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Citrullus colocynthis (L.) Schrad.

Colocynth, Bitter apple, Wild gourd (Biblical), Gall (Biblical)

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Description
  5. Germplasm
  6. Distribution
  7. Ecology
  8. Cultivation
  9. Harvesting
  10. Yields and Economics
  11. Energy
  12. Biotic Factors
  13. References


Dried pulp of unripe fruit is used medicinally for its drastic purgative and hydragogue cathartic action on the intestinal tract. When the fruit is ripe its pulp dries to form a powder used as a bitter medicine and drastic purgative. This powder is so inflammable that the Arabs collect it to use as kindling. The fruit is used to repel moths from wool. In India, the vine is planted as a sand binder. Seed, often removed from the poisonous pulp and eaten in Central Sahara regions, contains a fixed oil.

Folk Medicine

Considered cathartic, ecbolic, emmenagogue, febrifuge, hydragogue, purgative, and vermifugal, the colocynth is used for amenorrhea, ascites, bilious disorders, cancer, fever, jaundice, leukemia, rheumatism, snakebite, tumors (especially of the abdomen), and urogenital disorders. According to Hartwell the plant figures into remedies for cancer, carcinoma, endothelioma, leukemia, corns, tumors of the liver and spleen, even the eye. It is interesting to note that this folk cancer "remedy" contains three antitumor ingredients: cucurbitacin B (active against PS-134 and KB tumor systems), cucurbitacin E (active against LL and KB systems) and the D-glucoside of beta-sitosterol (active against CA, LL and WA tumor systems). The pulp or leaves is a folk remedy for cancerous tumors. A decoction of the whole plant, made in juice of fennel, is said to help indurations of the liver. Roots may also be used as purgative against ascites, for jaundice, urinary diseases, rheumatism, and for snake-poison.


Active drug contains an ether-chloroform soluble resin, a phytosterol glycoside (citrullol), other glucosides (elaterin, elatericin B and dihydro-elatericin B), pectins and albuminoids. Bitter substance is colocynthin and colocynthetin. Roots contain a-elaterin, hentriacontane, and saponins. Per 100 g, the seed is reported to contain 556 calories, 6.7 g H2O, 23.6 g protein, 47.2 g fat, 19.5 g total carbohydrates, 1.5 g fiber, 3.0 g ash, 46 mg Ca, and 580 mg P. The oil contains oleic, linoleic, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids. Seeds contain the phyto sterolin (ipurand), 2 phytosterols, 2 hydrocarbons, a saponin, an alkaloid, a polysaccharide or glycoside, and tannin.


Annual or perennial (in wild) herbaceous vine; stems angular and rough; leaves rough, 3- to 7-lobed, 5-10 cm long, middle lobe sometimes ovate, sinuses open; flowers monoecious, solitary, peduncled, axillary, corollas 5-lobed; ovary villous; fruit a pepo, nearly globular, 4-10 cm in diameter with somewhat elliptical fissures, about size of small orange, green and yellow variegated becoming yellow when ripe, with hard rind, pulp light in weight, spongy, easily broken, light yellowish-orange to pale yellow; intensely bitter; seeds numerous, ovoid, compressed, smooth, dark brown to light yellowish-orange, borne on parietal placenta. Fl. summer.


Many cvs have been developed, but drug from these is inferior. Cultures in New Mexico produce large fruits but are less active. Reported from the Hindustani and Mediterranean Centers of Diversity, colocynth, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate bacteria, drought, high pH, low pH, sand and virus (2n = 22, 24) (Duke, 1978).


Native to dry areas of North Africa, being common throughout the Sahara, areas of Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, eastward through Iran to India and other parts of tropical Asia. Has been known since Biblical times and cultivated in the Mediterranean region, especially in Cyprus and in India for many centuries.


Ranging from Cool Temperate Moist through Tropical Desert to Wet Forest Life Zones, colocynth is reported to tolerate annual precipitation of 3.8 to 42.9 dm (mean of 10 cases = 11.9), annual temperature of 14.8 to 27.8°C (mean of 10 cases = 22.5), and pH of 5.0 to 7.8 (mean of 8 cases = 6.8). A highly xerophytic plant, it thrives where mean annual temperature is from 23-27°C and annual rainfall ranges from 25-37 cm. Thrives on sandy loam, subdesert soils, and along sandy sea coasts.


Easily cultivated from seed, as it grows rapidly, requiring no attention once fields have been sown.


In most regions where it is native, the crop is harvested from wild plants. Fruits gathered when still unripe but fully developed. Fruit is hand-picked, the thin, hard, gourd-like outer ring (pericarp) removed by peeling, and inner white spongy pulp filled with seeds, is dried in the sun or in ovens. Seeds constitute about 75% the weight of the dried product. Commercial colocynth occurs in two forms: as pulp from which most of seeds have been removed, and as 'bitter apples' or masses of pulp filled with seeds that have been rolled into balls. Both forms usually shipped in boxes.

Yields and Economics

Duke (1978) reported a seed yield of 6,700 kg/ha. Commercial supplies obtained from wild and cultivated plants. Sudan is the main source for the United States; also imported from Spain and Turkey, which supplies the finest grade. In Egypt plant is not cultivated but fruit yields from wild plants supply small amount of yellow pulp.


If yields of 6,700 kg/ha are attainable with low energy inputs, and if oil yields are 47.2% as the Food Composition Tables suggest, oil yields might exceed 3,000 kg/ha, placing this among the serious oilseed energy candidates, with medicinal byproducts. (cf. 3,000 kg seed/ha with 24-34% oil for the buffalo gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima.)

Biotic Factors

The following fungi are known to attack colocynth: Colletotrichum bryoniae, Erysiphe cichoracearum, E. polyphaga, E. semitectum, Fusarium oxysporum, and Puccinis citrulli. The Bottle gourd mosaic virus and the nematode, Meloidogyne sp. also attack this plant.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
last update July 8, 1996