Gliricidia sepium

Family: Fabaceae
Common name: Gliricidia, Nicaraguan cocoashade, Quick stick, Aaron’s Rod, Mexican lilac, Mother of cocoa, St. Vincent plum, Tree of iron, Sheemakonna

A small, compact, sturdy tree, Gliricidia is seen very commonly on roadsides, backyards, and open areas. They are grown as supporting plants or shade plants for crops like cocoa, coffee, and tea, hence the name Mother of cocoa.

Gliricidia trees can grow to a height of 10-15 meters with a branched trunk that can reach a diameter of 30 cms. The trunk is greyish white or brown, with small white flecks for lenticels, the raised pores through which gas exchange takes place between the plant and the atmosphere.

The stem is brown and woody towards the base, and also towards the base of large branches, but green in color towards the tip of the stem.

Gliricidia leaves are pinnately compound, about 25-30 cms in length, with 7-25 leaflets which are 4-8 cms long. Leaves are light green when tender, gradually turning dark green as they become older.

The plant produces abundant flowers, pink or light pink, tinged with white and having a pale yellow spot at the throat. These flowers later produce fruits which are long pods, about 12-15 cms long, initially green and later turning brown. Each fruit pod contains 6-10 rounded seeds which are ejected up to 20 meters away when the pod dehisces violently.

The plants are native to Mexico but are now seen in tropical countries all over the world, where they have a variety of uses. Rarely, Gliricidia are grown as ornamental plants. But they are mostly grown as fuel, fodder, green manure, shade, support, living fences, and for reforestation.

They are fast-growing and can stand severe pruning or even coppicing, where the plant is cut down right to the base of the stem, from where it grows back very effectively. Hence these plants are good shade and support trees for other crops.

These plants are toxic to animals other than ruminants, and cattle show some aversion to eating it. But they can be trained to eat it, providing good nutrition with adequate protein content, and easy fodder for cattle.

Cut portions of the stem can root well, making them good living fences, where stout pieces of the stem are kept side-by-side and tied with bamboo or ropes. Once the plants take root, they can effectively keep cattle away from agricultural areas.

Gliricidia plants can tolerate drought, weather fluctuations, salinity, pollution, poor soil conditions, and even an occasional fire. Belonging to the pea family of Fabaceae, Gliricidia roots contain Rhizobium, the nitrogen-fixing bacteriae that can take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that can be easily absorbed by other plants.

This makes it an ideal intercropping plant, improving soil quality and yield in neighboring plants. The leaves added to the soil helps in the aeration and creation of compost and is hence used as green manure.

Interestingly, the plant also has some medicinal uses in the treatment of cough, boils, burns, fever, headache, prickly heat, rheumatism, fractures, ulcers, and wounds. Since the plant is toxic to small animals, it is used to make rodenticides and pesticides.

Roots and seeds are used as rat poison. Leaf extracts are used in making skin and hair conditioners. Wood is quite durable and termite-resistant and is used to make implements, tool handles, and furniture.

Propagation is through seeds and stem cuttings.