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close this bookMedicinal Plants: Rescuing a Global Heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)
close this folder3. India
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentProduction and trade
View the documentNotable Indian medicinal plants
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View the documentLinks to veterinary medicine
View the documentProtecting medicinal-plant biodiversity

Notable Indian medicinal plants

Jain (1987) has suggested that the bulk of Indian medicinal plants for the pharmaceutical industries come from forest areas. Today, an increasing number are being collected from non-forest ecosystems, as well as disturbed and degraded lands, and roadsides. The following three medicinal plants exemplify the diversity of habitats and use in medicinal preparations.

Neem (Azadirachta indica). The people of India have long revered the neem tree, a broad-leaved evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 m tall with a rounded crown as much as 20 m across. Because products relieve so many different pains, fevers, and infections, and rids households of pests, it is known as the "village pharmacy”. The earliest Sanskrit medicinal writings refer to the benefits of the fruits, seeds, oil, leaves, roots, and bark of the neem. Each of these has long been used in the Ayurveda and Unani medicinal systems.

Neem chemicals can help control more than 200 pest species, including locusts, borers, mites, termites, nematodes, and beetles. Recent results in medical and veterinary studies indicate even wider future uses. Currently, preparations derived from neem are used to treat:

· leaves-malaria, leprosy, cholera, intestinal worms, skin diseases;
· seeds-headaches, antibacterial, peptic/duodenal ulcers, chronic diarrhea;
· roots-amenorrhea (abnormal absence of menstruation);
· stem-gum disease (tooth stick);
· bark-antipyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain reliever);
· flower-ophthalmic uses-,
· fruits-laxative; and
· gum-body stimulant, tonic.

In addition to the pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and veterinary products, neem provides many useful and valuable income-generating materials during the life of the tree. For example, its seed oil goes into soaps, waxes, and lubricants, as well as into fuels for lighting and heating. Solid residues are used as fertilizer. Leaves are used as emergency animal fodder. Neem is a member of the mahogany family, and its wood-harvested when the tree is 35 or more years old-is highly valued for cabinetry and construction.

The multipurpose nature of neem means that its products can provide a range of employment opportunities in rural and urban communities. Individual investors and farmers can expect a net income of $155 per hectare per year from raising the neem tree. The collecting and processing of neem products provides employment opportunities from rural to urban levels. Between 1970 and 1993 the price of neem seed has gone up from $9 per ton to between $90 and $120 per ton. 65 However, this increase has turned a free resource into an exorbitantly priced one, with the local user now competing with industry for the seed. The diversion of the seed to industry may undermine the ability of local sources to provide healthcare to those users whose only affordable products are raw plant materials. However, this is a self-correcting situation that is stimulating both economic development and the planting of many more neem trees.

The multipurpose use and value of neem makes it an ideal species for future research and development programs. Because neem can grow well on poor soils, it opens up great possibilities for rehabilitating and stabilizing degraded lands. Intercropping with seasonal food crops would make marginal lands more profitable. Neem cultivation can be even more profitable if the seed is processed locally. It would not only add value to products, but also generate substantial employment and income in rural sectors.

Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina). Sarpagandha is first mentioned by Sushruta in 600 BC because of its use in numerous Ayurvedic formulations. In rural areas of India, at the first signs of insomnia, melancholia, schizophrenia, or more violent mental disorders, the old women or village physician would soak the roots of sarpagandha in rose water and administer it. In 1952, the alkaloid reserpine was isolated, confirming the plant's value. Since then the alkaloid extract, as well as purified alkaloids of sarpagandha, have become very important in the treatment and control of hypertension.

Following the publication of numerous scientific papers extolling the medicinal powers of the plant, a ruthless search was started all over India, a search that only came to a halt when sarpagandha had disappeared from forest areas. Before 1970, India was a large supplier of roots of sarpagandha to the world market, with exports averaging 40 tons yearly. In 1969, the Indian Government banned the export of roots to help develop a local extraction industry. India's exports of sarpagandha alkaloids have increased considerably since the imposition of the ban; with most going to Japan. While reserpine has been synthesized, sarpagandha-based products are still extensively used for medicinal purposes in India owing to their availability and lower prices. There is considerable opportunity for development by cultivation of high-alkaloid strains of the plant, not only for internal use but also for export to other countries.

Tree turmeric (Coscinium fenestratum). Tree turmeric is a woody climbing shrub whose normal habitat is scrub forests, wastelands, and along water courses, but today is extremely rare. The bark containing a drug that is an important constituent in more than 60 Ayurvedic formulations. It is useful for treating debility, fevers, and certain forms of dyspepsia. It is thought to possess antiseptic properties and is used for dressing wounds and ulcers.

Plant regeneration occurs from stumps of old plants and also through seeds, but the rate of regeneration has been found to be extremely low. On-going studies are seeking to propagate the plant outside of its natural environment. 67 The species distribution is reported to have declined significantly in recent years and is now declared vulnerable.