Livestock Research for Rural Development 9 (4) 1997

Citation of this paper

Trichanthera gigantea (Humboldt & Bonpland.) Nees: A review

Mauricio Rosales



Trichanthera gigantea, a tree found in the Andean foothills of Colombia and in neighbouring countries of Central and South America adapts readily to a wide range of tropical ecosystems, and has been successfully introduced to Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. It is easily established from cuttings and the leaves and green stems can be harvested some 8 to 9 months after planting and subsequently at intervals of two to four months giving an annual fresh biomass yield of about 60 tonnes/ha (containing about 10 tonnes of dry matter and 2 tonnes of protein). Data on its chemical composition and in vitro and in sacco fermentability indicate that it has potential as feed for livestock. However, in contrast to most tree foliages it appears to be more palatable to pigs and rabbits than to small ruminants.

Key words: Trichanthera gigantea, fodder trees, nutritive value, review



Trichanthera gigantea is a tree of the Acanthaceae family and is apparently native to the Andean foothills of Colombia, but is also found along streams and in swampy areas from Costa Rica to northern South America (McDade 1983) and in wet forests from Central America to Peru and the Amazon basin, being also fairly common on certain islands in the Amazon estuary (Record and Hess 1972). It is a very promising fodder tree for a wide range of ecosystems. Its range has been reported from 0 to 2,000 (Murgueitio 1989), 800 to 1,600 (Acero 1985), and from 500 to 1,800 m above sea level (Jaramillo and Corredor 1989). It is well adapted to the humid tropics with an annual rainfall between 1,000 to 2,800 mm (Acero 1985; Jaramillo and Corredor 1989), but it has been found growing in the Cocho region with an annual rainfall between 5,000 to 8,000 mm/year (Murgueitio 1989). It grows well in acid (pH 4.5) and low fertility but well drained soils. It is often found along streams and springs (Acero, 1985).





Genera: Trichanthera species: Trichanthera gigantea

Common names are: Aro blanco, nacedero, rompebarriga (Leonard 1951), nacedero (Tolima), quiebrabarrigo (Antioquia), cajeto (Ocana), fune, madre de agua (Villavicencio) (Colombia); suiban, cenicero, (Bolivia); tuno (Guatemala); naranjillo (Venezuela); palo de agua (Panama); beque, pau santo (Brasil) (Perez-Arbelaez 1990).

It was first described by Mutis in 1779, who noted the hairy anthers. In 1801, Humboldt and Bonpland thought that this was a species of the genus Ruellia and classified it as Ruellia gigantea (all species of the genus Ruellia are herbaceous). In 1817, Kunt suggested the creation of the genus Trichanthera (Trich hair, anthera anther). In 1847, Nees, based on the early descriptions, named the genus Trichanthera (Perez- Arbelaez 1990). In 1930, Leonard described a new species, ,hera corymbosa, from a specimen collected in Norte de Santander, Colombia and ascribed it to the north east of Colombia and Venezuela. So far, these two species and one variety, the British Guiana form Trichanthera gigantea var. guianensis Gleason (Record and Hess 1972), have been described in the Trichanthera genus.

Key to the species:

Calix lobes rounded; inflorescence racemose, secund: T. gigantea Calix lobes obtuse or acute; inflorescence corymbose: T. corymbosa



Shrubs or trees (sometimes bushy and bearing adventitious roots) up to 5 m high (a height of 15 m with a trunk diameter of 25 cm has been reported from Colombia [Record and Hess 1972]), the top rounded; branches quadrate, the angles rounded, the tips minutely brown-tomentose; lenticels prominent; leaf blades ovate to oblong, up to 26 cm long and 14 cm wide, acuminate at apex, narrowed at base, glabrous, or the costa and veins pubescent; petioles 1 to 5 cm long; inflorescence a terminal compact more or less secund panicle 5 to 15 cm long and 4 to 5 cm broad, brown-tomentose; bracts triangular, 3 mm long; calyx 10 to 12 mm long, brown-tomentose, the segments 7 to 10 mm long, 5 mm wide, rounded at apex; corolla 3 to 4 cm. long, red and glabrous proximally, yellowish and silky-tomentose distally, red and glabrous within, the tube 1 to 1.5 cm long, the limb 2 to 3 cm. broad, the lobes oblong to oblong-ovate, 3 to 5 mm wide; ovary tomentose; style 4 to 5 cm long; capsule 1.5 to 2 cm long, obtuse at apex, silky-pubescent, the hairs closely appressed; retinacula 3 mm long, curved, truncate and erose at tip; mature seed 1 to 4 in each capsule, lenticular, 3 to 4 mm broad, glabrous (Leonard 1951).

Its wood has about the consistency of Red Maple (Acer rubrum). The pith is large and septate (Record and Hess 1972). Like all acanthaceous plants, Trichanthera has cystoliths, small mineral concretions appearing as minute short lines on the upper surface of the leaf blades, the upper portions of the stems, on the branches of the inflorescence and on the calyx (Leonard 1951).

Traditional uses

It had been used by the small scale farmers in Colombia as a medicinal plant to cure colic and hernia in horses, retained placenta in cows and intestinal obstructions in domestic animals (Perez- Arbelaez 1990; Vasquez 1987). Medicinal properties for humans have been also attributed to it. Its green stems are used to cure nephritis and its roots as a blood tonic. Its sprouts are used in maize porridge for human consumption (Vasquez 1987). In some regions it is used as a lactogenic drink for nursing mothers (Ruiz 1992). It has also been used as a fodder plant and as a live fence, for shade and for protection of water springs (Perez-Arbelaez 1990; Devia 1988; Gowda 1990).


Reproduction and propagation

In Panama, McDade (1983), by bagging the flowers prior to anthesis, demonstrated that the flowers do not self-pollinate as none of the stigmas of bagged flowers had any pollen grains. Other experiments shown that at least eight grains of pollen are necessary for fruit set and that mean seed set per fruit is very low (less than one of a maximum of eight), suggesting that pollination limits seed production by this species at this site. In Colombia, one species of bat, Glossophaga soricina, and several species of hummingbirds, ants and large bees have been observed visiting the flowers of Trichanthera from early to mid afternoon, when the anthesis occurs (Perez-Arbelaez 1990; Gomez and Murgueitio 1991). In the Cauca valley in Colombia, Acero (1985) reported the following characteristics of seeds and fruits: number of seeds/kg: 4,050,000; fruits/kg: 1,123; and seeds/fruit: 35 - 40. It has been reported that seeds do not germinate or are difficult to germinate (Acero 1985; Murgueitio 1989; Gowda 1990). The percentage germination of the seeds has been found to be very low, from 0 to 2% (CIPAV 1996).

Mangrove plants or mangroves (as distinct from mangrove communities or mangals) can be defined as tropical or subtropical ligneous plants that occur in intertidal and adjacent communities. Such plants exhibit various adaptations (eg: aerial roots in many) to their environment. Trichanthera gigantea often has prop roots. It may eventually be shown to occur as a mangrove as well. Mangrove trees are not currently known among other Latin American genera of the Acanthaceae family (Daniel 1988).

The mature stems, close to the ground, have the capability to form aerial roots that, when in contact with the soil, give rise to a new plant (Gomez and Murgueitio 1991). The propagation of this species by small scale farmers has been carried out using stakes, as these are easy to grow and it avoids the problems of scarcity of seeds and difficulty of germination (Gowda 1990). The greatest percentage germination (95%) in the tree nursery has been found using sticks 4 cm diameter and 50 cm long (Acero 1985). In other experiments, a 92% germination was found using sticks from 2.2 to 2.8 cm diameter and 20 cm long, with a minimum of 2 leaf buds. The percentage germination was less then 50% when using bigger sticks from 3.2 to 3.8 cm diameter and from 20 to 30 cm long (Jaramillo and River 1991). Mortality during this period has been found to be very low (3%) (Gowda 1990). The sticks should be obtained from the basal part of the young stems of the tree and kept in a humid and shaded place for one day and then planted in a substrate made of soil, sand and organic matter in proportions 5:1:2. The first leaves appear 27 - 29 days after planting and the trees are transplanted to the fields 50 days after that (Jaramillo and River 1991; Acero 1985).


Harvesting and foliage production

The first harvest can be made when the trees are 8 to 10 months old, giving production of foliage of 15.6 and 16.74 tonnes/ha (fresh matter basis) respectively at a density of 40,000 plants/ha (0.5 x 0.5 m spacing) (Jaramillo and River 1991). Trichanthera was harvested every three months, yielding 17 ton/ha per cutting (0.75 x 0.75 m spacing) (Gomez and Murgueitio 1991). Planted as a living fence, Trichanthera can yield 9.2 tonnes/year of fresh foliage per linear kilometre harvested every three months (1 x 1 m spacing) (CIPAV 1996). Yields of fresh foliage of 8 and 17 tonnes/ha per cutting have been reported when the cutting height was 0.6 and 1.0 m. respectively (Gomez and Murgueitio 1991). According to CIPAV (1996), the ideal height at cutting is 1.0 m. In regions were the temperature is high and precipitation low, better results are achieved by cutting at a height 1.3 to 1.5 m. Total biomass production (fresh foliage and young stems) has been calculated as 53 tonnes/ha per year (CIPAV 1996). Its vigorous regrowth, even with repeated cutting and without fertilizer applications, indicates that nitrogen fixation could occur in the root zone either through the action of mycorrhiza or other organisms (Preston 1992). Nodules in the root zone were observed suggesting the association with mycorrhiza or other organisms (Gomez and Murgueitio 1991). Significant populations of mycorrhiza (64 spores/24 g soil) have been reported (CIPAV 1996). Trichanthera gigantea responds almost linearly to nitrogen from urea (up to 240 kg N/ha per year. The optimum level appears to be 160 kg/ha per year (Nguyen and Phan 1995).


Nutritive value

The chemical composition of the leaves and stems of Trichanthera gigantea is summarized in Table 1. The thin stems are included as they are also consumed by the animals. The crude protein content of the leaves varies from 15 to 22% and apparently most of this is true protein. The calcium content has been found to be particularly high compared to other fodder trees (Rosales and Galindo 1987; Rosales et al 1992). This can be explained by the presence of cystoliths in the leaves, characteristic of the Acanthaceae family, as described above. This can explain the use that the small scale farmers in Colombia make of Trichanthera gigantea as a lactogenic drink and suggests a good potential for feeding lactating animals.

In a qualitative screening test (biochemical preliminary test) for anti-nutritional compounds, no alkaloids or condensed tannins were found in Trichanthera and the saponin and steroid contents were low (Rosales and Galindo 1987). In other, more precise, tests the contents of total phenols and steroids were found to be 450 and 6.2 ppm, respectively (Rosales et al 1989). The great variation in its total phenol content, from 450 to 50,288 ppm (Table 1), could be one reason for the apparent variation in its nutritional value.

The degradability of Trichanthera has also been determined (see Table 2).

More recently a more complete characterisation of the nutritive value of Trichanthera gigantea has been accomplished. Results are shown in Table 3.

Analysis of its carbohydrate fraction revealed that this plant had a high content of water soluble carbohydrates, total and reducing sugars when compared with other fodder trees and shrubs. It also showed a surprisingly high amount of starch and its neutral detergent fibre was found to be relatively low. The large amounts of non-structural and storage carbohydrates, combined with the low levels of structural carbohydrates, may explain the good biological results found with monogastrics. Results in Table 3 show only the presence of phenols with great capacity to react with protein. No condensed tannins were found (tests included a characterisation of phenolic peaks by means of a spectrophotometer). This suggests that tannins from Trichanthera may be of the hydrolysable type. The protein in the leaves has a good amino acid balance as illustrated in Table 4.

These results were compared to the amino acid profile of Azolla spp. by Preston (1995). It was found that although the amino acid composition of Azolla was slightly better, both had an excellent balance of amino acids, better than that of soya bean. The potential fermentability of Trichanthera has been assessed by the gas production method (Table 5). The results showed that the fermentation of this plant species was among the highest when compared to other fodder tree and shrub species. This is related to the high amounts of carbohydrates as shown in Table 3. This is also in agreement with the high rumen degradability of the leaves of Trichanthera. In both cases, a very rapid fermentation occurs, illustrated here by the rate of fermentation of the rapidly fermentable fraction.


Feeding value

Rabbits and Guinea pigs

In feeding trials with 35-day-old New Zealand rabbits commercial concentrate was substituted with leaves of Trichanthera gigantea at 10, 20 and 30% levels. The best biological responses were obtained with the level of 30%. At this level the live weight gain was 32 g/day and the feed conversion was 4.29 compared with the same live weight gain (32 g/day) and a feed conversion of 3.49 when concentrate was used alone (Arango 1990). A live weight gain of 9 g/day and a feed conversion of 4.7 have been obtained in guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) fed with Trichanthera foliage, sugar cane juice and 30 g/day of protein supplement (40% protein) (CIPAV 1996).


The live weight gain of growing hens fed a diet of maize, earthworms and Trichanthera leaves was 8.4 g/day. Those fed with maize, earthworms, soya bean and Trichanthera gained 16.8 g/day. The gain of the control group (commercial concentrate) was 17.4 g/day, but this had the highest production costs (CIPAV 1996).


Pigs eat very well the leaves of Trichanthera, especially during pregnancy. However, when eaten in amounts that theoretically supply all the protein needs (about 3 kg/day), pregnant pigs rapidly lost body condition when given only Trichanthera as a supplement to sugar cane juice. Up to 30% replacement of the soya bean protein by Trichanthera leaves appears to be feasible (Preston 1995). Results, in terms of litter size and gain to weaning, from replacing 75% of the soya bean meal with Trichanthera in cane juice diets for pregnant sows have been very encouraging. Litter size did not differ from that of the control group and gain to weaning was slightly higher, with high levels of the leaves (Mejia 1989). In another experiment, leaves from Trichanthera gigantea were used as a partial replacement for soya bean (extracted meal or cooked whole seeds) during the pregnancy phase of sows fed a basal diet of sugar cane juice. Trichanthera was offered ad libitum and complemented with either soya bean meal or cooked whole soya bean seeds. The control treatment received only cooked whole soya bean seeds as the protein source. There were no significant differences in productive traits (days empty, numbers, weights and growth rate of the piglets) due to treatment. Protein conversion rate (kg protein/kg of weaned piglets) was best on the Trichanthera+cooked soya beans (0.425) and worst on the Trichanthera+soya bean meal. The control treatment was intermediate (0.608). It was concluded that the leaves of Trichanthera gigantea can provide about 30% of the protein (about 1 kg/day of fresh leaves) of the diet of pregnant sows fed sugar cane juice (Sarria 1994). Results with growing pigs have been less satisfactory. Performance was reduced at all levels of substitution of soya bean meal by Trichanthera leaves. Rate of live weight gain decreased (625, 584, 522 and 451 g/day) and feed conversion deteriorated (3.04, 3.27, 3.63 and 3.89) with increasing substitution (0, 5, 15 and 25%) of soya bean protein by Trichanthera leaves. Intake of cane juice, of protein and of total dry matter decreased with increasing substitution by Trichanthera leaves (Sarria et al 1991).

Sheep and goats

A cafeteria trial using foliage of Gliricidia sepium, Trichanthera gigantea and Leucaena leucocephala was carried out with weaned lambs (African hair sheep breed) to establish their preferences. Relative intakes (kg DM/100 kg live weight/day) were: Gliricidia sepium 1.84, Trichanthera gigantea 0.73, and Leucaena leucocephala 0.19. The results suggested that the factor which most influenced intake of a particular tree foliage was the degree to which the animals were accustomed to eating it and highlighted the need to give the animals an adequate time to adapt to such feeds before they are able to consume appreciable quantities (Mejia and Vargas 1993). The need for an adequate period of adaptation to foliage of Trichanthera gigantea may be the explanation for the very low intake and loss of liveweight (-67 g/d) by growing goats when fed only foliage of Trichanthera gigantea and a multi-nutrient block supplying urea and minerals (Keir et al 1997). However, the need for adaptation does not relate to all tree foliages as in the same experiment the goats had a high feed intake and gained weight (+67 g/day) when given the foliage from the Jack fruit tree ((Artocarpus heterophyllus).


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Received 10 July 1997

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