Medicinal Plants

Introduction to Medicinal plants

  • Conservation of natural resources and the capability to utilize them in sustained manner are essential for the well being and continued survival of man.
  • Under the duress of over exploration and habitat degradation a number of wild plants are essentially facing a constant threat of extinction.
  • Out of the 60,000 plant species that are listed as threatened of extinction, over 20,000 (or more) are from India alone.
  • The botanical survey of India has prepared a provisional list of threatened plants which includes a large number wild (or) wild relatives of food, horticultural, medicinal and aromatic plants.
  • India is endowed with a unique wealth of biota which inlcude a large number of medicinal and aromatic plants.
  • Many of these plants are rare and endemic and found only in wild sources.
  • The population explosion coupled with the improved standard of living led to ruthless exploitation, resulting in the imminent danger of extinction of these plants.
  • Most of these wild medicinal and aromatic plants are highly habitual specific, found only in forests and occupying highly specialized ecological niche with restricted distribution.
  • There are neither biological informations nor adequate knowledge of casual factors that led to their rarity in the habital.
  • There is however, now an urgent need to evolve a sound strategy for the management and conservation of these plants on a long term basis.
  • To evolve suitable strategies for conservation (or) the domestication/cultivation of medicinal plants, it is very essential to study the complete biological and ecological back ground of these species.
  • Under domestication outside their normal ecological range (or) under the distributed eco-system conditions may of the wild medicinal and aromatic plants tend to behave differently.
  • In some cases it becomes difficult to grow them (or) it may not even survive.
  • In certain other cases if survives and grows but may not be producing the desired traits.
  • A through understanding on their reproductive and growth biology as well as identification of the biological and ecological constraints leading to their reduced fitness, restricted distribution (or) even extinction etc., is therefore, necessary.
  • An understanding of the biological and ecological back ground of the species in their normal habitat is also essential to understand their conservation biology as well as to predict their behaviour under artificial cultivation.

Strategies for conservation of medicinal plants:

  • The conservation of the wild medicinal plants or any other such threatened species can be tackled by scientific techniques as well as social actions.
  • There are basically two scientific techniques of conservation of genetic diversity of these plants.
  • They are the in situ and ex situ method of conservation.

In Situ conservation:

  • It is only in nature that plant diversity at the genetic, species and eco-system level can be conserved on long-term basis.
  • Unless plant populations are conserved in the wild, that is in natural habitats, in viable breeding populations, they run the risk of extinction.
  • It is necessary to conserve in distinct, representative biogeographic zones inter and intraspecific genetic variation.

Current status:

  • In Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil nadu and more recently in Maharashtra the forest department in collaboration with FRUHT (Foundation for Rural Revitalization of Local Health Tradition) have established a network of 33 "Medicinal Plants Conservation Areas" (MPCAs) across the entire altitudinal range of south India.
  • Each of these reserves is around 200 ha in size.

Regulation and wild collection:

  • Regulating the harvest of medicinal plants from the wild for commercial purposes.
  • Particularly those species whose harvest inevitably involves destructive collection.
  • Local communities can develop a stake in sustainable harvesting of medicinal plants from the forest and village, district and state level co-operative are set up to manage collection, storage and marketing.

Current status:

  • LAMP societies as they function at present neither benefit the primary tribal collectors nor provides adequate powers (or) accountability of the LAMPs with regard to protection and management of forests.
  • The marketing function of LAMPs is also weak, so that collectors do not get remunerative prices through LAMP sales.

EX situ conservation

A. Ethno-medicinal plant gardens:

  • Creation of a network of regional and sub-regional ethno-medicinal plant gardens which should contain accessions of all the medicinal plants known to the various ethnic communities in different regions of India.
  • This chain of gardens will act as regional repositories of our cultural and ethno-medicinal history and embody the living traditions of our socity's knowledge of medicinal plants.

Current status:

  • There are estimated to be around 50 such gardens in the country ranging from acre to 40 acres some of them were set up by an All India Health Network.
  • More recently a network of 15 such gardens have been set up in 3 states of South India with the initiative of FRLHT. One of the gardens is located in TBGRI, (Tropical botanical garden research institute) Palode at Thiruvananthapuram.

B. Gene banks:

  • While it is known that the largest proportion of local bio-diversity in all our eco-system is used for medicinal purposes, very little is known about their conservation status in the wild.
  • What is likely is that a large number of medicinal plant species are under various degrees of threat.
  • The precautionary principles would suggest that an immediate and country-wide exercise be taken up to deposit seeds of wild medicinal plants with a first priority to known Red listed species and endemic species.

Current status:

  • The department of bio-technology, Government of India has recently taken the initiative to establish 3 gene banks in the country.
  • One is with ICAR at the NBPGR (National Bureau of plant genetic Resources) Campus, the second is with CIMAPs, (Cental Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic plants) Lucknow and the third with TBFRI in Thiruvananthapuram.

C. Nursery network:

  • The most urgent and primary task in order to ensure immediate availability of plants and planting materials to various user groups is to promote a nation wide network of medicinal plant nurseries, which will multiply all the regional specific plants that are used in the current practice of traditional medicine.
  • These nurseries should become the primary sources of supply of plants and seed material that can be subsequently multiplied by the various users.

Current status:

  • Planting material for 40 odd species of medicinal and aromatic plants is reportedly available in the ICAR and CSIR (CIMAP) network.
  • In South India FRLHT has recently set up a network of 55 supply nurseries.


  • Figures projecting demand and trade in medicinal plant species globally indicate a step upward trend in the near future.
  • One estimate puts the figure of world trade in medicinal plants and related products at US $ 5 trillion by A.D. 2050 (world bank report , 1996).
  • The demand so far has been met mainly from wild sources.
  • This can't go on for much longer; policy intervention is urgently needed to encourage and facilitate investments into commercial cultivation of medicinal plants.
  • Cultivation of medicinal plants however, is inversely linked to prevalence of easy and cheap collection from the wild, lack of regulation in trade, cornering of the profits from wild collection by a vast network of traders and middlemen and absence of industry's interest in providing buy-back guarantees to growers.

Current status:

  • In the Govt. sector agro-technology of 40 odd species has been developed by ICAR - Agricultural University System and CSIR (CIMAOs & RRL, Jammu and Jorhat).
  • In recent years industries like Dabur, Zandu, Indian Herbs, Arya Vaidya Shala, and Arya Vaidya Pharmacy and others have made some symbolic efforts to initiate cultivation.
  • Since 1984 NABARD (National Bank of Agricultural and Rural Development) has formulated schemes for financing cultivation and processing of medicinal plants

E. Community based enterprises:

  • The income generated by the traditional medicine industry benefits small section of the socity.
  • A strong case exists for promotion of community level enterprises for value addition to medicinal plants through simple, on site techniques like drying, cleaning, crushing, powdering, grading, packaging etc.
  • This will also increase the stake of rural communities in conservation and change the skewed nature of income distribution of the industry.

Current status:

  • Three community based enterprises are known in south India, one in Gandhigram Trust, (Dindigul), Preemade development Society (Peermade) Kerala and the third by VGKK in B.R.Hills, Mysore.