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Strychnos henningsii Gilg

Bot. Jahrb. Syst. 17: 569 (1893).
Vernacular names
Red bitterberry (En).
Origin and geographic distribution
Strychnos henningsii occurs from DR Congo east to Ethiopia and south to Angola and South Africa. It also occurs in Madagascar.
The Maasai and Batemi peoples in Tanzania add the plant to milk and meat-based soups as a general tonic. In Kenya a decoction of the branches in soup is taken to treat rheumatism and gynaecological complaints; a root decoction is taken to treat chest pain and internal injuries. A stem decoction is taken to treat malaria. In Kenya and Tanzania fresh roots are chewed to treat snakebites. In Tanzania pounded roots are taken in food to treat hookworm infections. In South Africa a bark extract is taken in small doses to treat colic, stomach-ache, dizziness and as a purgative and anthelminthic. The powdered bark in water is taken to treat nausea. A bark decoction is given to children to treat internal worms and it is given to cattle to treat diarrhoea and heartwater caused by the rickettsial parasite, Cowdria ruminantium. In Madagascar the stem bark and roots are used to poison rats and mice, and sometimes also for criminal purposes.
In Kenya the wood is used to make arrow shafts and poles for building huts and cattle enclosures.
Strychnos henningsii is rich in monomeric indole alkaloids of the tsilanine, spermostrychnine, diaboline and retuline classes. The stem bark contains alkaloids of the tsilanine class (holstiine, holstiline and rindline), spermostrychnine class, diaboline class and retuline class. The leaves and root bark contain alkaloids of the tsilanine class, retuline class and spermostrychnine class. The twigs contain alkaloids of the retuline class.
Stem bark alkaloids of Strychnos henningsii have shown convulsive, hypotensive and cardiac depressant activities, due to their effect on the central nervous system (CNS), and have anti-cancer potential. Holstiine and holstiline showed weak to moderate antimalarial activity against chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium falciparum but did not show antiamoebic activity. Extracts of a mixture of stem and root bark showed no muscle-relaxant or convulsive activity. Some alkaloids isolated from Strychnos henningsii demonstrated additional pharmacological activities. In-vivo tests showed an anti-inflammatory action for retuline on rat paw oedema, an analgesic action for isoretuline, acetylisoretuline and desacetylisoretuline in mice and an antispasmodic action for isoretuline and O-acetylisoretuline in guinea-pigs.
Shrub or small tree up to 10(–20) m tall, with spreading rounded crown; bole up to 50 cm in diameter; bark pale grey to pale brown, rough; branchlets pale to medium brown or yellowish, conspicuously grooved, glabrous. Leaves opposite, simple and entire; stipules absent; petiole 1–3 mm long, glabrous; blade elliptical to oblong or ovate, 2–6(–10) cm × 1–3(–6) cm, base cuneate to rounded, apex rounded to acuminate, glabrous, 3-veined from the base. Inflorescence an axillary and sometimes terminal congested thyrse 1–2 cm long, few- to many-flowered. Flowers bisexual, regular, 5-merous, fragrant, sessile; sepals fused at base, almost orbicular, up to 1.5 mm long; corolla tube up to 1.5 mm long, lobes triangular to ovate, 2–2.5 mm long, acute, spreading, glabrous outside, inside usually hairy at the base, greenish yellow, creamy or white; stamens inserted at the mouth of the corolla tube, just exserted; ovary superior, globose or depressed globose, 1–1.5 mm long, glabrous, 2-celled, style c. 1 mm long, stigma head-shaped. Fruit an ellipsoid berry c. 2 cm × 1 cm, yellow, orange or red, 1-seeded. Seed ellipsoid, 8–12 mm × 5–7 mm × 5–7 mm, glabrous, minutely pitted, with a deep closed groove at one side.
Strychnos comprises about 200 species: about 60 species in Asia, 65 in America and 75 in Africa. Strychnos henningsii belongs to the section Breviflorae.
Strychnos henningsii occurs in woodland and open forest, from sea-level up to 2000 m altitude.
Genetic resources and breeding
Strychnos henningsii is widely distributed in a large part of Africa and is not in danger of genetic erosion, although local overexploitation has caused Strychnos henningsii to become rare in some regions, e.g. the Machakos District, Kenya.
Strychnos henningsii contains many indole alkaloids and several of them show pharmacological activity. Further study of the cardiac and anti-cancer potential of the alkaloids and the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of the retuline class alkaloids seems warranted.
Major references
• Kareru, P.G., Kenji, G.M., Gachanja, A.N, Keriko, J.M. & Mungai, G., 2007. Traditional medicines among the Embu and Mbeere peoples of Kenya. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines 4(1): 75–86.
• Leeuwenberg, A.J.M., 1969. The Loganiaceae of Africa 8. Strychnos 3. Revision of the African species with notes on the extra-African. Mededelingen Landbouwhogeschool Wageningen 69–1. Wageningen, Netherlands. 316 pp.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
• Ohiri, F.C., Verpoorte, R. & Baerheim Svendsen, A., 1983. The African Strychnos species and their alkaloids: a review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 9(2–3): 167–223.
• Tits, M., Damas, J., Quetin-Leclercq, J. & Angenot, L., 1991. From ethnobotanical uses of Strychnos henningsii to antiinflammatories, analgesics and antispasmodics. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 34(2–3): 261–267.
Other references
• Bisset, N.G., 1970. The African species of Strychnos. Part I. The ethnobotany. Lloydia 33(2): 201–243.
• 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.
• Dold, A.P. & Cocks, M.L., 2001. Traditional veterinary medicine in the Alice District of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 97: 375–379.
• Dold, A.P. & Cocks, M.L., 2002. The trade in medicinal plants in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 98: 589–597.
• Hutchings, A., Haxton Scott, A., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A., 1996. Zulu medicinal plants: an inventory. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. 450 pp.
• Leeuwenberg, A.J.M. (Editor), 1980. Angiospermae: Ordnung Gentiales. Fam. Loganiaceae. Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien. Second Edition. Band 28 b-1. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, Germany. 255 pp.
• Massiot, G., Thepenier, P., Jacquier, M.J., Henin, J., Le Men-Olivier, L. & Delaude, C., 1991. Alkaloids from Strychnos henningsii. Phytochemistry 30(10): 3449–3456.
• Njoroge, G.N. & Bussmann, R.W., 2006. Diversity and utilization of antimalarial ethnophytotherapeutic remedies among the Kikuyus (Central Kenya). Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2(1): 8.
• Tyiso, S. & Bhat, R.B., 1998. Medicinal plants used for child welfare in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape (South Africa). Journal of Applied Botany 72(3–4): 92–98.
• van Wyk, B.E., van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N., 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 304 pp.
A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

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

Correct citation of this article:
de Ruijter, A., 2008. Strychnos henningsii Gilg. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). Prota 11(1): Medicinal plants/Plantes médicinales 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.