Medicinal Plants
Introduction Importance Systems of medicine Utilization of 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.

D. Cultivation:

  • 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.


  • Importance of Medicinal plants

    Important Medicinal Plants and their active constituents

    Medicinal Plants used as Crude Extracts / Tinctures in Medicines

    Important Plant Products having great potential in Medicine

    Some important medicinal plants suggested for cultivation


Systems of Medicine

  • There are mainly 3 systems of medicine practised in the world today. They are :

Modern System or Allopathy

  • This system was developed in the Western countries. In this system drugs (tablets, capsules, injections, tonics etc.) are manufactured using synthetic chemicals and / or chemicals derived from natural products like plants, animals, minerals etc. This system also uses modern equipment for diagnosis, analysis, surgery etc.
  • Medicines or drugs of this system is often criticised for its treatment of the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease, harmful side effects of certain drugs and for being out of reach of common / poor people due to the high cost of drugs and treatment.
  • This system is used in all the countries of the world today.

Alternative Medicine or Traditional System

  • Different countries of the world developed independently their own traditional systems of medicine using locally available materials like minerals and products of plants and animals.
  • The World Health Organisation is giving considerable importance to these alternate medicine (as they act as alternative to allopathy) systems to provide Primary Health Care to millions of people in the developing countries.
    China developed the Chinese system of medicine, which is practised in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and other countries.
  • In Indonesia, Jamu and in South Africa, Zulu systems of herbal medicine are practised. The Unani or Tibb system was developed in the Middle Eastern Arab countries and is practised in India and in many countries.
  • In India, Ayurveda (developed in North India), Siddha (developed in Tamil Nadu) and Nagarjuna (developed in Andhra Pradesh) systems of medicine were developed. Ayurveda is practised in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh also. Herbo-mineral is another traditional system used in India and other neighbouring countries.
  • Drugs (balms, oils, pills, tonics, paste etc) are manufactured and marketed in these systems. The major advantage of these systems is that they are within the reach of the people, particularly rural poor.
  • These systems are claimed to be pollution free, eco-freindly and have minimal or no harmful side effects. Ayurveda claims to cure the cause of the disease rather than the symptoms and is wholistic in its approach.
  • In this system a disease is conceived as an imbalance in the systems of the body and the treatment aims at restoring the balance in the various systems of the body.

Folk Medicine

  • The medicinal systems followed by various tribals / aborigins of different countries is popularly known as folk or tribal medicine.
  • In the system, the "medicine man" or the "doctor" of the tribe who has the knowledge of treating diseases, keeps this knowledge as a closely guarded secret and passes it to the next generation by word of mouth.
  • No written texts on these systems are available and different tribes follow different time tested methods. The treatment is often associated with lengthy and mystic rituals, in addition to prescription of drugs (decoctions, pastes, powders, oils, ashed materials etc.).
  • Mostly locally available natural materials are used for the preparation of drugs, which are not commercially made and marketed. Generally speaking, folk medicine can also be regarded as a traditional system of medicine.
  • The basic aim of all the above systems of medicine is to alleviate the sufferings of human beings and their domesticated animals.
  • The knowledge of the traditional systems is undergoing close scientific scrutiny and is being increasingly incorporated into the modern system.

Other Systems

  • Yoga, Acupressure, Acupuncture, Reiki, Magneto therepy, Pyramid therapy, Flower therapy, Homeopathy, Nature Cure or Naturopathy etc. are some of the other systems of medicine practised in different parts of the world today.


Utilization of Medicinal Plants

  • The utility of medicinal plants has four major segments:
    • Medicinal plants utilised in indigenous or traditional systems of medicines (ISM) - Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and
    • Homeopathy systems of medicines.
    • OTC (over the country, non-prescription) items / products involving plant parts, extracts galenicals etc.
    • Essential oils
    • Phyto-pharmaceuticals or plants used in modern systems of medicine.

    Medicinal plants used in Traditional Systems of Medicine

  • Traditional medicine is widespread through the world and it comprises of those practices based on beliefs that were in existence, often for hundreds of years, before the development and spread of modern scientific medicines and which are still in use today.
  • As its name implies, it is the part of tradition of each country which employs practices that have been handed down from generation to generation. Its acceptance by a population is largely conditioned by cultural factors and much of traditional medicine, therefore, may not be easily transferable from one culture to another.
  • An important feature of traditional therapy is the preference of practitioner for compound prescriptions over single substance/drug as it is being held that some constituents are effective only in the presence of others.
  • This renders assessment of efficacy and eventually identification of active principles as required in international standards much difficult than for simple preparation.
  • In India, earlier the medicines used in indigenous systems of medicines were generally prepared by the practicing physicians by themselves, but now this practice has been largely replaced by the establishment of organised indigenous drug industries.
  • It is estimated that at present there are more than 1,00,000 licensed registered practitioners of Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani medicine or Homeopathy.
  • As far as the Ayurveda system of medicine is concerned, it does not rule out any substances being used as potential source of medicine.
  • Presently about 1000 single drugs and 8000 compound drug formulations of recognised merit are in vogue.
    In fact reliable data on availability in different regions of country as well as supply and demand of medicinal plants used in production of indigenous medicines are not available.
  • However, annual herbal drug market has been estimated around 2200 crores and is expected to reach up to 4000 crores by the year 2000.

Plants-parts, extracts and galenicals

  • The direct utilisation of plant material is not only a feature of ISM in the developing world but also in developed countries like USA, UK, Germany etc., the various herbal formulations are sold on health food shops.
    Preparation of decoctions, tinctures, galenicals and total extracts of plants also form a part of many pharmacopoeias of the world.
  • The current trend of medicinal plants based drug industry is to procedure standard extracts of plants as raw material.

Essential Oils from plants

  • The essential oil industry was traditionally a cottage industry in India. Since 1947, a number of industrial companies have been established for large scale production of essential oils, oleoresins and perfumes.
  • The essential oil from plants includes Ajowan oil, Eucalyptus oil, Geranium oil, Lavender oil, Palmarosa oil, Patchouli oil, Rose oil, Sandalwood oil, Turpentine oil and Vetiver oil.


  • During the past decades, bulk production of plant based drugs has become an important segment of Indian pharmaceutical industry.
  • Some of the phyto-pharmaceuticals which are produced in India at present include
    1. morphone,
    2. codeine,
    3. papaverine (Papaver somniferum),
    4. quinine,
    5. quinidine,
    6. cinchonine and cinchonidine (Cinchona sp., C. calisaya, C. ledgeriana, C. officinais and C. succirubra);
    7. hyoscine,
    8. hyoscyamine (Hyocyamus niger and H. muticus),
    9. colchicine (Gloriosa superbad, Colchicum luteum and Iphigenia stellata),
    10. cephaeline and emetin (Cephalis ipacacuanha),
    11. sennosides A & B (Cassia angustifolia and C. acutifolia),
    12. reserpine,
    13. rescinnamine,
    14. ajmalicine and ajmaline (Rauvolfia serpentina);
    15. vinblastine and vincristine,
    16. ajmalicine (raubacine) (Catharanthus roseus);
    17. guggul lipid (Commiphora wightii);
    18. taxol (Taxus baccata);
    19. artemisinin (Artemisai annua) etc.
  • For all these segments of drug, perfumery, flavouring and cosmetic industries, mostly the higher plants are one of the raw materials and comes from the natural resources i.e. forests through forest contractors employing local or tribal people or from the drug farms maintained by the growers of aromatic and medicinal plants.