|Euphorbia candelabrum in the Serengeti|
Euphorbia candelabrum is a succulent species of plant in the family Euphorbiaceae, one of several plants commonly known as candelabra tree. It is closely related to 3 other species of Euphorbia in particular; Euphorbia ingens in the dry regions of South Africa, Euphorbia conspicua from western Angola, and Euphorbia abyssinica which is native to a number of countries including Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Its Latin name derives from its growth habit, often considered to resemble the branching of a candelabrum. Candelabra trees can be found in dry deciduous and evergreen open wooded grasslands, on rocky slopes and on the rare occasion, termite mounds. Trees typically grow to be 12 metres in height however some specimens have been recorded to grow up to 20 metres tall. E. candelabrum is endemic to the Horn of Africa and eastern Africa along the East African Rift system. It is known in Ethiopia by its Amharic name, qwolqwal, or its Oromo name, adaamii.
Euphorbia candelabrum was used in traditional Ethiopian medicine. Mixed with clarified honey, its sap was used as a purgative to cure syphilis, and when mixed with other medicinal plants as a salve to treat the symptoms of leprosy. This plant currently has negligible commercial value, although Richard Pankhurst documents two different attempts near Keren in Eritrea to collect its gum before 1935, but neither attempt proved commercially viable.
In terms of agro-forestry purposes, Euphorbia candelabrum has been used in firewood, timber, and fencing. Its wood is light and durable with a number of purposes including roofing, tables, doors, matches, boxes, mortars, musical instruments and saddles.
When structural damage occurs, Euphorbia candelabrum trees release an abundant amount of milky-white latex, which has a rubber content of 12.5%. This latex is extremely toxic due to its skin irritant and carcinogenic diterpene derivatives, mainly phorbol esters. In addition to irritation of the skin and mucous membranes, E. candelabrum latex may cause blindness if brought into contact with the eyes.
Various components of E. candelabrum plants can be utilized as poisons. The Ovaherero people of Namibia use its latex as an ingredient in arrow poison to increase lethality, while the Damara people will often use E. candelabrum latex extract or freshly pounded branches to poison water holes and streams. Its flowers produce nectar but ingestion of E. candelabrum honey can cause a burning sensation in the mouth and drinking water only intensifies it.
Although Euphorbia candelabrum is known to be quite toxic, it has multiple medicinal uses. Its latex contains highly irritant ingenol diterpene esters which proves to be both harmful and helpful. On top of blistering and irritation, ingenol products demonstrate tumour-promoting activity, causing cells to resist apoptosis and continue multiplying. However, ingenol is beneficial in the respect that it encourages anti-HIV and anti-leukemia cellular activity which protects T-cells.
In addition to being used as a purgative to cure syphilis or a salve to treat leprosy, Euphorbia candelabrum sap has been used in the treatment of coughs, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV infections. It has the ability to be mixed with fat and applied topically to heal wounds, sores, and warts.
E. candelabrum latex is an effective abortifacient and a concoction containing pith from the branches may be given to women after childbirth to assist in the expulsion of the placenta. Its roots can be boiled and drinking this fluid is said to help with stomach aches, constipation, and infertility. Ash from the stems has also been used to treat eye infections.
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- Richard Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Medical History of Ethiopia (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 1990), pp. 76, 91
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