Nigeria’s medicinal plant: Gongronema latifolium (Arokeke)

Nigeria’s medicinal plant: Gongronema latifolium (Arokeke)


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Gongronema latifolium Benth belongs to the family Apocynaceae according to APG III (Angiosperm Phylogenetic Group III) classification of 2009. The old family name is Asclepiadaceae. G. latifolium is a climber usually is woody below with hollow glabrous stems. The leaf is heart-shaped and it exudes white/milky latex when plucked. The flowers are greenish-yellow.

Igbo kwenu! On this week’s visit to nature’s pharmacy, I will be discussing Gongronema Latifolium, popularly called Utazi. The Yoruba call it ‘Arokeke’. Efik and Ibibio call it Utasi. The leaves of this herb are used as a spice and vegetable to garnish some special local delicacies such as Isiewu, nkwobi, abacha/ugba (African salad) ofe nsala (white soup), unripe plantain porridge etc. The fresh leaves or the stem can be chewed or the sap extracted with water or palm wine.

The whole plant can equally be infused with boiling water (as tea) or by boiling (decoction). In some cases, the dried or fresh leaves are prepared as tincture (i.e. extraction in alcoholic beverages). It has been reported that the leaves of this plant are used by the Ikales of Ondo State of Nigeria to treat malaria, nausea and anorexia. It has also been reported that the leaf extract is commonly used by the Efik and Quas tribes of Cross River State of Nigeria to treat malaria, diabetes, hypertension and constipation.

I visited the section of the market where Igbo women sell vegetables and I spoke with one Mrs Maureen Ehirim. She said Utazi lowers blood sugar and blood pressure and is also great for weight loss. She told me the different ways it can be eaten. I asked to see the vegetable but she said none of the sellers has at the moment because someone who was travelling out of the country came to buy everything! All the health benefits she enumerated have been proven scientifically! This is why I keep saying that ethnobotanical knowledge of plants cannot be relegated to the background.

Extracts of the whole plant of G. latifolium infusion is used for the treatment of pathologic conditions  such as dyspepsia, anorexia, colic, stomachache, constipation, dysentery, intestinal worms, damaged liver and treatment of dental caries. The leaf extracts were reported to exhibit strong inhibitory activity against human lung carcinoma and human breast adenocarcinoma in vitro. The leaves are used to prepare food for mothers that have just put to bed because it is believed to stimulate appetite, reduce postpartum contraction and enhance the return of the menstrual cycle. Women with infertility problems can boil Utazi leaves with some lime juice and honey. A glass is taken daily during their period days. An infusion of the aerial parts is taken to treat cough, intestinal worms, dysentery, dyspepsia and malaria. It is also taken as a tonic to treat loss of appetite. The boiled fruits in soup are eaten as a laxative. A decoction of leaves or leafy stems is commonly taken to treat diabetes and high blood pressure. The latex is applied to teeth affected by caries. It is also taken for controlling weight gain in lactating women. Asthma patients chew fresh leaves to relieve wheezing. A cold maceration of the roots is also taken as a remedy for asthma. A decoction of the roots combined with other plant species is taken for sickle cell anaemia. A maceration of the leaves in alcohol is taken to treat bilharzia, viral hepatitis and as a general antimicrobial agent.

The leaves are rich in fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, including leucine, valine, phenylalanine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and glycine. Its protein content (27.2 per cent) dry matter is comparable with that of chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils and so forth. High amounts of vitamins (A, C, E, and niacin) have also been indicated in the Leaves. Minerals such as sodium, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium are also reported in Gongronema latifolium leaves. The phytochemicals in the plant comprise a broad range of bioactive compounds including flavonoids, saponins, alkaloids, cardiac glycosides and beta-sitosterol. It has analgesic, antitumor, broad spectrum antimicrobial (antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic and antiviral), antipyretic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiulcer, anti-sickling, anti-asthmatic, mild expectorant, hypoglycemic, hypolipidemic, hepatoprotective, digestive tonic and laxative properties.

Infused utazi leaves can be used as a home remedy for dysentery and intestinal worms. The leaves when chewed raw or infused with hot water can act as a fast relief for catarrh, congested chest, running nose and cough. In Sierra Leone, the pliable stems are used as chewing sticks. They are cut up and boiled with lime juice or infused in water over three days and the liquor is taken as a purge for colic, stomach pains and symptoms connected with worm infection. History records that Ghanaians and Senegalese squeeze the utazi leaves and use it to massage the joints of children with difficulty in walking and this practice helps those young children to start walking. The utazi fruits can be used to cook soup which can be eaten as a laxative.

Gongronema latifolium (G. latifolium) Benth leaves are traditionally used to manage Diabetes mellitus and other diseases in Nigeria and West Africa, a study titled, “Gongronema latifolium Benth. leaf extract attenuates diabetes-induced neuropathy via inhibition of cognitive, oxidative stress and inflammatory response,’’ by Ojo et al, was performed to evaluate the neuroprotective effect of aqueous extract of G. latifolium leaf against DM. They concluded that the leaf extract of G. latifolium improved antioxidant defence against oxidative stress. It displays a neuroprotective effect resulting in the modulation of brain neurotransmitters which could be considered as a promising treatment therapy.

The ethanol extract of Gongronema latifolium leaves were evaluated for anti-ulcer, analgesic and antipyretic activities in rats and mice in a study titled, “Studies on anti-ulcer, analgesic and antipyretic properties of the ethanolic leaf extract of Gongronema latifolium in rodents,’’ by Akuodor et al, the extract produced a significant ulcer protective activity in rats. It also decreased pain induced both by acetic acid in mice and early phase of formalin test in rats. A significant reduction in hyperpyrexia was also produced by the extract in rats. This study provides a strong evidence of anti-ulcer, analgesic and antipyretic activities of G. latifolium.

A study titled, “Gongronema latifolium: A Plant with Cardioprotective Potentials,’’ by Beshel et al investigated the cardioprotective potential of the ethanolic and ethyl acetate fractions of the leaves extract of G.L. This study concluded that Gongronema latifolium leaves extract is cardioprotective and thus provides a basis for the use of this plant as an alternative for the prevention, management or control of cardiovascular diseases.

This is another medicine in a pot of soup! This is also binding us together culturally, I am sure by now, you all (non-Igbo) are eager to savour this vegetable.

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