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Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia

Print version ISSN 0102-695XOn-line version ISSN 1981-528X

Rev. bras. farmacogn. vol.17 no.1 João Pessoa Jan./Mar. 2007 



Synopsis of the plants known as medicinal and poisonous in Northeast of Brazil


Sinopse das plantas conhecidas como medicinais e venenosas no Nordeste do Brasil



Maria de Fátima Agra*; Patrícia França de Freitas; José Maria Barbosa-Filho

Universidade Federal da Paraíba, Laboratório de Tecnologia Farmacêutica, Caixa Postal 5009, 58051-970, João Pessoa, PB, Brazil




The objective of this work is a survey of the species of plants and their alleged therapeutic uses which are utilized in Northeast region of Brazil. The area of this study is well known for its rich diversity of species of plants and habitats, which range from rainforest, atlantic forest, coastal dunes systems and mangroves, to dry forests and savannas. A total of 483 species belonging to 79 families along with their ethnomedicinal information have been recorded. This study aims at emphasizing the greatest importance of investigating those species of plants which have not been the subject of any pharmacological study, although their popular uses have been reported.

Keywords: Medicinal plants, toxic plants, Northeast of Brazil, ethnomedicine, etnobotany.


Este trabalho teve como objetivo um levantamento das plantas e dos seus usos como medicinais, às quais são utilizadas com fins terapêuticos na região nordeste do Brazil. A área de estudo é reconhecida por uma rica biodiversidade, principalmente de plantas e de habitates, abrangendo desde a Floresta Amazônica, Floresta Atlântica, sistemas de mangues e dunas costeiras, até florestas secas e savanas. Como resultados, foram registrados um total de 483 espécies pertencentes a 79 familias e suas informações etnomedicinais. Este estudo sugere para a grande importância para a investigação das espécies farmacologicamente ainda não estudadas, uma vez que seus usos populares estão registrados.

Unitermos: Plantas medicinais, plantas tóxicas, Nordeste do Brasil, ethnomedicina, etnobotânica.




Folk medicines, mainly based on plants, enjoy a respectable position today, especially in the developing countries, where the availability of modern health services is limited. Safe, effective and inexpensive indigenous remedies are gaining popularity among the people of both urban and rural areas. Information from ethnic groups on indigenous traditional medicine has played a vital role in the discovery of novel products from plants as chemotherapeutic agents.

According to the current estimate by World Health Organization (WHO, 1999), even in many developed countries a great portion of the population makes use of traditional health remedies, especially the medicinal plants. Although a easy access to the modern medicine is available in these countries, the use of medicinal herbs has kept its popularity for historical and cultural reasons. On the other hand, in the developing countries 65-80% of the population depends exclusively on the medicinal plants for the basic healthcare.

The study of traditional uses of plants and their products in the Northeast region of Brazil has been gradually increasing during the last few years which resulted in a significant body of publications in this area (Braga, 1960; Agra, 1982, 1996; Matos, 1989, 2000; Moura; Agra, 1989; Agra; Silva, 1993; Baracho; Agra, 1995; Rego, 1995; Agra; Bhattacharyya, 1999; Agra et al., 1996, 2005, 2007; Torres et al., 2005; Morais et al., 2005; Albuquerque et al., 2006; and references therein).

The principal ecosystem of the Northeast of Brazil is the biome "caatinga", an Indian word, meaning "open forest", so named because of its appearance during the dry season (Ab’Saber, 1980; Lleras, 1997). It consists of extensive semi-arid plains found mainly in Northeast region, from Piauí to North of Minas Gerais, with the exception of the State of Maranhão which has no "caatinga". The plants in the surrounding area form an integral part of culture of these people and the information about plants is passed on from generation to generation.

The traditional healers who use medicinal plants are known as "raizeiros" to the people of the Northeast region of Brazil. The "raizeiros" have a commendable knowledge of the medicinal plants that grow in and around their area (Agra et al., 2005, 2007). This knowledge of traditional healing, mainly with the use of wild plants is now fast disappearing due to modernization and to change their traditional lifestyle for more contemporary one. That is why, there is an urgent need for studying and recording this precious knowledge of the traditional uses of plants as herbal remedies which have actually declined due to scarcity of species caused mainly by the human activity coupled with long periods of the dry season. In this context the conservation and scientific verification of rare and lesser known medicinal plants assume greater significance.

The present study is focused on a survey of literature of the medicinal uses of native, naturalized and cultivated plant species, which are utilized for therapeutic purposes in all States of Northeast of Brazil extending from Maranhão to Bahia.

Ethnomedicinal information of plants used in the popular medicine in Northeast of Brazil has also been carried out in recent pharmacobotanical studies (Silva et al. (2002), Leal and Agra (2004), Basílio et al. (2005), Silva and Agra (2005), inter alia. Although, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of the uses of the plants of this region in ethnomedicine, some of the main traits are presented here.



Study area

The general area of the Brazilian Northeast is 1,561,177.8 km2 which extends from about 02°54’ to 17°21’S and from 35° to 46°30’W that includes nine States: Maranhão, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia. It is a region rich in plant diversity and habitats ranging from the rainforest of North of Maranhão, to atlantic forest, coastal dunes systems, mangroves, dry forests and savannas.


The information of the plants and their ethnomedicinal uses are compiled in Table 1, which provides the botanical family and scientific names of species (the specific binomial). The vernacular names, parts used, popular indication and uses are also presented. The abbreviations of the authors follow Brummitt and Powel (1992). The cultivated species in Northeast of Brazil are indicated by only one asterisk, and the species that are imported from outside of Brazil have two asterisks.



The ethnomedicinal investigation of the plants known as medicinal and/or poisonous in Northeast of Brazil was done on a total of 483 species belonging to about 79 families. Of these, 466 species corresponding to about 96.5% are recorded by their medicinal use, eight as both medicinal and poisonous and 27 as only poisonous. The floristic diversity observed is dominated by higher plants with only one species, Selaginella convoluta Spreng, belonging to the Ferns was reported.

The predominance of higher plants used for medicinal purposes in Northeast of Brazil strengthens our results from previous studies by us (Agra, 1982, 1996; Agra; Silva, 1993; Baracho; Agra, 1995; Agra; Bhattacharyya, 1999; Agra et al., 1996, 2005, 2007) as well as by other authors in different areas of Brazil (Souza et al., 2004; Luna et al., 2005; Vendruscocolo et al., 2005; Albuquerque et al., 2006; Mendes; Carlini, 2006) and other countries around the world such as Saudi Arabia (Rahman et al., 2004), Bolivia (Macía et al., 2005), Italy (Scherrer et al., 2005), Morocco (Tahraoui et al., 2007), inter alia.

Most species have several medicinal uses, various parts used and have different modes of preparation. Sixteen species were referred to having only one medicinal indication (Table 1). The medicinal activity of the highest number of species was reported for the treatment of respiratory system. This was followed by gatrointestinal disorders against parasites (15), stomach aches (24) and liver diseases. Most plants are used internally, and are prepared in form of decoction, infusion, maceration and as juice. According to Agra et al. (2007), some preparations are called as garrafada (bottled), and constitute a mixture of different plants, mainly roots and stem-barks, which are macerated for a few days to a week in a local alcoholic drink called cachaça. Other recipes are prepared as syrups with sugar or honey that are known in the folklore as "lambedor" that are used mainly for illness of children and in respiratory diseases as expectorant.



This study records the use of 483 plants with potential bioactive properties. Many of the reported species have not been studied for their chemical constituents and/or biological activities. The study aims at emphasizing the greatest importance of investigation of those species that have not been the subject of pharmacological study, although their popular uses have been reported.



This work was supported by grants from the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento (CNPq). Thanks to Dr. J. Bhattacharyya for revision of the English and Dulce Gonçalves for her technical support.



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Received 10/20/06. Accepted 02/14/07



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