Jatropha podagrica Hook.
(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)
common names: Gout Plant, Buddha Belly Plant
Jatropha is derived from two Greek words, ιατρος (iatros), a healer, and τροφη (trophé) food. This refers to its healing and nutritional qualities when taken in very small amounts – but read the whole of this article before eating any of it! Podagrica is from ποδαγρικος (podagrikos), liable to gout.
This fascinating plant, a native of tropical America from Guatemala to Panama, certainly has what looks to be a very painful attack of gout - a swollen foot.
The plant, which grows to about 50 cm, has a few extraordinary-looking large (up to 30 cm wide) 3–5-lobed leaves at the top of the stem, with a wavy margin and a stout stalk attached on the underside of the leaf, but it loses these leaves in the winter. The small coral-red flowers are clustered at the top of the stalk, and there are flowers present for much of the year. These attract butterflies. Yellow 3-lobed, explosively dehiscent fruits are produced, generally less than 2.5 cm long, usually containing 3 seeds. As the pods explode, they can propel the seeds up to about a metre away. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but particularly the seeds and the sap.
The stem, with its swollen base, is filled with a thin sap, contact with which can cause dermatitis. As mentioned above, the seeds are particularly toxic. Symptoms can include abdominal pain and a burning sensation in the mouth, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea. The effects are serious enough to require urgent medical assistance.
Despite the poisonous nature of this plant and its even more toxic relative Jatropha curcas, small quantities of parts of these plants are used in natural remedies, particularly in homeopathic medicine. The latex contains an alkaloid jatrophine, which is thought to have anti-cancerous properties. It is also used as an external application for skin diseases and rheumatism. A juice extracted from the leaves is used in some countries as an external application for haemorrhoids. The roots are also considered to be an antidote for snakebite.
The oil extracted from the seeds is a useful ingredient in soap-making. It is used in lamps, as it burns without making smoke. It is also being produced for bio-diesel. Jatropha oil-cake is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and is used as an organic manure. In Brazil, the seeds are used to expel intestinal worms, and the leaves are burnt to fumigate houses against bed-bugs.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken in Picnic & Nelly Bays 2009-2011