A Close-up View of the

"Buddha Belly Plant"

Jatropha podagrica

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!

“Symptoms 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 pastime!

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 hue.

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 surfaces.

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 leaves.

New buds are pale pink in colour, and have a ring of fused, pale pink sepals (modified leaves) at their bases.

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.

Female Structures

The female flowers of this plant are conspicuous because of their three stigmas, (pollen accepting organs).  Each is further subdivided into two smaller lobes (bi-lobed).

Beneath the very short styles supporting the stigmas, is the bulbous white ovary (seed producing organ).

Two photomicrographs showing a stigma lobe can be seen below.

Male Structures

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 plant!)

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.

Photographic Equipment

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.

Further Information

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.

 All comments to the author Brian Johnston are welcomed.

Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the June 2008 edition of Micscape.
Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor.
Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK web
site at Microscopy-UK  

© Onview.net Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved. Main site is at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk with full mirror at www.microscopy-uk.net .