Bellyache bush is an upright shrub to small tree species. Its hairy and somewhat succulent stems contain a watery sap. The sticky leaves are purple when young and mature to a dark green. Jatropha gossypifolia‘s flowers are unisexual and dark red. When pollinated, the female flowers develop into fleshy, three-lobed capsules, each containing one seed.
Jatropha gossypifolia‘s (PDF) native range extends from Mexico to southern Brazil, but it has been introduced to tropical countries around the world. It is considered a serious weed in northern Australia, where it forms dense thickets in riparian areas. Bellyache bush has qualities that are typical of an invasive plant. It thrives in disturbed ecosystems, where it can reproduce at an alarming rate. Each plant can produce up to 12000 seeds. These seeds form inside capsules that explode when ripe, flinging each seed up to 13 meters away from its mother plant. With reports of up to 400 germinating seedlings per square meter, the species can quickly establish or crowd out competitors. Jatropha gossypifolia can also reproduce vegetatively, allowing it to easily colonize watercourses.
Despite these invasive qualities, Jatropha gossypifolia also has positive features. The Brazilian government includes Jatropha gossypifolia in a list of the 71 native plant species most worthy of study for pharmacological benefit. The name Jatropha is derived from the Greek words for doctor (jatros) and food (trophe). A review of Jatropha gossypifolia written by Félix-Silva et. al. (2014) lists a large range of traditional uses of this species, including its application as an analgesic, antiseptic, and laxative. Some of the traditional uses listed in this review could be said to be treating bellyaches’, but the authors also discuss its potentially toxic qualities. I am not able to figure out (from this study or any other source) whether the common name bellyache bush comes from an ability to either treat or cause a bellyache.
One of the studies about bellyache bush that impressed me the most was published in the European Journal of General Medicine in 2005. Nigerians often use the stem latex of Jatropha gossypifolia to stop bleeding, and this prompted Oduola et al. to investigate the coagulant properties of this species. One of the methods used was both simple and effective. The researchers used a lancet to make three punctures on someone’s arms (whose, they did not say). One arm served as a control, while the wounds on the other arm were each treated with one drop of Jatropha gossypifolia latex. The bleeding times for the control and treated arms were remarkably different (and statistically significant). The wounds on the control arm bled for 2 minutes and 20 seconds, while those that were nursed with Jatropha gossypifolia latex bled for only two seconds.