The root in the form of a powder, a decoction, or an infusion, is taken to treat a wide range of diseases including venereal diseases, fevers and malaria among the others. The leaves are used to disinfect wounds and abscesses throughout tropical Africa.
It belongs to the plant family Fabaceae. The plant is an evergreen strongly branched shrub or small tree which grows to approximately 6m tall. It has large branches with spines up to 2 cm long on conical corky outgrowths with brown bark, and pale to gray long, flexible branches. The leaves alternate, imparipinnate with 2-7 pairs of leaflets, up to 25cm long, glabrous or hairy.
The flowers are cream-coloured, in axillary and terminal pubescent to subglabrous, 1.5-14 cm long in paniculate inflorescences.
Harrisonia abyssinica is native to East, Central and Southern Africa with a wide distribution within tropical Africa including in Sierra Leone to Cameroon, Sudan, and Ethiopia south through Uganda and Kenya to Angola, Zambia and Mozambique.
Owing to its unique traditional medicinal activities, Harrisonia abyssinica plant roots are sold for medicinal use in many local markets. The tree has been reported to contain antibacterial, antifungal, antimalarial, anticancer and antiviral properties.
Throughout tropical Africa, the root in the form of a powder, a decoction, or an infusion, is taken to treat a wide range of diseases including venereal diseases, fevers and malaria, diarrhoea, urinary problems and intestinal worms.
Furthermore, the root decoction is used to treat coughs and whooping cough, dysmenorrhea, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, bubonic plague, snake bites, hernia, swollen testicles, cancer, and tuberculosis. It is also taken to induce abortion.
It is used in the form of nose drops to treat insanity, whilst smoke from burning root bark is used to treat hookworm infections.
The root is also used as a rubefacient. The root powder is applied to incisions to treat migraine while the roots are also used to make a wash to disinfect wounds and abscesses. The roots and stem bark are crushed and soaked in water and drunk to purify and strengthen the body. Furthermore, the root and the stem-bark are used in the treatment of gonorrhoea, dysentery, skin diseases, tuberculosis, bilharzia infections and as an ascaricide throughout Africa.
Importantly, the roots and the leaves are also used in the treatment of a wide range of ailments and as a popular traditional medicine for the treatment of menstrual problems, stomach pains and infertility.
A leaf and twig decoction is used to treat and manage a range of complaints including venereal diseases, fever and malaria, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, diabetes, urinary problems, general body pain and intestinal worms. The leaves are also used as a wash to disinfect wounds and abscesses throughout tropical Africa. The leaves are also applied as a poultice on snakebites.
Considerable research has been carried out into the active compounds contained in the plant, much of which has supported the plant’s traditional uses. The active compounds that have been isolated from the root and stem barks consist of mainly limonoids, which are highly oxygenated terpenoids, plus several other terpenoids, steroids and chromone derivatives.
Apart from the medicinal uses, the Harrisonia abyssinica tree also provides food and wood for the local population and is used as a living fence and to provide shade around homesteads.
The red to black, fleshy, globose berries are edible. In some communities, the root decoction is used in the treatment of livestock against east coast fever and lumpy skin disease.