Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

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Madagascar periwinkle in bloom
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Madagascar periwinkle fact file

Madagascar periwinkle description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderGentianales
FamilyApocynaceae
GenusCatharanthus (1)

One of the major medical breakthroughs of the last century utilises compounds derived from a popular ornamental plant found in gardens and homes across the world, the Madagascar periwinkle (2) (3). This tender, perennial plant grows as a herb or a subshrub, sprawling along the ground or standing erect up to a metre in height (2). The attractive white or pink flowers comprise five petals spreading from a long, tubular throat (2), while the leathery, dark green leaves are arranged in opposite pairs (2) (4). Each fruit is formed of two narrow, cylindrical follicles which house numerous grooved seeds (2). Like many other plants in the Apocynaceae, the sap is a milky latex (2) (5).

Also known as
rose periwinkle, rosy periwinkle.
Synonyms
Vinca rosea.
Size
Height: 30 - 100 cm (2)
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Madagascar periwinkle biology

Although the Madagascar periwinkle has a flower adapted to pollination by a long-tongued insect, such as a moth or butterfly, this species, unlike most in the Apocynaceae family, is also able to self pollinate. Self compatibility and a relatively high tolerance of disturbance have enabled this species to spread from cultivation and naturalise in many parts of the world. As a consequence, this species is sometimes considered to be an invasive weed, although it does not normally proliferate sufficiently to eliminate native vegetation (3). The seeds of the Madagascar periwinkle are reportedly distributed by ants (2).

Traditionally, the Madagascar periwinkle has been used to treat a variety of ailments in Madagascar and in other parts of the world where the plant has naturalised. Whilst researching the anti-diabetic properties of the plant in the 1950s, scientists discovered the presence of several highly toxic alkaloids in its tissues. These alkaloids are now used in the treatment of a number of different types of cancer, with one derived compound (vincristine) credited with raising the survival rate in childhood leukaemia from less than 10 percent in 1960 to over 90 percent today (2) (3).

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Madagascar periwinkle range

The Madagascar periwinkle is indigenous to Madagascar, but is cultivated and naturalised throughout the tropics and parts of the subtropics (2).

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Madagascar periwinkle habitat

Found on sand and limestone soils in woodland, forest, grassland, and disturbed areas (2).

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Madagascar periwinkle status

This species has not been assessed by the IUCN.

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Madagascar periwinkle threats

While Madagascar’s forests have been heavily impacted by human activity, the Madagascar periwinkle’s ability to thrive in disturbed areas has enabled it to survive on its island home (3). Furthermore, it is widely established in the wild throughout tropical regions of the world, is commonly cultivated in gardens and homes, and is grown commercially in the pharmaceutical industry (2) (3).

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Madagascar periwinkle conservation

Given the modern ubiquity of naturalised and cultivated populations of Madagascar periwinkle, direct conservation measures are a low priority for this species (3). Nonetheless, the discovery of powerful medicinal plants, such as the Madagascar periwinkle, is a potent reminder of the need to conserve and study the increasingly threatened plants and habitats of the world (6).

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Find out more

For further information on the Madagascar periwinkle see:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk
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Glossary

Alkaloids
A group of basic nitrogenous compounds derived from plants.
Follicles
Dry fruit derived from a single carpal that split along one side to release numerous seeds.
Inflorescence
The shoot of a plant which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
Pollination
The transfer of pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Pollinators
Animals that in the act of visiting a plant’s flowers transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Subshrub
A low growing plant with at least partially woody stems.
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References

  1. ITIS (February, 2009)
    http://www.itis.gov/
  2. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (2009) Pers. comm.
  3. Encyclopedia of Life (March, 2009)
    http://www.eol.org/pages/581125
  4. Armitage, A.M. (2001) Manual of Annuals, Biennials, and Half-Hardy Perennials. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
  5. Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Roberson, E. (2008) Medicinal Plants at Risk - Nature’s Pharmacy, Our Treasure Chest: Why We Must Conserve Our Natural Heritage. Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson, AZ.
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Image credit

Madagascar periwinkle in bloom  
Madagascar periwinkle in bloom

© Doug Wechsler / naturepl.com

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