Prota 2: Vegetables/Légumes
Hort. bot. vindob. 3: 48, t. 93 (1777).
2n = 54
Rumex schimperi Meisn. (1856).
Sorrel, dock, Spanish rhubarb (En). Oseille d’Abyssinie, oseille sango, surelle (Fr). Azedinha brava (Po). Mchachu, mchumvichumvi (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Rumex abyssinicus is widespread in tropical Africa, most commonly in the highlands, particularly in central and eastern Africa, and Madagascar.
The tender shoots and leaves of Rumex abyssinicus are edible and widely used as a vegetable. They have an acid taste and are eaten fresh or cooked, alone or together with other vegetables. In Tanzania the stem is chewed like sugar cane for its sweetness and the leaves are eaten as an acidic snack by herdsmen, farmers and children. The rhizomes yield a yellow and red dye. The dye is used in Ethiopia in butter as a condiment, to give it a rich yellow colour and as protection against rancidness. The dye is also used to impart a red colour to the feet and hands of women. In Uganda the plant is occasionally cultivated to obtain the red dye for colouring wickerwork and mats of grass and raffia, in Rwanda to obtain the yellow dye. The plant is browsed by livestock.
Sap of the aerial parts is applied as a treatment for pneumonia and cough in eastern Africa. In Ethiopia the plant is used to treat jaundice and related liver diseases, scrofula, stomach-ache, neckache and low blood pressure, and as a wound dressing, haemostatic and depurative; the rhizome is used as a taenifuge. In DR Congo a leaf -compress is applied to areas of rheumatism, an infusion is taken as a purgative and root sap is applied against scabies. In Tanzania the stem and rhizome are believed to act as a galactagogue. The whole plant, fresh or dried, is ground up in Tanzania and placed on sores and parts affected by scabies. An extract of the rhizome is taken to control mild forms of diabetes in eastern Africa and, with water, to cure stomach-ache. Pounded rhizomes and roots are applied on wounds and are also considered to have purgative properties. In Rwanda and Tanzania crushed plants are used to scour clean cooking pots blackened over the fire and to remove grease.
There is no information on the nutritional composition, but it is probably comparable to garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa L.), which is widespread in temperate regions. The following constituents have been found in Rumex abyssinicus: oxalic acid, chrysophanic acid, chrysophanol, emodine and physcion. Several substances are toxic, e.g. chrysophanic acid. The roots possess antibacterial activity against Streptococcus pyogenes (causing several dangerous infections and diseases) and anti-inflammatory activity by inhibiting the synthesis of prostaglandin (a substance produced by invaders counteracting defensive activities of the body). Rumex abyssinicus has strong antiviral activity against Coxsackie virus (causing a disease resembling poliomyelitis) and influenza A virus. In vitro it demonstrated proliferation of murine macrophage cells, suggesting that it may have a role in improving the immune system of the body and in the process of wound healing (promoting regeneration of epithelial cells).
Very stout perennial herb up to 4 m tall, with fleshy rhizome and glabrous, red-green, grooved stem up to 3 cm in diameter at base. Leaves alternate, simple; ocrea funnel-shaped, 2–2.5 cm long, brown, easily torn; petiole often as long as the blade; blade triangular-hastate, basal leaves up to 25 cm × 20 cm with palmate venation, stem leaves much smaller. Inflorescence a large and richly branched, leafless panicle up to 50 cm long, with flowers in small clusters. Flowers usually bisexual; pedicel slender, up to 5 mm long; tepals 6, outer 3 ovate, 1.5 mm long, reflexed in fruit, brown, membranous, inner 3 cordate, 1–1.5 mm long during flowering, enlarging in fruit up to 6 mm long, green with red margins and distinct reticulate veins, red-brown in fruit. Fruit a sharply trigonous nut 2–4 mm long, shiny pale to dark brown.
Rumex comprises about 200 species, many originating from northern temperate regions. Rumex abyssinicus is variable, particularly in the leaves, and numerous varieties have been distinguished, but these are of little practical value because of many intermediates.
Rumex abyssinicus is a common weed in fields and plantations. It also occurs along paths and water, in secondary scrub, grassland and margins of rain forest, up to 3300 m altitude. In Tanzania it thrives on volcanic soils and sandy loams, where annual rainfall is 1100–2200 mm.
Rumex abyssinicus is usually collected from the wild. As a weed it is often tolerated in fields and plantations. In Gabon, DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda it is cultivated as a vegetable or as a dye producer. It can be propagated by seeds and after establishment by division. For optimum leaf production the inflorescences should be removed. Leaves are usually collected in the rainy season whenever needed.
Genetic resources and breeding
Rumex abyssinicus is rather widespread and not in danger of genetic erosion. A large germplasm collection is kept in Germany (Gatersleben).
Rumex abyssinicus will remain locally an important vegetable from the wild. Its nutritive and medicinal properties deserve better investigation, also because related plants have been used in treating schistosomiasis.
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Correct citation of this article:
Jansen, P.C.M., 2004. Rumex abyssinicus Jacq. In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.