Quick Facts

Quick facts

  • Bellyache Bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) is an upright shrub or small tree usually growing 1 to 3 m tall that usually loses most or all of its leaves during the dry season.
  • Its 3 to 5 lobed leaves are purplish and covered in sticky hairs when immature, but usually turn green as they age.
  • Bellyache Bush has the capacity to form dense thickets which greatly reduce the productivity of pastures and displace native vegetation.
  • It is unpalatable to livestock and accidental ingestion of its highly poisonous seeds causes significant stock losses.
  • Bellyache Bush also has a significant impact on riparian vegetation, particularly in semi-arid regions. It may reduce native plant and animal biodiversity and prevent the regeneration of trees and shrubs in these habitats.

What Does It Look Like?

What is it?

Bellyache Bush (Jatropha gossypiifolia) is an upright shrub or small tree usually growing 1 to 3 m tall, occasionally reaching up to 4 m in height. The older stems, which are softly woody and somewhat succulent, are relatively thick and contain a watery or soapy sap. Younger stems and growing points are purplish in colour and densely covered in hairs. The alternately arranged leaves (4.5 to 10 cm long and 5 to 13 cm wide) have three or five deep lobes and are borne on stalks 6 to 9 cm long. These leaves are purplish and covered in sticky hairs when immature, but usually turn bright or dark green as they age. The leaf stalks and margins of the leaf blades are also covered in more persistent sticky hairs (Navie & Adkins 2007).

The small flowers are borne in loose branched clusters at the tips of the stems. The main stalk of each flower cluster is 10 to 15 cm long, purplish in colour, and covered in sticky hairs. There are separate male and female flowers present in these clusters. The majority of the flowers are male, and have 8 to 12 yellow stamens, while the central flower on each branch of the flower cluster is female. In all, there are usually 2 to 8 female and 27 to 54 male flowers in each flower cluster. All of the flowers have five deep purple to bright red coloured petals and five small sepals. The fruit is a slightly three-lobed capsule and is faintly hairy. It is oval or oblong in shape (about 12 mm long and 10 mm wide) and usually contains three large seeds. These fruit are initially glossy green in colour but turn brown as they mature. The egg-shaped seeds (7 to 8 mm long and about 4 mm wide) are orange-brown or dark brown in colour (Navie & Adkins 2007).

For further information and assistance with identification of Bellyache Bush contact the herbarium in your state or territory.

Flower colour


Growth form (weed type/habit)

Shrub, Tree

Where it currently grows? Preferred habitat

Bellyache Bush is most commonly found in drier tropical environments, but is sometimes also naturalised in sub-tropical and semi-arid regions. It is a weed of degraded pastures, open woodlands, monsoon vine forests, grasslands, waterways, coastal foreshores, roadsides, disturbed sites, waste areas and old or abandoned gardens (Navie & Adkins 2007).

Are there similar species?

Bellyache Bush can be confused with Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas) and Castor Oil Plant (Ricinus communis). However, the stems and leaves of these species are not covered in sticky hairs when they are young. Castor Oil Plant can also be distinguished by having 7 to 9 lobes on its leaves and by the numerous soft, blunt spines on its fruiting capsules. Physic Nut can be distinguished by its smaller greenish-yellow flowers and its yellow fruit (Navie & Adkins 2007).

Why Is It A Weed?

What are its impacts?

Bellyache Bush is a Weed of National Significance (WONS). It is regarded as one of the worst weeds in Australia because of its invasiveness, potential for spread, and economic and environmental impacts.

Bellyache Bush has the capacity to form dense thickets which interfere with pasture growth, obscure fence lines, interfere with mustering and displace native vegetation (Pitt 1999). It is also poisonous to livestock and harbours feral animals (Csurhes 1999).

This toxic species is unpalatable to livestock, but accidental ingestion of Bellyache Bush seeds commonly occurs when animals browse on dry grass and fallen leaf litter during the dry season. In 1995, stock losses of 312 animals were attributed to Bellyache Bush in the Dalrymple shire in northern Queensland (Csurhes 1999).

Pure stands of Bellyache Bush also prevent the growth of pasture species and can render floodplain pastures totally unproductive. Bellyache Bush initially tends to invade disturbed areas and waterways. It eventually dominates these areas and then spreads slowly onto less disturbed land. At present, Bellyache Bush has a locally significant impact on grazing land along the banks of the Burdekin River and some of its tributaries. However, it has the potential to degrade grazing land over large areas of tropical grasslands and to threaten the future productivity of grazing enterprises in northern Australia. Declaration and preventative action by local and state government authorities has probably reduced the plant's impact outside the heavily infested Burdekin catchment (Csurhes 1999).

Bellyache Bush is also regarded as an important environmental weed in the Northern Territory, Queensland and the northern parts of Western Australia (Smith 2002). It was recently listed as a priority environmental weed in five Natural Resource Management regions, and is ranked among the top 200 most invasive plant species in south-eastern Queensland (Batianoff & Butler 2002; Navie & Adkins 2007). Of particular concern is the impact that this species has on riparian habitats in semi-arid regions. In these areas it replaces native vegetation and may delay or prevent regeneration of native shrubs and trees (Smith 2002). Extensive Bellyache Bush thickets may also degrade wildlife habitat and reduce both plant and animal biodiversity at a local level (Csurhes 1999).

Bellyache Bush has also been recognised as a target for biological control through a cross-jurisdictional government process. This allows activities to be undertaken to develop effective biological controls

How does it spread?

Bellyache Bush reproduces mainly by seed, though suckers can also develop from its roots and crown. Seeds may be spread short distances when they are explosively released, while most long-range dispersal probably occurs in water or mud (Navie & Adkins 2007). Native meat ants (Iridomyrmex spadius Shattuck, 1993) also play an important role in the short-range dispersal of Bellyache Bush seeds (Bebawi & Campbell 2004).

What is its history in Australia?

Bellyache Bush was deliberately introduced into northern Australia as a garden ornamental some time in the late 1800s (Parsons & Cuthbertson 2001).

How To Manage It?

Best practice management

Physical control: As Bellyache Bush is shallow-rooted, small plants can be pulled out and larger plants can be grubbed out by hand (Land Protection 2006). Individual or scattered Bellyache Bush plants can also be treated with a cut stump application of diesel fuel or a registered herbicide. Larger infestations should be treated with suitable foliar or soil-applied herbicides (Pitt 1999). Fire can also be effective, with high kill rates being observed in the field when there is a sufficient fuel load to carry a fire through a Bellyache Bush infestation (Land Protection 2006).

Extensive infestations should be fenced off to prevent grazing and to limit the movement of contaminated vehicles and livestock (Pitt 1999). The establishment of vigorous pastures in areas that have been treated or burnt will also help to prevent re-invasion.

Chemical control: Also see the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority for chemical information http://www.apvma.gov.au .

Biological control: Bellyache Bush has also been recognised as a target for biological control through a cross-jurisdictional government process. This allows activities to be undertaken to develop effective biological controls. One agent released, the Jewel bug (Agonsoma trilineatum), with others prioritised for release and further research (Harvey et al 2023).

Chemical control: Check with your local council or state/territory government agency about its requirements for the control of Bellyache Bush. 

Does it have a biological control agent?

YES. One agent released, the Jewel bug (Agonsoma trilineatum) (Harvey,  et al 2023).

When does it grow? (lifecycle/growth calendar)

Bellyache Bush loses most or all of its leaves during the dry season and new leaves are produced with the onset of the wet season (Navie & Adkins 2007). Seeds also germinate at the onset of the wet season in northern Australia (usually between October and December) and growth is relatively rapid during the wet season (Parsons & Cuthbertson 2001). Flowering occurs throughout the year, but mostly during late summer and autumn (Navie & Adkins 2007).

Where Is It Found?

Which states and territories is it found?


What areas within states and territories is it found?

Bellyache Bush has a widespread but scattered distribution throughout northern Australia. It is most common in the northern parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, but is also present in central and south-eastern Queensland and other parts of the Northern Territory (Navie & Adkins 2007).

The most extensive infestations in Queensland exist within the Burdekin River catchment, where it extends from north of Charters Towers to the Burdekin river mouth and back along many of its tributaries, including the catchments of the Bowen, Suttor, Bogie and Belyando Rivers (Navie & Adkins 2007). Smaller populations are also present in the Banana, Broadsound, Bourke, Cook, Dauringa, Emerald, Peak Downs, Flinders, Fitzroy, Jericho and Whitsunday shires (Csurhes 1999). In the Northern Territory, Bellyache Bush occurs in the Darwin, Katherine, Middle Point, Batchelor, Willeroo, Mataranka and Daly Waters regions (Parsons & Cuthbertson 2001). Large infestations also occur to the south-west of Katherine, on Tipperary Station and on Channel Island. Populations in Western Australia are mainly located in the eastern part of the Kimberley region (Smith 2002).

Where does it originate?

Bellyache Bush is native to Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Caribbean, and parts of South America (Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay) (GRIN 2007).

National And State Weed Listings

Is it a Weed of National Significance (WONS)?


Where is it a declared weed?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Is it on the National Alert List for Environmental Weeds?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Is it on the Agricultural Sleeper List?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Names And Taxonomy

Main scientific name

Jatropha gossypifolia

Other scientific names (synonyms)?

  • Jatropha gossypiifolia Mull.Arg. (incorrect spelling)
  • Manihot gossypifolia (L.) Crantz

Does it have other known common name(s)?

Cotton-leaved Physic-Nut, Cotton-leaf Physic Nut, Cotton-leaf Jatropha, Black Physic Nut

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