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Maytenus senegalensis

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Maytenus is a genus of flowering plants in the staff vine family, Celastraceae. Members of the genus are distributed throughout Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Micronesia and Australasia, the Indian Ocean and Africa. They grow in a very wide variety of climates, from tropical to subpolar.

Maytenus heterophylla (Eckl. and Zeyh.) N.K.B. Robson and Maytenus senegalensis (Lam.) Exell are two African shrubs or trees that go under the common name of spike thorn. Different plant parts of this species are largely used in traditional medicine for infectious and inflammatory disease treatment.



M. senegalensis has Gymnosporia senegalensis (Lam.) Loes. as synonym homotypic, and is a shrub, tree or, more rarely, a shrublet, which grows up to 15 m high, unarmed or with spines up to 7 cm long (axillary or terminating short axillary branches), glabrous, without latex, young branches almost unlined, often glaucous.

Leaves are petiolated, alternated or fascicled, usually glaucous, and coriaceous (with lateral nerves and relatively lax reticulate venation slightly prominent or not prominent). The lamina of M. senegalensis is pale green pale, petiole up to 20 mm (9) long. Margins are spathulated, ovated to oblong–elliptic, up to 13 cm × 6 cm, often densely serrulated. Dichasial cymes located on short axillary shoots (or occasionally in axillary panicles).

The flowers are dioecious (or rarely monoecious), scented peduncle 1–16 mm long, pedicels up to 6 mm long, oblong–lanceolate to ovate-triangular sepals (5) up to 1.2 mm long, pale yellow elliptic or oblanceolate petals 1–3.5 mm long (with margin finely ciliolate).

The capsule is reddish, globosoid or pyriform, 2–6 mm long, ovary 2–3 locular, smooth. Reddish–brown 1–2 seeds, glossy, with a fleshy smooth rose–pink in yellowish aril obliquely covering the lower 1/2–2/3.

Distribution and habitat

Geographically, M. senegalensis has a wide distribution, covering Arabia, Afghanistan and India as well as Africa.  M. senegalensis is widespread in the Savannah regions of tropical Africa.

M. senegalensis occupies a wide variety of habitats, from deciduous woodland, thickets, scrub and wooded grassland and also on river banks and swamp margins.

Medicinal uses

According to Neuwinger, M. heterophylla and M. senegalensis are two of the most frequently used species of the Maytenus Molina genus in the African traditional medicine (along with M. acuminata, M. buchananii, M. mossambicensis, M. obscura, M. peduncularis, M. putterlickioides, M. serrata and M. undata).

Both species mentioned above are traditionally used as antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents. More specifically, M. heterophylla and M. senegalensis are used to treat respiratory ailments and inflammation. 

The use of these plants as anti-inflammatory herbal drugs is common in many African countries like Benin, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Senegal and Zimbabwe.

In Tropical and Southwestern Africa, M. heterophylla leaves are also employed in the treatment of dysmenorrhoea and M. senegalensis leaves are used to treat toothaches, in India.

Recent research has also uncovered extremely important activity for both plants

J Nat Sci Biol Med. 2011 Jan-Jun; 2(1): 59–65. doi:  10.4103/0976-9668.82320 PMCID: PMC3312701 Maytenus heterophylla and Maytenus senegalensis, two traditional herbal medicines - G. da Silva, R. Serrano, and O. Silva

Previous biological studies were reported in both species. The in vivo antiplasmodial activity of M. heterophylla and M. senegalensis root-bark extracts against resistant strains of P. berghei was determined

M. senegalensis root and stem extracts demonstrated in vitro antiplasmodial activity against a cloroquine-sensitive strain of P. falciparum (D10).

Another study evaluated the in vitro activity of M. senegalensis leaf and stem-bark extracts against two strains of P. falciparum (cloroquine and pyrimethamine sensitive 3D7 strain; cloroquine-resistant and pyrimethamine-sensitive Dd2 strain).

An extract of the stem-bark of M. senegalensis demonstrated in vitro antileishmanial activity against promastigotes of Leishmania major reference vaccine strain (5AKSH). Pristimerin was identified as the antileishmanial agent of M. senegalensis and proved to be active against resistant strains of P. falciparum.

Stem-bark and root-bark extracts of M. senegalensis were tested against Bacillus subtilus, Micrococcus luteus and Staphylococcus aureus. Maytenonic acid-isolated root-bark has a proven antibacterial activity against B. subtilus, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and S. aureus.

An acetone extract of the aerial parts of this species has been revealed to be active against a sensitive strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (H37Rv strain, 0.5 mg/mL).


References and further reading

  • Neuwinger HD. -  African traditional medicine: A dictionary of plant use and applications. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers; 2000.
  • African Pharmacopoeia covering traditional medicine of many African countries, published by the Scientific Technical Research Commission of the Organization of African Unity, starting with volume 1 in 1985 (African Pharmacopoeia, Vol. 1, 1985)


Related observations