Bellyache bush (Jatropha gossypiifolia)

Bellyache bush is a shrub with lobed leaves and red or purple flowers. It forms dense thickets and is poisonous to people and animals.

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How does this weed affect you?

Bellyache bush:

  • is poisonous to people and animals including livestock, native animals and fish
  • forms dense thickets that restrict movement of people and animals
  • outcompetes native plants
  • reduces habitat and food for native animals
  • increases erosion along waterways
  • changes fire regimes
  • competes with pasture reducing productivity.

Human poisoning

Bellyache bush contains diterpenoid esters which are poisonous to people and animals. All parts of the plant are toxic but the seeds contain the highest amount of toxins. Symptoms of poisoning may take an hour or longer to appear. Symptoms include:

  • abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and profuse diarrhea
  • dry mouth and /or a burning sensation in the throat
  • dehydration and bleeding from the gut
  • flushed or dry skin
  • dilated pupils
  • dry skin and mouth
  • increased heart rate.

 Touching the sap can cause irritation to the skin.

What to do if a person is poisoned:

  • If the patient is unconscious, unresponsive or having difficulty breathing dial 000 or get to the emergency section of a hospital immediately.
  • If the patient is conscious and responsive call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 or your doctor.
  • If going to a hospital take a piece of the plant for identification.

 Livestock poisoning

The fruit and seeds of bellyache bush can poison livestock causing gastroenteritis with diarrhea. Some animals eventually die and there have been cases of horse and cattle deaths in Australia. Livestock are more likely to eat bellyache bush when there is not enough other feed.

What does it look like?

Bellyache bush is an upright woody shrub or small tree usually 2-3 m tall but occasionally 4 m tall. It is deciduous and loses its leaves during the dry season. Bellyache bush plants may survive for more than 20 years.

Leaves are:

  • green, red, purple or bronze
  • 3-lobed when young
  • 3–5 lobed with pointed tips when mature
  • 5–14 cm long and 7–13 cm wide
  • on stalks up to 10.5 cm
  • sticky and contain watery sap
  • alternate along the stem.

Flowers are:

  • red to purple with yellow centres
  • up 9 mm wide
  • in clusters of up to 64 on the end of branches
  • present most of the year when there is enough moisture.

Both male and female flowers are present on each bush, they look very similar though the female flowers are slightly larger.

Fruit are:

  • oblong capsules with three-lobes
  • up to 1.2 cm long and 1 cm wide
  • green when young
  • dark brown when ripe with 2 or 3 seeds which are ejected out when the pod splits.

Seeds are:

  • brown
  • 6–8 mm long
  • glossy.

Stems are:

  • green when young and red when in flower
  • thick and soft
  • coarsely hairy
  • up to 2 m long and contain watery sap.

Roots are:

  • fleshy, tuberous and produce suckers
  • shallow.

Similar looking plants

Bellyache bush looks like castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) which has larger, hairy-fruit, and its leaves have 7-9 lobes.

Where is it found?

Bellyache bush is native from Mexico to Paraguay, and was probably introduced to Australia as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s. Bellyache bush is a tropical species that is frost sensitive, it is unlikely to survive in New South Wales.

Maps and records

  • Recorded presence of Bellyache bush during property inspections (Map: Biosecurity Information System - Weeds, 2017-2022)
    These records are made by authorised officers during property inspections under the Biosecurity Act 2015. Officers record the presence of priority weeds in their council area and provide this to the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Records reflect the presence of the weed on the date of inspection.

How does it spread?

Bellyache bush plants have been planted in gardens as an ornamental.

By seed

Most spread is via seeds. Bellyache bush can start flowering when plants are only 2 months old. Each plant can produce up to 12 000 seeds per year. Seed can lay dormant in the soil for up to 4 years in dry conditions only germinating after sufficient rainfall. Under normal rainfall conditions most seed is only viable for one year.

The seeds are released explosively from the pods up to 13 m away from the plant. Birds, larger ants and water, especially flood water, spread the seeds further. The seeds can also be spread in soil stuck to machinery.

In Northern Australia, the seeds germinate from October to December.

By plant parts

Bellyache bush plants can produce suckers from the crown and roots which increases the density of infestations. Plants can also grow from cut stems that come in contact with the soil. Plant parts can be spread by people dumping garden waste.

References

Bebawi, F. F., & Campbell, S. D. (2002). The response of bellyache bush (Jatropha gossypiifolia) plants cut off at different heights and seasonal times. Tropical Grasslands36(2), 65-68.

Bebawi, F. F., Vitelli, J. S., Campbell, S. D., Vogler, W. D., Lockett, C. J., Grace, B. S., Kukitsch, B.. & Heard, T. A. (2009). Jatropha gossypiifolia. In The biology of Australian weeds, F. D.Panetta, (Ed). Volume 3. RG and FJ Richardson.

Heard, T. A., Dhileepan, K., Bebawi, F., Bell, K. L., & Segura, R. (2012). Jatropha gossypiifolia L.–bellyache bush. In Biological control of weeds in Australia, 324-333.Julien, M. H., McFadyen, R. E., & Cullen, J. (Eds.). Csiro Publishing.

McKenzie, R. (2020). Australia's poisonous plants, fungi and cyanobacteria: A guide to species of medical and veterinary importance. CSIRO publishing.

Parsons, W.T., & Cuthbertson, E. G. (2001). Noxious weeds of Australia. CSIRO publishing.

Queensland Government.(2020). Restrictive invasive plant: Bellyache bush (Jatropha gossypiifolia). The State of Queensland, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Queensland Government. (2021), Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service, Poisonous plants: Bellyache bush (Jatropha gossypiifolia). Retrieved 1 July 2022 from: https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/poisonous-plant-bellyache-bush-jatropha-gossypiifolia/

More information

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Control

Successful weed control requires follow up after the initial efforts. This means looking for and killing regrowth or new seedlings. Using a combination of control methods is usually more successful.

Wear personal protective clothing including long sleeves, long pants and gloves to prevent poisoning and skin irritation from the sap when controlling bellyache bush.

To manage bellyache bush:

  • control plants year-round to stop seed set
  • check for and control seedlings in and around treated areas from October to December or after rain.

Pasture management

Maintain dense groundcover to reduce seedling survival and limit the growth of bellyache bush.

Physical removal

By hand

Bellyache bush has shallow roots which make it easy to hand pull or dig out. Cutting plants off at ground level can kill them. Dispose all fruit to prevent seeds sprouting on the site. Do not leave stems or crowns in contact with the ground as they can reshoot.

Slashing

Slashing infested areas can reduce the density and limit seed production. Slashing at ground level is most successful. Slashing above the ground during summer when the plants have leaves and flowers is more likely to kill plants than slashing during winter when the plants have lost their leaves. Slashing while plants are fruiting could spread the seeds. Ensure all machinery is thoroughly cleaned before moving to a site without bellyache bush.

Disposal

Plants can be stacked and burnt or you can Contact your local council for information about how to dispose of this weed.

Fire

Fire can be an effective control method if there is enough fuel load to carry the fire

Biological control

There are currently no effective biological control agents for bellyache bush. The jewel bug Agonosoma trilineatum was released as biological control but has not established.

Chemical control

Spot spraying

Spray actively growing plants. Ensure that all parts of the plant are covered with herbicide.

Herbicide options

WARNING - ALWAYS READ THE LABEL
Users of agricultural or veterinary chemical products must always read the label and any permit, before using the product, and strictly comply with the directions on the label and the conditions of any permit. Users are not absolved from compliance with the directions on the label or the conditions of the permit by reason of any statement made or not made in this information. To view permits or product labels go to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority website www.apvma.gov.au

See Using herbicides for more information.


Fluroxypyr 333 g/L (Staraneā„¢ Advanced)
Rate: 300 mL in 100 L of water
Comments: Spot spray application
Withholding period: Do not graze failed crops and treated pastures or cut for stock food for 7 days after application. See label for more information.
Herbicide group: I, Disruptors of plant cell growth (synthetic auxins)
Resistance risk: Moderate


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Biosecurity duty

The content provided here is for information purposes only and is taken from the Biosecurity Act 2015 and its subordinate legislation, and the Regional Strategic Weed Management Plans (published by each Local Land Services region in NSW). It describes the state and regional priorities for weeds in New South Wales, Australia.

Area Duty
All of NSW General Biosecurity Duty
All plants are regulated with a general biosecurity duty to prevent, eliminate or minimise any biosecurity risk they may pose. Any person who deals with any plant, who knows (or ought to know) of any biosecurity risk, has a duty to ensure the risk is prevented, eliminated or minimised, so far as is reasonably practicable.
All of NSW Prohibition on certain dealings
Must not be imported into the state, sold, bartered, exchanged or offered for sale.
North West Regional Recommended Measure* (for Regional Priority - Prevention)
Land managers should mitigate the risk of new weeds being introduced to their land. The plant should be eradicated from the land and the land kept free of the plant. The plant should not be bought, sold, grown, carried or released into the environment. Notify local control authority if found.
*To see the Regional Strategic Weeds Management Plans containing demonstrated outcomes that fulfil the general biosecurity duty for this weed click here

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For technical advice and assistance with identification please contact your local council weeds officer.
For further information call the NSW DPI Biosecurity Helpline on 1800 680 244 or send an email to weeds@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Reviewed 2022