Jatropha multifida

jatropha tree


Jatropha multifida

L. 1753

pronounced: jat-ROFF-uh mull-tih-FY-duh

(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)

common names: jatropha tree, coral plant, physic nut

Jatropha comes from the Greek ιατρος (iatros), a healer, and τροφη (trophé) food, while multifida is from the Latin multifidus, many-cleft, referring to the leaves.

This spectacular plant comes from the Americas, from Mexico south to Brazil, and the West Indies. It is a shrub or a small tree with a single trunk, a loose spreading crown, and a typical height in cultivation of 1.8 – 3 m, although it can grow up to 6 m tall.

The very distinctive leaves are large, growing up to 30 cm wide. They are deeply cut into 7 – 11 narrow lobes, with the margins of each lobe themselves dissected into narrow, pointed segments. They are very similar to the leaves of some species of Manihot. They are dark green above and whitish beneath.

The copious sap exuded by the plant may be milky or clear, and may cause dermatitis if it comes into contact with the skin.

The flowers are very small, bright coral-red and borne in flat-topped clusters on long stalks, often held high above the foliage.

dangerous 2The fruits are bright yellow, 3-angled, about 2.5 cm long, and usually contain 3 seeds. Though these fruits have a sweet and pleasant taste, they are highly poisonous. If eaten, they will produce symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea, cramps, numbness and paralysis in the legs and arms. As well, there may be effects similar to those caused by the drug atropine – diminished sweating, dry skin and mouth, slight dilation of the pupils, slight increase in heartbeat and a flushed face. If the leaves or sap are ingested, they will produce similar symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea, though not as severe. The cause of the poisoning is a chemical called curcin. For all ingestions, urgent medical assistance should be sought.

Propagation can be from cuttings or from seed. On good soils, the plant may self-seed, and become invasive.

In parts of Africa, the oil extracted from the plant is used to treat parasitic infestations and rheumatism.

This is an excellent container plant for a sunny patio or at poolside, or even indoors. It is a welcome shrub in mixed shrub borders, and is often used in cactus and succulent gardens. Best results come from plants that get regular watering in summer and a dry period in winter, during which time leaf drop is natural. The plant is fast-growing, but is only moderately tolerant to salt.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Arcadia 2010
Page last updated 24th January 2019