Kantakari : A prickly medicinal weed

>> Thursday, August 19, 2010


Kantakari or Solanum virginianum syn. S. xanthocarpum as known taxonomically, is an upright, thorny perennial shrub or a sub-shrub which may either creep on ground or grow one to two meters in height. It belongs to family Solanaceae. There is another species named as Solanum atropureum which grows tall and bears white flowers. Another specific character of the species is its fruits that become as red as small ripened tomatoes. Aurveda describes kantakari as three types- white flowered, violet flowered and yellow flowered plants. White flowered plants grow tall and erect while violet flowered plants spread on the ground branching profusely. Different researchers name these plants differently and lots of confusion exists about correct nomenclature of different species of Kantakari. The plant bearing violet coloured flowers is considered to be native of India and is popularly known as bhatkataiya. However, the erect white flowered and light green plants have also acclimatized themselves in Indian conditions and are seen frequently here and there in waste land, along rail tracks, rods and wall sides.

Image 1 : Solanum virginianum with violet flowers

Image 2: Solanum attropureum in the wild

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Solanaceae is a family of flowering plants,many of which are edible; while others are poisonous (some have both edible and toxic parts). The name of the family comes from the Latin solanum meaning “the nightshade plant", but the further etymology of that word is unclear. It has been suggested that it originates from the Latin verbsolari, meaning "to soothe". This would presumably refer to alleged soothing pharmacological properties of some of the psychoactive species found in the family.

Solanum virginianum is a very prickly perennial herb, usually with woody base. It creeps on the ground and bears violet coloured flowers. Solanum atropureum is a tall and erect plant, as tall as about four to five feet or even more.
Stem is profusely branched and younger ones usually remain clothed with dense, stellate and tomentose hairs. Prickles are compressed straight, glabrous and shining, often 1 to 3 cm long.

 Leaves are ovate or elliptic, sinuate or subpinnatifid, obtuse or subacute, stellately hairy on both sides, armed on the midrib and often on the nerves with long yellow sharp prickles. Petiole is long, stellately hairy and prickly. The shape of its leaves is similar to that of the Oak, but these bear thorns.

Flowers are in cymes or some times reduced as solitary. The flowers are bisexual and actinomorphic or only slightly zygomorphic. The perianth and androecium whorls generally are isomerous and usually are 5- or sometimes 4- or 6-merous. The calyx is synsepalous, ranging from tubular to deeply cleft. Calyx tube is short, globose and lobes are linear-lanceolate, acute, densely hairy and prickly. The corolla is sympetalous and ranges from forms with a short tube and rather long, reflexed lobes to forms with a long tube and short lobes. Petals are purple in colour; lobes are deltoid, acute, and hairy outside. Anther filament is long, glabrous and anther opens by a pore.  The stamens are distinct, alternating with the lobes of the corolla, and adnate to the corolla tube or perigynous zone. The gynoecium consists of a single compound pistil of 2 carpels, a single style, and a superior ovary with 2 or rarely more locules by false partitioning, each with nearly always numerous axile ovules. Ovary is ovoid and glabrous. A nectary disk is generally present around the base of the ovary. The fruit is a berry or septicidal capsule. Berries are green and blotched. They are of the size of a golf ball and they become yellow on ripening. These remain surrounded by enlarged calyx. The fruits smell sweet and attract to livestock and wild herbivores. Seeds are glabrous. Though many herbivores fear from its thorns, goats spare these plants rarely.

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Weed status
This plant is considered an invasive weed which reduces biological diversity by displacing native plants and disrupting the ecological integrity. Prickles of the plant create a physical barrier to animals and prevent movement of humans and animals through infested areas. This plant contains a poisonous chemical known as Solasodine which is dangerous to humans also. It also serves as a host to some viruses that infect vegetable crops.

The plant is native to Argentina and Brazil. However, the violet flowered kantakari or Solanum virginianum is reportedly native to India. Its other species which bears purple flowers and creeps basically on ground is native to Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Indian Subcontinent, Indo-China, Malaysia etc.

 It is believed that Solanum atropureum was introduced to Florida in 1980s. In India it came along with grains and other crop produce and spread through out the country in a short period of time. It is a wasteland plant, but grows abundantly along with crop plants and garden bushes. It is mostly found near walls and at those places where building debris is dumped. The Federal Government has declared it a noxious weed and has designed a comprehensive programme for its eradication. In United States, it is basically found in open semi shaded areas, such as pastures, ditch banks, roadsides, recreational areas, citrus groves, sugarcane fields and wet areas of rangeland. It is typically found in poorly drained soils, and sandy soils. However, it can not tolerate waterloging.

Local names
Kantakari is variously named in different languages. In Hindi it is called as dwarf brinjal,In Wnglish it is commonly known as night shade. In Assamese and Bengali it is called as Kantakari,in Gujrati it is called as bethi bhoy ringani, in Kannad it is known as nelagulla, in Manipuri it is called as leipungkhanga, in Marathi it is called as dorall ringani, in Nepalese it is called as areri, in Oriya it is called as rengini bhejri, in Sanskrit it is called as agni damani,in Pujabi it is known as Chhoti mauhari, in Tamil it is known as Kantankattari, in Telugu it is called as gurrapu-gatt-apu etc.

Solanaceae are known for possessing a diverse range of alkaloids. As far as humans are concerned, these alkaloids can be desirable, toxic, or both, though they presumably evolved because they reduce the tendency of animals to eat the plants.

One of the most important groups of these compounds is called the tropane alkaloids. The term "tropane" comes from a genus in which they are found, Atropa   (the belladona genus). The belladonna genus is so named after theGreek Fate, Atropo   who cut the thread of life. This nomenclature signifies the toxicity and lethality that has long been known to be characteristic of these compounds.

Tropane alkaloids are also found in the Datura, Mandragora, and Brugmansia   genera, as well as many others in the Solanaceae family. Chemically, the molecules of these compounds have a characteristic bicyclic structure and include atropine, scopolamine, and Hyoscimine. Pharmacologically, they are the most powerful known anticholinergic in existence, meaning they inhibit the neurological  signals transmitted by the endogenous  neurotransmitter acetyle choline.Symptoms of overdose  may include dry mouth, dilated pupils,ataxia, urinary retention, hallucinations convulsion, coma, and death.

Despite the extreme toxicity of the tropanes, they are useful drugs when administered in extremely small dosages. They can reverse cholinergic poisoning, which can be caused by overexposure to pesticides, and warfare agents such as sarin and VX. More commonly, they can halt many types of allergic reactions. Scopomine , a commonly used Ophthalmological agent, dilates the pupils and thus facilitates examination of the interior of the eye. They can also be used as antiemetics in people prone to motion sickness or receiving chemotherapy. Atropine has a stimulant  effect on the central nervous system and heart, whereas scopolamine has a sedative effect.

An infamous alkaloid from the Solanaceae family is nicotine. Like the tropanes, its pharmacology acts on cholinergic neurons, but with the opposite effect (it is an agonist  as opposed to an antagonist). It has a higher specificity for nicotinic acetyle choline receptors  than other ACh proteins. Its effects are well known and many claim that it is the single most addictive substance on earth. Nicotine occurs naturally in the Nicotiana or Tobacco genus.

Another class of toxic substances found in this family is the glycoalkaloides, for example solanine which has occasionally been responsible for poisonings, in people who ate berries from species such as Solanum nigrum or solanum dulcamara, or green potatoes. The chemical in chili peppers responsible for the burning sensation is capsacin . Capsaicin affects only mammals, not birds. Pepper seeds can always survive the digestive tract of birds and their fruit becomes brightly colored once its seeds are mature enough to germinate. Capsaicin extract is used to make pepper spray, a useful deterrent against aggressive mammals.

Medicinal Properties
Solanum virginianum is an important medicinal weed which has been in traditional Ayurvedic, Unani, Chinese, and ethnoherbological healthcare systems since time immemorial. The decoction of roots is given in urinary diseases. Root extract is used in cough. Extract of whole plant is used to check hair falling.

Roots of this plant are used in Dashmularista, an ayurvedic tonic for lactating mothers. The extract of leaves is administered orally for the treatment of fever, cough, and asthma. The fumigation with the vapour of burning seeds is prescribed for curing tooth ache in traditional medicine. The leaf extract is also used as diuretic and the juice of berries of the plant are given internally for the treatment of soar throat. In Punjab the juice of leaves of this plant are given for the treatment of rheumatism. The decoction of the plant is used in the treatment of gonorrhea. It also promotes conception in females. A fine powder of the fruits of this plant mixed with honey is used for the treatment of chronic cough in children.

Ayurveda describes this plant as aperients, pungent, bitter, digestive, and astringent. The extract of roots of this plant is an effective diuretic, expectorant and febrifuge. The extract of leaves of this plant if taken internally is an important agent for the treatment of tenacious phlegm. It is also useful in the treatment of influenza, enteric fever, cardiotonic, and laxative. It is also used against difficult urination.

According to an other traditional medicinal system this plant is extremely useful in all types of coughs and problems related to respiratory system. This herb is useful in curing allergies leading to cough. This also forms a part of Dash Mul (Ten Roots). Roots, Stem, leaves, flowers and fruits are useful parts of this herb as Ayurvedic medicinal herb. Anticancer (fruit and plant); alleviates spasms, stimulates the cardiovascular system and antiarrhythmic (fruit); antiviral and spermicidal (plant); expectorant and carminative (plant).

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