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(Madder family)


6000 species in 500 genera constitute one of the largest families of plants. Most are tropical but a number occur in temperateregions and there are a few Arctic species. Several are myrmecophilous (inhabited by ants). Randia spinosa and Vanqueria spinosa make spiny hedges. Asperula odorata provides aroma chemicals. Genera assigned to Naucleaceae (syn. Rubiaceae) (Willis 1973) are included here.

[Summary yet to be added]

Adina cordifolia

The wood is said to be irritant to the respiratory tract (Orsler 1973).

Asperula L.

Over 200 species are found in Europe and Asia especially in the Mediterranean region; sixteen species are found in eastern Australia and Tasmania. Species of this genus have hooked fruits which attach themselves to animals (Howes 1974).

Bertiera racemosa

The leaves have styptic properties (Irvine 1961).

Borreria compacta

The use of a paste of the leaf by the Ikizu as a counter-irritant in the way that a mustard leaf or plaster (Brassica) has been used by Europeans is noted by Bally (1937, 1938). There is a considerable degree of itch from the application which is followed by scaling (Bally 1938).

Canthium coprosmoides

After grazing on this plant for three days, animals died in agony after the skin had blistered and the hair peeled off (Hurst 1942).

Catesbaea melanocarpa

The plant is listed as a cause of mechanical injury (Oakes and Butcher 1962).

Cephaelis ipecacuanha

The root provides medicinal ipecacuanha. The dust or effluvium of the root produces inflammation of the air-passages and conjunctivitis, and applied to the skin in the form of an ointment, it excites a pustular eruption similar to that caused by tartar emetic (Dispensatory 1884). Acute keratoconjunctivitis follows instillation of the powder into the eye. More chronic contamination may lead to the development of a granular conjunctivitis resembling trachoma. These reactions are sometimes seen in pharmacists who handle the powder either of ipecacuanha or of emetine but the most dramatic incidents have been self-inflicted by malingerers (Duke-Elder & MacFaul 1972b). The particles of ipecac have a distinctive microscopical appearance which permits their identification if malingering is suspected (Grant 1962). Dermatitis from ipecacuanha was reported by Benjamin (1903), Robert (1922), Galewsky (1926), Hirszfeldowa and Prokopowicz-Wierzbowska (1924) and Lortat-Jakob et al. (1930). Erythema, papules and intensive pruritus leading to crusted excoriations followed topical exposure to the drug (Bazin cited by White 1887). Vesicular and pustular reactions have been observed following local application of the crude drug to healthy skin (Piffard 1881, White 1887).

Emetine, the principal alkaloid of ipecacuanha, produced redness, papules, vesicles, pustules and urticaria on the forearms and arms of pharmacists (Peshkin 1924). A chemist, a boiler and a sorter developed eczematous dermatitis from contact with emetine, while making a preparation of ipecac (Schwartz et al. 1957).


40 species are found as trees in the Andes. Several species are cultivated for their bark which yields quinine and related alkaloids.

Stripping of cinchona bark and handling of the powdered bark and quinine produced dermatitis in pharmaceutical workers. The eyelids, face, neck, elbow flexures, genital area and upper thighs were principally affected (Chevallier 1852, Dold 1925, Blamoutier and Joannon 1922). Touton (1932) and Prosser White (1934) provide an extensive bibliography. Quinine can cause allergic contact dermatitis in factory workers (White 1887, Werz 1949) and when used in dandruff cream (Johnson 1935), hair tonic (Kissmeyer 1937, Peterkin 1953), aftershave lotion (Burgess and Usher 1930) and contraceptive pessaries (Danbolt 1931, Peterkin 1953, Zheltakov and Somov 1963, Guriev and Monakhova 1968). Ingestion of quinine, as in tonic water can produce a focal flare of dermatitis (Kissmeyer 1937, Sulzberger and Baer 1948). Cross-sensitivity to related alkaloids has been observed and appears to be dependent on a quinoline ring (Bloch 1924, Ford 1934, Dawson and Garbade 1930). Contact dermatitis from the isomer, quinidine (Frenstrom 1965), and from the synthetic antimalarial, chloroquin (Hermann and Schulz 1965) is rare. Immediate hypersensitivity was reported by Gray (1929). Quinine sulfate, 2% aqueous, is suitable for patch testing (Calnan and Caron 1961). In Denmark, the incidence of sensitivity to quinine steadily declined from 1938 to 1961 and at the latter date was distinctly rare (Hjorth, personal communication to Calnan and Caron 1961).


40 species are found in palaeotropical regions especially in Africa. Several species are cultivated for their seeds, coffee beans.

Coffea arabica
Arabian Coffee

Workers employed in sorting milling or roasting coffee beans developed dermatitis, urticaria, rhinitis and asthma. Patch tests to the chaff produced positive results (Chopra et al. 1949, Layton et al. 1966). A role of chlorogenic acid in the respiratory symptoms suggested by Freedman et al. (1962) was discounted by Layton et al. (1966). Employees in a coffee-roasting plant developed allergic manifestations from castor-bean dust (Ricinus communis, fam. Euphorbiaceae) which contaminated the burlap bags in which the coffee was transported (Figley and Rawling 1950). Cheilitis was attributed to coffee drinking; liquid coffee produced a positive patch test reaction but controls were not recorded (Lupton 1953). None of 691 persons patch tested to an ether extract of coffee showed positive reactions (Fregert and Hjorth 1969).

Inhalation of coffee bean dust can produce coffee worker's lung, a form of allergic alveolitis (Morgan and Seaton 1975).

Coryanthe pachyceras
[syn. Coryanthe paniculata]

The bitter, astringent bark has a local anaesthetic action from alkaloids related to yohimbine (Dalziel 1937, Irvine 1961).

Craterispermum laurinum

The powdered root or bark is used as a rubefacient in Central Africa (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

Cuviera DC.

The genus comprises about 20 species found in tropical Africa (Mabberley 1997). Irvine (1961) lists the following species as being spiny:

Cuviera acutiflora DC.
Cuviera macroura K.Schum.
Cuviera subuliflora Benth. 

Hepper (1963) cautions that plant collectors should beware of the small biting ants that infest many Cuviera species, including Cuviera longiflora Hiern. Irvine (1961) notes that the nodes of Cuviera subuliflora Benth. harbour ants.

Diodia teres

An extract of this plant produced a positive patch test reaction in one of 50 patients who had "weed dermatitis" (Shelmire 1939).

Duroia hirsuta

The bark, when tied on the arm, causes blisters to form (von Reis Altschul 1973). The swollen stem of the plant regularly houses ants (Willis 1973).

[syn. Exostemma]

50 species are found from Mexico to Brazil, Peru and the West Indies. Febrifugal alkaloids are contained in the bark.

Exostemma caribaeum

The wood yields exostemin, a 4-phenylcoumarin related to coumarins of Dalbergia spp. (Seshadri 1972).

Galium L.

400 species are of cosmopolitan distribution.

Species of this genus have hooked fruits which attach themselves to animals (Howes 1974).

Galium sparine

Dermatitis was reported from contact with the stem of this plant; a patch test produced a positive result (Fujita 1966). Small reflexed hooks are present on the stem.

Galium triflorum
Sweet-Scented Bedstraw

For chest pains, this plant was rubbed on the skin, sometimes enough to draw blood, and then hellebore (Veratrum viride) was applied. North American Indians rub the body with the plant for its perfume, mash it and put it in the hair (Gunther 1945).

Galium verum L.
Lady's Bedstraw, Yellow Bedstraw, Maid's Hair, Cheese Rennet, Gailion, Pettimugget, Wild Rosemary

Stuart (1979) asserts that the dried plant is styptic and may be applied externally to wounds and some skin eruptions.


250 species are found in palaeotropical regions.

The fruits are used for haemostasis, apparently by ingestion, and for dyeing. The flowers are used to flavour tea which is then known as jasmine tea (Smith 1969, Kariyone 1971).

The odour of gardenia can cause hayfever (Biederman 1937).

Hydnophytum Jack

Sixty species are found in Indo-Malaysia, and especially in New Guinea. They are epiphytes, a number of which possess ant-inhabited swollen stems (Mabberley 1987), which render these plants potentially hazardous to those who collect them from their natural habitat (see Schmidt 1985). Merrill (1945) notes that the basal parts of these plants are sometimes armed with short spines.

Hydnophytum formicarum Jack
[syns Hydnophytum amboinense Becc., Hydnophytum andamanense Becc., Hydnophytum montanum Blume]
Ant Plant

Menninger (1967) provides a photograph of this "ant plant" clinging to a tree.

[Further information available but not yet included in database]

Mitragyna ledermannii Ridsd.
[syn. Mitragyna ciliata Aubr. & Pellegr.]


Mitragyna stipulosa O. Kuntze

The partially seasoned wood has a pungent smell and some workers find the sawdust to be irritating (Titmuss 1965). A silica content of up to 0.24 % has been reported for M. ciliata (Kukachka 1970). There are occasional trade complaints of dermatitis and nasal irritation in England (Orsler 1973) and in Nigeria (Woods and Calnan 1976). Wilkinson (1973) observed a case of dermatitis from the wood; a patch test produced a positive reaction. Wagenfuhr (1961) noted that the sawdust was said to cause mucosal irritation and vomiting in Germany.

Alkaloids are found in the wood of some species (Hausen 1970).

Myrmecodia Jack

Forty five species are found from Malaysia to Fiji. They are epiphytes with swollen stems ("tubers") penetrated by numerous interconnecting galleries and inhabited by ants (Mabberley 1987).

Nauclea diderrichii Merr.
[syns Nauclea trillesii Merr., Sarcocephalus badi Aubrév., Sarcocephalus diderrichii De Wild., Sarcocephalus trillesii Pierre ex De Wild.]
Bilinga, Opepe, Badi, Kusia, West African Boxwood

Harvey Gibson (1906) investigated illness amongst workmen handling "West African boxwood" during the manufacture of shuttles in Lancashire, England. Patients exhibited a pale yellowish or greenish colour of the face and body, running of the nose and eyes, chronic sneezing, headache, nausea, faintness, and breathing difficulties accompanied by a peculiar 'camphor' or 'Turkey rhubarb' odour of the breath and skin. He identified the botanical source of the wood as Sarcocephalus diderrichii De Wild., distinguishing it from East London (or South African) boxwood derived from Gonioma kamassi E.Mey., and from West Indian boxwood reputed to be derived from Tabebuia pentaphylla Hemsl. Harvey Gibson's investigation was subsequently referred to by Remington et al. (1918), by Prosser White (1934), and by others who failed to discover the erratum (Harvey-Gibson 1912) he published six years later. In this erratum, he admitted that the piece of wood provided to him as West African boxwood was in fact East London or Knysna boxwood imported from South Africa, which botanically proved to be Gonioma kamassi E.Mey. (fam. Apocynaceae) when compared with an authentic sample of this wood.

Woods & Calnan (1976) recorded that woodworkers at three factories in Ibadan, Nigeria reported that opepe irritated their skin producing craw-craw (dermatitis) in some men. Nasal irritation sometimes accompanied by fever and headache also occurred. The botanical identity of the wood was not established.

Nauclea subdita
Bur Flower Bush, Bengkal, Gedembah, Kedembai

The root bark yields an intensely yellow dye (Corner 1952).

Paederia foetida

The plant has an offensive odour when bruised or even if slightly disturbed (Pope 1968) and the foul-smelling stems and leaves are used to stimulate moribund persons (Smith 1969).

Pausinystalia johimbe Beille
[syns Coryanthe johimbe K.Schum.]

This plant yields yohimbine, an adrenergic blocking agent which has been used for its alleged aphrodisiac properties (Reynolds 1996). Four of 6 impotent diabetics with paraesthesia of the lower limbs, noted prompt relief after taking yohimbine 6mg thrice daily by mouth. The paraesthesia recurred when treatment was interrupted (Morales et al. 1981).

Pentanisia prunelloides Walp.
[syns Declieuxia prunelloides Klotzsch ex Eckl. & Zeyh., Diotocarpus prunelloides Hochst.]
Wild Verbena

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Rothmannia longiflora

The fruits yield a black dye which is used in Nigeria for making blue-black markings on the face or body (Oliver 1961).


60 species are found in western and central Europe, the Mediterranean region, eastern tropical and southern Africa, temperate Asia, the Himalayas and from Mexico to tropical South America. Several species yield dyes.

Rubia tinctorum

The plant was formerly cultivated for its root which yields the dye alizarin. Alizarin is a sensitiser (Greenberg and Lester 1954) and on that account has been removed from certain brand-name cosmetics (Anon 1973).

Sarcocephalus latifolius E.A.Bruce
[syns Cephalina esculenta Schumach. & Thonn., Nauclea esculenta Merr., Nauclea latifolia Sm., Sarcocephalus esculentus Afzel. ex Sabine, Sarcocephalus russeggeri Kotschy ex Schweinf., Sarcocephalus sambucinus K.Schum.]
African Peach, Country Fig, Guinea Peach, Strawberry Tree, Pêcher Africain, Liane à Fraise

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Spermacoce chaetocephala DC. var. chaetocephala
[syns Borreria chaetocephala Hepper, Borreria compacta K.Schum., Borreria kotschyana K.Schum., Spermacoce compacta Hochst. ex Hiern, Spermacoce kotschyana Oliv.]

In East Africa, the leaf of Spermacoce compacta is used as a rubefacient and for the treatment of skin rashes (Githens 1949, Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

Uncaria gambir Roxb.
[syns Nauclea gambir Hunter, Ourouparia gambir Baill.]

The dried aqueous extract of the leaves and young twigs of this climbing shrub provides a medicinal product known as pale catechu, otherwise known as catechu pallidum, gambier, or gambir. Tanners refer to this as terra japonica. A similar material may also be derived from Uncaria acida Roxb. Pale catechu has properties and uses similar to those of black catechu derived from Acacia catechu Willd., fam. Leguminosae (Pereira 1842, Felter & Lloyd 1898, Trease & Evans 1966).


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Richard J. Schmidt

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