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The distribution of Sesbania species in the PANESA region

J.F. Noses Onim

Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development
SR-CRSP, P.O. Box 252, Maseno, Kenya

B.H. Dzowela

ILCA, P.O. Box 46847, Nairobi, Kenya

Species of Sesbania
Agricultural uses of Sesbania
Industrial and domestic uses
Medicinal uses


The genus Sesbania belongs to the family Leguminosae and its subfamily is Papilionoideae. There are four subgenera of which Sesbania and Agati are of agricultural value. The subgenus Sesbania is much more important in Africa, and it has a large number of species. Some of the most important members of this subgenus Agati is mainly found in southern Asia and its members are more of perennial and tree types as compared to the relatively more annual and shrub types found in the subgenus Sesbania.

Members of the genus Sesbania are known for exceptionally fast growth rates as well as a very high affinity for association with several nitrogen-fixing Rhizobia in the soil that cause formation of numerous and large nodules in the plant roots. Members of this genus also have several potential uses including forage, poles for light construction, fuelwood, pulpwood, live fences, medicines, shade trees for other crops and gums. This paper reviews these potential uses and makes a strong case for germplasm collection of members of the genus Sesbania in the PANESA region. It is envisaged that such a collection from several African countries will yield many useful selections when it will be subjected to screening for various economic and agricultural traits.

Species of Sesbania

Fifty species of Sesbania have been described in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Thirty-three of these species are found in Africa (Table 1). The remaining 17 species are found in Australia (10) and Hawaii (7) species (Gillet, 1963; Burbidge, 1965). The number of Asian species is not known (Char, 1983).

In Africa the most dominant species is S. sesban (S. egyptica). However, there are several species of Sesbania in Africa with unknown agricultural value and these have not been evaluated in agronomic trials. Sesbania has been reported in virtually all African countries from the tropical rainfall forests in Zaire to the Nile valley in the Egyptian desert.

Table 1. Species distribution of Sesbania in various regions of the world.


No. of species




Gillet, 1963



Burbidge, 1965



Char, 1983



Char, 1983

Objectives of the proposed Sesbania collection include:

1. To obtain Sesbania species from countries in the PANESA region. The seeds will be divided into two portions, one portion to be taken to a PANESA germplasm collection, and the other portion to be given to each country where the collection was made.

2. The collections to the PANESA germplasm bank will not be an idle gene bank, but rather an active working collection. The collection will be screened for several potential, agricultural, forestry and industrial and medicinal uses.

3. The information will be catalogued by the co-ordinator of PANESA.

4. Arrangements will be made to multiply seeds of the promising collections and make these available on request to PANESA member countries.

Agricultural uses of Sesbania

Livestock Feed

Several Sesbania species are an excellent livestock feed, both as fodder and hay (Onim et al., 1985). Dry-matter (DM) yields of Sesbania forage is quite high when compared to other forage legumes. Onim (1986) compared forage productivity of Leucaena leucocephala (cv Cunningham), pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) and S. sesban at Maseno Research Station in western Kenya. The forage DM forage yields of the legumes after six months from planting were 8000, 5500 and 3000 kg/ha for Sesbania, Leucaena and pigeon pea respectively. Similarly nitrogen yields of these legumes were 250, 175 and 120 kg/ha for Sesbania, Leucaena and pigeon pea respectively (Figure 1).

Nutritive values of forages of some Sesbania species are presented in Table 2. The range of CP in Table 2 is from 18.8% to 32.0% with a mean of 27.1%. The mean crude fibre content is low (13.0%) and the mean calcium to phosphorus ratio is high (3:8). It is therefore clear that Sesbania species have forages of very high quality. Results of Katiyar and Ranjham (1969), Chinnaswami et al. (1978) and Singh et al (1980) showed that digestibility coefficients of three Sesbania species were quite consistent when these were fed to sheep and goats (Table 3). DM and CP digestibility coefficients had means of 69.7 and 80.6 respectively. These results compare well with the DM digestibility coefficient of 74.3 that was reported on S. sesban from Maseno, Kenya by Sidahmed et al (1984). The high nutritive value of Sesbania forage was confirmed in a supplementation study at the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) in Ethiopia (Anon., 1986). In this study, teff (Eragrostis tef) straw was supplemented with leaf hays of three browse tree legumes - Acacia cyanophylla, A. seyal, S. sesban and Vicia dasycarpa on a sheep feeding trial. Sheep body growth rates showed that S. sesban hay was by far superior to all the other legumes: in fact sheep on A. cyanophylla supplementation lost condition (Figure 2a). Nitrogen balance in sheep showed that apart from cyanophylla, the other legumes were ranked for the amount of nitrogen retained as Vicia dasycarpa, Sesbania sesban and Acacia seyal (Figure 2b).

Figure 1. Cumulative DM, crude protein and nitrogen yields of maize, pigeon pea, leucaena and sesbania after three cuttings.

Table 2. Nutritive values of forages of some Sesbania species (% DM).





Ca:P ratio

S. exaltata





S. bispinosa





S. sesban





S. macrocarpa





S. cinerascens





S. mosambicensis





S. grandiflora





Source: Rotar and Evans (1985).

Table 3. Digestibility coefficients of Sesbania materials as reported in several studies.

S. bispinosa
adult rams

S. sesban
kid goats

S. grandiflora
adult rams

Dry matter




Crude protein




Ether extract




Crude fibre




N-free extract




Sources: Katiyara and Ranjhan (1969); Singh et al. (1980); Chinnaswami et al. (1978).

These excellent nutritive qualities, especially the high CP content, makes Sesbania a very useful supplement as a source of CP to livestock. This is particularly crucial in small-scale farming where feeding of crop residues or cut-and-carry systems require a readily available source of CP. Sesbania hay lends itself to this system very well because it is easily stored until it is needed. Dairy meal (CP = 15%) can easily be substituted with Sesbania hay as a source of CP (CP = 26%) to lactating dairy animals.

Figure 2a. Growth rates and nitrogen balance of sheep fed foliage from three different fodder trees or retch hay as supplements to teff straw.

Source: ILCA Annual Report (1985/86).

Improvement of Soil Fertility

Sesbania species are known to fix between 500 to 600 kg/ha of nitrogen per year. In a green manure experiment in Maseno, Kenya (Onim, 1986) reported that S. sesban fixed up to 250 kg N/ha in six months. Since urea fertilizer contains 46%N, this fixation is equivalent to approximately eleven 50-kg bags of urea fertilizer in six months. The use of Sesbania as a green manure (GM) crop is a common practice in southeast Asia. Several studies have shown that Sesbania can return into the soil as GM between 80 and 120 kg of N within 90 days (Dargan et al., 1975; Bhardwaj et al., 1981).

Sesbania species are also often used in land reclamation especially in salty (saline) and sodic soils as well as in mining and excavation sites (Srivastava et al., 1973; Malik and Haider, 1977). Both S. bispinosa and S. sesban have been used for these purposes.

S. rostrata is native to tropical West Africa. This species is unique because it fixes nitrogen not only in its roots in the soil, but also in its aerial parts including stems and branches. Research on this symbiosis in S. rostrata and its agronomic implications has been conducted by scientists at the office of scientific Research Techniques, Outre-Mar, at the Scientific National Research Centre in Senegal, Sudan, Zaire, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Caprivi Strip and Malagasy Republic (Gillet, 1971). Whether this species can fix more nitrogen than the other species is not well documented. More research is required in this area.

Figure 2b. Nitrogen balance in sheep.

Increased Milk Secretion

As far back as the 1930s, lactating mothers in Java were encouraged to eat young pods and flower buds of S. sesban and S. bispinosa since it was believed that these stimulate milk secretion (Ochse, 1931). This galactagogue effect has also been reported in cattle in Kenya where in the 1950s, S. sesban was referred to as "milk shrub" (Brown, 1954). Farmers were encouraged to feed Sesbania fodder to lactating cows to enhance milk secretion.

General Uses

Apart from the above-mentioned agricultural uses, there are several other general ones. These include cases where Sesbania are used as shade trees in coffee, cacao and other crop fields; as live fences and for general agroforestry uses.

Industrial and domestic uses


Perennial Sesbania species have been used for many years as a source of fuelwood. Bulk density of Sesbania varies according to species, rate of growth and age. However, values ranging between 240 to 616 kg/m³ have been reported (NAS, 1980 and 1983). Fuelwood yields also vary depending on plant population used, species and bulk density. For example, S. grandiflora in a replicated trial in four sites in Hawaii at a spacing of 90 cm x 90 cm (12,346 plants/ha), the trees had a mean stem diameter of 9 cm at breast height, and after three years the trees averaged 8 m in height (MacDicken, 1983). In another trial, at one year of age S. grandiflora had a height of 3.3 m, mean basal area of 24.5 cm² and mean estimated wood volume of 24.6 m/ha.

S. sesban grows to a height of approximately 4.0 m a year in western Kenya. Fuelwood potential of perennial Sesbania species among rural peoples of Africa is very large. This genus has many beneficial contributions to the environments where its forests are established for fuelwood purposes. These include its ability for rapid growth and thereby giving ground cover against soil erosion, leaf fodder for livestock and improvement of soil fertility through biological N-fixation and leaf litter. It is therefore imperative that this genus be strongly encouraged in soil reclamation, fuelwood and soil fertility improvement programmes in African developing countries.

Fibre and Pulpwood

Sesbania species have also been used for fibre and pulpwood extraction. The S. exaltata of the Americas has been used as a source of fibre for fishing nets and lines by the Yuma Indians of Arizona for many centuries (Parker, 1972). In South East Asia, S. bispinosa has been used for the same purpose (Sircar, 1948). Sesbania fibre has been found suitable for fish nets because it resists decay. This quality qualifies Sesbania fibres for several other marine applications like sail lashings. Sesbania fibre is stronger than jute fibre (Townsend, 1973).

Sesbania has also been used as an important source of pulpwood. The best species for this role are S. sesban, S. grandiflora and S. bispinosa. The same bulk densities referred to before under fuelwood also apply here. When planted at a spacing of 20 cm x 40 cm, up to 125,000 stems/ha can be harvested. A paper mill exclusively operating on S. bispinosa did well in west Pakistan (Hussein and Ahmed, 1965). In India plantations of S. sesban have been established at Dandeli Karuataka and at Jajahmundry to be sources of pulpwood for the West Coast Paper Mills and Andra Pradesh Paper Mill respectively. Yields of between 50 to 55 tonnes of green wood/ha/year have been reported in these plantations (Dust et al., 1983).

Most of the African countries rely on pine forests for their pulpwood. Pines take up to 10 years to mature, and logs are often hauled into paper mills from as far as 400 km away (e.g. in Kenya). This makes operational costs extremely high. The potential of rapidly growing species like Sesbania and Leucaena offer attractive alternatives. Both of these genera are also N-fixing trees as well as an excellent high protein fodder and hay for livestock feeding.

Human Food

S. grandiflora is known on both the continent and islands of Southeast Asia for its large and edible flowers. Raw or lightly steamed after removing calyx and pistil, they are used as an ingredient of soups, salads and vegetable dishes. The white flowers are preferred in the Philippines since red ones are said to be bitter. Leaves are also cooked as a vegetable. In Sri Lanka, one method of preparation is to cook chopped leaflets of S. sesban with chopped onions in coconut milk, creating a vegetable component of a traditional rice-based meal. S. grandiflora leaves have been found to be bitter in trials in India (Bad and Devadas, 1973). S. grandiflora leaves had therefore to be prepared in mixture with other leafy vegetables (Gopaldas et al., 1973).

Sesbania leaves and pods have been eaten by lactating mothers to stimulate or increase milk secretion (galactagogue). Ochse (1931) reported that in Java, leaves and young pods of S. grandiflora are eaten, especially by nursing mothers. According to Brown (1954), feeding S. sesban leaves to cattle is believed to increase their milk production. Hurov (1961) calls S. sesban the "Kenya milk shrub". The Haya people of western Tanzania use this species for the same purpose.

Sources of Gums

Many Sesbania species contain gums which may be of potential value for industrial uses. Natural gums, or mucilages, are complex polysaccharides which have a wide range of uses. Their varying physical properties are attributed to differences in the degree of branching of and polymerisation of the sugars. Gums are used in such wide-ranging products as ice cream, candy, soft drinks, beer, pastries and heat-and-serve convenience foods. Gums are also used in the manufacture of paper, textiles, paints, in well drilling and in mineral assay.

Burkill (1935) reported that gums obtained from S. sesban, S. formosa and S. grandiflora are very similar to gum arable. A United States National Academy of Sciences Report (NAS, 1979) stated that Sesbania bark gums have been used as a substitute for gum arable, and suggested that with increasing scarcity of gum arabic from Acacia senegal, exploitation of Sesbania bark gums should be encouraged.

Medicinal uses

Sesbania species have a long list of medicinal uses among different peoples of the world, especially in Africa and Asia. The three most important species as sources of traditional medicines are S. sesban, S. grandiflora and S. bispinosa.


S. grandiflora juices and extracts have astringent quality. This is the ability to contract body tissues and blood vessels. This property is used for reducing fevers and for promoting fluid discharge and subsequent drying of mucous membranes, hence leading to healing of, for example, wounds. For systemic disorders e.g. smallpox, decoctions are taken internally. Local applications are claimed to bring relief to nasal congestion, and rhinitis and associated headache (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962). The bark extracts are used in Java for thrush and stomach trouble in infants (Burkill, 1935). Astringent quality in S. sesban is even stronger and unique in many ways. Fresh root and poultices of leaves have been used for scorpion stings, boils, abscesses, rheumatic swelling and hydrocele (a collection of watery fluid in a cavity of the body, especially in the scrotum or along the spermatic cord). Diarrhoea and excessive menstrual flow are said to be relieved by a concoction of seeds.


Doses of up to 2 oz. of concoction of S. sesban leaf are used as an antihelminthic against tapeworms and roundworms in humans. A mixture of ground seed and flour made into a paste is used for treating ringworms (Watt, 1983).


The Haya people of western Tanzania make a concoction of leaves, barks and roots called "Mubimba" from S. sesban that they use to treat a wide range of diseases including sore throat, gonorrhoea, syphilis, yaws, fits and jaundice (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962).

Contraceptive and Arborifacient

It is believed in India that eating flowers for three days during menstruation inhibits conception. To prove this belief, Pakrashi et al. (1975) fed 50 gm of flower extract of S. sesban per kg of body weight to breeding and pregnant mice. Those that were breeding did not conceive while those that were pregnant aborted ranging from 54-77%, depending on the type of extract.


Antitumor activity has been reported for the North American species (S. drummondii) and brief reviews of this work have recently been published in popular scientific press (Garmon, 1983). This characteristic was revealed when Powell et al. (1976) reported that ethanolic seed extracts of S. vesicaria, S. punicea and S. drummondii were cytotoxic in the KB cell culture and were active against lymphocytic leukemia P-388 in mice. The active ingredient in this extract was named "sesbanine" by Powell et al (1979). A further fractionation revealed a second active ingredient called "drummondol" (Powell and Smith, 1981). This antitumor medicinal value is of great interest in medicine as a possible source of drugs for cancers. The major limitation, however, is the very low yields of these compounds from Sesbania seeds. Approximately 450 kg of seeds yield a mere 50 mg of sesbanine (Powell et al., 1979). However, work is in progress to produce synthetic sesbanine.


Several potential uses of Sesbania species have been reviewed in this paper. Most of these potential uses are urgently needed by the developing nations of Africa and Asia where populations are increasing at a rate that outstrips supplies from available natural resources. Since Africa has the largest diversity of Sesbania species, it is envisaged that the proposed germplasm collection when done, screened and catalogued will prove to be a great resource for the poor and developing nations in the PANESA region and beyond.


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