Leadwort (scientific name Plumbago zeylanica) is a versatile therapeutic herb belonging to the family Plumbaginaceae. This plant has its origin in South Asia and it is distributed all over the major part of the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the globe. Leadwort is found growing naturally in the savannas, deciduous forests and scrublands. The sap of this herb is corrosive and results in the discoloration of the skin. When the sap comes in contact with the skin the latter's color changes to that of lead. This is the reason why the plant is commonly known as leadwort, thereby accounting for its Latin name plumbago.
Leadwort can be described as a perennially growing deciduous or partially evergreen ground cover, which grows up to a height of anything between 15 cm and 25 cm. This plant bears shiny green leaves that appear on elongated, trailing stems. The flowers of this species are gentian-blue in color and measure up to 1.8 cm across. These plants are in bloom from the beginning of August and continue flowering till the first frost. After the first frost, the color of leadwort's foliage changes to a wonderful reddish bronze and this color remain till the winter.
The leaves of leadwort are sessile or petiolate and their blades are spatulate to oblanceolate or lance-elliptic, measuring about 5 cm to 9 cm in length and 2.5 cm to 4 cm in width. At their base, the leaves of this species are attenuate. The apexes of the leaves are acuminate, acute or obtuse. The flowers appear in inflorescences that measure anything between 3 cm and 15 cm in length and their viscid rachises are glandular. The shape of the bracts is lance-like and measure about 3 mm to 7 mm in length and 1 mm to 2 mm in width. The flowers give way to capsule-like fruits, which measure about 7.5 mm to 8 mm in length. These capsules enclose many seeds whose color may vary from reddish brown to deep brown.
Leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica) is an herb with many therapeutic properties and, hence, it is used for treating a variety of health conditions. For instance this herb is among the potent digestive as well as carminative plants that are widely used in the ancient Indian medicine system called Ayurveda. This herb is used in various Ayurvedic medicines meant for curing indigestion.
In Ayurvedic traditions, it is believed that leadwort possesses digestive and stomachic properties that help to enhance the digestive powers of an individual, thereby promoting appetite. Consequently, this herb is used in various medicines that are used to treat alimentary tract disorders including diarrhea, dyspepsia and piles. This herb also possesses antiseptic properties and is effective in curing problems related to the skin, mental disorders and rheumatism. A paste prepared from the herb is applied topically to the skin, where the medicine works in the form of irritant helping to open up abscesses. Leadwort is also beneficial for people suffering from hypertension, as this herb helps to lower high blood pressure to some extent and is always used very carefully when utilized internally. Extreme caution is necessary as internal use of this herb may result in forced abortions. Similarly, using leadwort internally in large doses may result in the failure of the respiratory system.
Plumbago zeylanica or leadwort is a very popular remedial herb and its use is extensive all over the tropical and sub-tropical regions, especially Asia and Africa. Traditionally, this herb has been employed as a medicine for treating skin problems, infections as well as intestinal worms. Folk healers in West Africa use the leaves and root of this herb in the form of a vesicant and counter-irritant. For this purpose, they crush the root or leaves of the plant with lemon juice to prepare the remedy. People in Nigeria pound the roots of leadwort with vegetable oil and use the mixture to treat swellings caused by rheumatism.
In Ethiopia, people dry the leaves, bark and root of leadwort and pulverize them into a powdered form for use as a traditional medicine for treating tuberculosis, wounds, swellings, rheumatic pain and even sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea. In other African regions, people prepare a paste of the herb's roots along with water, milk and vinegar and use it to treat black water fever and influenza. An infusion prepared from the root is drunk to cure shortness of breath, while they prepare a decoction with the root by boiling it in milk and swallow the formulation for treating inflammation in the throat, mouth and chest. On the other hand, people use the root decoction for treating dyspepsia and diarrhea.
An extract obtained from the leadwort plant is also useful for lowering the level of blood cholesterol. This plant extract is also employed for reducing inflammation. It is also very useful in treating chronic sinusitis and bronchitis. It is also employed for slowing down the growth of prostate cancer cells. Leadwort possesses anti-inflammatory properties and, hence, it is widely used for reducing swelling. Moreover, this herb is also useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Plumbago zeylanica is also effective in drawing out and eliminating dense nasal mucus, which is said to be primarily responsible for persistent common cold and coughs. Use of powdered leadwort helps to improve the power of liver and this powder can also be used in the form of a liver tonic. Leadwort possesses antimicrobial, anti-plasmodial (it works against parasites belonging to the genus Plasmodium), anti-inflammatory, as well as lipid and blood sugar lowering properties. A paste prepared from the whole leadwort plant is applied externally to treat various types of skin disorders.
The leadwort root power is also effective for healthy bones, blood, plasma as well as the reproductive system. It is also a useful anti-inflammatory remedy. Topical application of a poultice prepared with leadwort helps to alleviate muscle as well as joint pains. As this herb possesses antiseptic properties, it can also accelerate the process involved in wound healing. In addition, leadwort also kindles the digestive organs, thereby curing various kinds of gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
This herb is also widely used for treating persistent menstrual problems, chronic diseases related to the nervous system and viral warts. The leadwort root bark is also believed to be effective in treating obesity. Plumbagin, the principal chemical constituent of the herb, aids in perking up the immune system. In addition, the roots of leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica) are also employed for treating enlarged spleen.
Leadwort plant leaves can also be used for treating conditions like rheumatism and laryngitis. Topical application of a paste prepared from the leaves of this herb on wounds, carbuncles and syphilitic ulcers helps to cure these conditions. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is believed that this herb possesses the ability to revitalize the body and, hence, it is used in the form of rasayana.
Plumbago zeylanica is propagated from various parts of the plant, including its seeds, by semi-ripe cuttings that are treated with a growth hormone or rooted shoots from the plant's base. Generally, the seeds of leadwort sprout within 21 days to a month from the date of sowing. Nevertheless, seeds that have been stored for a prolonged period, for instance more than three months, do not germinate well, thereby leading to a severe drop in the in germination rate.
On the other hand, it is possible to grow this species on various different types of soils, varying from red soil to dark black soil. These plants have a preference for soils that are well drained or deep sandy loam and even clay-like loam containing very high amounts of organic matter. In its natural habitats, leadwort plants grow excellently in damp soils having significant organic matter. This species also thrives well in semi-shaded locations where the temperatures range between intermediate to warm.
The roots of leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica) enclose a pungent crystalline principle known as plumbagin. In addition to plumbagin, this herb encloses compounds like biplumbagin and chloroplumbagin.
Leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica) should be used very cautiously. Women should be particularly careful while using this herb, as it can hold back ovulation, suppress implantation and even lead to abortion. In fact, use of this herb is contraindicated during pregnancy. It is advisable that one should always use this herb in the recommended doses and be careful not to use it in excess. Plumbagin is the principal constituent of leadwort and using this compound in lower doses works to stimulate the muscles and the central nervous system (CNS). Plumbago zeylanica is also responsible for causing perspiration, secretion of urine as well as bile. When used in elevated doses, this herb may result in paralysis and even prove to be fatal. Women who take this herbal remedy in high doses may expect heavy menstruation. Similarly, using leadwort in high doses may lead to a burning sensation in the stomach, gastritis and even neuropathy.