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belly ache bush

Q: Can you tell me what this plant is?

Q:  My sister and I found this plant in some orange groves down south. It is so attractive and hardy that I have been growing it here. It dies back in the winter but produces a lovely red flower and a seed pod. The seed pod contains about 3 seeds and when it is ripe it pops open and tosses the seeds quite a distance from the pod. Can you tell me what it is?

A: This one was a puzzler for me so I asked the advice of the plant identification specialist at the University of Florida Herbarium in the Florida Museum of Natural History. The plant is Jatropha gossypifolia L., commonly known as bellyache bush, in the Euphorbiaceae (Spurge Family). This plant is native to tropical America, and has escaped from cultivation to central and southern Florida.  It forms three-lobed capsular fruit that releases its seeds explosively; as a result, it can spread a considerable distance quite rapidly. In climates where it does not freeze back it can become a problem.

You will find that this plant is widely regarded as invasive in Australia.  However, it is NOT listed as invasive by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, nor is it listed on the Global Invasive Species Database.  Nonetheless, caution is advised with this plant.  The specialist’s advice was not to share it with friends who live in central or south Florida, and to consider advising folks to grow this plant in a pot rather than in the ground.

The root, stem, leaves, sap, and seeds of this plant contain jatrophin, a powerful purgative and potential toxin, which is probably where it gets its nickname “bellyache bush”.  No part of this plant should be consumed under any circumstances.  Jatropha species, as with most members of the spurge family, should be handled with care since the sap may cause dermatitis and eye irritation.