Medicinal properties and growth of Merwilla natalensis.
Merwilla natalensis (Planchon) Speta is ranked as one of the most commonly sold medicinal plants at most of the informal medicinal plant markets found throughout South Africa. The increasing demand for medicinal plants has resulted in over-exploitation of many of the wild populations. Overharvesting has resulted in M. natalensis being declared vulnerable. Although this species is so popular, and reports state that the bulbs are used for a variety of ailments, very little is known about its pharmacological activity or phytochemical composition. Extracts were made from mature M. natalensis bulbs using hexane, dichloromethane, methanol and water. These extracts were screened for antibacterial, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antischistosomal and anthelmintic activity. Antibacterial activity was evaluated using the minimal inhibitory concentration (MIC) assay. Methanol extracts displayed good antibacterial activity against both Gram-positive (Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus) and Gram-negative (Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae) bacteria. Anti-inflammatory activity was evaluated using the COX-1 and COX-2 bioassays. Dichloromethane extracts displayed the highest inhibitory activity against both COX-1 and -2 enzymes. (80% and 91% inhibition respectively) Very good activity was displayed against the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the schistosomula worms of Schistosoma haematobium using microdilution techniques. Anticancer activity was evaluated using the biochemical induction assay (BIA) in which DNA-damaging properties are tested for. No activity was found using this assay, however, these results do not prove that M. natalensis does not have other anticancer properties. The phytochemical investigation of mature M. natalensis plants showed the bulbs to contain both saponins and bufadienolides. One of the bufadienolides had the same Rf value as proscillaridin A. Cytotoxicity tests reveal M. natalensis to be extremely cytotoxic, yet the bulbs are commonly sold at traditional medicine markets around South Africa. This cytotoxicity may be accredited to the presence of saponins within the bulbs. No alkaloids or tannins were detected in the bulbs. With the growing population in South Africa, there is an increasing demand for traditional medicines. This increasing demand is placing tremendous strain on natural populations growing in the wild. However, as the demand cannot continue to be met other sources are needed. Tissue cultured plants have been grown at two different regions of South Africa. These plants have been grown under different conditions to determine the optimal ones needed to grow M. natalensis as a commercial crop on small-scale farms. Plantlets taken directly from tissue culture were acclimatized successfully for cultivation by means of simple and cost effective methods. Cultivated plants were harvested on a six-monthly basis for a period of two years. Field cultivation produced bulbs of almost marketable size (±300g fresh weight) after 24 months. Bulb size was not dependent on additional fertilizer or irrigation. No significant differences (p<_0.05) were shown in the average dry weights of bulbs grown under different treatments (control, fertilizer without irrigation, fertilizer with irrigation). Leaf senescence and dormancy of young plants were prevented with irrigation. Flowering occurred after 24 months, with the irrigation and fertilizer plot having the most flowering plants. TLC fingerprinting revealed differences in the chemical composition of the bulbs harvested at different stages of growth. Noticeable differences were found between bulbs cultivated at the different growing sites. Pharmacological screenings were done of the harvested bulbs to investigate the effect of age (time of harvest) and growing conditions on antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anthelmintic activity. Methanol extracts were screened against Gram-positive (Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus) and Gram-negative (Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae) bacteria. Variations in activity were found. The time of harvest had a significant effect (p<_0.05) on biological activity, with the younger plants being more active. Antibacterial activity decreased with an increase in plants age. Methanol extracts were also screened for anthelmintic activity against Caenorhabditis elegans. Activity was found to increase with plant maturity. Irrigation was found to increase activity at the low rainfall (Fort Hare) site. Bulbs harvested from the irrigation treatment had significantly higher anthelmintic activity (p<_0.05) than bulbs harvested from treatments without irrigation. Dichloromethane extracts from bulbs grown at both sites had high anti-inflammatory activity. There were no significant differences (p<_0.05) in the activity of bulbs harvested from the different treatment plots. The time of harvest had an effect on the inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis by COX-1 enzymes. This study provides not only scientific verification for the use of M. natalensis to some extent as a medicinal plant, but also important data needed to successfully cultivate this species as a crop for small-scale farming.