Citrullus colocynthis

"Bitter-apple" redirects here. For the species of nightshade, see Soda apple.
Citrullus colocynthis
Citrullus colocynthis from Koehler's Medicinal-Plants (1887).
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Cucurbitales
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Genus: Citrullus
Species: C. colocynthis
Binomial name
Citrullus colocynthis
(L.) Schrad.
  • Citrullus colocynthoides Pangalo
  • Citrullus pseudocolocynthis M.Roem.
  • Colocynthis officinalis Schrad.
  • Colocynthis vulgaris Schrad.
  • Cucumis colocynthis L.

Citrullus colocynthis, with many common names including colocynth,[2] bitter apple,[2] bitter cucumber,[2] desert gourd, egusi,[3] vine of Sodom,[2] or wild gourd,[2] is a desert viny plant native to the Mediterranean Basin and Asia, especially Turkey (especially in regions such as İzmir), Nubia, and Trieste.

It resembles a common watermelon vine, but bears small, hard fruits with a bitter pulp. It originally bore the scientific name Colocynthis citrullus.

Origin, distribution, and ecology

C. colocynthis is a desert viny plant that grows in sandy, arid soils. It is native to the Mediterranean Basin and Asia, and is distributed among the west coast of northern Africa, eastward through the Sahara, Egypt until India, and reaches also the north coast of the Mediterranean and the Caspian Seas. It grows also in southern European countries as in Spain and on the islands of the Grecian archipelago. On the island of Cyprus, it is cultivated on a small scale; it has been an income source since the 14th century and is still exported today. It is an annual or a perennial plant (in wild) in Indian arid zones and has a great survival rate under extreme xeric conditions.[4] In fact, it can tolerate annual precipitation of 250 to 1500 mm and an annual temperature of 14.8 to 27.8 °C. It grows from sea level up to 1500 meters above sea level on sandy loam, subdesert soils, and sandy sea coasts with a pH range between 5.0 and 7.8.[5]

Characteristics and morphology

Roots and stems

The roots are large, fleshy, and perennial, leading to a high survival rate due to the long tap root. The vine-like stems spread in all directions for a few meters looking for something over which to climb. If present, shrubs and herbs are preferred and climbed by means of axiliary branching tendrils.[4]


Very similar to watermelon, the leaves are palmate and angular with three to seven divided lobes.


The flowers are yellow and solitary in the axes of leaves and are borne by yellow-greenish peduncles. Each has a subcampanulated five-lobed corolla and a five-parted calyx. They are monoecious, so the male (stamens) and the female reproductive parts (pistils and ovary) are borne in different flowers on the same plant. The male flowers’ calyx is shorter than the corolla. They have five stamens, four of which are coupled and one is single with monadelphous anther. The female flowers have three staminoids and a three-carpel ovary. The two sexes are distinguishable by observing the globular and hairy inferior ovary of the female flowers.[4]

A C. colocynthis female flower
Iranian C. colocynthis
Ripe fruit of C. colocynthis


The fruit is smooth, spheric with a 5– to 10-cm-diameter and extremely bitter taste. The calyx englobe the yellow-green fruit which becomes marble (yellow stripes) at maturity. The mesocarp is filled with a soft, dry, and spongy white pulp, in which the seeds are embedded. Each of the three carpels bears six seeds. Each plant produces 15 to 30 fruits.[5]


The seeds are grey and 5 mm long by 3 mm wide. They are edible but similarly bitter, nutty-flavored, and rich in fat and protein. They are eaten whole or used as an oilseed. The oil content of the seeds is 17–19% (w/w), consisting of 67–73% linoleic acid, 10–16% oleic acid, 5–8% stearic acid, and 9–12% palmitic acid. The oil yield is about 400 l/hectare.[6] In addition, the seeds contain a high amount of arginine, tryptophan, and the sulfur-containing amino acids.[7]


C. colocynthis, a perennial plant, can propagate both by generative and vegetative means. However, seed germination is poor due to the extreme xeric conditions, so vegetative propagation is more common and successful in nature. In the Indian arid zone, growth takes place between January and October, but the most favorable period for the vegetative growth is during summer, which coincides with the rainy season. Growth declines as soon as the rains and the temperature decrease and almost stops during the cold and dry months of December and January.[8] Colocynth prefers sandy soils and is a good example of good water management which may be useful also on research to better understand how desert plants react to water stress.[9][10] To enhance production, an organic fertilizer can be applied.[11] Colocynth is also commonly cultivated together with cassava (intercropping) in Nigeria.[8]

Colocynths in Adrar Desert (Mauritania).

Cultivated colocynth suffers of climatic stress and diseases such as cucumber mosaic virus, melon mosaic virus, Fusarium wilt, etc. as any other crop. To improve it, a relatively new protocol for regeneration has been developed with the aim of incorporating disease and stress resistance to increase yield potential and security avoiding interspecific hybridization barriers.[12]


C. colocynthis can be eaten or elaborated for further uses in medicine and as energy source, e.g. oilseed and biofuel. The characteristic small seed of the colocynth have been found in several early archeological sites in northern Africa and the Near East, specifically at Neolithic Armant, Nagada in Egypt; at sites dating from 3800 BC to Roman times in Libya; and the prepottery Neolithic levels of the Nahal Hemar caves in Israel.[13] Zohary and Hopf speculate, "these finds indicate that the wild colocynth was very probably used by humans prior to its domestication."[13]

Medical study

Clinical studies have shown medicinal benefits of colocynth in patients with diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, and hyperlipidemia. In a randomized clinical trial (RCT), HbA1c and fasting blood glucose levels were decreased in patients using 300 mg of C. colocynthis dry fruit powder daily for 2 months.[14] In another trial, intake of 300 mg of powdered seed can lower the triglyceride and cholesterol concentration significantly in nondiabetic hyperlipidemic patients.[15]

Topical C. colocynthis also showed significant efficacy in treatment of patients with painful diabetic neuropathy in another RCT; the application of a topical formulation of C. colocynthis fruit extract can decrease the pain and improve nerve function and quality of life in patients with painful diabetic neuropathy.[16]

Colocynth has been widely used in folk medicine for centuries. Johann Weyer, in De praestigiis daemonum (1563), offers it as a cure for lycanthropy.[17] Interest in its anti-inflammatory properties has been renewed in modern times.

Aqueous and methanol extracts of colocynth showed high antimicrobial activity against Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and other bacteria.[7] Extracts of fruits, leaves, roots and stems were also found to be potentially usable against many Gram positive bacilli and fungi such as Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus flavus, and Mucor species.[7]

In addition, some of these extracts were found to have an insulin tropic effect and therefore an antidiabetic effect, which may make them relevant to the treatment of diabetes mellitus.[7][18][19]

Cucurbitacin glucosides seem potentially important for therapy against breast cancer cells because of their ability to modify cell morphology and signaling, and to induce apoptosis and changes in mitochondrial membrane potential.[20]

Another property of colocynth is hair growth stimulation: an experiment on rats demonstrated that hair growth initiation time was significantly decreased after treatment with colocynth petroleum ether extracts.[21]

Before modern medicinal uses

In premodern medicine, it was an ingredient in the electuary called confectio hamech, or diacatholicon, and most other laxative pills; in such cases as required purging, it was very successful. It is one of the most violent purgative drugs known; insomuch that it excoriates the passages to such a degree as to sometimes draw blood and induce a so-called "superpurgation". Sometimes, it was taken boiled in water, or beer, in obstruction of the menses, which was considered successful in strong constitutions. Some women used it in the same manner, in the beginning of pregnancy, to cause an abortion, which often occurred due to the violence of its operation.[22] Its use for this purpose is documented in ancient times; for example, the following recipe was found in the Ebers medical papyrus in Egypt, dated to about 1550 BCE:[23]

"To cause a woman to stop [terminate] pregnancy in the first, second, or third period [trimester]: unripe fruit of acacia; colocynth; dates; triturate with 6/7th pint of honey. Moisten a pessary of plant fiber [with the mixture] and place in the vagina."
Ebers papyrus, circa 1550 BCE; translation from Eve's Herbs, by John M. Riddle[23]

The powder of colocynth was sometimes used externally, with aloes, etc., in unguents, bandages, etc., with remarkable success against parasitic worms; some, for the same purpose, recommended that the pulp be used as an enema. In iliac passion, enemas of colocynth were used effectively where most other premodern medicines had failed.[22] Troches, or lozenges, made of colocynth were called "troches of alhandal". They were prepared by cutting the colocynth to a small size, and reducing it to a fine powder in a mortar, rubbed with oil of sweet almonds; adding gum tragacanth, and mastic afterwards.[22] Remedies for counteracting colocynth have included emetics, such as zinc sulfate, and apomorphine, if caught early; later, demulcents and opiates, with stimulants to combat collapse were used.[24]

Nutritional uses

The desert Bedouin are said to make a type of bread from the ground seeds. Some confusion exists between this species and the closely related watermelon (Citrullus ianatus (Thunb)), whose seeds may be used in much the same way. In particular, the name "egusi" may refer to either or both plants (or more generically to other cucurbits) in their capacity as seed crops, or to a soup made from these seeds and popular in West Africa.

The seed flour is rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and could therefore be used in food formulations especially in regions with low milk consumption such as West Africa.[7] A normal dose of fluid extracted from the fruit pulp is 2 to 5 minims (120 to 310 µl), and for the powdered extract 1 to 2 grains (60 to 130 mg).[24]

Practical uses

Since colocynth is not strongly used as staple food, its seeds might become an interesting source for biofuel production.[5] In addition, colocynth can grow on marginal lands and may improve soil quality as experienced with intercropping.[8] The oil obtained from the seeds (47%) can also be used for medicinal and soap production.[5] The production is not very time- and energy-consuming due to the ability of colocynth to grow on poor soils with just a little moisture and organic fertilizer. The fruits are harvested still unripe by hand, the rind is removed by peeling and the inner pulp filled with seeds is dried in the sun or in ovens. The seeds yield is about 6.7-10 t/ha, which means that for an oil profit of 31-47%, oil yields may reach up to 3 t/ha.[5][25]

Oleic and linoleic acids isolated from C. colocynthis petroleum ether extracts show larvicidal activity against mosquitoes.[26]

References in religion

Judaism and Christianity

The colocynth’s characteristic bitter taste and dangerous properties seem to be consistent with the "wild gourd" mentioned in 2 Kings:

And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.


It is reported from Abu Musa Al Ash'ari that Muhammad said:

The example of a believer who recites the Qur'an and acts on it, like a citron which tastes nice and smells nice. And the example of a believer who does not recite the Qur'an but acts on it, is like a date which tastes good but has no smell. And the example of a hypocrite who recites the Qur'an is like a Raihana (sweet basil) which smells good but tastes bitter. And the example of a hypocrite who does not recite the Quran is like a colocynth which tastes bitter and has a bad smell.


In the holy book of Sikhism, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Arjun Dev said:

ਪੇਖੰਦੜੋ ਕੀ ਭੁਲੁ ਤੁੰਮਾ ਦਿਸਮੁ ਸੋਹਣਾ ॥

pēkhandarō kī bhul tunmā disam sōhanā.

The mortal is mistaken on beholding the colocynth which appears to be beautiful.

Guru Arjun Dev in Raga Jaitsri Vaar 10 shaloka 5, 2.1 (p. 708 SGGS)


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