The Ubiquitous Genus Phyllanthus

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sometimes its just fun to put a name on something everybody has in his yard.  This is a quick discussion of Chamber Bitter (Phyllanthus urinaria) and Mascarene Islands Leaf Flower (Phyllanthus tenellus).

These plants are among the most common weeds in flowerbeds and yards in the New Orleans region.  There is a tradeoff for their annoying abundance – they pull up by the roots very easily, and that is nice.

They are members of the Euphorbiaceae (spurge family), and neither are native to the U.S.  They are indeed common weeds, popping up in every nook and cranny from early spring to late fall.  As most weeds in our region, they persist through most mild winters. 

There are about 600 species of Phyllanthus worldwide.  Some sources say there is no reported toxicity in these plants to humans, but Dr. Mark Plotkin, renowned ethnobotanist who is founding President of The Amazon Conservation Team and author of “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” says P. piscatorum is used by the Yanomamï Amerindian women for its piscicidal (fish killing) qualities.  Herbalists attribute many miracle remedies to other Phyllanthus species:  kidney and gall stones, jaundice, fever, headache, pinkeye, flu, dysentery, diabetes, gonorrhea, urinary tract and bladder infections, hepatitis B, and more. 

Regarding our two local species, let’s define their parts.  They have a normally vertical stem to which leaves are attached.  A leaf is composed of a petiole (the central rib of the leaf) to which leaflets attach alternately (the bases not being exactly opposite the leaflet on the other side of the petiole).  This type of leaf is termed compound, and you have seen it commonly on legumes such as mimosa trees. For both species, the leaflets fold when touched (thigmonastic movement) and in response to light (nyctinastic movement).

They have flowers that ripen into fruits after being fertilized, and their placement on the petiole helps identify them to species as discussed below.  Both of these species have dense, but shallow, roots.

Because the species are very shade tolerant and produce copious numbers of seeds, they are perfect weeds.  Although they are annuals, their opportunities to often grow throughout the winter almost makes them perennials in New Orleans.

The species are easily distinguished. 

Chamber Bitter has dense leaflets that are wider near the tips than at the base and tend to overlap one another along their margins, giving it the appearance of a dense, soft little fern-like plant.  Their stems are often somewhat twisted and growing laterally along their lengths.  Its flowers and fruit line up below the green feather-like leaf petioles.

Mascarene Islands Leaf Flower (so named after its Indian Ocean origin) has its leaflets more oval and smaller, thus rarely touching one another.  Their stems are erect and brown (red where the leaves touch the stem), and they bear their flowers and fruit on pedicils that extend above the leaves.

My attention was originally drawn to this genus by Chamber Bitter.  Its scientific name, Phyllanthus urinaria, suggests that it has something to do with the urinary tract.  I have suffered several times from kidney stones, and anything that might alleviate that threat in the future instantly has my attention.

In the herbal world, this species is touted to treat and prevent kidney stones, the source of two of its popular names – shatterstone and stone breaker.  Googling it reveals sources of dried leaves that are taken as a tea.  I do not recommend it at present, since I haven’t taken it myself.  But I’ve ordered some, and will be glad to share my experiences.

As a believer in native herbal medicines, and a user of many, I have high hopes for relief from a very painful malady.  Stay tuned!

Mine or a quote?  - All these facts make this genus an excellent example of how complicated the use of herbals is, and underscores the brilliance of the native cultures who have spent centuries opening their secrets.

The leaflets of Phyllanthus close when touched or in the evenings.  Note how the fruits on this P. tenellus are protected by the folded leaflets. Photo by Bob Thomas

Fruiting bodies along the lower side of the petiole of Phyllanthus urinaria- a tell-tale characteristic. Photo by Bob Thomas

 Mascarene Islands Leaf Flower, Phyllanthus tenellus, showing its fruiting bodies extending above the leaves on the ends of pedicils. Photo by Bob Thomas

Note the dark, woody stems of mature Phyllanthus tenellus. Photo by Bob Thomas

The feather-like leaves and leaflets of Chamber Bitter Phyllanthus urinaria. Photo by Bob Thomas

Fruiting bodies and minute flowers of Phyllanthus urinaria. Photo by Bob Thomas