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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Bitter-apple" and spelling variants redirect here. This is also used for the poisonous Soda Apple, a species of nightshade.
Citrullus colocynthis from Koehler's Medicinal-Plants (1887)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Cucurbitales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Genus: Citrullus
Species: C. colocynthis
Binomial name
Citrullus colocynthis
(L.) Schrad.

The colocynth, also known as bitter apple, bitter cucumber, egusi, or vine of Sodom, is a viny plant native to the Mediterranean Basin and Asia, especially Turkey (especially in regions such as İzmir), Nubia, and Trieste. It originally bore the scientific name Colocynthis citrullus, but is now classified as Citrullus colocynthis.



Its fruit, which is lemon-sized, yellowish, green-mottled, spongy, and extremely bitter, is a powerful hepatic stimulant and hydragogue cathartic. It is used as a strong laxative. In overdoses, the fruit can cause violent, sharp pains in the bowels, with dangerous inflammation. Given that the colocynth grows wild in region of Israel, these symptoms would be consistent with the "wild gourd" mentioned in 2 Kings 4:39-40. It is seldom used alone, but in combination with other cathartics has been a standard remedy. It has been used alone in obstinate edema, amenorrhea, and in cerebral derangements. A normal dose of fluid extracted from the fruit pulp is 2 to 5 minims, and for the powdered extract, 1 to 2 grains.[1]

Seed constituents

Its seed, which is edible but similarly bitter, nutty-flavored, and rich in fat and protein, is eaten whole or used as an oilseed. The oil content of the seeds is 17-19% (w/w), consisting of 67-73% linoleic acid, 10-16% oleic acid, 5-8% stearic acid, and 9-12% palmitic acid. It is estimated that the oil yield is approximately 400 L/hectare.[2]


The characteristic small seed of the colocynth have been found in several early archeological sites in northern Africa and the Near East, specifically at Neolithic Armant, Nagada (dated 3650-2850 BC), and Hierakonopolis (3500-3300 BC) in Egypt; at sites dating from 3800 BC to Roman times in Libya; and the pre-pottery Neolithic levels of the Nahal Hemar Caves in Israel.[3] Zohary and Hopf speculate that "these finds indicate that the wild colocynth was very probably used by humans prior to its domestication."[4]

Desert Bedouins are said to make a type of bread from the ground seeds. There is some confusion between this species and the closely-related watermelon, whose seeds may be used in much the same way. In particular the name "egusi" may refer to either or both plants (or more generically to other cucurbits) in their capacity as seed crops, or to a soup made from these seeds and popular in West Africa.

A traditional food plant in Africa, this little-known vegetable has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.[5]

Pre-modern medicinal uses

In pre-modern medicine it was an ingredient in the electuary called confectio hamech, or diacatholicon, and most other laxative pills; and in such cases as required purging, it was very successful. It is one of the most violent purgative drugs known; insomuch that it excoriates the passages to such a degree as to sometimes draw blood, and induce a so-called "superpurgation". Sometimes, it was taken boiled in water, or beer, in obstruction of the menses, which was considered successful in strong constitutions. Some women used it in the same manner, in the beginning of pregnancy, to cause an abortion, which often occurred due to the violence of its operation.[6] Its usage for this purpose is documented in ancient times; for example, the following recipe was found in the Ebers medical papyrus in Egypt, dated to about 1550 BCE:[7]

To cause a woman to stop [terminate] pregnancy in the first, second or third period [trimester]: unripe fruit of acacia; colocynth; dates; triturate with 6/7th pint of honey. Moisten a pessary of plant fiber [with the mixture] and place in the vagina.
Ebers papyrus, c. 1550 BCE; translation from Eve's Herbs, by John M. Riddle[7]

The powder of colocynth was sometimes used externally, with aloes, etc, in unguents, plasters, etc, with remarkable success against parasitic worms; and some, for the same purpose, recommended that the pulp be used as an enema. In iliac passion, enemas of colocynth were used effectively where most other pre-modern medicines had failed.[6]

Troches, or lozenges, made of colocynth were called "troches of alhandal". They were prepared by cutting the colocynth to a small size, and reducing it to a fine powder in a mortar, rubbed with oil of sweet almonds; adding gum tragacanth, and mastic afterwards.[6]

Remedies for counteracting colocynth have included emetics, such as zinc sulfate, and apomorphine, if caught early; later, demulcents and opiates, with stimulants to combat collapse.[1]


  1. ^ a b Davis & Company Parke. Manual of therapeutics. Parke, Davis & Co. 1909. pp. 262-266.
  2. ^ "Evaluation of Citrullus colocynthis, a desert plant native in Israel, as a potential source of edible oil"
  3. ^ Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf, Domestication of Plants in the Old World, third edition (Oxford: University Press, 2000), p. 194.
  4. ^ Zohary and Hopf, ibid.
  5. ^ National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Egusi". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa. 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6. Retrieved 2008-07-17.  
  6. ^ a b c This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.
  7. ^ a b Riddle, John M. Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Harvard University Press. 1999. ISBN 0-674-27026-6.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

COLOCYNTH, COLOQUINTIDA or Bitter Apple, Citrullus Colocynthis, a plant of the natural order Cucurbitaceae. The flowers are unisexual; the male blossoms have five stamens with sinuous anthers, the female have reniform stigmas, and an ovary with three large fleshy placentas. The fruit is round, and about the size of an orange; it has a thick yellowish rind, and a light, spongy and very bitter pulp, which yields the colocynth of druggists. The seeds, which number from 200 to 300, and are disposed in vertical rows on the three parietal placentas of the fruit, are flat and ovoid and dark-brown; they are used as food by some of the tribes of the Sahara, and a coarse oil is expressed from them. The pulp contains only about 3.5% of fixed oil, whilst the seeds contains about 15%. The foliage resembles that of the cucumber, and the root is perennial. The plant has a wide range, being found in Ceylon, India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, North Africa, the Grecian Archipelago, the Cape Verd Islands, and the south-east of Spain. The term pakkuoth, translated "wild gourds" in 2 Kings iv. 39, is thought to refer to the fruit of the colocynth; but, according to Dr Olaf Celsius (1670-1756), a Swedish theologian and naturalist, it signifies a plant known as the squirting cucumber, Ecbalium Elaterium. The commercial colocynth consists of the peeled and dried fruits. In the preparation of the drug, the seeds are always removed from the pulp. Its active principle is an intensely bitter amorphous or crystalline glucoside, colocynthin, C56H84023, soluble in water, ether and alcohol, and decomposable by acids into glucose and a resin, colocynthein, C40 H 54013 Colocynthein also occurs as such in the drug, together with at least two other resins, citrullin and colocynthiden. Colocynthin has been used as a hypodermic purgative - a class of drugs practically nonexistent, and highly to be desired in numberless cases of apoplexy. The dose recommended for hypodermic injection is fifteen minims of a 1% solution in glycerin.

The British Pharmacopeia contains a compound extract of colocynth, which no one ever uses; a compound pill - dose 4 to 8 grains - in which oil of cloves is included in order to relieve the griping caused by the drug; and the Pilula Colocynthidis et Hyoscyami, which contains 2 parts of the compound pill to 1 of extract of hyoscyamus. This is by far the best preparation, the hyoscyamus being added to prevent the pain and griping which is attendant on the use of colocynth alone. The official dose of this pill is 4 to 8 grains, but the most effective and least disagreeable manner in which to obtain its action is to give four two-grain pills at intervals of an hour or so.

In minute doses colocynth acts simply as a bitter, but is never given for this purpose. In ordinary doses it greatly increases the secretion of the small intestine and stimulates its muscular coat. The gall-bladder is also stimulated, and the biliary function of the liver, so that colocynth is both an excretory and a secretory cholagogue. The action which follows hypodermic injection is due to the excretion of the drug from the blood into the alimentary canal. Though colocynth is a drastic hydragogue cathartic, it is desirable, as a rule, to supplement its action by some drug, such as aloes, which acts on the large intestine, and a sedative must always be added. Owing to its irritant properties, the drug must not be used habitually, but it is very valuable in initiating the treatment of simple chronic constipation, and its pharmacological properties obviously render it especially useful in cases of hepatitis and congestion of the liver.

Colocynth was known to the ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic physicians; and in an Anglo-Saxon herbal of the 11th century (Cockayne, Leechdoms, &c., vol. i. p. 325, London, 1864), the following directions are given as to its use: - "For stirring of the inwards, take the inward neshness of the fruit, without the kernels, by weight of two pennies; give it, pounded in lithe beer to be drunk, it stirreth the inwards."

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