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(Unicorn Plant family)


• Medicinal / Folk-medicinal aspects: The use of the seeds or fruit in traditional medicine has been noted but detail is lacking. •
• Adverse effects: The ripe seeds pods bear curious curved spines that can inflict mechanical injury. •
• Veterinary aspects: Animals to which the ripe seeds pods have become attached can become lame or otherwise incapacitated or injured by the sharp spines on the seed pods. •

The family comprises 16 species of glutinous-villous herbs and a shrub in 5 genera; the plants occur naturally in tropical and subtropical America (Mabberley 2008). Previously considered to be members of the Pedaliaceae, these plants are now regarded by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (2003) as constituting a distinct family.

Some of these plants are grown as curiosities, either by collectors of carnivorous plants or for their remarkable seed pods, which when ripe bear two curved claws that can attach to passing animals for the purpose of seed dispersal.

Ibicella lutea Van Eselt.
[syns Martynia lutea Lindl., Martynia montevidensis Cham., Proboscidea lutea Stapf]
Devil's Grip, Devil's Claws, Ram's Horn, Yellow Unicorn Plant

The fruit is covered with prickly spines and bears two long curved claws that can snag onto the feet, over the nose, under the throat, or in a leg joint of an animal and hence can inflict mechanical injury, lameness and even death (McBarron 1976).

The plants are covered in glandular hairs producing a foul-smelling, sticky exudate that catches many insects. Men employed in cutting Martynia lutea became extremely dizzy in the head (Cleland 1925). The sticky glandular hairs have long been thought to be indicative of an insectivorous habit. A study published in 1916 reported that the secretion of the glandular hairs possesed trypsin-like proteolytic activity that could dissolve albuminous substances. More recent studies have failed to detect either gelatinase activity or phosphatase activity in the exudate, or release of plant nutrients (N, P, K, Mg) from flies by the leaves (Chase et al. 2009, Płachno et al. 2009).

According to Usher (1974), the seeds of Martynia montevidensis are used in Argentina to make soothing poultices.

Martynia annua L.
[syn. Martynia diandra Gloxin, Vatkea diandra Hoffm.]
Devil's Claw, Small Fruit Devil's Claw, Tigers' Claws, Tête de Mort, Una de Gato

Although native to Central America, this plant is widely naturalised in the tropics, being regarded as a noxious weed in Australia.

The seed pods bear a pair of short fang-like claws capable of inflicting mechanical injury. These sharp hooks can attach themselves to animals and hence facilitate seed dispersal (Howes 1974).

[Further information available but not yet included in database]

Proboscidea Schmidel

The genus comprises 9 species of herbs or small shrubs found in warm regions of the Americas. Some are cultivated for their ornamental flowers or as curiosities, and in particular by collectors of carnivorous plants. The ripe seed pods bear a pair of long curved claws that can attach to passing animals (hence facilitating seed dispersal), and can inflict mechanical injury. The following species are the most likely to be found in cultivation:

Proboscidea louisianica Thell. — Devil's Claw, Double Claw, Purple Flowered Devil's Claw, Ram's Horn, Unicorn Plant
[syns Martynia louisiana Mill., Martynia proboscidea Gloxin, Proboscidea jussieui Steud., Proboscidea louisiana Wooton & Standley]
Proboscidea parviflora Wooton & Standley — Devil's Claw, Double Claw, Unicorn Plant 
[syn. Martynia parviflora Wooton] 


  • Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (2003) An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 141(4): 399-436 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Chase MW, Christenhusz MJM, Sanders D, Fay MF (2009) Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161(4): 329-356 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Cleland JB (1925) Plants, including fungi, poisonous or otherwise injurious to man in Australia. Medical Journal of Australia ii(15): 443-451 [doi] [doi-2] [url] [url-2]
  • Howes FN (1974) A Dictionary of Useful and Everyday Plants and their Common Names. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [WorldCat]
  • Mabberley DJ (2008) Mabberley's Plant-Book. A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [WorldCat]
  • McBarron EJ (1976) Medical and Veterinary Aspects of Plant Poisons in New South Wales. Sydney, New South Wales: Dept of Agriculture [WorldCat]
  • Płachno BJ, Adamec L, Huet H (2009) Mineral nutrient uptake from prey and glandular phosphatase activity as a dual test of carnivory in semi-desert plants with glandular leaves suspected of carnivory. Annals of Botany 104(4): 649-654 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Usher G (1974) A Dictionary of Plants used by Man. London: Constable [WorldCat] [url]
  • [ + 1 further reference not yet included in database]

Richard J. Schmidt

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