Identification of organic compounds from plants is of clinical significance because of the effect that they might have in patients with haematopoietic disorders. We studied the effect of the plant extract Justicia spicigera (Acanthaceae) in different haematopoietic cells: human leukaemic cell lines, umbilical cord blood cells, and mouse bone marrow cells. By examining colony formation and performing the MTT (3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide) assay it was shown that the plant extract of Justicia spicigera contains cytotoxic factors for leukaemic cells and has no proliferative activity on normal haematopoietic progenitor cells. Our results show that this plant extract induces apoptosis in the human leukaemia cell line TF-1, but not in the bcl-2 transfectant cell line TB-1. Similar results were obtained using a haemopoietic cell line 32D and 32DBcl2. The cultures of umbilical cord blood cells and mouse bone marrow that contain granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) do not proliferate or become terminally differentiated in the presence of the infusion of Justicia spicigera. GM-CSF that acts by abrogating programmed cell death is not sufficient to inhibit the apoptotic stimulus in TF-1 and 32D cells. Moreover mouse fibroblasts (3T3) and two cervical carcinoma cell lines CALO and INBL, undergo apoptosis in the presence of different concentrations of an infusion from the plant. Our data show that there is a strong correlation between the cytotoxic effect and cell proliferation. Together, these results indicate that the plant infusion of Justicia spicigera does not contain any haematopoietic activity, induces apoptosis inhibited by bcl-2 and is linked to cell proliferation. Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.