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Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia

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

Rev. bras. farmacogn. vol.18 no.3 João Pessoa July/Sept. 2008 



Survey of medicinal plants used in the region Northeast of Brazil


Levantamento das plantas medicinais usadas na região Nordeste do Brasil



Maria de Fátima Agra*; Kiriaki Nurit Silva; Ionaldo José Lima Diniz Basílio; 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




This work has the objective a survey of the species of plants and their uses as medicinal, which are utilized for therapeutic purposes in Northeast region of Brazil. The area of study is recognized by a rich diversity of species of plants and habitats that ranges from Rainforest, Atlantic Forest, coastal dunes systems and mangroves, to dry forests and savannas. As results, a total of 650 species belonging to 407 genera and 111 families were recorded and also their ethnomedicinal information. The floristic diversity is dominated by higher plants and only five species belonging to the families Aspleniaceae, Cyatheaceae, Equisetaceae, Polypodiaceae and Selaginellaceae were reported belonging to the Ferns group, which correspond to less than 1 % of the total of the registered species. This study aims at emphasizing the greatest importance of investigation of those species that have not been subject of pharmacological study, although their popular uses have already been reported.

Keywords: Ethnomedicine, ethnobotany, medicinal plants, popular medicine, Northeast of Brazil.


Este trabalho teve como objetivo um levantamento das plantas e dos seus usos como medicinais, as quais são utilizadas com fins terapêuticos na região Nordeste do Brasil. A área de estudo é reconhecida por uma rica biodiversidade, principalmente de plantas e de hábitats, 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 650 espécies pertencentes a 407 gêneros e 111 famílias, e suas informações etnomedicinais. A diversidade florística é dominada por vegetais superiores e apenas cinco espécies das famílias Aspleniaceae, Cyatheaceae, Equisetaceae, Polypodiaceae e Selaginellaceae pertencem ao grupo das Pteridófitas, que corresconde a menos que 1% do total das espécies registradas. Este estudo sugere a grande importância da investigação das espécies farmacologicamente ainda não estudadas, uma vez que seus usos populares estão registrados.

Unitermos: Etnomedicina, etnobotânica, plantas medicinais, medicina popular, Nordeste do Brasil.




The traditional Medicine is used in all parts of the world and has a rapidly growing economic importance, mainly by the use of medicinal plants that have a respectable position today, especially in the developing countries (Agra et al. 2007a), where the modern health service is limited and represent the only accessible treatment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 1999), the current estimative suggests that many developed countries have a great proportion of the population making use of traditional practice of health, especially the use of the medicinal plants. Although the 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 basic cares of health, up to 80% of the population in Africa, 71% in Chile and 40% in Colombia, inter alia.

Medicinal plants represent an important health and economic component of biodiversity and also conservation and sustainable use, according to Rhaman et al. (2004). Information on the traditional knowledge or ethnic groups of medicinal plants and their uses would represent a vital role in the discovery of novel products from plants as chemotherapeutic agents (Almeida et al., 2001; Silva et al., 2003; Rocha et al., 2005; Barbosa-Filho et al., 2006, 2007, 2008). The surrounding plants form an integral part of culture of these people and the information about plants is passed on from generation to generation (Agra et al., 2007a, b).

The traditional healers of medicinal plants called as "raizeiros" by the people of the Northeast region of Brazil have a commendable knowledge of the medicinal plants that grow around them (Agra et al., 2005, 2007a). This knowledge of traditional healing practices mainly by the use of wild plants is now fast disappearing due to modernization and the tendency to change their traditional for more actual lifestyle. There is an urgent need to study and recorder this precious knowledge of the uses of plants as herbal remedies that are declined due to scarcity of species, which is caused mainly by the human activity coupled with the long period of the dry season. In this context, those conservation and scientific verification of rare and lesser known medicinal plants assume greater significance.

The study of traditional uses of plants and their products in the Northeast region of Brazil has been progressively increasing during the last few years, and has enabled the collection of a significant body of knowledge, which is referred by Agra et al. (2007a, b, and c). Although, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of ethnomedicinal plant uses in this region, some of the main traits are presented here.



Study area

The general area of the Brazilian Northeast has 1,561,177.8 km2 and 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 with a rich plant diversity habitats ranging from rainforest, occurring in North of Maranhão, Atlantic Forest, coastal dunes systems and mangroves, to dry forests and savannas. The principal ecosystem of the Northeast of Brazil is the biome "caatinga", an Indian word, meaning "open forest", from its appearance during the dry season (Andrade-Lima, 1981; Ab'Saber, 1980; Lleras, 1997). It consists of extensive semi-arid plains found mainly in Northeast region from Piauí to North of Minas Gerais.


This study is focused on a survey of literature (Braga, 1960; Agra, 1982, 1996; Agra et al., 1994, 1996, 2005, 2007a, b, c; Baracho & Agra, 1995; Rêgo, 1995; Agra & Bhattacharyya, 1999; Costa et al., 2001, 2002; Freitas & Agra, 2002; Emperaire, 1983; Monteiro et al., 2006; Albuquerque et al., 2007; Basílio et al., 2005; David et al., 2007) of the medicinal uses of native, naturalized and cultivated plants species, which are utilized for therapeutic purposes in all States of Northeast of Brazil extending from Maranhão to Bahia. The information of the plants and their ethnomedicinal uses are compiled in the Table 1, which provides the botanical family, scientific names of species (the specific binomial). The vernacular names, parts used and popular indication and uses are also presented. The abbreviations of the authors follow Brummitt & Powell (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 investigation of the plants known by the ethnomedicinal uses in Northeast of Brazil revealed a total of 650 species and 407 genera belonging to 111 families. Of these, about 126 species referred by its medicinal uses are exotic and cultivated in the region, corresponding to about 20% of the total. The floristic diversity is dominated by higher plants and only five species were reported belonging to the Ferns group that are: Asplenium auritum Sw., Cyathea microdonta (Desv.) Domin, Equisetum sp., Microgramma vacciniifolia (Lagsd. & Fisch.) Copel. and Selaginella convoluta Spreng. belonging to the families Aspleniaceae, Cyatheaceae, Equisetaceae, Polypodiaceae and Selaginellaceae, respectively, which correspond to less than 1 % of the total of the registered species.

The predominance of higher plants used for medicinal purposes in Northeast of Brazil confirms our results in previous work (Agra et al., 1994, 1996, 2005, 2007a, b, c; David et al., 2007) and also have been documented by other authors in the region (Emperaire, 1983; Costa et al., 2001, 2002; Luna et al., 2005; Monteiro et al., 2006; Albuquerque et al., 2007) and in different areas of Brazil (Souza et al., 2004; Luna et al., 2005; Mendes & Carlini, 2007), as well as in other countries around the world such as Saudi Arabia (Rahman et al., 2004), Bolıvia (Macía et al., 2005), Italy (Scherrer et al., 2005), Morocco (Tahraoui et al., 2007), inter alia.

Most plants are used internally, and are prepared in the form of decoction, infusion and maceration. The form used as juice was referred for a few species mainly for the species that are indicated against verminoses and cough like Chenopodium ambrosioides L. and Mentha sp., respectively. According to Agra et al. (2007b), 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 one week in wine or in an alcoholic local drink called "cachaça". Other recipes are prepared as syrups with sugar or honey and are known in the folklore as "lambedor", which are used mainly for illness of children as expectorant or against anemias. Most species have several medicinal uses; various parts used and have different modes of preparation.



Most of the reported species have not been studied for their chemical constituents and/or biological activities. This study aims at emphasizing the greatest importance of investigation of those species that have not been the subject of pharmacological and chemical studies, although their popular uses have been reported.



This work was supported by grants from the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento (CNPq) and RENORBIO. Thanks are due to Dulce Gonçalves for her technical support.



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