Importance and Distribution of the Genus

The genus Stephania (Menispermaceae) comprises approximately 50 species distributed from Africa through Asia to Australia. The importance of the genus in traditional medicine in Asia and Africa is well documented. The underground tubers of the vines are generally characterized by powerful pharmacological effects.

Stephania abyssinica is a creeper indigenous to southern and eastern Africa. The leaves of this plant are used as a purgative and emetic, whereas the roots are employed in the treatment of roundworm, menorrhagia and boils. Stephania bancroftii is used by the aboriginal communities of Australia both as a treatment for diarrhea and as a fish poison.

Stephania cepharantha (), a perennial plant native to mainland China known by the vernacular name “bei-yan-zi”, is commonly used as a folk medicinal herb. Decoctions from the tuber of Stephania cepharantha are traditionally used in China to treat a number of diseases including parotiditis, gastric ulcer, leukopenia, alopecia areata and alopecia androgenetica. The major components of this crude drug, known as Cepharanthin preparations, are the bisbenzylisoquinoline (BBI) alkaloids cepharanthine, isotetrandrine and cycleanine.

Stephania dinklagei is a climbing shrub of the deciduous forests of both East and West Africa. The roots and stems are used medicinally in Ghana as a vermifuge, an analgesic, an aphrodisiac, a sedative and for the treatment of menorrhagia. The leaves of the plant are used in folkloric medicine as a treatment for infertility in women and impotence in men. The stems are also used as a fish poison. Stephania errecta has been used in Thai folk medicine as an analgesic and a skeletal muscle relaxant.

Stephania rotunda is a climber indigenous to India and Indochina, where it has been used as a folk medicine for the treatment of pulmonary consumption, dysentery, fever, abdominal ills (tubers), asthma (tubers and stems), ascariasis, dysmenorrhea (stems), indigestion, wounds, headache, sore breasts (leaves) and leprosy (flowers). Stephania glabra is a glabrous climber with smooth terete stems attaining a length of up to 7 m. It is distributed in the Himalayas, Assam and in the western ghats up to the Nilgiris and Tirunelveli hills, up to an altitude of 2100 m. Its tubers attain a large size, some of them have a diameter of approximately 23 cm and weigh up to 30 kg. They are acrid and it appears that they are employed, like the tubers of Stephania rotunda, in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis, asthma and intestinal complaints. They also possess hypoglycemic activity. Thornber treated Stephania glabra and Stephania rotunda as the same plant.

Stephania hernandifolia is a slender twining shrub found in India on the western and eastern coasts, in Cachar, Sikkim, East Bengal and Assam. The roots are used in the treatment of fever, diarrhea, dyspepsia and urinary diseases. An extract of Stephania japonica has been used in China as an antidiarrheal, an antianetus, an antifebrile, a tonic, a diuretic and as a remedy for podagra and cholera. Stephania pierrii, indigenous to Thailand, is a slender, herbaceous climber with large tubers and round leaves. The tubers are used in folk medicine as a skeletal muscle relaxant and also as an analgesic and tonic under the name “bua bok”.

The vine Stephania suberosa, native to Thailand, is commonly used for treatment of a variety of ailments under the local name “borapet pungchang”. Stephania sutchuenensis is indigenous to the southeastern part of China, and its root is used in folk medicine to treat common cold, sore throat and arthritic pain.

Stephania tetrandra is indigenous to China. The roots of this plant are the main constituents of the traditional Chinese medicine “fen-fan-ji”, which has been in use as an analgesic, diuretic and detumescent for thousands of years in China. Stephania tetrandra has been reported to have antiphagocytic and antioxidizing effects, and to exhibit effectiveness in clinical and experimental silicosis models. It is known to have the ability to inhibit the production of interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor-a which are secreted from human monocytes. The alkaloid tetrandrine has been used as an antiinflam-matory and antihypertensive agent. Furthermore, tetrandrine and its derivatives are reported to promote brain function and have been developed as an antimalarial drug and also as a stimulant for hair growth.

The rhizomes of the Southeast Asia vine Stephania venosa, known in Thailand under the name of “sabu-le-ad” or blood-soap due to its red latex, are sometimes used as a bitter tonic.


The alkaloids of the genus Stephania were reviewed by Thornber, as a part of an article on alkaloids of the Menispermaceae. According to the author, 45 alkaloids had been identified from 9 Stephania species. The alkaloids in Stephania species were further reviewed by Chinese researchers Wang and Zhao and Yang and Chen. Alkaloids in S. cepharantha, S. glabra, S. hernandifolia and S. japonica have been investigated more extensively than others. Based on information drawn from Chemical Abstracts, more than 130 new alkaloids were reported in the period 1969 to 1997. Including known compounds, so far, approximately 300 alkaloids have been identified from about 40 Stephania species. Based on structures and functional groups, the alkaloids are assigned to several groups including benzylisoquinoline, bisbenzylisoquino-line (BBI), aporphine, proaporphine, oxoaporphine, morphine, protoberberine and hasubanane.

Stephania: Summary and Conclusion

The genus Stephania comprises approximately 50 species extending in distribution from Africa through Asia to Australia. The underground tubers of the vines are important because of their powerful pharmaceutical effects.

Root cultures of Stephania cepharantha were established, using adventitious roots from callus and roots from tuber as starting materials. The cultured roots produced at least five bisbenzylisoquinoline alkaloids; homoaromoline, aromoline, isotetrandrine, berbamine and cycleanine. The main constituents were aromoline and berbamine, and their respective contents reached more than 2 and 1% under optimum culture conditions for alkaloid production. These values are much higher than those in the intact plant.

Feeding experiments with 14C-labeled tyrosine, tyramine and dopamine and 13C-labeled tyrosine and tyramine demonstrated that aromoline and berbamine were composed of four molecules of tyrosine, and two coclaurine units have one and the same biogenetic origin. Moreover, these results suggest that aromoline and berbamine are derived from a common progenitor berba-munine, and that the hydroxylation of tyramine proceeds more rapidly than its oxidation or that tyrosine conversion to the benzyl moiety proceeds via its corresponding oc-keto acid in Stephania cepharantha.


Selections from the book: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants XII” (2002).