Boerhavia diffusa: Red spiderling

Family: Nyctaginaceae
Common name: Red spiderling, Spreading hogweed, Tarvine, Punarnava, Thazhuthama, Wineflower

This humble little weed seen on roadsides and even in between paving blocks on footpaths, Red spiderling plants are also called Punarnava, which means it can rejuvenate or renew the body. Red spiderling plants are extensively used in herbal, Ayurveda, and Siddha medicine in India.

They are prostrate, spreading plants with a beautiful pink tint on their stems, growing to a height of 50-70 cms from the ground. The stem is heavily branched and tender, slightly swollen at the nodes. Red spiderling leaves are opposite, oval or rounded, and dark green with a pinkish-red margin.

Flowers are very pretty, held aloft on tall stalks that stand away about the level of the leaves and stems. Flowers are about 5 mm in diameter, pink or dark red, borne in bunches of 2-7. Stalks are very small about .5 mm so that the flowers look like a tiny bouquet.

Red spiderling flowers are bell-shaped with prominent stamens inside. Once pollinated by bees, insects, or ants, the flowers produce small elongated fruits with 6 ribs, holding tiny, rounded, black seeds. The fruits can stick to the feathers of birds or the fur of animals thus helping the plant move to new locations.

The leaves and tender stem of this plant are used as green leafy vegetables in many countries. Seeds are eaten after cooking and also added to cereals.

Red spiderling plants are very valuable in Indian herbal medicine and are used in the treatment of jaundice, asthma, inflammations, skin disease, alcoholism, insomnia, worms, stomach ailments, dysentery, ulcers, pain, cataract, conjunctivitis, liver problems, and snake bites. They have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anticonvulsant and expectorant properties.

Red spiderling plants are very sturdy, growing in poor soil conditions. They do well in good sunlight but can withstand drought, pollution, and salinity.

Many gardeners are now growing these plants in home gardens since they realize the value of this plant that has been long ignored in the wild. Red spiderlings plants are still seen in the wild in many Asian and African countries, and also in few other tropical countries.

Propagation is through seeds and stem cuttings.