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Record Number


PROSEA Handbook Number

12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2


Saussurea costus (Falc.) S.J. Lipschitz


Bot. Journ. USSR 49(1): 131 (1964).



Chromosome Numbers

2n = 26 (36)


Saussurea lappa C.B. Clarke (1876).

Vernacular Names

Costus (root) (En). Malaysia: costus, kut, puchok. Vietnam: m[ooj]c h[uw][ow]ng, qu[ar]ng m[ooj]c h[uw][ow]ng, v[aa]n m[ooj]c h[uw][ow]ng.

Origin and Geographic Distribution

Saussurea costus originates from northern India and Nepal but occurs now in the whole of the mountainous Asian region, since it was exported to the East in the 13th Century. It is cultivated in northern India, Vietnam and China, but it is not known to be cultivated in Malesia.


Saussurea costus is cultivated for its extremely bitter and aromatic roots, which contain essential oils. In addition, they are valued for their powerful medicinal properties. In the whole Asian region, the roots have been used for a long time as a universal antidote, as a tonic, and for coughs, asthma, dyspepsia, constipation, flatulence, inflammations, fever, skin diseases, and as a fumigant. They are also regarded as an aphrodisiac. In Peninsular Malaysia, the root is given after childbirth to the mother, to restore health. In Indonesia, it is used in the treatment and prevention of affections of the respiratory organs. In China and Korea, it is applied to relieve pains in the chest and stomach. It is also used as a uterine sedative, and for indigestion, nausea, diarrhoea, and dysentery. In Thailand, the roots are used are used as a carminative and to prevent fainting. The Chinese use the root more for fumigation than as a medicine. The roots are sometimes smoked as a substitute for opium, as it produces a marked depression of the cerebral nervous system. It is also put among clothes to protect them from insects. In India the dried stems are used as a fodder.

Production and International Trade

In India, essential oil production of Saussurea costus roots reaches 6—12 t per year, and large quantities of Costus root are exported to China and other Asian countries, where they are used as an incense. In the 1960s the annual production of Costus root was 250—550 t, the main importing countries being Hong Kong, France and Singapore. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka also import smaller quantities of the roots.


Similar to other Compositae species, the root of Saussurea costus contains inulin (18%), a polysaccharide made up from fructose residues. It also contains an essential oil ('costus oil'), from which the terpenes costus lactone, dehydrocostus lactone, costol, 'ALFA'- and 'BETA'-costene, camphene, phellandrene and aplotaxene were isolated. The sesquiterpene lactone costunolide is also reported to be contained in the roots.
Several of these compounds display biological activities. Costus oil itself often causes contact dermatitis, which is attributed to the presence of costulide and dehydrocostus lactone. Costulide exhibits strong antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus and Staphylococcus. Furthermore, dehydrocostus lactone inhibits the production of nitric oxide in lipopolysaccharide-activated RAW 246.7 cells (murine macrophage-like cells) by suppressing inducible nitric oxide synthase enzyme expression and also by decreasing the tumour necrosis factor-'ALFA' level in lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-activated systems in vitro and in vivo. This compound may thus be a possible candidate for the development of new drugs to treat endotoxemia accompanied by the overproduction of nitric oxide and tumour necrosis factor-'ALFA'. Costunolide and dehydrocostus lactone act as inhibitors of killing activity of cytotoxic T-lymphocytes, through preventing the increase in tyrosine phosphorylation in response to the cross linking of T-cell receptors. Both compounds also show a strong suppressive effect in a dose-dependent manner on the expression of the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) in human hepatoma Hep3B cells, but have little effect on the viability of the cells. Both compounds were also tested for effects on the central nervous system of mice by intraperitoneal, intragastric and intracerebroventricular administration, and were found to decrease methampetamine- and apomorphine-induced spontaneous motility.
Another sesquiterpene lactone, reynosin, isolated from the roots, was found to inhibit cytokine-induced neutrophil chemoattractant-1 induction in LPS-stimulated rat kidney epitheloid NRK-52E cells, in a dose-dependent manner.
The root also contains the alkaloid saussurine, which has antispasmodic properties, useful in controlling paroxysms of bronchial asthma and in the treatment of persistent hiccup. Five amino acid-sesquiterpene adducts, saussureamines A, B, C, D and E, were furthermore isolated from the dried root of Saussurea costus. Saussureamines A, B and C showed an anti-ulcer effect on HCl/ethanol-induced lesions in rats, and saussureamine A also inhibited an inhibitory activity on stress-induced ulcer formation in mice.
The crude extract of Saussurea costus displayed significant lethality to brine shrimp larvae. The compounds responsible are shikokiols, C17-polyene alcohols, which also exhibited moderate cytotoxicity against the human tumour cell lines A549, SK-OV-3, SK-MEL-2, XF498, and HCT15.
The ethanol root extract of Saussurea costus, used traditionally to treat diabetes, was also administered to rats, who showed a significant hypoglycaemic response, together with increased concentrations of liver glycogen, after 8 hours. Alcoholic root extracts also show a potent antifungal effect with a broad spectrum.
Boiled water extract of Saussurea costus was screened for clonorchicidal activity in rabbits infected with the worm Clonorchis sinensis. The extract caused significant regressive and progressive changes such as degeneration, atrophy, necrosis and dilatation of viscera of the worms. Plant extract of Saussurea costus applied topically to nymphs of the mustard aphid (Lipaphis erysimi), caused significant immediate mortality. A root extract was also effective against the red cotton bug (Dysdercus koenigii), and the pulse beetle (Callosobruchus chinensis or C. maculata).
The crude oil from the root of Saussurea costus significantly reduced the damage by larvae of Spodoptera litura to leaves of Ricinus communis L. Mortality was more than 50% for treatment at 5%. There were no effects on pupae and adult insects.
Finally, the sesquiterpene lactone 4'BETA'-methoxydehydrocostus lactone, isolated from the roots of Saussurea costus, displayed significant biological activity as a plant growth regulator, stimulating root formation on hypocotyl cuttings of Vigna radiata (L.) R. Wilczek.


An erect, robust, unbranched, perennial herb, 1.5—2(—2.3) m tall; roots up to 60 cm long, carrot-like, with a penetrating odour. Leaves simple, basal ones spirally arranged in a rosette, cauline leaves alternate, basal leaves triangular, very large, 30—60 cm x 10—15 cm, base cordate, apex pointed to rounded, margins irregularly toothed, membranous, scaberulous above and almost glabrous beneath, cauline leaves smaller, with an auricled, semi-amplexicaul base; petiole of rosette leaves lobately winged, cauline leaves shortly petiolate or sessile. Inflorescence consisting of heads, in terminal or axillary clusters of 2—5, involucral bracts numerous, ovate-lanceolate, acuminate, rigid, squarrosely recurved, glabrous, purple, peduncles 1—6 cm long, heads 2.5—3.5 cm across, very dense and hard. Flowers all tubular, about 1 cm long, corolla blue-purple; stamens 5, filaments glabrous, anther-tails fimbriate; style bifid. Fruit a compressed subcylindrical achene, 8 mm long, tip narrowed, margins thickened, 1 rib on each face; pappus with feathery brown hairs in several rows. Seedling with epigeal germination.


Saussurea costus (Falc.) S.J. Lipschitz - 1, basal leaf; 2, inflorescence; 3, achene

Growth and Development

The number of flowering heads is larger when cultivated in unshaded fields than under shade.

Other Botanical Information

Saussurea is a large genus with about 300 species in temperate Asia, 9 in Europe, 1 in North America and 1 in Australia. Saussurea belongs to the tribe Cardueae, but its position there is uncertain, as its chemical composition is different from the other genera in the tribe. Most species are densely white-woolly-haired alpine plants, some of which are ornamentals.


Saussurea costus requires a cool climate, and grows in the mountains at the upper limits of tree growth, between 1500—3300 m altitude. It is a casual in irrigated areas, and a deep, rich, porous soil is preferred. In India, Saussurea costus is planted on sunny localities, with an average temperature of 14—23°C, and an annual rainfall of 800—1100 mm. In Vietnam, Saussurea costus is cultivated at 1500 m altitude, with an average temperature of 15°C, and an annual rainfall of 2000—2500 mm.

Propagation and planting

Saussurea costus has been planted in Northern India since the 1920s. It can be cultivated under semi-natural conditions in the forest areas, under a canopy, and as a regular crop with occasional irrigation. Saussurea costus can be propagated either by root cuttings or by seed. In regions in India where it grows naturally, the collar zone of the root and pieces smaller than 2.5 cm are replanted, providing a natural regeneration. For cultivation, propagation by achenes is more economical. The infructescences are harvested in September, a little before ripening, and then stacked in the sun for a week before threshing. The achenes, 35—40 per gram, retain their viability for a year or more. At 15°C, 8% of the achenes germinate after 17 days, and at 25°C, 36% germinate after 7 days. In India, seeds of Saussurea costus are sown at the beginning of the rainy season, in April/June. They can be sown in a nursery, and one-year old seedlings transplanted at a spacing of 0.9 m x 0.9 m, by which time the root is 15—35 cm long. Direct sowing is successful in areas where the risk of seedling mortality from drought is minimal. In that case the seeds are sown in pits at a spacing of 0.3 m x 0.3 m, and the plants later thinned to 0.6 m x 0.9 m.
Rapid micropropagation of Saussurea costus was achieved by culturing shoot tips (0.5—1 cm long) of 2-week old seedlings on Murashige and Skoog media supplemented with thidiazuron, obtaining callus-free multiple shoots. Shoot tips containing proliferative buds were divided into equal halves and subcultured for further multiplication and elongation. Multiplication of induced shoot buds was more effective when cultured in liquid medium than on agar-solidified medium. Shoots (8—10 cm long) were rooted in Murashige and Skoog medium containing naphthalene acetic acid (NAA). Micropropagated plantlets were successfully transferred to soil after hardening. Shoot cultures stored at 5°C in the dark for 12 months, without an intervening subculture survived with 100% viability. Shoots cold-stored for 6 months or more showed higher rates of multiplication under culture room conditions than the untreated roots.

Diseases and Pests

Saussurea costus is subject to fungal diseases caused by Puccinia saussureae, Septoria sordidula, Bremia saussurea, Leveillula taurica and Albugo candida; the crop can also suffer from the insect Vanessa cardui, which can complete 2 generations in 1 year.


Roots of Saussurea costus cultivated as a sole crop can be harvested 3 years after sowing. Plants grown under forest conditions attain maximum root weight when about 5 years old and then start flowering. After the first flowering the plants continue to grow, but the quality of the root deteriorates. In India, the roots are harvested in October.


A yield of 2—2.5 t/ha of dry roots can be obtained from forest plantations, while 3.5—4 t/ha can be harvested from sole crops.

Handling After Harvest

In India the roots are cut into pieces of 10 cm long and dried in the sun, where they become greyish to dull brown. Afterwards they can be powdered.
The oil can be obtained by a number of methods, with yields ranging from 0.8—5.8%. The common method is by steam distillation of sliced and macerated roots in water, yielding 1.2% of oil. The improved method of extraction, using petroleum ether, yields 6% of oil, of which the lactonic constituents (about 50%) can be easily crystallized and separated. The oil is a pale yellow to brownish, very viscous liquid, with a persistent and particular odour, and is used in the perfume industry.
In Japan, several drying methods have been evaluated, but the best one was outdoor drying for about 1 month in the dry season, during which the inulin in the roots is enzymatically hydrolysed to produce fructose and a small amount of glucose. Lengthwise splitting of roots or hot-air drying shortened the drying period, but reduced the quality of the product, 'Saussureae Radix'.

Genetic Resources and Breeding

Saussurea costus has become almost extinct in India because of uncontrolled exploitation, and conservation measures include in-situ preservation and ex-situ propagation.


Saussurea costus is a potential crop for the cooler regions in South-East Asia. Several compounds, especially the sesquiterpene lactones isolated from the roots, display a multitude of interesting biological activity. Research in the fields of e.g. immunology, virology, asthma and chemotherapeutics, is needed, however, to evaluate their potential as lead compounds in drug discovery.


Anetai, M., Kanetoshi, A., Hayashi, T., Aoyagi, M., Iida, O. & Hatakeyama, Y., 1996. Preparation and chemical evaluation of Saussureae Radix produced in Hokkaido. Natural Medicines 50(4): 284—288. (in Japanese)
Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1972. The wealth of India: a dictionary of Indian raw materials & industrial products. Volume 9. Publications and Information Directorate, New Delhi, India. pp. 240—243.
Hatakeyama, Y., Kumagai, T. & Yoneda, K., 1989. Studies on the cultivation and breeding of wild medicinal plants I. Trial cultivation of Saussurea lappa Clarke. Shoyakugaku Zasshi 43(3): 246—249. (in Japanese)
Johnson, T.S., Narayan, S.B. & Narayana, D.B.A., 1997. Rapid in vitro propagation of Saussurea lappa, an endangered medicinal plant, through multiple shoot cultures. In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology 33(2): 128—130.
Rhee, J.K., Baek, B.K. & Ahn, B.Z., 1985. Structural investigation on the effects of the herbs on Clonorchis sinensis in rabbits. American Journal of Chinese Medicine 13(1—4): 119—125.
Taniguchi, M. et al., 1995. Costunolide and dehydrocostus lactone as inhibitors of killing function of cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry 59(11): 2064—2067.

Other Selected Sources

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G.H. Schmelzer

Correct Citation of this Article

Schmelzer, G.H., 2001. Saussurea costus (Falc.) S.J. Lipschitz. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. and Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors): Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. PROSEA Foundation, Bogor, Indonesia. Database record:

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