Medically reviewed on February 20, 2018
Scientific Name(s):Quassia is a collective term for 2 plants: Picrasma excelsa and Quassia amara L. Family: Simaroubaceae.
Common Name(s): Bitter wood , picrasma , Jamaican quassia ( P. excelsa ), Surinam quassia ( Q. amara ), Amara species , Amargo , Surinam wood , ruda .
Quassia has a variety of uses, including treatment for measles, diarrhea, fever, and lice. Quassia has antibacterial, antifungal, antifertility, antitumor, antileukemic, and insecticidal actions as well. However, efficacy in clinical trials has not been proven.
Quassia wood has been used as a bitter tonic, with a typical oral dose of 500 mg. No studies have been performed to support this dose. Several recent studies of topical quassia tincture for head lice have been reported.
Contraindications have not yet been identified.
Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use. 1
None well documented.
Quassia is used in a number of food products and is considered safe by the FDA. If taken in large doses, this product can irritate the GI tract and cause vomiting. It is not recommended for pregnant women.
Quassia is listed as generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Parenteral administration of quassin is toxic, leading to cardiac irregularities, tremors, and paralysis.
Surinam quassia is a 2 to 5 m tall shrub or small tree native to Argentina, Colombia, Guyana, and Panama. Jamaican quassia is a taller tree that reaches 25 m and is native to the Caribbean Islands, Jamaica, West Indies, and northern Venezuela. The leaves and pale yellow wood are used medicinally. 2 , 3 , 4
Quassia has been used for malaria in the Amazon region. It has been used topically for measles and orally or rectally for intestinal parasites, diarrhea, and fever. The plants have been used as anthelmintics and insecticides. Central Americans have been known to build boxes out of quassia wood, which acts as a natural insect repellent, to store clothing. 2 , 4 , 5
Both quassia species have similar constituents. These include alkaloids (0.25%), such as canthin-6-one, 5-methoxycanthin-6-one, and carboline alkaloids. Terpenoids in 1 or both plants include isoquassin and mixtures of bitter principles (said to be 50 times more bitter than quinine), including quassin, neo-quassin, and 18-hydroxyquassin. Dihydronorneoquassin and simalikalactone D are also present. Other constituents include coumarins ( Q. amara ), thiamine ( P. excelsa ), beta-sitosterol, and beta-sitostenone. 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 From Q. amara , the quassinoid quassimarin has been reported 6 and amarid 18-oxyquaxine has been isolated. 7 The molecular phylogenetics of Q. amara have been studied using the chloroplast gene rbcl. 8
Uses and Pharmacology
Quassia has been used as an insecticide. Traditional use includes remedies for infestations of lice or worms, anorexia, and dyspepsia. 4 Certain tribes have used the plants to treat measles and fever, and as a mouthwash. 9 , 10 , 11
Quassin has also demonstrated antilarval activity and was effective at concentrations of 6 ppm. 12 A mechanism of this larvicidal activity may be due to inhibition of cuticle development, as suggested in 1 report. 13 Quassia, as a tincture, has been used successfully to treat head lice in 454 patients. Canthin-6-one possesses antibacterial and antifungal activity. 4
Quassimarin has been reported to have antileukemic properties when tested in animals. Antitumor activity in mice has been demonstrated, as well as in vitro activity of quassin against human nasopharynx carcinoma. 4
Quassin also displays antifertility effects, inhibiting testosterone secretion in rat Leydig cells. 14 Other changes include reduction in testis, epididymis, and seminal vesicle weight; reduction in sperm count; and decreased luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone levels. 15
The beta-carboline alkaloids exhibit positive inotropic activity in animals. 4
The extracts and purified mixtures of bitter principles (“quassin”) have been used to give a bitter taste to various food products, especially alcoholic (eg, bitters, liqueurs) and nonalcoholic beverages, desserts, candy, baked goods, and puddings. 15
Quassia wood has been used as a bitter tonic, with a typical oral dose of 500 mg. No studies have been performed to support this dosage. Several recent studies of topical quassia tincture for head lice have been reported.
Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use. 1
None well documented.
No adverse reactions were reported upon topical application of the scalp preparation in the 454 patients in the head lice study. 4 However, large amounts given orally have been known to irritate the mucus membrane in the stomach and may lead to vomiting. 2 Excessive use may also interfere with existing cardiac and anticoagulant regimens. Because of the plant's cytotoxic and emetic properties, its use during pregnancy should be avoided. 4
Quassia is listed as generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. In doses of 250 to 1,000 mg/kg, no signs of acute toxicity were observed in rats given quassia extract. 16 Parenteral administration of quassin is toxic, leading to cardiac irregularities, tremors, and paralysis. 2
Bibliography1. Bisset NG , trans-ed. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals . Stuttgart: CRC Press, 1994;400-401.
2. Schulz V , Tyler VE . Rational Phytotherapy: A Physician's Guide to Herbal Medicine . Berlin: Springer; 1998:171.
3. Newall CA , Anderson LA , Phillipson JD . Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals . London: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996:223-234.
4. Duke JA . CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1985:399.
5. Kupchan SM , Streelman DR . Quassimarin, a new antileukemic quassinoid from Quassia amara . J Org Chem . 1976;41:3481-3482.
6. Casinovi CG , Ceccherelli P , Grandolini G . A new amarid 18-oxyquaxine, isolated from Quassia amara [in Italian]. Ann Ist Super Sanita . 1966;2:414-416.
7. Fernando ES , Gadek PA , Crayn DM , Quinn CJ . Rosid affinities of Surianaceae : molecular evidence . Mol Phylogenet Evol . 1993;2:344-350.
8. Rutter R . Catalogo de Plantas Utiles de la Amazonia Peruana . Lima, Peru: Instituto Linguistico de Verano; 1990.
9. Branch L , et al. Folk Medicine of Alter do Chao, Para, Brazil. Acta Amazonica . 1983;13:737–797.
10. Duke JA , Vasquez R . Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Inc.; 1994.
11. Evans DA , Raj RK . Larvicidal efficacy of Quassin against Culex quinquefasciatus . Indian J Med Res . 1991;93:324-327.
12. Evans DA , Kaleysa RR . Effect of quassin on the metabolism of catecholamines in different life cycle stages of Culex quinquefasciatus . Indian J Biochem Biosphys . 1992;29:360–363.
13. Njar VC , Alao TO , Okogun JI , Raji Y , Bolarinwa AF , Nduka EU . Antifertility activity of Quassia amara : quassin inhibits the steroidogenesis in rat Leydig cells in vitro . Planta Med . 1995;61:180-182.
14. Raji Y , Bolarinwa AF . Antifertility activity of Quassia amara in male rats—in vivo study . Life Sci . 1997;61:1067-1074.
15. Garcia Gonzalez M , Gonzalez Camacho SM , Pazos Sanou L . Pharmacologic activity of the aqueous wood extract from Quassia amara (Simarubaceae) on albino rats and mice [in Spanish]. Rev Biol Trop . 1997;44-45:47-50.
16. McGuffin M , Hobbs C , Upton R , Goldberg A , eds. American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1997.
Copyright © 2009 Wolters Kluwer Health
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.