What is Catharanthus?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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Catharanthus, or Madagascar periwinkle, is a plant native to Madagascar. It is a flowering perennial that can produce red, pink, purple, or white blooms. This hardy plant has acclimated to many tropical climates around the world, including Africa, India, southern Europe, and the southern United States. It's often grown as a decorative addition to a flower bed, but it is also traditionally considered a medicinal plant. The alkaloid compounds it contains may be useful in the treatment of a number of conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and various types of cancer.

Usually grown for ornamental purposes as a flowering annual, the catharanthus is in fact a perennial herb. The catharanthus usually has a woody stem and may reach a height and spread of 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m). Its oblong, glossy leaves may be 2 to 3 inches (5.1 to 7.6 cm) long. Its flowers typically have five petals and may be purple, white, pink, or red. The catharanthus flowers throughout the summer months.


Catharanthus generally prefers full sun to partial shade and is drought resistant. The plant does not typically thrive well when over watered. Though a tropical plant, the catharanthus can often thrive and bloom through the summer in cooler regions. In climates that do not experience frost, the catharanthus may often be cultivated in the ground. It can be cultivated as a container plant in regions susceptible to frost, though it should typically be kept indoors during the colder part of the year.

The Madagascar periwinkle is a popular flowerbed addition because it has bright blooms that persist throughout the season. The plant also contains alkaloids that have long been used medicinally. Traditionally, the catharanthus has been used to treat diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, problems with menstruation, and constipation. Modern medicine believes that the alkaloids present in the catharanthus are useful for the treatment of various types of cancer. Leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, skin cancer, and lymphoma are some of the types of cancer that the catharanthus may be able to treat.

Despite its medicinal properties, the Madagascar periwinkle is considered a toxic plant. Grazing animals have been known to experience poisoning after ingesting too much of it. Those who wish to use the Madagascar periwinkle for medicinal purposes would be well advised to do so only under medical supervision.


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