Strophanthus gratus

Herbs gallery - Strophanthus

Common names

  • Smooth Strophanthus
  • Strophanthus

Strophanthus is a wooded vine belonging to the family Apocynaceae and can climb up to a height of 30 feet (10 meters). This herb produces egg-shaped leaves, while the flowers are large and bell-shaped varying in color from white to yellow. The flowers give way to long and thin seed pods.

In fact, smooth strophanthus, the woody climbing vine which is considered to be a double-edged therapeutic sword, is indigenous to the deciduous forests in West Africa which have a tropical climatic condition. This herb generally reaches a height of 30 feet, and sometimes even more, in a crawling manner, and not by winding or supporting itself with its tendrils like any other genuine vine does. Instead, strophanthus makes use of its branches in the form of arms to clutch the parts of the supporting trees. The leaves of this vine are glossy and rubber-like and the plant bears bunches of eye-catching, bell-shaped, white, yellowish or purple flowers at the terminals. The attractive flowers produced by strophanthus have a resemblance to begonias (belonging to the plant family Begoniaceae); however, they are aromatic during the night having a scent similar to roses. These are some of the primary reasons why people in the tropical regions grow strophanthus as an ornamental plant.

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In the tropical regions of West Africa, traditional herbal medicine practitioners have discovered numerous uses of strophanthus. They prepare a massaging compound with the leaves of this plant to alleviate fevers. They also crush the leaves and apply them externally to the affected areas to heal wounds, skin ulcerations and parasites, while a decoction prepared from the leaves is used as a medication to treat the sexually transmitted disease (STD) gonorrhoea. However, a substance obtained from strophanthus seeds called ouabain is the most widely used product of this plant by the natives of West Africa. This toxic substance is employed as a source of arrow venom, used for hunting as well as in combats. Interestingly enough, the use of ouabain by the natives drew the attention of the Western science towards this herb.

Way back in 1861, renowned explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone had noticed the natives of tropical West Africa hunting with a poison arrow that had been created from the seeds of an intimately related plant - a genuine vine known as S. Kombe. Afterwards, he provided details of the substance saying that it was a supposed stimulant for the heart. This report prompted the scientists to undertake studies on several comparable species, among which S. gratus proved to be of utmost value. It is interested to note that later when the Africans came to know that the English were used a refined or processed form of the poison obtained from strophanthus seed in the form of a medication, they came to the conclusion that the English were definitely a crazy race.

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It may be noted that the fast action of ouabain is the foremost quality of this natural chemical which differentiates it from other slow-acting, digitalis-type of cardiac stimulants. In addition, while digitalis constricts the peripheral blood vessels, ouabain does not do this. Nevertheless, there are dangers of using ouabain too. For instance, it is not possible to administer this medication orally, but it needs to be administered in the form of an injection in small and cautiously measured doses. In addition, ouabain cannot be administered to any patient who has endured a heart attack lately. Also, ouabain cannot be given to any patient who has taken digitalis within a week. Despite such constrictions, ouabain is still an extremely important medication for treating heart ailments as well as to cure low blood pressure (hypotension) due to administration of anaesthesia medicaments prior to undergoing a surgery.

Parts used

Seeds, leaves.


The herb strophanthus can be recommended in the same manner as foxglove for treating heart ailments, but the active elements of strophanthus are not taken up by the body very well. One medical authority prescribed strophanthus in the form of a mild heart tonic and found it to be especially effective when used in conjugation with deadly nightshade and valerian. Similar to majority of the other herbs that enclose cardiac glycosides, strophanthus also possesses potent diuretic properties.

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As aforementioned, the seeds of the species Strophanthus are extremely venomous and have been widely used in preparing arrow poison by the natives inhabiting the entire region where this plant grows. Typically, the seeds are pulverized along with the gummy juice of the plant and the tip of the arrow is bathed into the mixture. People inhabiting the rainforest regions of Central Africa also use the roots or the stem bark of strophanthus in the same manner. In fact, they mix the toxic seeds of strophanthus with different plant products, particularly the latex yielded by Periploca nigrescens Afzel, in addition to that of Rauvolfia spp. An animal hunted by an arrow poisoned by strophanthus seed extract dies soon and the flesh of the animal can be consumed with no problem after throwing away the flesh that surrounds the region of the wound caused by the poison arrow. In addition, the seeds of this plant are also employed in the form of a fish poison. Hunters in southern Nigeria cultivate strophanthus for the plant's seeds and use their extract to poison their arrow heads.

Decoctions prepared from the leaves as well as the stem of Strophanthus gratus are taken by people in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Sierra Leone to cure the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. In Ghana, people prepare a decoction from the bark of the plant to cure debility and also make a leaf paste for external application to any part of the body bit by snakes. In Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire as well as Nigeria, people use a paste prepared with strophanthus leaves for topical application to sores, counting guinea worm sores. People in Nigeria prepare an infusion from the leaves of strophanthus to cure conditions like constipation and also massage it all over the body to treat fever. A decoction prepared with the root of the plant is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Even to this day, ouabain, a cardiac glycoside extracted from the strophanthus seed called 'Semen strophanthi', is employed in several pharmaceuticals products in many European nations, particularly in Germany, in the form of a fast acting cardiac and vascular stimulant.

People in West Africa believe that the herb has several magical utilities, for instance, it is used in the form of a lucky charm. In the tropical regions of West Africa, people extensively grow Strophanthus gratus in their gardens, while many inhabiting the temperate climatic regions grow this plant in greenhouses in the form of an ornamental plant.

Habitat and cultivation

Strophanthus is indigenous to the eastern regions of Africa and this plant is also found growing in the wild in rainforests. In addition, strophanthus is also cultivated commercially. The seeds of this herb, which possess therapeutic properties, are collected when the pods ripen.


Chemical analysis of strophanthus has revealed that this herb encloses a maximum of 10 per cent cardiac glycosides, which are effective in inhibiting the heart rate and enhancing the competence of the heart.

Side effects and cautions

It needs to be underlined that it is not safe to use strophanthus unless you are doing so under the guidance of a qualified and competent medical practitioner. Use of this plant may result in a number of side effects, including vomiting, nausea, headache, heart problems and even commotion in color vision.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding
Strophanthus should never be given to women during pregnancy, as this herb may result in the contraction of the uterus, eventually leading to a miscarriage or forced abortion. In addition, nursing mothers should also keep away from strophanthus for it may pass on to their breast milk and harm the infant.
Heart conditions
It has been found that the use of strophanthus may result in anomalous heartbeat. Hence, it is advisable not to use this herb, if you are enduring any heart problem without the direct guidance of a competent and qualified medical practitioner.

How it works in the body

Chemical analysis of strophanthus has revealed that this herb encloses chemical substances that have the aptitude to invigorate the heart.


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