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This family, which occurs in tropical and sub-tropical area, is closely related to the Capparaceae (in which it was formerly included) and to the Cruciferae. It comprises some 275 species in 12 genera. Most are annual herbs, but some are shrubs, trees, or climbers.

As in the case of the Capparaceae and the Cruciferae, members of this family yield isothiocyanates ("mustard oils") when damaged, these compounds being produced from glucosinolates by enzymatic activity. Typically, members of this family yield methyl isothiocyanate from methyl glucosinolate (glucocapparin). Such compounds have skin irritant activity; contact allergenicity has also been reported (Mitchell 1974c, Mitchell & Jordan 1974, Richter 1980).

Cleome L.
Spider Plant

This genus of 150 species is distributed throughout tropical and warm temperate regions. Some species bear prickles.

The seeds of the following species have been reported to contain glucocapparin and other thioglucosides from which methyl isothiocyanate and other mustard oils are released when the seeds are crushed (Kjær 1960, Ahmed et al. 1972):

Cleome arabica L.
Cleome arborea Kunth
Cleome gigantea L.
Cleome graveolens Raf.
Cleome integrifolia Torr. & Gray
Cleome monophylla L.
Cleome ornithopodioides L.
Cleome pilosa Benth.
Cleome rosea Poit.
Cleome speciosissima Deppe
Cleome trachysperma Pax & K.Hoffm. 

Pammel (1911) refers to the irritant properties of Cleome graveolens.

Cleome felina L.f.

This species has vesicant properties (Chopra & Badhwar 1940, Behl et al. 1966).

Cleome spinosa Jacq.
[syns Cleome pungens Willd., Cleome heptaphylla L.]
Spider Flower

This species is a half-hardy plant which is becoming increasingly popular in European gardens. It bears stipular prickles at the bases of the petioles.

A female gardener developed dermatitis of the hands from contact with the plant. Patch tests with the leaf were positive (2+) in the patient and in 2 controls. Both chloroform and alcohol extracts of C. spinosa plants elicited weak irritant effects in patch tests on 2/5 controls. Scarification of the skin and irradiation with a quartz lamp served to intensify the reactions which were then observed in all 5 controls. Chromatographic examination of the extracts suggested the presence of coumarin-like compounds but these were not identified (Szegő & Maácz 1968). One of the authors (A.J.R.) has also seen a case of contact dermatitis from this plant.

The seeds of this species contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the plant material is crushed (Kjær 1960).

Cleome viscosa L.
[syns Polanisia viscosa Wight & Arn., Cleome icosandra L., Polanisia icosandra DC.]
Viscid Spider Flower, Wild Mustard

This species is frequently confused with Gynandropsis gynandra Briq.; the plants may be found growing alongside one another (Behl et al. 1966).

The brown-black seeds are occasionally used for culinary purposes. Both the seeds and the leaves have rubefacient and vesicant properties (Chopra & Badhwar 1940, Behl et al. 1966). Nadkarni (1976) records that the bark is irritant and acrid; externally it is rubefacient and vesicant. The bruised plant is used in western Africa and elsewhere as a counter-irritant and vesicant (Dalziel 1937, Quisumbing 1951).

The seeds contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the plant material is crushed (Kjær 1960, Hasapis et al. 1981).

Gynandropsis gynandra Briq.
[syns Cleome gynandra L., Cleome pentaphylla L., Gynandropsis pentaphylla DC.]
Small Spider-flower, Stinking Miss, Coyers, African Spider-flower

Quisumbing (1951) refers to the use of the bruised leaf as a counter-irritant. Dalziel (1937) and Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) note that in west Africa, the bruised leaf of Gynandropsis pentaphylla has been applied as a rubefacient, vesicant, and counter-irritant. The rubefacient and vesicant properties of the seeds and leaves are also noted by Chopra & Badhwar (1940), Behl et al. (1966), and Oliver (1959).

According to Landor (1940), the plant referred to as Gynandropsis gynandra or G. pentaphylla is known among Malays as maman puteh, maman hantu, or kemaman; and among Tamils as velai or thair-velai. It is used by many as a vegetable, and the crushed fresh leaves are used as a counter-irritant. It is a common Malayan weed whose sap contains an irritant oil which is destroyed by cooking. Landor (1940) described a case where the leaves were crushed between the two hands and rubbed on an axillary boil. A severe dermatitis soon followed. A patch test to the crushed and moistened leaves produced a strongly positive bullous reaction; the uncrushed leaves produced no reaction.

The seeds have been found to contain glucocapparin from which the mustard oil methyl isothiocyanate is released when the seed is crushed (Kjær 1960, Hasapis et al. 1981).

Polanisia uniglandulosa DC.
[syn. Cleome uniglandulosa Cav.]

The plant has rubefacient properties (Usher 1974) for which purpose it is used in Mexico (Díaz 1976).


  • Ahmed ZF, Rizk AM, Hammouda FM and Seif El-Nasr MM (1972) Glucosinolates of Egyptian Capparis species. Phytochemistry 11: 251-256.
  • Behl PN, Captain RM, Bedi BMS, Gupta S (1966) Skin-Irritant and Sensitizing Plants Found in India. New Delhi: PN Behl [WorldCat]
  • Chopra RN, Badhwar RL (1940) Poisonous plants of India. Indian Journal of Agricultural Science 10(1): 1-44
  • Dalziel JM (1937) The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa. Being an appendix to The Flora of West Tropical Africa by J. Hutchinson and J.M. Dalziel. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies [WorldCat]
  • Díaz JL (1976) Usos de las Plantas Medicinales de México. México: Instituto Mexicano para el Estudio de las Plantas Medicinales [WorldCat]
  • Hasapis X et al. (1981) Glucosinolates of nine Cruciferae and two Capparaceae species. Phytochemistry 20: 2355.
  • Kjær A (1960) Naturally derived isothiocyanates (mustard oils) and their parent glucosides. In: Zechmeister L (Ed.) Fortschritte der Chemie Organischer Naturstoffe / Progress in the Chemistry of Organic Natural Products / Progrés dans la Chimie des Substances Organiques Naturelles, Vol. 18, pp. 122-176. Vienna: Springer-Verlag [doi] [WorldCat] [url]
  • Landor JV (1940) Dermatitis venenata from a common Malayan plant. J. Malaya Brch Br. Med. Ass. 3: 384.
  • Mitchell JC (1974) Contact dermatitis from plants of the caper family, Capparidaceae. British Journal of Dermatology 91: 13-20.
  • Mitchell JC, Jordan WP (1974) Allergic contact dermatitis from the radish, Raphanus sativus. British Journal of Dermatology 91(2): 183-189 [doi] [url] [url-2] [pmid]
  • Nadkarni AK (1976) Dr. K. M. Nadkarni's Indian Materia Medica. With ayurvedic, unani-tibbi, siddha, allopathic, homeopathic, naturopathic & home remedies, appendices & indexes, Revised enlarged and reprinted 3rd edn, Vols 1 & 2. Bombay: Popular Prakashan [WorldCat] [url]
  • Oliver B (1959) Nigeria's useful plants. Niger. Fld 24: 70.
  • Pammel LH (1911) A Manual of Poisonous Plants. Chiefly of North America, with Brief Notes on Economic and Medicinal Plants, and Numerous Illustrations. Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Quisumbing E (1951) Medicinal Plants of the Philippines. Technical Bulletin 16, Philippines Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Manila, Philippine Islands: Manila Bureau of Printing [WorldCat] [url]
  • Richter G (1980) Allergic contact dermatitis from methyl isothiocyanate in soil disinfectants. Contact Dermatitis 6: 183-186.
  • Szegő L and Maácz J (1968) Dermatitis als Berufskrankheit, hervorgerufen durch die "Kleopatra-Nadel" (Cleome spinosa). Derm. Wschr. 154(3): 49-56.
  • Usher G (1974) A Dictionary of Plants used by Man. London: Constable [WorldCat] [url]
  • Watt JM, Breyer-Brandwijk MG (1962) The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Being an account of their medicinal and other uses, chemical composition, pharmacological effects and toxicology in man and animal, 2nd edn. Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]

Richard J. Schmidt

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