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(Buckthorn family)


900 species in 58 genera are cosmopolitan. Many are thorny.

[Summary yet to be added]

Alphitonia zizyphoides A.Gray
[syns Pomaderris zizyphoides Hook. & Arn., Rhamnus zizyphoides Sol. ex Spreng.]

The leaves, which are used as a substitute for soap, produce anhydrosis (Uhe 1974).

Ceanothus L.

55 species are found in North America. The root of Ceanothus americanus L. is used in herbal medicine for astringent effects. The thorns can cause mechanical injury.

Ceanothus velutinus Douglas
Sticky Laurel, Tea Bush

This species is listed as irritant (Weber 1937).

Colletia Comm. ex Juss.

Seventeen species are to be found in southern South America (Mabberley 1987). They are slow-growing shrubs bearing triangular thorns resembling a ship's anchor (Menninger 1967). A few species may be found in cultivation:

Colletia armata Miers
Colletia ferox Gillies & Hook. var. infausta Suess.
[syn. Colletia infausta N.E.Br.]
Colletia paradoxa Escal.
[syns Colletia cruciata Gillies & Hook., Condalia paradoxa Spreng.]
Colletia spinosissima J.Gmelin
[syns Colletia horrida Willd., Colletia spinosa Lam.] 

Colubrina arborescens Sarg.
[syns Ceanothus arborescens Mill., Colubrina ferruginosa Brongn., Rhamnus colubrina L.]
Bois Pelé, Coffee Columbrina, Snakebark, Wild Coffee

The wood of Colubrina ferruginosa is said to be irritant (Sandermann & Barghoorn 1956).

This West Indian wood was listed as a cause of vomiting, diarrhoea and cramps (Vorreiter 1949/1958).

Discaria Hook.

This is a genus of about 15 species of spiny shrubs, closely allied to Colletia Comm. ex Juss., found naturally in South America, Australia, and New Zealand (Mabberley 1987). Some are grown as ornamentals (Hunt 1968/70), of which the following are best known:

Discaria toumatou Raoul — Matagouri, New Zealand Thorn, Wild Irishman
[syn. Notophaena toumatou Miers]
Discaria serratifolia Benth. & Hook.f. ex Mast.
[syn. Colletia serratifolia Vent.] 

Frangula californica Gray subsp. californica
[syn. Rhamnus californica Eschsch.]
California Buckthorn

Pammel (1911) lists Rhamnus californica as being irrritant.

Frangula purshiana Cooper
[syn. Rhamnus purshiana DC.]
Pursh's Buckthorn

The bark is the source of Cascara Sagrada; it contains the anthraquinone derivative emodin (Budavari 1996). Dermatitis from emodin is noted under Aloe.

Helinus integrifolius Kuntze
[syns Gouania integrifolia Lam., Helinus ovatus E.Mey., Helinus scandens A.Rich.]

Referring to Helinus ovata, Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) noted that the juice of the leaf is said to be excellent in soothing the irritation of the sand worm [= polychaetes of the family Amphinomidae ?].

Noltea africana Endl.
[syn. Ceanothus africanus L.]
Soap Bush, Soap Dogwood, Seepblinkblaar, Seepbossie, Afrikanische Säckelblume

The finely ground plant material foams when shaken with water [hence the common names referring to soap]. When moistened and applied to the skin it causes a burning sensation (van der Walt & Steyn 1939).

Paliurus spina-christi Mill.
[syns Paliurus aculeatus Lam., Rhamnus paliurus L.]
Jerusalem Thorn, Christ's Thorn, Samur

This species forms a much-branched shrub or small tree whose branches bear numerous very sharp spines (Polunin 1969). It is one of the plants from which the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ was reputedly produced — see also Ziziphus spina-christi (L.) Desf., Sarcopoterium spinosum (L.) Spach, and Euphorbia milii Des Moul.

Rhamnus L.
Coffee Berry, Buckthorn

The genus is said to contain species the sap and fruit of which can cause dermatitis (McCord 1962).

Rhamnus cathartica L.
Common Buckthorn, European Buckthorn, Hart's Thorn

This species is listed as irritant by Pammel (1911) whilst Wren (1975) notes that its branches bear terminal thorns and prickly leaves. These two authors may have been referring to the same feature, namely the capacity of the plants to inflict mechanical injury.

An infusion prepared from the fruits of this species is used in Bulgarian folk medicine as an antiseptic for wounds (Ivancheva & Stantcheva 2000).

Rhamnus saxatilis Jacq.
Rock Buckthorn

This plant forms a much-branched, very spiny, usually prostrate shrub (Polunin 1969).

Ziziphus Mill.
[syn. Zizyphus Adans.]

100 species are found in tropical America, Africa, the Mediterranean region, Indo Malaysia and Australia. Some yield edible fruit (lotus, jujube).

Ziziphus mucronata Willd.
Buffalo Thorn

The thorny branches are used on burial sites to discourage grave-spoilers (Irvine 1961).

Ziziphus spina-christi (L.) Desf.
[syns Girtanneria spina-christi Necker, Rhamnus spina-christi L.]
Christ's Thorn, Crown of Thorns

This tree is one of the species from which the crown of thorns of Jesus Christ was reputedly produced — see also Paliurus spina-christi Mill., Sarcopoterium spinosum (L.) Spach, and Euphorbia milii Des Moul.

Application of the powdered leaves is said to darken and lengthen women's hair (Irvine 1961).


  • Budavari S (Ed.) (1996) The Merck Index. An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. 12th edn. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck & Co., Inc.
  • Hunt P (Ed.) (1968/70) The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of Gardening. London: Marshall Cavendish [WorldCat]
  • Irvine FR (1961) Woody Plants of Ghana. With special reference to their uses. London: Oxford University Press [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Ivancheva S and Stantcheva B (2000) Ethnobotanical inventory of medicinal plants in Bulgaria. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 69(2): 165-172
  • Mabberley DJ (1987) The Plant-Book. A portable dictionary of the higher plants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • McCord CP (1962) The occupational toxicity of cultivated flowers. Industrial Medicine and Surgery 31(8): 365-368
  • Menninger EA (1967) Fantastic Trees. New York: Viking Press [WorldCat] [url]
  • Pammel LH (1911) A Manual of Poisonous Plants. Chiefly of North America, with Brief Notes on Economic and Medicinal Plants, and Numerous Illustrations. Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Polunin O (1969) Flowers of Europe. London: Oxford University Press [WorldCat]
  • Sandermann W, Barghoorn A-W (1956) Gesundheitsschädigende Hölzer. (Ein Übersichtsbericht). [Harmful woods. (An overview report)]. Holz als Roh- und Werkstoff 14(3): 87-94 [doi] [url]
  • Uhe G (1974) Medicinal plants of Samoa. A preliminary survey of the use of plants for medicinal purposes in the Samoan Islands. Economic Botany 28(1): 1-30
  • van der Walt SJ, Steyn DG (1939) Recent investigations into the toxicity of known and unknown poisonous plants in the Union of South Africa, IX. Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Industry 12(2): 335-366
  • Vorreiter, L. (1949) Holztechnologisches Handbuch. Wein, Fromme (later edition 1958).
  • Watt JM, Breyer-Brandwijk MG (1962) The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Being an account of their medicinal and other uses, chemical composition, pharmacological effects and toxicology in man and animal, 2nd edn. Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Weber LF (1937) External causes of dermatitis. A list of irritants. Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 35(1): 129-179 [doi] [url]
  • Wren RC (1975) Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. (Re-edited and enlarged by Wren RW). Bradford, Devon: Health Science Press [WorldCat] [doi] [url] [url-2]

Richard J. Schmidt

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