Close-up View of the
"Buddha Belly Plant"
by Brian Johnston (Canada)
The strange potted plant studied in this
article is not commonly available at nurseries. Occasionally Jatropha podagrica appears, and it
is quickly snatched up by gardeners attracted by its uniquely swollen
stem, and small coral-red flowers. The genus Jatropha consists of approximately
170 species native to the tropical Americas, South Africa and the West
Indies, but only this one is grown for house and garden use.
Common names for the species, such
as “Buddha Belly Plant”, and “Australian Bottle Plant”, refer to
its belly, or bottle-shaped trunk. Other names such as “Physic Nut”, “Gout Plant” and “Gouty Stalk” were derived from the
historical use of the seeds as purgatives. It should be noted
that the fruit and sap of Jatropha
podagrica are very toxic (especially to children). In
fact, the clinical effects of ingestion are most unpleasant!
are largely those associated with gastro-intestinal irritation. There
is acute abdominal pain and a burning sensation in the throat about
half an hour after ingestion of the seeds, followed by nausea, vomiting
and diarrhoea. The vomitus and faeces may contain blood. In severe
intoxications dehydration and haemorrhagic gastroenteritis can occur.
There may be CNS and cardiovascular depression and collapse.” ….. “For
all ingestions seek urgent medical assistance.”
Additional names have been
assigned, such as “Coral Plant”
or “Coral Nut”, “Guatemala Rhubarb” and “Tartogo”. Since the plant is a
member of the Euphorbiaceae
family, it is sometimes called the “Nettlespurge”.
Inventing common names for Jatropha podagrica is obviously a popular
Two views of my “Buddha Belly” can
be seen below. They were taken about one month after the plant
was acquired. Originally, only three leaves were present, but
leaves and new flower stalks grow extremely fast. Although the
plant’s “belly” was not as obese as it was in some of the others
available, this was the healthiest looking specimen.
Notice in the image below, which
shows the plant when first purchased, that the leaves had considerable
spotting due to watering with the very ‘hard’ water, (containing
calcium and magnesium salts), that is provided in my area.
Here is the distinctive, thick,
swollen stem with its many bristled scars. At its base, the
surface is grayish-white, while higher up it appears to have a greenish
One of the reasons that I enjoy
macro-photography is the ability to ‘look’ closely at subjects that are
not normally considered to be interesting. The swollen stem of Jatropha podagrica certainly has
character! Notice in the images that follow, the bean-shaped
scars left when old leaf stalks drop from the plant, the curious
light-brown bristled projections, and the circular, orange scars that
randomly dot the surface.
Near the top of the bulbous
structure, the silvery surface texture turns to bright green, and the
number of scars and other defects diminishes.
In the image that follows, the ‘new
growth’ section of the plant’s stem can be seen. All of the leaf
stalks emanate from this relatively short section of stem. (The
point of intersection of leaf stalk to stem is called the axil.)
At the very top of the stem, several tiny new leaves are visible.
At this point they are about 20 mm across. Amazingly, within a
week, these same leaves will grow to 200 mm in width!
Close-ups of the axils, and a
recent leaf stalk scar, can be seen in the images below.
Here is one of the new
leaves. Notice that the stalk connects to the lobed leaf on its
lower surface. Also note the red edge and hairy centre, both of
which disappear as the leaf matures. The leaf’s axil is ringed by
the strange green protuberances seen in previous images.
Young leaves are a glossy bright
green, and have prominent veins radiating out from the centre. As
the leaves age, they lose their glossiness.
A low magnification photomicrograph
of the upper surface of a leaf follows.
The bristle-like structures that
are characteristic of Jatropha
podagrica start out green, and age to a brown colour.
While young, they are associated with a thick, syrupy liquid that
liberally coats their surfaces. (I suspect that this liquid
attracts insects that are in some way beneficial to the plant. In
the passion flower, a similar liquid attracts ants which control other
insects that are harmful to the plant. The same may be true
here.) Some of the projections have fine hairs growing from their
Under the microscope, the sticky
coating of liquid on the projections can be seen clearly. The
third image shows several of the fine hairs mentioned earlier.
Several days after a new crop of
leaves appears, the plant’s flowerhead becomes visible. At this
stage the many buds are a pale yellow colour. Eventually, the
stalk will grow to more than 30 cm in height and rise above the tallest
New buds are pale pink in colour,
and have a ring of fused, pale pink sepals (modified leaves) at their
A typical Jatropha podagrica flowerhead can
be seen in the images below. The
first buds to open are the female flowers. There are few of
these, and most have finished blooming before the male flowers open.
Both male and female flowers are coral red in colour, and have the same
size. The male flowers continue to bloom for several weeks.
Look carefully at the flowerhead
shown below. Can you identify the two female flowers with their
pale green, lobed stigmas? The numerous male flowers are more
obvious with their anthers coated with bright yellow pollen.
Shortly after the above image was
obtained, the last female flowers completed blooming, dried up, and
fell from the flowerhead.
The three images below show mature
male flowers. Each has five oval petals, and numerous coral
coloured anthers coated with bright yellow pollen. Deep coral filaments
support the anthers. If you look closely, you can see that the
pollen on each anther is localized on the edges of the anther, leaving
a pale band pollen-free along the anther’s centre line.
If a flower’s petal is examined
under the microscope at low power, the varying amounts of pigment in
different locations is obvious.
Higher magnifications reveal the
intricate cellular structure of a petal.
Near the base of a petal, the
colour is more orange than coral. The image on the right shows a
couple of pollen grains that have fallen to the petal’s surface from
the anther above.
The female flowers of this plant
are conspicuous because of their three stigmas, (pollen accepting
organs). Each is further subdivided into two smaller lobes
Beneath the very short styles
supporting the stigmas, is the bulbous white ovary (seed producing
Two photomicrographs showing a
stigma lobe can be seen below.
When a flower first opens, the
petals are not in their normal horizontal positions.
Several hours later, the petals
have flattened into a planar arrangement. The image at left shows
the flower’s filaments clearly.
Individual pollen grains can be
seen in the image at left, while the interesting shape of the anther’s
base is revealed in the photomicrograph on the right.
Higher magnification images of the
top, body, and base of an anther, (male pollen producing organ), are
shown below. Note that in all images, the microscope was focused
on the anther, and not on the pollen grains.
Details on the surface of a pollen
grain are resolved by using a phase-contrast condenser in combination
with a non-phase objective.
More details can be seen by using
the same condenser with a dedicated phase-contrast objective. The
strange colours produced in both images are the result of using Adobe Photoshop’s ‘Auto-Levels’ function to increase
the contrast of details.
Naturally, Jatropha podagrica’s fruit appear
where the fertilized female flowers were located – usually at the main
junctions of the flowerhead. (Remember
that it is the fruit that is one of the most poisonous parts of the
Depending on the environmental
conditions, all, or portions of, the dried brown remnants of pistils
(stigmas and styles) may remain attached to the growing fruit.
Mature fruit are yellow, but the
immature one on the left is still bright green. The one on the
right is just beginning to show hints of its final colour. Fruit
are three-sided, and usually contain three seeds. The one shown
is about 1.8 cm in length.
This unusual species has been shown
to contain a toxic mix of chemicals including: hexane,
chloroform, methanol and tetramethylpyrazine. None of these
compounds is innocuous, and care should be taken if the plant is
located where small children or pets are liable to try a “taste”!
The Buddha Belly plant is very easy
to grow and to care for. Although the flowers are small when
compared to those of other flowering plants, the exotic stem, large
leaves, and coral coloured flowerhead certainly attract attention.
Most of the photographs in the
article were taken with an eight megapixel Canon 20D DSLR and Canon EF
100 mm f 2.8 Macro lens. An eight megapixel Sony CyberShot DSC-F
828 was used to take a couple of the images.
The photomicrographs were taken
with a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (using dark ground and phase contrast
condensers), and the Coolpix 4500.
Try searching Google for Jatropha podagrica
or Buddha Belly plant.
A Flower Garden of Macroscopic Delights
A complete graphical index of all of my flower articles can be found here.
The Colourful World of Chemical Crystals
A complete graphical index
of all of my crystal articles can be found here.
Microscopy UK or their contributors.
Published in the June
2008 edition of Micscape.
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