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Euphorbia cupularis (Umdlebe)

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Family: Euphorbiaceae

Scientific name: Euphorbia cupularis

Authority: Boiss.

Common names: umdlebe (Zulu), dead-man’s tree (English), dooiemansdoom (Afrikaans)

Plant description

Euphorbia cupularis is known as the dead-man’s plant due to being extremely poisonous, as is the case with all species in the large and diverse Euphorbia genus. E. cupularis is a succulent shrub with a poisonous sap that gives off an irritating vapour. The plant is said to poison any living thing that approaches it. When poisoned by the plant the symptoms will be a severe headache, blood-shot eyes, delirium, and eventually death. 

The deadly nature of this plant has made it synonymous with many outlandish tales and myths, this article will explore some of these wild stories and myths and hopefully debunk some of them.

The chosen can collect the fruits

It is said that when someone is poisoned by this plant, its fruits can be used as the antidote. But, only a few and chosen people can collect the fruits of this tree without being poisoned themselves. Before collecting the fruits, a ceremony is carried out where a sheep or goat is sacrificed to appease the tree. The animal sacrifice is then tied to the tree or near the tree. When approaching the tree to collect the fruits, only approach from the windward side.

What is interesting about all this is that only the fallen fruits may be collected. The tree is known to be poisonous, however, it is believed that only when the tree is harmed does it become poisonous. Technically, picking the fallen fruits does not harm the tree so the tree never releases any poison.

The healers can collect the fruits

Others believe that healers can harvest parts of the plant. Before the harvest, the healers undergo an intense ritual. Harvesting part of plant and collecting the fallen fruits are two completely different things. Harvesting requires the healer to come in contact with the plant and the process harms the plant. The ritual is possibly to protect the healer from the poison produced from cutting the plant.

An ingredient to make powerful medicine

The plant is known to be used as an ingredient for making powerful medicines. The plant is used by healers and witch to make potent concoctions:

  • Traditional healers use it the plant to treat conditions, ailments, and diseases such as severe epistaxis, tropical infections, or haemorrhagic fever. To treat such illnesses the plant is typically mixed with the fat and flesh of specific animals and the blood of a goat. The mixture is burnt until it becomes ash. The ash is made into powder that is applied in various ways in the body.
  • Witches use the plant as an ingredient to make concocted medicine called umbhulelo which is used to trap people.

A carnivorous plant

Like the venus flytrap, it is believed that this plant attracts, traps, and eats its prey. The succulent plant grows in the hot and rid parts of KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo. Apparently, this is so it can be the only plant to provide shade and food to animals. When an animal approaches the tree for shade and food, the plant is said to poison the animal. The carcass is then used to fertilize the soil where the plant is growing.

General uses

Despite being called a dead-man’s tree with a poison that can literally kill a fully-fledged human being, the plant surprisingly has many uses.

  • The leaves have a pungent odour that is inhaled to treat headaches associated with catarrh and influenza
  • The dry leaves are used to treat asthma
  • The sap is applied externally as embrocation
  • The sap is used to treat painful teeth
  • The sap is used as decorative skin dyes
  • The plant is used to treat coughs and to make different types tonics

Safety precaution

The use of traditional medicine in prescribed dosages will yield good results. Misuse and abuse may lead to complications. To learn about correct dosage, consult a traditional healer or a herbalist. You can also visit or email: to learn more about traditional medicine.

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