In Sierra Leone the leaves are a favourite leafy vegetable, eaten slightly cooked or minced with fish or meat. The Temne people use the basal part of the stem, which sometimes has a thick and corky bark, as a condiment with rice or palm oil sauce. In the Central African Republic the stem-pith and the inflorescence enter in the preparation of a mucilaginous condiment. In tropical Asia the sweet, ripe fruits are eaten as a delicacy.
Production and international trade
Piper umbellatum is only traded locally.
The essential oil from the aerial parts of Piper umbellatum has a high content of β-pinene (27%), α-pinene (18%), (E)-nerolidol (12%) and β-caryophyllene (10%). Other compounds found include safrole, germacrene-D, β-cadinene, δ-cadinene and bicyclogermacrene. The roots and aerial parts contain 4-nerolidylcatechol, a powerful antioxidant with chemopreventative potential. This may explain the traditional use of Piper umbellatum in the treatment of skin cancer. In mice 4-nerolidylcatechol inhibits the effect of the myotoxic phospholipase venoms of several lancehead vipers (Bothrops spp.); however, the protective effect is slow, while the venoms act very fast. Therefore, 4-nerolidylcatechol is not a candidate antivenom, but may provide a lead structure to develop novel inhibitors.
A methanol extract of the leaves showed significant anti-malarial activity against Plasmodium falciparum in vitro. Subsequently, a crude ethanol extract of the leaves of Piper umbellatum was administered orally and subcutaneously to Plasmodium berghei-infected mice, and showed strong antimalarial activity, significantly reducing the level of parasites in a dose-dependent manner. An aqueous extract of the aerial parts administered intraperitoneally to rats caused a decrease in watchfulness for 48 hours, together with a fall of body temperature, a decrease of spontaneous motor activity and an increase of analgesic activity. A water-ethanol extract showed anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects in mouse and rat models.
The acrid compounds of the leaves and roots are irritant in high doses and cause severe inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. They cause burning, salivation, stomatitis, vomiting, severe abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Perennial herb or scrambling shrub up to 4 m tall, much-branched from near the base; stems from a woody rootstock, succulent, ribbed, rooting at the nodes. Leaves alternate, simple and entire; stipules absent; petiole 6.5–30 cm long, sheathing basally; blade almost circular to kidney-shaped, 5–36(–40) cm × 4.5–37(–42) cm, base deeply cordate, apex shortly acuminate to rounded, fairly thin, dark green above, greyish underneath, glandular black punctate, sparsely to densely hairy on the veins above and below, palmately veined with 11–15 veins. Inflorescence an axillary or leaf-opposed spike 5.5–15 cm long, 2–8 together in false umbels; peduncle 3–12 cm long; bracts on peduncle narrow, 6–8 mm long, white, caducous, floral bracts triangular to rounded, up to 1 mm wide, margins hairy, white, cream or yellow. Flowers minute, bisexual, sessile; perianth absent; stamens 2; ovary superior, 1-celled, stigmas 3. Fruit a 3-angled fleshy drupe 0.5–1 mm × c. 0.5 mm, brownish, 1-seeded. Seed globose, minute.
Other botanical information
Estimates of the number of species included in Piper range from 1400 to more than 2000; about 15 species are native or naturalized in tropical Africa. Most species are primarily used as a spice, but also have medicinal uses. The leaves and stems of Piper sylvestre Lam., which occurs in India, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean islands, are chewed in Madagascar to make the teeth blackish or reddish, to protect them from caries. A leaf infusion is taken to prevent epileptic attacks. The fruits are used as a condiment. In Mauritius tea made from the leaves is taken to treat fever and haematuria, and as a diuretic and depurative.
Growth and development
Piper umbellatum may flower throughout the year when enough water is available.
Piper umbellatum occurs in the undergrowth of evergreen rainforest, but also in clearings and on river banks; it always occurs in damp localities, up to 1800(–2100) m altitude. It is a common weed of plantations; in cacao farms in Ghana and in oil-palm plantations in Cameroon it can be troublesome.
Propagation and planting
Piper umbellatum is propagated by seed. The seeds show dormancy, which can be broken by direct sunlight.
Piper umbellatum is only occasionally cultivated, mostly in home gardens. Production methods of 4-nerolidylcatechol based on in-vitro cultivation of parts of Piper umbellatum are being developed.
The leaves, fruits and roots of Piper umbellatum are harvested whenever needed, usually from the wild.
Handling after harvest
Piper umbellatum is mainly used fresh.
Genetic resources
Piper umbellatum is very widely distributed and not in danger of genetic erosion.
4-Nerolidylcatechol is an anti-oxidant with several promising pharmacological activities. It may also provide information leads for effective antivenoms to treat viper bites. Its widespread and common use in traditional medicine warrants further research to fully evaluate its potential as an analgesic and wound-healing plant, and also its antimalarial properties.
Major references
• Desmarchelier, C., Barros, S., Repetto, M., Ribeiro Latorre, L., Kato, M., Coussio, J. & Ciccia, G., 1997. 4-Nerolidylcatechol from Pothomorphe spp. scavenges peroxyl radicals and inhibits Fe(II)-dependant DNA damage. Planta Medica 63(6): 561–563.
• Diniz, M.A., 1997. Piperaceae. In: Pope, G.V. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 9, part 2. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 24–37.
• Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1997. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 3. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 471 pp.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
• Núñez, V., Castro, V., Murillo, R., Ponce-Soto, L.A., Merfort, I. & Lomonte, B., 2005. Inhibitory effects of Piper umbellatum and Piper peltatum extracts towards myotoxic phospholipases A2 from Bothrops snake venoms: isolation of 4-nerolidylcatechol as active principle. Phytochemistry 66: 1017–1025.
• Perazzo, F.F., Souza, G.H.B., Cardoso, L.G.V., Carvalho, J.C.T., Nanayakkara, N.P.D. & Bastos, J.K., 2005. Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of water-ethanolic extract from Pothomorphe umbellata (Piperaceae) aerial parts. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 99: 215–220.
• Pino, J.A., Marbot, R., Fuentes, V., Payo, A., Chao, D. & Herrera, P., 2005. Aromatic plants from western Cuba. II. Composition of leaf oil of Potomorphe umbellata (L.) Miq. and Agerantina havanensis (H.B.K.) R. M. Kinget. Journal of Essential Oil Research 17(5): 572–574.
• Ropke, C.D., da Silva, V.V., Kera, C.Z., Miranda, D.V., de Almeida, R.L., Sawada, T.C.H. & Barros, S.B.M., 2006. In vitro and in vivo inhibition of skin matrix metalloproteinases by Pothomorphe umbellata root extract. Photochemistry and Photobiology 82: 439–442.
• Schmelzer, G.H., 2001. Piper umbellatum L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 428–430.
• Verdcourt, B., 1996. Piperaceae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 24 pp.
Other references
• Adami, Y.L., Milhous, W., Ribeiro, D.C.T. & Ferreira da Cruz, M.F., 1998. In vitro antimalarial activity of crude extracts of Pothomorphe peltata and P. umbellata (Piperaceae). Tropical Medicine Nagasaki 40(2): 91–94.
• Agbor, G.A., Oben, J.E., Ngogang, J.Y., Xinxing, C. & Vinson, J.A., 2005. Antioxidant capacity of some herbs/spices from Cameroon: a comparative study of two methods. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53(17): 6819–6824.
• Balle, S., 1948. Piperaceae. In: Robyns, W., Staner, P., De Wildeman, E., Germain, R., Gilbert, G., Hauman, L., Homès, M., Lebrun, J., Louis, J., Vanden Abeele, M. & Boutique, R. (Editors). Flore du Congo belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Spermatophytes. Volume 1. Institut National pour l’Étude Agronomique du Congo belge, Brussels, Belgium. pp. 15–27.
• Bioka, D. & Abena, A., 1990. Profile psychopharmacologique d’un extrait aqueux de Piper umbellatum. Encephale 16(3): 205–208.
• Boiteau, P., Boiteau, M. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1999. Dictionnaire des noms malgaches de végétaux. 4 Volumes + Index des noms scientifiques avec leurs équivalents malgaches. Editions Alzieu, Grenoble, France.
• Gilbert, M.G., 2000. Piperaceae (including Peperomiaceae). In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse, Demissew Sebsebe & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 2, part 1. Magnoliaceae to Flacourtiaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 59–64.
• Gurib-Fakim, A., 1994. Constituents of the essential oils from Piper sylvestre growing in Mauritius. Planta Medica 60(4): 376–377.
• Gurib-Fakim, A., Sewraj, M., Guého, J. & Dulloo, E., 1993. Medical ethnobotany of some weeds of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 39(3): 177–185.
• Hammer, M.L. & Johns, E.A., 1993. Tapping an Amazonian plethora: four medicinal plants of Marajo Island, Para (Brazil). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 40(1): 53–75.
• Keay, R.W.J., 1954. Piperaceae. In: Keay, R.W.J. (Editor). Flora of West Tropical Africa. Volume 1, part 1. 2nd Edition. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 81–84.
• Kijjoa, A., Giesbrecht, A.M., Akisue, M.K., Gottlieb, O.R. & Gottlieb, H.E., 1980. 4-Nerolidyl-catechol from Potomorphe umbellata. Planta Medica 39(1): 85–87.
• Luz, A.I.R., Da Silva, J.D., Zoghbi, M.G.B., Andrade, E.H.A., Da Silva, M.H.L. & Maia, J.G.S., 1999. Volatile constituents of Brazilian Piperaceae, part 5. The oils of Pothomorphe umbellata and P. peltata. Journal of Essential Oil Research 11(4): 479–481.
• Martins, A.P., Salgueiro, L., Vila, R., Tomi, F., Cañigueral, S., Casanova, J., Proença Da Cunha, A. & Adzet, P., 1998. Essential oils from four Piper species. Phytochemistry 49: 2019–2023.
• Morton, J.F., 1981. Atlas of medicinal plants of Middle America. Bahamas to Yucatan. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield IL, United States. 1420 pp.
• Najib Nik a Rahman, N., Furuta, T., Kojima, S., Takane, K. & Ali Mohd, M, 1999. Antimalarial activity of extracts of Malaysian medicinal plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 64(3): 249–254.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 1996. African ethnobotany: poisons and drugs. Chapman & Hall, London, United Kingdom. 941 pp.
• Noumi, E., Houngue, F. & Lontsi, D., 1999. Traditional medicines in primary health care: plants used for the treatment of hypertension in Bafia, Cameroon. Fitoterapia 70: 134–139.
• Viana, V.R.C., Tavares, E.S. & Mattos, H., 2000. Propagação “in vitro” de Potomorphe umbellata para a obtenção de clones produtores de 4-nerolidilcatecol. Revista Brasileira de Farmácia 81(1/2): 43–47.
Sources of illustration
• Schmelzer, G.H., 2001. Piper umbellatum L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 428–430.
M. Domis
Tobias Asserlaan 104, 5056VD Berkel-Enschot, Netherlands
L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
Based on PROSEA 12(2): ‘Medicinal and poisonous plants 2’.

G.H. Schmelzer
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
A. Gurib-Fakim
Faculty of Science, University of Mauritius, Réduit, Mauritius
Associate editors
C.H. Bosch
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
M.S.J. Simmonds
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB, United Kingdom
R. Arroo
Leicester School of Pharmacy, Natural Products Research, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, United Kingdom
A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
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
Photo editor
A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
Domis, M. & Oyen, L.P.A., 2008. Piper umbellatum L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map naturalized

1, flowering stem; 2, pistil and stamens.
Source: PROSEA

plant habit
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plant habit

flowering plant
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