Observation Series
The Stone Breaker (Phyllanthus species)

At the end of March 2014, I received a note and some pictures enquiring the identity of a herb called the Stone Breaker or Chanca Piedra otherwise botanically known as Phyllantus urinaria or Phyllantus niruri. I particularly like the name Stone Breaker as it gave the herb an unusual flavour that spice up the interest on this herb. According to traditional medicine legend, the herb is able to break up stones, not those found on the ground, but kidney stones in the body. On top of that, it claimed to have potential benefits for treating liver problem, tumours, diabetes, and many more diseases.

Though I am not a convert of traditional medicine, these legends do elevate the position of these herbs in the weed community. Not many people pay special attention to these wayside herbaceous plants that many called weeds. The Stone Breaker are a group of similar-looking herbs from the genus Phyllantus. Some years back, I made an attempt to decode the few confusing Phyllantus species found in Singapore --- to match the correct botanical names to the pictures of the herbs. My quest was not very successful and the exploration was put aside while I move on to other topics.

The recent query on the Stone Breaker re-ignited my interest on the topic. I did another round of investigation and thought of consolidating my findings. Based on my observation, there are at least 3 forms of weedy Phyllantus in Singapore. The best way to illustrate the differences among them would be via pictures of their features since all 3 of them look rather similar in overall appearance.

Whole Plant
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Leaves
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Fruits (Capsules)
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Side view of Fruits (Capsules)
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There is another type of weedy Phyllanthus with red warty fruits. I think it is a variant of Phyllanthus urinaria rather than a different species judging from the rough surface of its fruits. The red-fruit version is rather rare compared to the green-fruit version.

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The Singapore Flora checklist published in 2009 listed 3 weedy Phyllanthus, namely Phyllanthus urinaria, Phyllanthus amarus and Phyllanthus debilis. When I tried to match the names with the pictures littered in the Internet, there were a lot of confusing matches between names and pictures.

About the name Phyllanthus niruri: According to the PROTA website, "Specimens of true Phyllanthus niruri have actually never been confirmed from outside the Americas". In a 2011 report from Malaysia [1], 3 local species were mentioned and one of them was Phyllanthus niruri. The other 2 were Phyllanthus urinaria and Phyllanthus amarus. Assuming that the statement from the PROTA report is correct, the Phyllanthus niruri mentioned in the Malaysia report may be something else, likely Phyllanthus debilis. In fact, many previous reports from Asia (mostly from South Asia) which used Phyllanthus niruri in their research may actually be working on some other Phyllanthus species.

About the name Phyllanthus urinaria: This herb is described in the PIER website as having fruits or capsules that are rough on the surface. Of the 3 Phyllanthus species found here, only one has rough-surface fruits. It is quite clear then that this particular one should be Phyllanthus urinaria.

About the name Phyllanthus debilis: This is the one of the species listed in the Singapore Flora checklist. Some pictures of this herb is available at the Smithsonian Institution website, which I considered to be a reliable source. The pictures in that website matched well with one set of my pictures above. Furthermore, it was described in the PIER website as having smooth surface capsules. Hence, I decided to use this name for the one of the Phyllanthus herb found here that has smooth capsules.

About the name Phyllanthus amarus: After taken care of the first 2 Phyllanthus species listed in the Singapore Flora checklist, I am left with the last one, Phyllanthus amarus. This name was described in the PIER website but the report did not describe the surface texture of the capsule. Instead the capsule was simply described as "small, depressed-globose". The name also appeared in the Flora of Pakistan website but there was no description of the capsule. Fortunately, the PROTA website did describe the capsule as smooth. With that, I have assigned my third set of picture to the name Phyllanthus amarus.

About the name Phyllanthus fraternus: I had previously used this name on Phyllanthus debilis pictures shown above before I wrote this article. After finding out that that the name was not listed in the Singapore Flora checklist, I decided to change the label of the pictures to Phyllanthus debilis. Though Phyllanthus fraternus was described in the Flora of Pakistan website, the location is quite some distance away from Southeast Asia.

Finally, a 2010 report from Thailand [2] mentioned that 3 species of Phyllanthus, namely Phyllanthus amarus, Phyllanthus debilis and Phyllanthus urinaria were popular plants found in the local herbal markets. The 3 names aligned well to the 3 species listed in the Singapore Flora checklist.

In conclusion, there are 3 weedy species of Phyllanthus in Singapore. All of them may be referred to by the common name, Stone Breaker. As far as the botanical names is concern, I have probably made the logical deduction to match them correctly to my pictures.

Reference:

[1] Poh-Hwa T, Yoke-Kqueen C, Indu Bala J, Son R. Bioprotective properties of three Malaysia Phyllanthus species: an investigation of the antioxidant and antimicrobial activities. Int Food Res J 2011; 18(3): 887–893. | Read article |

[2] Manissorn J, Sukrong S, Ruangrungsi N, Mizukami H. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of Phyllanthus species in Thailand and the application of polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphism for Phyllanthus amarus identification. Biol Pharm Bull. 2010;33(10):1723-7. | Read article |

Last updated: 18 April 2014

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