This family, which occurs in tropical and sub-tropical area, is closely related to the Capparaceae (in which it was formerly included) and to the Cruciferae. It comprises some 275 species in 12 genera. Most are annual herbs, but some are shrubs, trees, or climbers.
As in the case of the Capparaceae and the Cruciferae, members of this family yield isothiocyanates ("mustard oils") when damaged, these compounds being produced from glucosinolates by enzymatic activity. Typically, members of this family yield methyl isothiocyanate from methyl glucosinolate (glucocapparin). Such compounds have skin irritant activity; contact allergenicity has also been reported (Mitchell 1974c, Mitchell & Jordan 1974, Richter 1980).
This genus of 150 species is distributed throughout tropical and warm temperate regions. Some species bear prickles.
The seeds of the following species have been reported to contain glucocapparin and other thioglucosides from which methyl isothiocyanate and other mustard oils are released when the seeds are crushed (Kjaer 1960, Ahmed et al. 1972):
Pammel (1911) refers to the irritant properties of Cleome graveolens.
This species has vesicant properties (Chopra & Badhwar 1940, Behl et al. 1966).
This species is a half-hardy plant which is becoming increasingly popular in European gardens. It bears stipular prickles at the bases of the petioles.
A female gardener developed dermatitis of the hands from contact with the plant. Patch tests with the leaf were positive (2+) in the patient and in 2 controls. Both chloroform and alcohol extracts of C. spinosa plants elicited weak irritant effects in patch tests on 2/5 controls. Scarification of the skin and irradiation with a quartz lamp served to intensify the reactions which were then observed in all 5 controls. Chromatographic examination of the extracts suggested the presence of coumarin-like compounds but these were not identified (Szegö & Maácz 1968). One of the authors (A.J.R.) has also seen a case of contact dermatitis from this plant.
The seeds of this species contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the plant material is crushed (Kjaer 1960).
This species is frequently confused with Gynandropsis gynandra Briq.; the plants may be found growing alongside one another (Behl et al. 1966).
The brown-black seeds are occasionally used for culinary purposes. Both the seeds and the leaves have rubefacient and vesicant properties (Chopra & Badhwar 1940, Behl et al. 1966). Nadkarni (1976) records that the bark is irritant and acrid; externally it is rubefacient and vesicant. The bruised plant is used in western Africa and elsewhere as a counter-irritant and vesicant (Dalziel 1937, Quisumbing 1951).
The seeds contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the plant material is crushed (Kjaer 1960, Hasapis et al. 1981).
Quisumbing (1951) refers to the use of the bruised leaf as a counter-irritant. Dalziel (1937) and Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) note that in west Africa, the bruised leaf of Gynandropsis pentaphylla has been applied as a rubefacient, vesicant, and counter-irritant. The rubefacient and vesicant properties of the seeds and leaves are also noted by Chopra & Badhwar (1940), Behl et al. (1966), and Oliver (1959).
According to Landor (1940), the plant referred to as Gynandropsis gynandra or G. pentaphylla is known among Malays as maman puteh, maman hantu, or kemaman; and among Tamils as velai or thair-velai. It is used by many as a vegetable, and the crushed fresh leaves are used as a counter-irritant. It is a common Malayan weed whose sap contains an irritant oil which is destroyed by cooking. Landor (1940) described a case where the leaves were crushed between the two hands and rubbed on an axillary boil. A severe dermatitis soon followed. A patch test to the crushed and moistened leaves produced a strongly positive bullous reaction; the uncrushed leaves produced no reaction.
The seeds have been found to contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the seed is crushed (Kjaer 1960, Hasapis et al. 1981).
The plant has rubefacient properties (Usher 1974) for which purpose it is used in Mexico (Díaz 1976).