Gloriosa superba L. (Flame Lily)

Gloriosa superba L., also known as the flame lily, has a wide distribution in tropical and subtropical areas. The plant has numerous uses as remedies and potions to the local populations of both Africa and Asia. Clewer et al. (1915) found that Gloriosa superba contained the alkaloid colchicine. Preparations of colchicine have been used to cure acute gout. Colchicine is known to inhibit mitosis, interfere with the orientation of fibrils, induce polyploidy, and has been used in the treatment of cancer. Since the discovery of colchicine in Gloriosa, a number of researchers have proposed that Gloriosa could serve as a commercial source of colchicine. Bellet and Gaignault compared the relative colchicine content of the genera Colchicum (the traditional source of colchicine) and Gloriosa. On a dry mass basis, Colchicum yielded 0.62% colchicine and 0.39% colchicoside, while Gloriosa yielded 0.9% and 0.82% respectively. This supports the argument that Gloriosa can be a commercially viable source of colchicine, provided that it can be propagated at a fast rate.

Gloriosa is a member of the order Liliales and the family Colchicaceae. Members of the family Colchicaceae are geophytes, having either corms or small tubers as their underground organ.

Two species of Gloriosa are recorded for southern Africa, Gloriosa superba L. and Gloriosa virescens Lindl.. Gloriosa virescens was considered by Dyer to be a subspecies of Gloriosa superba. Several species come from tropical Africa and Asia. Gloriosa rothschildiana O’Brien originates from Uganda, while Gloriosa carsonii Bak. comes from Central East Africa.

Gloriosa superba is a geophyte with geniculate corms, supple scandent stems; the leaves are cauline, sessile alternate or crowded in places, simple, ovate, and attenuate into a terminal recurved tendril which twines around any convenient structure. Solitary flowers are borne on the upper part of the stem on a long pedicel which is sharply bent under the flower. Six free perianth-segments are strongly reflexed, narrowly ovate acuminate and often crisped; segments become horizontal with age. Stamens are radiating, long, terete, and glabrous, with bilocular versatile anthers. The ovary has three locules with numerous axile ovules. The style is sharply bent at the base with three stigmatic arms. The ovoid to cylindrical capsule is three-valved, septicidally dehiscent and leathery; it opens out flat to reveal bright red fleshy globose seeds.

Gloriosa superba is found growing in Namibia, the eastern Cape through the eastern parts of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique into tropical Africa, Madagascar, and tropical Asia (India and Sri Lanka). Aerial portions of the plant die back after seed dispersal, the corm remains dormant during winter, and daughter corms sprout the following spring.

Medicinal Importance

The major uses of Gloriosa extracts revolve around the use of the plant as a fertility drug, as well as a cure for bites and bruises (Table Use of Gloriosa by indigenous populations). Bryant speculated that the root of Gloriosa or “iHlamvu” as it is known to the Zulus is “effective” as a cure for barrenness, in that as a known lice-killer it may also act as a germicide, which could kill microbes responsible for uterine diseases. According to folklore in some African tribes, it is possible to procure the birth of whichever sex of child is desired using “iHlamvu”; the corm is said to exhibit the shape of the female or the male organ, and all that is necessary is to physic the wife before coition with a decoction of the root which resembles the shape of the organ of the desired sex.

Table Use of Gloriosa by indigenous populations

SpeciesTribe/areaPlant partUse
Gloriosa simplex L. (virescens Lindl.)ZuluPowdered rootTreatment for impotency and barrenness
iHlamvuZuluRootTo determine the desired sex of a child
 East Africa Homicide
 SenegambiaPounded leafNarcotic
 TanganyikaJuiceDisinfectant for wounds
Gloriosa superba L. iHlamvuIndia, CeylonFlowerReligious ceremonies
NyamahlokaneIndia, CeylonRootPromoting labor pains and inducing abortion
 CeylonRootTreatment for bruises and sprains
 India PersiaRoot RootTonic, antiperiodic, gonorrhea remedy, purgative, antihelmintic, hemorrhoids, remedy for snake and scorpion bites, suicide, leprosy, and colic

Bleeding of the nose, impotence, nocturnal seminal emissions

 South AfricaRootAntiparasitic and a remedy for ascites
 ZuluRootUsed as a charm
 ZuluRootLice killer

The extracts of Colchicum species were first referred to in 1550 B.C. by the Egyptians. In 1819 Pelletier and Caventou extracted a substance with basic properties from Colchicum autumnale (the meadow saffron) which they regarded as veratrine. Geiger and Hesse in 1833 recognised this compound as a new alkaloid which they named colchicine (Pictet 1904). The chemical formula of colchicine is C22H25O6N.

Clewer et al. (1915) reported that Warden in 1880 made a study of the “drug” present in Gloriosa superba and found that the tuber contained a “neutral”, bitter principle (superbine), salicylic acid, a fluorescent principle, and three resins. Clewer et al., using the dried tubers of Gloriosa superba collected in Sri Lanka, isolated an enzyme which readily hydrolyzed amygdalin, and a considerable amount of an alkaloid. The mixture of alkaloids contained mainly colchicine (0.3%). Subbaratnam, using Gloriosa tubers, divided the alkaloid fraction into colchicine (*mp 151-152°) and a new alkaloid gloriosine (C22H25O6N, melting point 248-250 °C). Sarin et al. and Thakur et al. reported the presence of colchicine from Gloriosa, the neutral fraction giving a total of 24 alkaloids and a small amount of basic alkaloids of a nontropolone nature.

Colchicine is an extremely toxic substance which has killed a human adult in a single dose of 3 mg. Colchicine is less effective on cold-blooded than on warm-blooded animals. In the past, the main uses of colchicine were for chromosome manipulation and the treatment of gout. However, at present there is renewed interest in the use of colchicine as a possible cure for cancer-related diseases. Colchicine and related compounds generally exert antimitotic properties, interfere with micro-tubule-dependent cell function, and irreversibly bind to tubulin. Because colchicine itself is too toxic for human use as an antitumor drug, use has been made of its derivatives, which are less toxic. Demecolcine, trimethylcolchicine acid methyl ester, 2-demethyl, and 3-demethylthiocolchicine have been evaluated as anti-leukemia agents. Data collected on 3-demethylthiocolchicine shows this compound to be a broad spectrum antitumor agent of some promise. Carbonates of colchicine and thiocolchicine are suitable agents for the treatment of gout and murine malignancies.

The phenylalanine-cinnamic pathway has been shown to be involved in the elaboration of ring A and carbon atom C-5, C-6 and C-7, the genesis of the tropolone ring was “problematic”. It was shown that the aromatic ring and the benzyl carbon atom of tyrosine is involved in the genesis of the tropolone ring. The origin of the colchicine type of molecule is in line with other types of alkaloids, “with a fortuitous combination of molecular circumstances appearing to be responsible for the production of the unusual tropolone moiety from a more normal isoquinoline structure”. Due to renewed interest in the pharmacology of colchicine, a number of researchers have published work on colchicine synthesis and the production of structural analogs, so as to eliminate using plant material as a source of colchicine.

Colchicine is normally the alkaloid present in the highest concentration in the corm of Colchicum. Substance F (demecolcine, colcemid, or colchamine) N-methyl desacetyl colchicine is the next most abundant compound. Colchicoside is similar to colchicine with a glucose molecule attached; lumicolchicine is normally produced as a result of photoconversion of colchicine.

The meadow saffron or autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale L.) is the main commercial source of colchicine. Since the discovery of colchicine in Gloriosa by Clewer et al. (1915) a number of researchers have isolated and quantified colchicine from Gloriosa, and a number proposed that Gloriosa could serve as a commercial source of colchicine.

Plant cells are generally less sensitive than animal cells to colchicine. Normally plants require 1000 times higher concentrations of the alkaloid to arrest mitosis. Numerous researchers have tried to isolate chemicals with the ability to induce polyploidy. “Colchicine is still the only alkaloid that fulfils the different requirements of an effective polyploidizing agent”.

Heinz and Mee and Bayliss found that polyploidy can be induced in suspension culture by the addition of colchicine. Chavadej and Becker reasoned that in certain cases polyploidy may cause an increase in the production of medicinal compounds. Bricout et al. reported an increase in essential oil production in in vitro grown plants treated with colchicine. Currah and Ockendon, Novak, and Guri et al. have all utilized colchicine and tissue culture to study polyploidy in plant tissues. Chen and Goeden-Kallemeyn found that over 50% of the plants initiated from Hemerocallis callus treated with colchicine were tetraploid.

Colchicine and its biosynthesis in plant tissue have been successfully used in chemotaxonomy for classification purposes.

Conventional Propagation of Gloriosa superba

Krause stated that in horticultural practice, vegetative propagation of Gloriosa is commonly used; the mother corm usually produces two daughter corms, but there are many reasons why the coefficient of multiplication is considerably lower. “Thus the obtaining of a great number of plants in a short time is possible only from seed”, the conclusion also of Carow. Most horticulturally orientated research has been performed on Gloriosa rothschildiana by European researchers. It is apparent that corm size is directly related to the size and quality of the plant and its flower. The techniques and requirements for dormancy breaking and storage of Gloriosa rothschildiana corms have also been researched, as has tuber nutrition and nutrient utilization.

Gloriosa superba L. (Flame Lily): Summary and Conclusions

Levels of colchicine extracted from Gloriosa superba callus, malformed roots, and entire plantlets respectively, show an increase that can be directly related to the amount of differentiation in culture. Gloriosa explants/morphogenetic types when grown in the same cultural conditions showed that increased product formation was a result of the increase in the amount of differentiation. Perhaps the scheme proposed by Sakuta and Komamine and Komamine et al. is applicable, and future research on Gloriosa tissue should be aimed in that direction.

Limited plantlet production can be achieved from callus using seedlings as the original explant. Multiple plantlets can be produced using mature corms as explants. Shoots develop from the corm explant and with culture manipulation corm formation can be induced; the resultant corms do not require a hardening-off period.

Selections from the book: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants VI”, 1994.