Jatropha curcas (Linnaeus); commonly referred to as Barbados nut, it is a perennial shrub or small tree belonging to the plant family Euphorbiaceae. The genus name Jatropha is derived from two Greek words jatr’os (doctor) and troh’e (food), indicating its valuable use in traditional medicine.
The plant grows up to a height of 6m. Leaves are green to pale green, alternate to sub-opposite, and three to five-lobed with a spiral phyllotaxis. The inflorescence is monoecious, formed within the leaf axil. Seeds are mature when the capsule changes from green to yellow.
The plant is native to tropical America, but has since spread to many parts of the tropics and sub-tropics in Africa and Asia. It has few pests and diseases and grows under a wide range of rainfall conditions from 200mm to over 1,500 mm per annum. Once fully established, Jatropha curcas grows relatively quickly and is hardy, being drought tolerant. It is not browsed by animals because of its toxic leaves and stems. This is due to the presence of several toxic compounds, including but not limited to lectin, saponin, and carcinogenic phorbol. Just like other parts, the seeds of Jatropha curcas are also a source of the highly poisonous toxalbumin curcin chemical.
Although it is poisonous, the Jatropha curcas plant has many attributes, multiple uses and considerable potential. Bees frequent its flowers for nectar and pollen grains for their honey production. The wood is used for numerous purposes including fuel and as a building material. One particular importance is the use of its viscous seed oil in soap-making, the cosmetics industry and as a source of fuel for lighting.
Jatropha curcas is used as an ornamental plant and found in many homes. The plant is a rich source of many natural products most of which have been extensively used for human welfare especially in the treatment of various diseases. The traditional healers use various parts of the plant-leaves, fruits, seeds, stem bark, branches, twigs, latex and roots in one way or the other, in the treatment of many disease conditions, including bacterial and fungal infections in traditional folk medicine.
The seeds of the Jatropha curcas have been used as a purgative/laxative: 3–4 roasted seeds are swallowed with lukewarm water or chewed and then swallowed to relieve conditions of constipation. The seed oil is used in the treatment and management of various conditions like arthritis, gout, eczema, skin diseases, rheumatic pain, jaundice, burns, inflammation, gonorrhoea, and as an abortifacient.
The leaf infusion or decoction of Jatropha curcas is administered for treatment of vaginal bleeding conditions in many communities and is also used both internally and externally to treat fever and jaundice. Rheumatic conditions are treated and managed by the external application of the leaf decoction or by massaging the affected joint-part using the juice/sap extract from the fresh leaves. The leaf decoction is also taken to treat malaria, mouth infections, guinea worm sores, as well as the treatment of dysentery and colic conditions. Furthermore, the leaf of Jatropha curcas is used to increase the milk supply in lactating mothers. In this scenario, 3–4 freshly harvested leaves are heated over fire and bandaged on the breast for a specified duration. The fresh or dried Jatropha curcas leaf is ground and made into a paste and then applied topically for the treatment of skin abscess. Fine dried leaf powder is applied to the wound to speed up its healing and protect it from microbial infections.
In some regions of Africa, the fresh twig of Jatropha curcas is used as a toothbrush to treat gumboil conditions as well as to strengthen the gum. In addition, the latex from the stem is collected by the traditional healers and used for a mouth rinse, to treat gum bleeding, toothache, and in some cases for soothing babies’ inflamed tongues. The latex is also applied on the wound to quicken its healing, relieve bee sting pain, and is also used to relieve digestive troubles in children. Furthermore, the traditional healers use the stem bark latex for massaging inflamed body parts to relieve the condition.
The root decoction of Jatropha curcas is used for the treatment of eczema, scabies, ringworm, gonorrhea, dysentery, diarrhea, and the oil extract from the roots is used as an antihelmeintic agent. Just as in the case with the stem latex, the root decoction is also used as a mouth wash to treat bleeding gums and to relieve toothache. Furthermore, the fresh roots are crushed to form a thick paste that is then applied locally to relieve pain from inflamed body parts.
Apart from the medicinal uses, the stem bark of the Jatropha curcas yields a dark blue dye which is used for colouring many kinds of materials, such as clothes.
Many scientific studies have attributed Jatropha curcas’s potential to cure numerous diseases and illnesses to the vital phytochemicals in the plant like saponins, steroids, apigenin, tannins, alkaloids and flavonoids among others. These chemicals make Jatropha curcas a very versatile plant with numerous uses that has made it gain admiration from several communities across Africa and other parts of the world.
Komakech Richard and Omujal Francis