Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Infomercial Pitchman (Cissus quadrangularis)

The fun part of writing these profiles is finding out new, weird stuff. Sometimes (as with Epipremnum aureum), there's just no new stuff to be found, which is boring, and sometimes very unpromising-looking or obscure plants will turn out to be far stranger than my wildest hopes, as with Araucaria bidwillii. So I never know.

Cissus quadrangularis, though, takes the prize for the most surprising plant so far.

You wouldn't think, to look at it, that it was related to . . . you know, Earth plants. But not only is it from this planet, it's got familiar, planty-looking family. Stuff you'd know and recognize, like for example grapes (Vitis vinifera, V. labrusca) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which are also members of the Vitaceae. More related still, the genus Cissus is also the genus of a few common houseplants, like grape ivy (C. rhombifolia), oakleaf ivy (C. rhombifolia 'Ellen Danica'), kangaroo ivy (C. antarctica), and begonia vine (C. discolor). The family resemblance is not obvious to the naked eye. Or the casually dressed eye, for that matter.

The plant is native to . . . somewhere. Different websites list different origins, usually one or the other of these options: "Asia and Africa" or "Ceylon and India." I'm inclined to believe the latter more, because it's more specific, but there was one site that mentioned the plant's presence in Africa, a site that talked about the plant being, possibly, toxic to livestock in Sudan. (Unfortunately, that's literally all the page had to say about the plant, Sudan, or livestock, so it's kind of a dead end, information-wise.) It's always possible that the plant is native to Ceylon/India and was introduced to Africa at some point later.


If you google Cissus quadrangularis, what you get are mostly bodybuilding sites, nutritional supplement sites, and the occasional medical site.1 Not what you'd expect from a houseplant, I know. What's even more unexpected is, C. quadrangularis is apparently the answer to every physical ailment that might affect you. Broken bones? Take C. quadrangularis. Hemorrhoids? C. quadrangularis. Open sores? How about some C. quadrangularis. And so on and so forth, through: obesity, tennis elbow, weight loss, asthma, high cholesterol, irregular or difficult menstruation, diabetes (implied), depression (implied), insomnia (implied), osteoporosis, low libido (implied), and ulcers.

Now, most of the sites couldn't care less about osteoporosis, asthma, and high cholesterol, because most of the sites are about bodybuilding. Apparently, it's common for bodybuilders to tear and snap tendons,2 and then when you've snapped a tendon, you can't use that particular muscle anymore for a while, while it heals, which if you're a bodybuilder is apparently terrifying, since if you can't work it out, it'll shrink and all the other bodybuilders will laugh at you. And, as we all know, there's nothing worse than being laughed at by a bunch of bodybuilders. So there's a demand for anything that promises to heal tendons faster.

Cissus quadrangularis is basically the answer to the sidelined bodybuilder's prayer, because not only is its extract supposed to heal tendons and broken bones faster, it's also supposed to reduce pain and inflammation and act like an anabolic steroid. So basically you're looking at a product that will: fix the stuff you broke, reduce the amount of pain you feel from breaking whatever it was, and help you regrow the muscle back at a faster-than-natural pace once everything's healed. You can see why they'd be interested.

As far as it goes, I think I might believe this, or at least I don't rule it out. I'm not a biochemist, but my degree is in chemistry, and I know enough about biochemistry that some of the claims and purported mechanisms at least don't sound like obvious gibberish. I'm prepared to accept that it might actually do something like heal bone and build muscle and all that. Healing of broken bones is apparently something it's been used for since ancient India, even.3 But of course, there's no FDA regulation of "nutritional supplements," which means that if you go to the store and buy a bottle of powdered whatever, the manufacturer is not obligated to list possible side effects on the bottle, no impartial government agency has proven that the supplement in the bottle does anything, there may or may not be scientific evidence showing that the product in question is even safe for human use, and I'm not positive that the bottle has to contain the product it claims to contain (or at least I don't know who would be in charge of verifying this, aside from the manufacturer itself). Persons reading this from outside the U.S. might have a little bit more government regulation and protection (or a bit less), but that still wouldn't make it safe and effective. So use at your own risk.

As for the rest of the claims, weight loss and hemorrhoids and all that, well, if it sounds too good to be true. . . .

But it's not just the answer to all your bone, muscle, and joint problems, it's also a houseplant. (Also a floor polish, dessert topping, and powerful rust remover!4)

As houseplants go, it's a pretty easy one. Granted, I've only had mine for three months, but it's a fast grower, it's not complained about its conditions yet or gotten any bugs, and it seems to be pretty okay with whatever care I give it or don't give it. So far, so good.

Despite it being easy to grow, it doesn't actually seem to be grown indoors all that often, which I can't easily explain. I mean, no, it's not the most gorgeous plant in the world. It's a little weird-looking. But, you know, Cissus quadrangularis is certainly no weirder to look at than Hatiora salicornioides or Schlumbergera truncata cvv., and people grow them all the time.

I had trouble finding any hard information about indoor care at all, so I'm going almost entirely on my own experience with the plant for the care directions. I welcome input from anybody else who might have tried this plant.

LIGHT: Mine is in a position probably best described as filtered sun. It seems to be okay there, though it's hard to know for sure with this kind of plant: if the stem segments start getting longer, does that mean it's happy or that it's reaching for light? Or both?

WATER: I treat mine more or less like a succulent that likes to be a little wet (roughly the same watering territory occupied by Pedilanthus tithymaloides or Pachypodium lamerei in the summer).

TEMPERATURE: Almost no data on this. I ran into two sites that said that the plant will die if it's exposed to freezing temperatures, and one site that said it's okay outdoors in zones 11 & 12 only. I didn't know there was a zone 12.5 So I don't know. I figure it should be okay to stay above 50ºF / 10ºC. Possibly colder than that.

HUMIDITY: Can't really see humidity being an issue for a plant that's this succulent.

PESTS: Haven't had any personally, and didn't find anything about them on-line, so I have no idea. Cissus spp. in general tend to be prone to spider mites and mealybugs (just like almost everything else).

GROOMING: It's possible that there is some, but I'm not sure what it would be. My plant does occasionally drop a leaf. I can't tell if this is something the plant would be doing anyway, or if it's an indication that it's unhappy over something.

FEEDING: No information on this either, so I'll say, feed like any other relatively fast-growing succulent.

PROPAGATION: I haven't tried it myself yet, but every site with any information on it at all says that these are very easily propagated just by snapping off a piece and burying a node in soil. In some cases that's the only real information that's included.

In the end, I think the people marketing Cissus quadrangularis supplements are promising much more than the product can possibly deliver. I'm cynical about "natural" and "herbal" products anyway, mostly for the reasons outlined above, that they don't have to go through any objective testing in order to be sold. But this doesn't mean that all such products are crap -- it just means that you, as the consumer, can't tell the difference between crap and medicine, you can't prepare yourself for any drug interactions or side effects, you don't know how much active ingredient you're getting, and it's not like these things are generally cheap6 or covered by insurance.

It's still interesting that this is a quote-unquote nutritional supplement that can be grown in the home. [shrug] If it turns out to be a useful one, then maybe more people will grow it, someday. Though that's probably enough right there to guarantee that nobody's ever going to check it out in any kind of rigorous scientific way. No money to be made in researching a plant that people will grow at home for their own use, right? Am I being too cynical?7


Photo credits: all mine.

Sudanese livestock
Pain reliever
Possible anabolic / androgenic (ref 1) (ref 2)
Hemorrhoids, asthma, ulcers, etc. ref 1 (WARNING: includes description of mouse torture which is couched in clinical language but still comprehensible enough to be unsettling), ref 2, ref 3, ref 4.

1 (Those readers who got to this page via a google search may mentally edit this to, "bodybuilding sites, nutritional supplement sites, the occasional medical site, and PATSP.")
2 Which might be a "doctor, it hurts when I do this" moment (for those unfamiliar with the joke: guy goes to the doctor, says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this," and the doctor ponders for a minute and then tells the patient not to do that, then. Not the funniest joke. My delivery wasn't great either. But that's the joke I'm referring to.), but apparently a little tendon snappage is a small price to pay for having grotesquely large . . . everythings. I understand working out. Don't do it (basically no energy or time left once you factor in work, and I was never a big fan of exercise to begin with, because of how it's all boring and repetitive and hot/sweaty), but I understand it. Bodybuilding, though, I don't even understand, except insofar as it might be an anorexia-like body image issue, which apparently for some people it is. Whatever the activity, I think I'd be motivated to stop doing it once I'd snapped a few tendons, but this is apparently one of many, many reasons why I am not a bodybuilder, my author picture notwithstanding.
3 Not that that means that it works. Ancient people also thought that the sun, which revolved around the earth, was routinely eaten by dragons; and that hares grew a new anus every year, so a four-year-old rabbit would have four anuses (I am totally serious: check out p. 138 of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, by John Boswell. They also thought that weasels got pregnant through the mouth.); that malaria was spread through bad smells; and that virgin-slaughtering was just as important to agriculture as sowing seed. Ancient peoples were fucked up. Not good noticers.
4 "Dessert topping" is an exaggeration, but it actually can apparently be eaten as a vegetable. I was unable to find any description of how it tastes. I'm guessing probably not very good. I also want to note for the record that I am not willing to bet your life on the plant being edible, especially in light of the possible toxic-to-livestock thing mentioned previously, and I do not advise trying to eat this plant without first finding out how much you can safely eat, how to prepare it, etc. The only site I could locate that talked about preparation of the plant for consumption advises one to swallow without chewing, to minimize oral irritation, which doesn't sound promising.
5 According to the USDA map, there's not a Zone 12. So either it was a typo, or the site I was looking at (which of course I can't find again) was using a zone map other than the current USDA map, or the USDA has added a zone 12 since the map I looked at was produced. "Zone 12" would be a good blog title, by the way, if there's not actually a zone 12. Be especially appropriate for an indoor gardener.
(Alas, both and are taken. The former has been collecting dust since February 2005, only ever had one post, and that post was only four words long : "Golly, my first blog." The latter is even older (October 2004), and has a longish rant about [sub]urban sprawl in Maine (the author is against it), and ends with the promise of "More soon!" However, and are open, for the time being.)
6 Except, perhaps, relatively speaking. Prescription medication is even more not-cheap.
7 Or maybe not cynical enough? Exactly how lazy are people, anyway?


lancetx said...

I like this - I'll have to look for one. Of course I always like odd and unusual plants. It will go well with my collection of oddities.

I think the idea of rubbing anything that resembles a cactus/succulent on any hemorrhoids seems like a very bad idea. But I guess I'm just not that into pain. Same reason I don't do bodybuilding. That and how unattractive I find the bulging mass it creates in them, and worse - the veins.

mr_subjunctive said...

I had the general impression that one doesn't apply the Cissus directly, that just eating the extract would take care of the problem on its own.

Though direct application does seem more logical, if not comfortable.

lancetx said...

I don't think either application sounds appealing if you have to swallow without chewing to avoid discomfort just to eat it.

mr_subjunctive said...

I suppose not.

Good potential for advertisements, I just realized:

"Cissus. Apply directly to bunghole."

lancetx said...

Hum, I think I should refrain from continuing my thoughts in public with that.

Tracy said...

HA, HA, HA, omg that was so much fun to read. It had me intrigued right from the I have't enjoyed a laugh like this for a long made my day.


lancetx- lol, yes the veins.....ewww

mr.s-lol, hehe, still laughing over the four anus thing.....lmao

loved it!!

Anonymous said...

I personally use the powdered herb in 1Fast400 brand canisters. At only about 1-2grams a day, my wrist fractured has QUICKLY healed and the pain is gone. Further, there's more crackle/pop noises from my wrists or knees! My rotator cuff is also not hurting when I throw a baseball. I order this stuff regularly!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I use the Cissus for the tendinitis, and all that we bodybuilders have, and it works!!! I'm a girl bodybuilder and I use it instead of corticosteroids to help the healing process in sport injuries. ;)
Is a shame is not more info about this funny plant!

Anonymous said...

hi i used cissus quandragularis raw directly for the first time but irritated my oral track.but it is not poisonous it kills parasites in our body,it increases digestion.
I am a fan of plants and ayurveda and i am in search of very rare plant cissus triangularis

Paul Decelles said...

Great post I just found one of these plants at the farmer's market in Lawrence. Looks like a fun plant, but then my wife accuses me of adopting all sorts of strange plants.

I plead guilty.

Anonymous said...
Obesity is generally linked to complications in lipid metabolism and oxidative stress. The aim of this study was to compare the effect of a proprietary extract of Cissus quadrangularis (CQR-300) to that of a proprietary formulation containing CQR-300 (CORE) on weight, blood lipids, and oxidative stress in overweight and obese people.
The first part of the study investigated the in vitro antioxidant properties of CQR-300 and CORE using 3 different methods, while the second part of the study was a double-blind placebo controlled design, involving initially 168 overweight and obese persons (38.7% males; 61.3% females; ages 19–54), of whom 153 completed the study. All participants received two daily doses of CQR-300, CORE, or placebo and were encouraged to maintain their normal levels of physical activity. Anthropometric measurements and blood sampling were done at the beginning and end of the study period.
CQR-300 as well as CORE exhibited antioxidant properties in vitro. They also acted as in vivo antioxidants, bringing about significant (p < 0.001) reductions in plasma TBARS and carbonyls. Both CQR-300 and CORE also brought about significant reductions in weight, body fat, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, and fasting blood glucose levels over the respective study periods. These changes were accompanied by a significant increase in HDL-cholesterol levels, plasma 5-HT, and creatinine.
CQR-300 (300 mg daily) and CORE (1028 mg daily) brought about significant reductions in weight and blood glucose levels, while decreasing serum lipids thus improving cardiovascular risk factors. The increase in plasma 5-HT and creatinine for both groups hypothesizes a mechanism of controlling appetite and promoting the increase of lean muscle mass by Cissus quadrangularis, thereby supporting the clinical data for weight loss and improving cardiovascular health.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I have been trying to find a source to purchase Cissus quadrangularis plants, and I haven't been able to find anything yet. Does anyone have any suggestions for how or where to obtain this plant?? Thanks :)

mr_subjunctive said...

I really don't know. I found mine in a consignment store in Iowa City, IA. You might check, or the houseplant exchange forums on Garden Web (but be sure you're on the exchanges page: people get way cranky if you post trade requests on the regular page). I've started some cuttings here, but although I think they've rooted, none of them have any new growth yet, and it's too close to winter to be mailing any stuff out anyway. Keep looking. One will turn up eventually.

Sita said...

Hi , I stumbled on your blog searching about Asperagus sps.About Cissus.
We use it in chutneys [very ethnic kind of food not found in Hotels/restaurants.]and in making Appalams/Pappads.So it is edible and non poisonous.As for the oral irritation,yes,it does that but only the mature stalks ,especially when raw.It has to be peeled and fried[sauteed?]in a little oil.
Just wanted to share.

Jenn said...

I just found this plant, unidentified, at the Desert Botanical Garden's fall sale. I'm a sucker for the weird, so I picked it up ($3.00 mystery plant? sold!)

Took another look at it once I got it home and thought, hmmmm. That leaf looks like a cissus. (I seem to be becoming a cissus collector, I'm up to four varieties)

So I look up cissus, find a site that's talking bodybuilding supplement that gives the full botanical name, click a link and find you.

I SUSPECT that I had read this post - I'm pretty sure I've scoured your archives. So I'm feeling a bit less clever on the 'this looks like a cissus leaf' business.

But I'm really glad that you're so diverse in your plant interests.

Thanks for a great write-up (two years ago) on my brand new plant!

Kattuvan said...

This plant grows in northern part of Sri Lanka and Southern Part of India, mostly in dry soil. It has lots of medicinal values.
I helped my mother as a child to make chips (appalam) with it. I really miss the taste. When the juice comes in contact with your skin it may cause irritation. It has losts of medicinal values. For further information

IT is written in Tamil Language.

Anonymous said...

in regards to cissus q not being listed as a pharmacuetical product by the fda or whatever body- dont forget that these administerative bodies are usually benifiting from large donations from pharmacuetical companies- who will do whatever is in the sphere of ifluence to discredit promising new natural products and stop them from entering the market to compete with their own less efective more expensive products- its just not in pharmacuetical companies interests for humans to be healthy.
just look at how easily the american congress is bought out by pharmacuetical companies - i am way more sceptical of registered products than i am of treatments like colloidal silver- neem oil - cissus q - marijuana etc.

mr_subjunctive said...


Okay, but that doesn't change that "the manufacturer is not obligated to list possible side effects on the bottle, no impartial government agency has proven that the supplement in the bottle does anything, there may or may not be scientific evidence showing that the product in question is even safe for human use, and I'm not positive that the bottle has to contain the product it claims to contain (or at least I don't know who would be in charge of verifying this, aside from the manufacturer itself)." As it is, last I knew, anybody can put anything in a bottle and make all kinds of claims for it, and as long as it's being sold as a herbal supplement, it never has to work. It could even make stuff worse, or contain a different plant entirely. As thoroughly imperfect as the pharmaceutical industry is -- and it's not like I'm arguing that it's wonderful -- there is still some regulation as far as what the products can contain, and how much, and there needs to be some evidence from somewhere[1] that the product does something to fix some medical condition.

If you want to be skeptical of FDA-approved products, that is your right as a human being and consumer, but I don't agree with you that natural/herbal is automatically better, safer, or more effective.


[1] Often, the "somewhere" is the manufacturer itself, but this is not really different in kind or degree from "natural" supplement makers claiming all kinds of benefits for their products.

Unknown said...

I am from south India, I am aware of this plant, and it is used in tamarind pickle in Rayalaseema region in Andra Pradesh. There is a place called Putture where this plant is widely used for healing fractures by externally applying the paste of cissus plant. I am looking for this plant can any one can give me the details where I can get this plant?

Padmini Raghavan said...

To the Unknown from Sounth India:
I saw plenty of the stuff growing wild on some open land adjacent to the Poondi reservoir.
Since you are from South India, this is one site close to Chennai, where I saw Cissus quadrangularis practically covering the bushes by the roadside.
Hope you enjoy the chutney and appalams.

Anonymous said...

Bodybuilders would take anything if they thought it would make them bigger and more "buff" ....

Matthias said...

Thanks for this useful information about Cissus quadrangularis. I purchased it a few weeks ago and delivered yesterday. It grows in cacti soil. Bad thing is, as you wrote, that there are not many opportunities to get useful advice how to care for the plant. I am not a bodybuilder, just a guy who loves to live with (sometimes extraordinary) plants. I´ll see how my cissus will grow and behave...
Have a nice time :)

Matthias said...


I bought my plant here:

It´s a german nursery but delivers to other countries, too

Matthias said...

or purchase here:

smallhousebiggarden said...

Found it for sale today (9/7/13) at this link:

Matthias said...

My Cissus, bought February this year, now has grown approx. 30 cm in 3 months. In the beginning (April to June) there was no visible growth. But then it proved to be Superman under right conditions.

One day one of the two new shoots broke off as I opened the window. I did not want to throw it away and let the wound dry off for 5 days. Then I put the shoot into a glass of water but I didn´t expect any positive results. Succulents tend to rot when standing in water. But the shoot surprised me and a healthy root growed.

So the propagation is quite easy and succeeds even in water.
Or was that success only possible with the help of three charming Non-succulent Coleus and one Bryophyllum tubiflora in the same glass!? ;)

Anonymous said...

To the author, amazing that you don't believe in natural supplements. Most pharmaceuticals until about 1980 were formulated from natuarally occuring plants and herbs. Furthermore you haven't used the product so why would you comment on it? Opinions are useless without foundations. Finally, while there should be more studies on supplements, I do not need the FDA, which fails on so many levels, to regulate supplements.

mr_subjunctive said...


Even if herbs do work, all the time, for everything they say they're good for, buying them at the store won't necessarily do anything for you:

[Canadian researchers] found that many [herbal supplements] were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.

Just to get that out of the way.

If herbal supplement manufacturers want to be taken seriously from a medical standpoint, then they should prove to the FDA that their products 1) work and 2) reliably contain what they say they contain. As long as they've got the "this product was not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any disease" disclaimer on the packaging, they're telling me that they have no confidence in their product, and consequently neither do I.

As for the rest of your comment:

"Most pharmaceuticals until about 1980 were formulated from natuarally occuring plants and herbs" sounds really wrong to me. If you've got a source to cite, link to it, but:

Antibiotics, a huge class of drugs which are very frequently prescribed, are usually semisynthetic (with chemical modifications to make them more stable on the shelf, or able to be taken orally, or whatever). Even if semisynthetic counted, the starting compounds still wouldn't support your claim: most are made by molds (penicillin) or bacteria (erythromycin, streptomycin, bacitracin, gentamycin, tetracylines, etc.), not by plants. A few are also entirely synthetic (sulfa drugs).

Aspirin is also semisynthetic: salicylate is natural and plant-derived, but irritates stomachs, so it's acetylated to produce aspirin, which is the actual drug we take. Opiates are sometimes natural (morphine) and sometimes semisynthetic (codeine).

Other painkillers like acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen are wholly synthetic.

Estrogens (birth control pills, hormone supplements) are usually semisynthetic, and initially the drug industry used plant material as a base, but it'd be a stretch to call those herbal, since 1) there was often a lot of chemical modification first; nobody was taking the plants directly, and 2) the same compounds are found naturally in humans and lots of other animals besides; it was just cheaper to get them from plants.

The benzodiazepines (Valium, Librium, etc.) were big in the 70s and are wholly synthetic. Barbiturates (sodium thiopental, amobarbital) are entirely synthetic.

The first antidepressants (isoniazid, iproniazid, imipramine and other tricyclics, MAOIs in general) were wholly synthetic.

Antihistamines (chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine) have, as far as I'm aware, always been wholly synthetic.

Lithium, for manic depression, is natural, but it's mineral, not vegetable.

The antipsychotics (e.g. clozapine, haloperidol) are wholly man-made. Beta-blockers (for anxiety, e.g. propanolol) are man-made.

The earliest chemotherapy drugs (cisplatin, arsphenamine, mustard gas derivatives, methotrexate, fluorouracil) were mostly man-made, though I'll grant you vincristine/vinblastine as an exception. Paclitaxel is also natural, but was approved after 1980 so it doesn't fit your claim.

The general and local anaesthetics I checked out (diethyl ether, divinyl ether, benzocaine, novocaine, lidocaine) were all synthetic, save for nitrous oxide, which is natural but not plant-derived.


So which herbally-derived drugs of the 50s, 60s, and 70s you're talking about?

As far as why I'm commenting on a product I haven't used, well, I'm commenting on a plant. That I have grown. That the plant also happens to be used as a herbal supplement is interesting, so I commented on it.

Abhimanyu Veer said...

That is a very logical rebuttal, Mr Subjunctive. Kudos...

Kelly said...

Hi, Thanks for all the interesting information!
I bought this plant, Cissus quadrangularis, at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona 2 years ago. It grows outside all year in Phoenix. It doesn't like the cold and I bring it in or cover it when it is in the 30's. It loves the hot summers as long as it is in the shade, and begins growing more leaves and tendrils and draping on nearby plants. I got it because the college horticulturist said it was good for osteoporosis. Yes, the joints easily root. I've given it to many friends.
So a couple weeks ago I decided to take a bite of the leaf--it's supposed to be healing. I had an immediate hot, itchy feeling in my mouth and down my throat--on fire, and I could hardly breathe. Lasted for a couple hours... So I searched online immediately and found that it has to be eaten with tamarind according to one site I can't find now.

I have not found anyone else online with this severe reaction. The friend that ate the leaf with me had the same but more mild reaction. I drank a lot of water and waited for it to go away.

"The juice of the plant is sometimes used as a tonic and the entire plant can be made into a poultice to treat bone fractures externally.

I’ve actually tasted this curious succulent and can report it is crisp with a peanuty flavor, not at all unpleasant. I’ve sliced small rounds of a four-inch segment and have eaten it raw. There’s a bit of a light peppery aftertaste. After no ill effects, I tried a few in a salad. I have since sauteed it in a stir fry mix." from: