Catharanthus roseus is a tropical plant used in traditional herbal medicine in regions of the world where it historically grows. Madagascar periwinkle, the common name of this medicinal and ornamental plant, indicates where the species originated. The plant has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and other healing systems. Western medical science began researching Catharanthus roseus and its extracts during the 20th century, finding several compounds useful in cancer treatment. Older texts may refer to the plant by its earlier Latin name, Vinca rosea.
Records indicate that Catharanthus roseus has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Although native to Madagascar, the plant has naturalized throughout subtropical Asia, Africa and the Americas and has been used both ornamentally and medicinally. All parts of the plant have been used in regional herbal medicine, including the dried root, leaves, flowers and stalks. Alkaloids used in modern medicine are extracted from the whole dried plant. To help preserve the plant in the wild, it is cultivated for medicinal use in many areas of the world.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine and other traditional herbal systems use Catharanthus roseus for the treatment of diabetes. Insect stings are relieved using a juice from the leaves. Herbal use in the Caribbean includes using extracts from the flowers as an eyewash for infants. The flowers are also used for treating asthma and excess gas. Other traditional herbal treatments include using the plant for painful menstruation, tuberculosis and rheumatism.
Western science began investigating Catharanthus roseus in the mid-20th century after learning of its use as a diabetes treatment in the Caribbean and Asia. The plant contains dozens of alkaloids, including vinblastine, which was found to have anti-tumor properties. Medication made from this alkaloid is used to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an immune system cancer. A second alkaloid, vincristine, is utilized for treating leukemia in children. It has been credited with significantly improving the survival rate of victims of childhood leukemia.
Numerous research studies have been conducted on the plant and its extracts. Laboratory studies suggest that it does have potential for treating diabetes. Moreover, antibacterial properties have been found in the extracts of the leaves. The flower petals, seeds and other parts of the plant exhibit antioxidant properties.
In addition to its medicinal uses, Catharanthus roseus is a popular ornamental plant. This subtropical flowering plant can be grown year round in warm regions. It is widely used in temperate zones as an annual bedding plant and continues blooming throughout the season. The five petaled flowers range from white to various shades of pinks, purples and deeper reddish colors. The plant's ability to thrive in poor soil and full sunshine or partial shade makes it a popular garden addition.