Jatropha gossypiifolia

bellyache bush


Jatropha gossypiifolia

L. 1753

pronounced: jat-ROFF-uh goss-ip-ih-FOH-lee-uh

(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)


common name: bellyache bush

Jatropha is derived from the Greek words ιατρος (iatros), a healer, and τροφη (trophé) food; gossypiifolia is from the Latin words gossypion, a name used by Pliny the Elder to describe cotton, and folium, a leaf – having leaves like cotton.

Jatropha (and in particular Jatropha curcas) has, up until fairly recently, been used only as a remedy for constipation. It is an ugly, fast-growing, poisonous weed; but it is showing promise of being a really good provider of biodiesel fuel. This hardy plant, resilient to pests and resistant to drought, produces seeds with up to 40% oil content. When the seeds are crushed, the resulting jatropha oil can be burnt in a standard diesel car, while the residue can be processed into biomass to power electricity-generating plants. The jatropha grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Whereas other biofuel feedstocks, such as palm oil or corn or sugar cane for ethanol, require reasonable soils on which other crops might be grown, jatropha is prepared to put down roots almost anywhere. It can grow in the poorest wasteland, generating topsoil and helping to halt erosion, but also absorbing carbon dioxide as it grows, thus making it carbon neutral even when burnt. A jatropha bush can live for up to 50 years, producing oil from the age of 2, and it can survive up to 3 years of drought. The oil giant BP, in association with the British biofuels company DI Oils, hopes to have 1,000,000 hectares under cultivation within the next few years. In 2008 Air New Zealand successfully completed a test flight using a 50/50 mixture of jatropha oil and Jet A1 in one of the 4 engines of a 747 Jumbo Jet, and plans to use the new fuel for 10% of its needs by 2013. Continental Airlines undertook similar experiments in 2009.

The Jatropha System is an experiment being undertaken in Mali. Hedges of jatropha are planted around the cultivated fields. This helps control wind and water erosion, and also acts as a stock-proof hedge which the livestock will not eat. Oil pressed from the fruits makes excellent soap (and only a fairly primitive press is needed), and latex from the leaves is used for making herbal medicines. The residue from the oil pressing is excellent fertilizer for increasing crop production. So we have a positive reciprocity between raw material / energy production and environment / food production, i.e., the more energy the jatropha hedges produce, the more the increased food crops are protected from animals and erosion; and additional income is created, through the sale of the soap and the medicines, mainly for the women of the village.

Mali was part of the French colonial empire, and its official language is still French. Jatropha is known there as pourghère. In the multi-functional platform concept, pourghère oil is used to fuel a small 8 horsepower single cylinder engine. The engine provides mechanical power to mills (for agricultural processing, easing the heavy workload of the women), battery chargers (so people can have light, radio and TV in their homes, even off the grid), alternators (for village electrification) and the oil press (to provide the fuel for the engine and the raw material for the soap production). The potential benefit of pourghère technology to Mali, a country dependent on imported fossil fuels, is immense.

dangerous 2Jatropha gossypiifolia, the bellyache bush, is a very nasty noxious weed. The fruits and foliage of the Bellyache Bush are toxic to humans and animals. It is a major weed in Australia, forming dense thickets crowding out other species. It was probably introduced as an ornamental in the late 1800s. Consumption of the plants, especially during droughts, causes the death of livestock. It is an erect shrub or small tree to 4 m high, deciduous in dry conditions. The stems are hairy, non-woody. The leaves are initially purplish, but turn green as they mature; sticky, with fine hairs on the margin, 5.5–14 cm long, 7.5–12.5 cm wide, rounded in outline; the leaf stalks are 4.5–11.5 cm long. The fruit is an oblong capsule, initially green, ripening to dark brown, and mostly 3 or 4 seeded. The seeds are brown and slightly mottled, and the roots are fleshy and tuberous. The handling of this plant should be avoided.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010-2013
Page last updated 24th January 2019