About 100 species of tropical and subtropical woody lianas, climbers and shrubs belongs to this leguminous genus. Some species are bat-pollinated, and most contain alkaloids. A few are grown as ornamentals, such as the scarlet-flowered M. bennettii, which is among the world's most spectacular climbers. Mucuna pruriens (often given incorrectly as M. prurita) is a species with several variants; the main one is var. utilis, which is widely grown in the tropics as a fodder crop. Mucuna pruriens var. utilis is unusual among herbs in that among the parts used are the bristly hairs on the pods. The use of this species as an anthelmintic was first recorded by Patrick Browne in his Civil and Natural History of Jamaica, 1756. Ancient sanskrit texts indicate that it was used as an aphrodisiac. Seeds of the M. pruriens var. utilis yield L-dopa, which revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson's disease in teh 1960's. They also contain toxic, hallucinogenic compounds. Though poisonous, the seeds are a common famine food, edible if boiled in several changes of water.

The cowhage plant is found in Asia, South America, Africa, and the Fiji Islands, and has crooked seed pods covered with stinging hairs that stick to the fingers and cause intense itching. But when these hairs are mixed with syrup, molasses, or honey and taken internally, the pierce the bodies of worms, which detach themselves from intestinal walls and can be whisked alive out of the body with a cathartic. Not surprisingly, inflammation of the small intestine sometimes follows its use.

Semi-woody annual or short-lived perennial, twining climber, with trifoliate leaves, to 45cm (18in) long, divided into elliptic, pointed leaflets, 8-16cm (3-6in) long. Clusters of dark purple to lilac or white, pea-like flowers, to 4cm (1½in) long, appear in summer, followed by flattened, hairy pods, to 9cm (3½in) long and 2cm (¾in) wide, with a pointed, often hooked, apex. The pods contain 3-6 seeds, about 1cm (3/8in) long, and are covered in orange or dark brown, irritant bristles.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Cowage, Cowhage, Couhage, Cowitch, Velvet Bean, benguk
Botanical Name:
Mucuna pruriens var. utilis
syn. M.deeringiana, M. pruriens Utilis Group, M. utilis, Stizolobium deeringianum
Well-drained, moist, rich soil in sun or partial shade. Remove crowded branches in winter and cut back flowered shoots to within 5-8cm (2-3in) of the base. Spider mite and whitefly may attack plants indoors.
By seed sown at 18-24°C (64-75°F) in spring.
Roots are lifted as required and dried for decoctions and powders. Pods are collected when ripe and scraped to remove hairs, which are powdered and mixed with honey or added to ointment. Seeds are removed from ripe pods, cooked, and ground into a paste.
Native Location:
Tropical Asia, widely naturalized.
4m (12ft)
Pods, hairs, and powders are irritant to skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.
Parts Used:
Roots, pods, hairs from pods, seeds.
An irritant, rubefacient herb that destroys intestinal parasites (hairs), and acts as a diuretic (roots), hallucinogen, and aphrodisiac (seeds).
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for nervous and kidney complaints, and paralysis (roots), roundworms (hairs); externally for elephantiasis and fluid retention (roots). Internal use of hairs is highly irritant; excess may prove fatal. Extracts are used internally to control involuntary movements in Parkinsonism (seeds).
To treat worm infestation, muscle pain, and rheumatism.
Typical Dose:
A typical dose of cowhage has not been determined.
Possible Side Effects:
Cowhage's side effects include itching, burning, headache, and sweating.
Drug Interactions:
Taking cowhage with these drugs may reduce the effectiveness of the drug:
Acetophenazine, (Acetophenazine)
Aniracetam, (Ampamet, Draganon)
Aripiprazole, (Abilify)
Benperidol, (Anquil, Glianimon)
Bromperidol, (Impromen, Tesoprel)
Chlorpromazine, (Largactil, Thorazine)
Clozapine, (Clozaril, Gen-Clozapine)
Droperidol, (Inapsine)
Flupenthixol, (Fluanxol)
Fluphenazine, (Modecate, Prolixin)
Haloperidol, (Haldol, Novo-Peridol)
Loxapine, (Loxitane, Nu-Loxapine)
Mesoridazine, (Serentil)
Molindone, (Moban)
Olanzapine, (Zydis, Zyprexa)
Perphenazine, (Apo-Perphenazine, Trilafon)
Pimozide, (Orap)
Pipamperone, (Dipieron, Piperonil)
Piracetam, (Geram, Piracetam Verla)
Prochlorperazine, (Compazine, Compro)
Quetiapine, (Seroquel)
Risperidone, (Risperdal)
Thioridazine, (Mellaril)
Thiothixene, (Navane)
Trifluoperazine, (Novo-Trifluzine, Stelazine)
Ziprasidone, (Geodon)—used for schizophrenia
Zuclopenthixol, (Clopixol)
Taking cowhage with these drugs may increase the risk of a hypertensive crisis (excessively high blood pressure):
Phenelzine, (Nardil)
Tranylcypromine, (Parnate)
Lab Test Alterations:
  • May cause false decrease in glucose oxidase test (e.g., Clinistix)
  • May cause false increases in cupric sulfate test (e.g., Clinitest)
Disease Effects:
  • May worsen cardiovascular disease because the herb contains L-dopa, which can cause irregular heartbeat and other problems.
  • May push blood sugar too low in diabetes or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
  • May worsen psychiatric diseases due to its L-Dopa content.
Supplement Interactions:
  • May increase blood glucose-lowering effects and risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) when used with herbs and supplements that lower glucose levels, such as alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, Devil's Claw, Panax Ginseng and Psyllium.
  • Kava-Kava and vitamin B6 may reduce cowhage's effects by counteracting the L-dopa in cowage.
Culinary Uses:
Seeds are boiled in milk, decorticated, fried, and made into a confection with honey; also fermented in miso (Japan) and in Indonesian foods, such as tempeh benguk. Immature pods and young leaves are cooked as vegetables.
Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown. Copyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited. pg 283
The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide by Geo. T. Grossberg,MD and Barry Fox,PhD Copyright©2007 Barry Fox,PhD. Pp.171-172