Closely related to the genera Psychotria and Palicourea, the 180 or so species of Cephaelis are tender, mostly evergreen shrubs and small trees, which occur in various parts of the tropics. The terminal clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers are produced in the rainy season. Many species are known to contain alkaloids, but only C. ipecacuahna, an understorey shrub of Brazilian rainforests, is in large-scale production, mainly in Singapore and Malaysia, where it is often grown under rubber trees. Ipecacuahna was known to native Brazilians for centuries before its introduction to Portugal by a monk in colonial times. A Parisian doctor confirmed its effectiveness against dysentery and in 1688 sold his patent medicine to the court of Louis XIV for 1,000 louis d'or. Cephaelis ipecacuahna contains a potent emetic that as a side-effect stimulates mucus secretion in the lungs. It is an ingredient of most commercial cough remedies.

Slender, evergreen shrub with a creeping rootstock and glossy, pointed, ovate leaves, 8-16cm (3-6in). White flowers 1cm (3/8in) long, are followed by blue-purple berries with two seeds.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Botanical Name:
Caphaelis ipecacuanha
Native Location:
Brazil and C America
Well-drained, rich soil in shade, with ample moisture and humidity. Difficult to cultivate outside its natural habitat.
By greenwood cuttings in late spring, in sandy soil mix at 21-24°C (70-75°F); by root cuttings during harvesting.
Roots are dug when the plants are in flower and dried for use by the pharmaceutical industry. Cultivated plants are replanted after partial removal of roots.
30-50cm (12-20in)
30-50cm (12-20in)
Min. 15-18°C (59-64°F)
Parts Used:
A violent irritant that stimulates the gastric bronchial systems, lowers fevers, and prevents cyst formation in amebic dysentery.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for coughs, bronchitis, whooping cough, and amebic dysentery. Also used in a syrup to induce vomiting in drug overdoses, and in children who have swallowed poisons, being preferable to the used of a stomach pump for the very young. Excess causes severe vomiting and diarrhea, and may prove fatal. Used in homeopathy for nausea. For use by qualified practioners only. For use strictly according to instructions in commercial medicines.
Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright ©: 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pg 163