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close this bookBiodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)
close this folder6. Plants, fungi and bacteria
View the document6.1 Plant associations of the central Western Ghats
View the document6.2 Rare and endangered flowering plants
View the document6.3 Medicinal resources from the forest and sea
View the document6.4 Poisonous plants
View the document6.5 Fungi: Biodiversity, ecology and use
View the document6.6 Conserving fungi
View the document6.7 Edible mushrooms
View the document6.8 Microbial biodiversity of salt pans

6.1 Plant associations of the central Western Ghats

Plant associations

The concept of "plant association" is used in ecology in two ways:

· As a measure of similarity of occurrence of two species.

· As an assemblage of species comparable to a community. This is the meaning used in this sheet.

Plant associations can act as indicators of site quality. For example, the occurrence of Calmus pseudotenuis, Murraya paniculata and Ardisia solanea in primary forest indicates a very good soil. On the other hand, Calotropis gigantea, Trema orientalis and Lantana camara indicate poor soil.

Plant associations


Studies show that Goa, in the central Western Ghats, has lost 2% of its forest cover annually in the last thirty years. Of the original forest, 55% has disappeared through conversion to arable land, mining, human settlement or illicit clearing for fuel and timber.

Of an area of 3701 km², 55% of Goa is now non-forested; 42% constitutes dense primary forest, and 3% is secondary forest. Forest degradation is thought to be accelerating at the alarming rate of 2.4% per year.

Conservation approaches

Setbacks Mangrove, riverbank and sandy area associations should be protected by setbacks which limit land use for a certain distance from the mean high water mark.

Protected areas Representative samples of these ecosystems should be preserved in protected areas.

Land use zoning Land use activities which could have negative impacts on various plant associations should be sited accordingly.

Use of indigenous species Land use development should use indigenous spicies adapted to specific sites rather than introduced species. For example, sandy associations could use Ipornoea rather than Casuarina.

Human modifications of plant associations

· Development of hotels and other allied activities has led to the destruction of the sandy area association.

· Firewood collection in the rocky plateau association is resulting in laterization.

· Deliberate burning of grass results in the selection of fire-resistant varieties, which are often unpalatable and of low protein content.

· Humans have created various new associations, for instance in monocropped fields.

Major plant associations of Goa

6.2 Rare and endangered flowering plants

Today we are losing at least one flowering plant species per day from tropical forests alone. If the present trend continues, about - 25% of the world's 250,000 flowering plant species will be lost in the next few decades. Another 25% may be lost by the end of the 21st century.

Because plants and animals depend on each other, as many as 30 dependent species may be lost when one plant becomes extinct. It is estimated that the loss of species attributable to the loss of rain forest is somewhere between 0.2 and 0.3% per year. If the world contains one million species, this amounts 2,000 to 3,000 species lost per year. If the world has 10 million species, we could be losing as many as 30,000 species per year-or almost 100 per day.

India is one of the world's main centres of biodiversity. As many as 15-20% of India's flowering plant species are threatened.

Importance of flowering species

· Each species plays a role in its ecosystem. The loss of one species can reverberate through the ecosystem, reducing its total diversity and possibly its stability and long-term sustainability.

· Flowering plants provide most of our food and have many other uses. A species may have uses we have not yet even dreamed of.

· Some 80,000 species of edible plants are known. But we presently use only 30% of these for food. The vast majority of our staple food needs are met by just three species: wheat, rice and maize. The remaining species are underexploited.

· Many endangered plants could have medicinal uses.
· Some species could provide fuelwood, timber or fibre.
· A number of endangered species can be used in horticulture or as ornamentals.

Endangered species: In danger of extinction if present trends continue.
Vulnerable: Likely to become endangered if trends continue.
Rare: Not currently endangered, but at risk of becoming so.
Threatened: Species in any of the above categories.

Wasp or orchid?

An orchid found in the Western Ghats looks so similar to a wasp that even the wasps are confused.

The labellum of Cottonia pedunculare is very similar in size, shape, colour and smell to a female wasp. The orchid starts flowering in April and May, when male wasps emerge from the ground.

The disguise is so perfect that the male wasp takes the labellum for a female wasp. It mates with the flower, pollinating the flower in the process.

Wasp or orchid?

Ecological disaster?

As many as half the current 250,000 species of flowering plants could be extinct by the year 2100.

Ecological disaster?

Threatened flowering plants of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra

Plant species

Region of occurrence



Abutilon ranadei

Amba Ghats, Vasota fort



Aponogeton bruggenIi

Kudal, Konkan


Aquarium, ornamental

Arisaema murrayIi




Begonia trichocarpa

Highest peaks of Westem



Brachystelma malwanensis

Malwan, Konkan



Camptorrhiza indica

Ratnagiri, Konkan


Ornamental, potential use in plant breeding

Ceropegia vincaefolia.

Konkan caves, Kas plateau


Ornamental, food

Ceropegia sahyadrica

Gaganbavada, Ambdi


Ornamental, food

Ceropegia vincaefolia

Kanheri caves, Kas plateau


Ornamental, food

Chlorophyllum borivillianum

Kanhari caves



Chlarophylum glaucum

Western Ghats


Ornamental, food

Curcuma decipiens




Crinum brachynema




Cryptocoryne cognate

Ratnagiri, Malwan


Dipoadi saxorum

Kanheri caves



Dipcadi concanense

Ratnagiri, Deogad, Malwan


Ornamental, food

Decashistia trilobata

Western Ghats


Dendrobium microbubon

Western Ghats and Konkan


Eulophia ramentacaea

Western Ghats



Frerea indica

Purandar forest?



Habenaria caranjensis

Western Ghats

Probably extinct

Prepared by Dr. S. Yadav

6.3 Medicinal resources from the forest and sea

Since the dawn of civilization, people have cultivated and collected plants from wild sources to seek remedies for their ailments.

The first written evidence of the use of medicinal plants dates back to the Atharva Veda. Charak Sanhita, Sushrut Sanhita and Kashyap Sanhita mentioned the use of plants (from both land and sea) to treat human ailments. The Ayurvedic system of treatment developed and flourished in India. The other major Indian systems of medicine Siddha, Unani and folk medicine also rely heavily on plants. Over 80% of remedies of these systems are plant-based.

Tribal and rural communities possess a rich ethno-botanical knowledge base. Of the 20,000 species of flowering plants found in India, about 2,000 are thought to be used for medicinal purposes.

Many scientists have studied medicinal plants in India. Pioneering work on the plants of Goa was done by Garcia da Orta (1563), Dalgardo (1898) and Dada Vaidya.

Despite their importance, most medicinal plants are obtained from the wild; only a handful (generally those with export potential) are cultivated on a large scale.

The Western Ghats are very rich in medicinal plants, but environmental degradation mean that plants that were previously easily found now grow only in undisturbed areas. Some plants, such as asparagus, are cultivated on a large scale, but naturally growing wild varieties has become rare.

Forests are the primary storehouse of medicinal plants. But they are disappearing at an alarming rate, taking with them a wealth of wild species. Consequences are:

· Many medicinal plant species are threatened with extinction as a result of genetic erosion.

· The availability of medicinal plants has decreased to such an extent that the tribal and rural communities no longer have easy access to medicinal plants for their health care needs.

· Due to shortages of genuine crude drugs there is widespread substitution and adulteration in herbal medicines, often leading to clinical failures. The credibility of herbal medicine suffers.

A lack of knowledge of local flora and the belief in the fast relief provided by allopathic drugs mean that medicinal plants and knowledge of how to use them are vanishing. It is increasingly important to educate local people on the conservation of medicinal resources in the forests.

Writings on medicinal plants through history

1563 Garcia do Orta, the personal physician to the Viceroy of the Portuguese colonies in India, described more commonly used medicinal plants from Goa in Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas e Cousas Medicinais da India.

1578 Acosta presented plants from Cochin and Goa in Tratado das Drogas e Medicinais das Indian Orientaias.

1824 Roxburg published Flora Indica, referring to plants from this region.

1898 Dalgardo's Flora de Goa e Savantvadi.

More recent publications include:

1954 Vaidya's Estudo Sobre e Historia da Farmacia Ayurvedica
1966 V. D. Vartak's Enumeration of Plants from Gomantak
1985 Rao's Flora of Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra & Nagar Haveli.

"There is no single thing in the world that is not a medicine" Avurveda

Research on medicinal plants

The Government has set up special institutes and projects to work on various aspects of medicinal plants. They focus on a few commercially important species, such as Plantago ovata, Catharanthus roseus, Papaver somniferum, Cassius angustifolia, and Rauvolfia serpentine.

Institutions studying medicinal plants include the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow; Regional Research Laboratory, Jammu and Jorhat; National Botanic Research Institute, Lucknow; Central Council for Research on Ayurveda and Siddha (Ministry of Health); and various universities and institutes.

The sea is also being tapped for its rich resources. Many algae and seagrasses have been found to contain essential alkaloids or active constituents which could be used in drugs.


Various methods must be used to help conserve our plant medicinal resources.

Personal level

· Individuals should use local or home medicines for minor ailments.

· Home remedies given by elders should not be neglected; on the contrary, they should be used after confirming their effects from ancient literature.

· Individuals should learn to identify and use medicinal plants found locally.

Community level

· School and college groups should visit forests with experts to learn to identify and use medicinal plants.

· Nurseries to grow wild medicinal plants should be taken up by schools, colleges and clubs.

National level

· Incentives or subsidy may be given to individuals who grow medicinal plants.

· Techniques like tissue culture for medicinal plants should be practiced, and not left merely as an academic exercise. Research should be applied, not confined to the laboratory.

· Legislation should be passed and implemented to conserve and protect medicinal resources.

· Political parties should include the conservation of natural resources in their election manifestos.

Medicinal uses of selected plants

The uses below are taken from various Indian medical systems. Caution is necessary when using these plants to treat diseases: incorrect use or dosage levels can be dangerous. Prescribing medicinal plants should be left to those with experience and knowledge of diseases and corect dosages.

Abutilon indicum (Petari)

Though different morphologically from Sida spp., it has similar functions in strengthening the body.

Acacia sinuta

A powder from the pod fruit is widely used to treat dandruff. Roots are emetic.

Achyranthes aspera

Improves digestive secretions and helps reduce flatulence. It is useful in kidney diseases, especially kidney stones. It expels cough from the lungs and is used to treat piles.

Aegle marmelos

Lord Shiva is often decorated by the leaves of this plant. A leaf extract is used to cure jaundice. The tender leaves are used for dysentry, fruit syrup for indigestion, fruit juice for cough, and roots for piles, sleeplessness and psychological disorders. Many diabetic patients are benefited by the leaves.

Andrographis particulata (Kiraitem)

It is given for infants to relieve griping, irregular stools, and loss of appetite. It is prescribed in cold and fever.

Asparagus racemosus (Asparagus, Sosro)

A well-known. versatile medicinal plant, it used as a galactogauge (to increase milk secretions in mothers). It also works as a diuretic. It is used to treat bleeding diseases such as dysentry and diarrhoea, eye disorders, paralysis and infertility. It is also used as a tonic to increase body weight.

Asparagus racemosus

Azadirachta indica

Many parts are used as medicine for various skin diseases, liver disorders, allergic reactions and indigestion. The principal alkaloid, azadiractin, is a good insecticide.

Bauhinia variegate

Used to treat lymph node infections in the cervical region. The skin of the bark is used externally and internally. The flowers are used to stop bleeding, as in dysentery and bleeding piles. It is also used to treat chronic wounds.

Bombax malabaricum

Its powder gives vigour and vitality to the body. Flowers increase urination. The gum is useful in treating all diarrhoeas.

Butea frondosa

Its flowers are useful in to treat kidney stones and urinary disorders.

Caesalpinia crista (Vakeri)

Root is anti-inflammatory and is good for tumours and removing placenta. Leaves are used as anthelmintic and are also used in elephantiasis and smallpox.

Caesalpinia digynia

Tubers and roots are used to treat diabetic wounds.

Calotropis gigantea (Rut)

Juice of leaves is used as anthelmintic, laxative and cure for piles. Leaves are useful for removing pain from joints. It contains resin. Juice contains enzyme similar to papain. Latex is toxic.

Capparis zeylanica (Katya Ghosvel)

Root is used as sedative. It is used to relieve sun burn.

Careya arborea (Kumayo)

Bark is used in tumours, dyspepsia, piles and epileptic fits. It is also used in dry cough. Used with honey to treat excessive menstrual flow. Also a laxative.

Casearia esculenta (Satanguem)

Root is recommended for liver troubles and popularly used for diabetes.

Cassia fistula (Balo)

Leaves act as purgative and are used to treat boils, abscesses and ear disorders. Fruits are a mild laxative. Seeds are used in jaundice. Root is useful in skin diseases.

Clerodendrum serratum

Root decoction works well against malarial fever and as an anti asthmatic. An ointment prepared from the leaf and butter cures eye disorders. A root paste made with honey is used to correct ear infections.

Crateara religiosa

Used mainly for breaking urine stones. Its skin and bark are useful for lymph-node infections. It reduces fat and increases the quantity of urine.

Datura meter

Seeds are used to stop vomiting. Leaves are used for mumps and gonorrhoea.

Dioscorea bulbifera

Bulbs and rhizomes are used to cure dysentry, piles, and skin diseases.

Eclipta alba

Used externally and internally to treat burns and skin lesions. It improves respiration in cases of cough.

Erythrina variegate

The skin is used to treat high fever, insomnia and dysentery. The leaves are used in menstrual complaints, difficulty in urination. It is also used to treat earache and toothache.

Ficus benghalensis (Wad)

Wide medicinal uses. The latex is used to cure arthritis; a decoction of bark, garlic and turmeric is given to diabetic patients to reduce blood sugar. A decoction of young shoots is used to cure dysentery when the sputum contains blood. Ripe fruits are used in diabetes, and young shoots are used as a uterine tonic.

Ficus glomerata

Roots are used for various urinary diseases and menstrual complaints. Fruits boiled with milk are used as anti abortive.

Ficus religiosa

The ripe leaf is given with betel leaf to cure jaundice. Fruit are used to treat urinary disorders. Frequent eating of ripe fruit induces infertility in women.

Gloriosa superba

Seeds are rich in colchecine alkaloid and the rhizome is used as an analgesic. Leaf extract act as a wormicide and the paste of rhizome is applied externally for smooth delivery.

Gmelina arborea (Shivan)

Root is used in abdominal pains and fevers. Fruit promotes hair growth.

Gymnema sylvestris

An emetic, it is mainly used in diabetes to lower the sugar level. The leaf has anti-inflamatory and wound-healing properties. Snuffing of dried leaf powder clears the nose.

Helicteres isora (Allay)

Bark is used as expectorant. It cures scabies when applied externally. Root is useful in diabetes.

Hemidesmus indicus (Uparsal)

A versatile plant, used to treat more than 20 diseases. The root is used to treat urinary tract infections, kidney and skin disorders. It is also used as an appetizer, rejuvenator and galactogogue, and to treat epileptic fits in children. It cures syphilis.

Holarrhena antidysenterica (Kudo)

The plant is rich in alkaloids and has an antidysenteric action. It has been shown to have antiamoebic properties. Flowers are used as blood purifier; the root and bark with buttermilk is given as an appetizer and digestor. The leaves regulate menstruation. Seeds with honey and saffron are said to favour conception.

Ixora parviflora (Dhavi Pitcoli)

Roots are given to females in cases of white discharge.

Mallotus philippinensis

The hair-like structures from the fruit are used as a laxative. This plant is useful in treating worms, skin diseases and wounds.

Momordica dioica (Faglin)

Leaves are used in headache and urinary infections. Roots are useful for diabetes.

Oroxylum indicum (Dhonduk)

Bark is used for liver troubles. Seeds are used as purgative.

Paederia foetida (Modashi)

Roots are given for dysentery, piles and rheumatism. It contains essential oils and alkaloids.

Piper longum

A good rejuvenator, used to increase appetite and build vigour after diseases such as typhoid, and to treat various diseases of respiratory and digestive systems. More than dozen remedies can be prepared to treat arthritic diseases, scialica, etc

Piper nigrum

An excellent household remedy used from time immemorial as an appetizer, digestive and antiflatulant. It was a first and best remedy for cholera. It is also useful in curing skin disorders and piles.

Plumbago zeylanica

Roots are digestive and appetizing in nature. They are useful in acute skin diseases, diseases of bones and joints, and piles.

Plumbago zeylanica

Pterocarpus marsupium (Asan, Raktaragado)

Bark is a pain killer and anti-inflammatory. Leaves are used for skin diseases.

Randia dumetorum

An emetic. Its smell is nauseating, so it is used in Ayurveda to remove excess cough. It is also used as fish poison.

Rauvolfia serpentine (Adaki)

Roots are used for painful affections of bowels and as a remedy for snake bite. Rauvolfia lowers blood pressure and is used to treat herpes, insomnia and insanity. Uses are mainly attributed to alkaloids.

Rhyllanthus emblica

An important ingredient of triphala churan and chavanprash and a rich source of vitamin C. Hair oil is prepared from fruit. It is a good appetizer, wound healer and rejuvenator. It is also used to treat several chest disorders.

Ricinus communis

A laxative. The roots are used to break urinary stones and to stop diarrhaea. Seeds are laxative, roots have the opposite effect. Roots are also very good painkillers.

Rubia cordifolia

Used to treat skin diseases, gout, urinary diseases, diabetes, jaundice and intestinal disorders.

Santalum album

Perhaps the "coldest" remedy in Ayurvedic medicine. It is used to treat burning sensations such as burning urination. It is used in high fevers and to treat excessive thirst.
Saraca asoka

Root bark stops bleeding. It is used in gynecological disorders where excess blood is lost.

Semecarpus anacardium

A frontline remedy in cancer treatment. It is antiseptic and antidysentric. Its decoction is given to cure asthma.

Sida cordifolia, Sida rhombifolia

Used to strengthen the body.

Solanum indicum

Leaf and ginger extract is used as antiemetic. Smoke of fruit is used to treat dental disorder, a root decoction as a diuretic, and leaf paste to treat skin diseases. It is also an excellent remedy for cough.

Stephania hernandifolia (Padvel)

Roots are very useful in urinary diseases. It is also given in fever and dyspepsia.

Sterculia urens (Dhavorukh)

Germ is used for diabetes and liver troubles.

Strychnos nox-vomica (Kajro)

Seeds are used as appetizer in small doses and against snake bite. It is also given in colics. Juice of wood is useful in cholera.

Syzygium cumini

The seed powder lowers the urine sugar; a bark decoction is used to cure throat infection and toothache; a leaf extract is given with goat milk to cure childhood dysentry. A preparation made by keeping chopped leaves with iron for a long time is used to treat anemic patients.

Terminalia arjuna

The plant has wound-healing properties and is a good cardiac tonic. It is widely used in treating fractures.

Terminalia bellirica

The skin is used to treat a dry or hawking cough. It is one' of the ingredients of triphala. Research shows that this plant possesses antibiotic properties.

Terminalia chebula

Thousands of Ayurvedic recipes contain hirda. It is very good for the eyes, skin and digestive system. It is used as laxative.

Terminalia chebula

Tinospora cordifolia (Amkutvel)

The bitter tonic obtained from this plant can cure various fevers. The plant can also be used to increase blood haemoglobin and to treat jaundice and various skin diseases.

Tylophora asthmatica

A leaf or root decoction is used in small concentrations used to cure asthama. It is emetic in nature and poisonous at high dosages. It also has a sedative effect.

Urginea indica

The bulbous root is used to correct heart diseases. It is also used in allopathic drugs to cure heart disease.

Viburnum foetidum (Narval)

Roots are used as emmenagogue. Leaves are useful in menorrhagia.

Vitex negundo (Lingad)

An analgesic; the leaves are applied externally to reduce arthritic pain. A leaf decoction brings the uterus at normal size after delivery; the seeds are used to correct skin disorders.

Vitex negundo (Lingad)

Vitis quandrangularis

Contains calcium oxalates, carotene and vitamin C. It is given internally in the patients with fractures, asthma and increased menstrual flow.

Woodfordia floribunda

Gynaecological complaints like whites are cured by this plant. Its flowers are used in many Ayurvedic preparations. Large-scale cultivation can support bee-keeping and honey making.

Sea products

Pearls, corals, corry and shanka

These are medicinally superior to plants. All are rich in organic calcium, which is easily assimilated by our body. Pearls and corals are "cold" in nature, so are used in diseases with burning, such as hyperacidity and burning urination. Shanka is an excellent antacid. All are used to treat ricketts. Sepica officina is used to treat ear infections.

Prepared by R. V. Gaitonde, T. M. Patil, V. S. Haldavnekar and Kasturi Desai

6.4 Poisonous plants

Eating some plants can cause illness-and can even kill you. So beware of plants you do not know!

Some plants are poisonous if consumed in large amounts, but can be used as medicines in smaller amounts. About 700 plant species in the world are known to cause illness or discomfort to people and animals.

Since the dawn of civilization, people have cultivated and collected plants to cure ailments. Ancient texts such as the Atharva Veda mention the use of medicinal plants.

Randia dumetorium

Why are plants poisonous?

Poisonous plants contain chemicals that react in harmful ways with our bodies. These chemicals include glucosides, acids and alkaloids. &me plants have evolved poisons as a defence mechanism-to prevent them from being eaten by insects and other animals.

Mucuna gigantia

Do not eradicate poisonous plants!

The aesthetic value and usefulness of poisonous plants far overshadow their poisonous effects.

People, especially children, need to know which plants are poisonous. They should not eat or even touch certain household ornamentals, garden plants or wild species.

If someone is poisoned

In general, it is best to make the person vomit. Mix some teaspoons of salt in a glass of water. Make the victim drink the water until he or she vomits.

For skin irritations, wash the skin with clean water and mild soap. Gently rubbing the juice from aloe over the skin can help ease the irritation.

If these remedies do not work, take the person to a clinic. Take with you part of the plant that caused the problem to help the doctor decide on the best treatment.

How to identify poisonous plants

There is no hard and fast rule to identify poisonous plants. In general, beware of

· plants with white latex or coloured sap.
· mushrooms and toadstools: especially brightly coloured ones

For more information:

Baser, B. D., Indian medicinal plants

Cooke, T., Flora of Bombay

Dastur, Medicinal plants of India and Pakistan

Jain, S. K., Medicinal plants

Vartak, V. D. 1966. Enumeration of plants from Gomantak, India

Wealth of India, C.S.I.R Publication

Poisonous plants

List of poisonous plants found in Goa


Poisonous parts


Abrus precatorius (Gunj)


Powerful oedema, strong swelling

Allamanda cathartica and other members of Apocynaceae(Kaner), Korno

Bark, leaves,

Cathartic (voids bowels)

Alstonia scholaris, Parthenium (Satwan) Eupatorium (Congress Grass) and some grasses

Pollen grains


Anthurium, Dieffenbachia, Philodendron and other members of Araceae

Leaves and stem

Irritation, skin dermatitis

Argemene maxicana(Firengi dutro)


Purging, vomiting

Calotropis gigantea (Ruhi)

Latex in all parts


Caryota urens (Billa Mard)

Pulp of the fruit


Catharanthus roseus (Sadaphooli)



Croton tiglium



Datura innoxia (Dutro)

Leaves and seeds


Euphorbia antiquorum and other species of Euphorbia (Nival)

Latex in all parts


Exoecaria agallocha (Kharo-uro)

Latex or acrid juice

Blisters, purgative, causes abortion

Sapium insigne (Uro)
Semicarpus anacardium (Bibbo)
Girardinia zeylanica (Khaskulio),
Mucuna pruriens and other plants having stinging hair

Leaves and fruits


Hydnocarpus laurifolias (Khasti)


Purging and vomiting

Jatropa multifida (Chini-erandi)

Foliage and fruit

Vomiting, diarrhea

Lantana camera (Ghaneri)


Bloody diarrhea,

Lasiosyshon eriocephalus(Dant paddi)

Stem, leaves, bark

Drops out teeth

Rauwolfia serpentine (Aadki)


Nasal congestion, lethargy, Parkinsonism, mental depression

Ricinus communis (Erand)


Vomiting, colic convulsion

Strychnos.nux-vomica (Caro)


Convulsions, paralysis and death

Prepared by KasturiDesai

6.5 Fungi: Biodiversity, ecology and use

Fungi are vital parts of the ecosystem, but we know very little about them. About 70,000 species of fungi are recognized and described of the 1.5 million extant taxa. That means only about 5% of the fungal world is known to us.

Fungi are extraordinarily diverse in form, structure, function and habitat. Nearly all are microscopic. The body of a fungus is composed of a filamentous web-like structure, the "mycelium"


What are fungi?

Fungi may rival flowering plants in their species diversity. They outweigh the animal kingdom in their variety of form and structure.

Fungi are an integral part of the ecosystem. They are present in land, forests, soil, water, air--everywhere.

They are a unique group of organisms in the living system. Fungi are not plants because they have no green chlorophyll. They depend for their sustenance on living (or dead) plants, animals or other organisms.

The fungi break down a huge range of organic substances: chitin (the external skeletons of insects), keratin (skin, hair, horn, and feather), cellulose (most plant debris), lignin (wood) and even petroleum, plastic and DDT. They are the world's number one recyclers!

Common fungi include breadmould, watermould, yeast, mush rooms. puffballs. rusts. smuts. ergot. blights. and mildews

Fungi in history Fungi such as mushrooms and morels have been known to humans from early times. Vedic and mythological writings refer to fungi, e.g., Soma of Aryans. Fungi have attacked crops since the dawn of agriculture: e.g., rusts, smuts and blights of cereals; mildews; the Irish potato famine; the Wollo famine of Africa.

Fungal spores: Fungi reproduce by forming tiny spores, the fungal equivalent of seeds. Every breath we take is laden with fungal spores. A single mushroom produces millions of spores. Spores:

· Are dispersed by wind, water, insects or other animals.
· Survive unfavourable conditions for long periods.
· Come in a dazzling array of forms.
· Vary in diameter from 0.5 to 50 rum.


Fungi in Western Ghats forests

Luxuriant forests flourish on the warm, humid, western side on the Western Ghats escarpment. Although about 13,000 species of fungi have been recorded, the mycota of this region are still largely unknown. More research is needed to explore the fungal riches of the region.

Mycorrhizae: Symbiosis between plants and fungi

Mycorrhizae are fungi which exploit large volumes of soil and have an intricate association with plants to meet their basic need: energy-rich carbon compounds. They take phosphorus from the soil and pass it on to plants-in exchange for photosynthates from the plants.

Mycorrhizal plants perform well in infertile soils, withstand heavy metal and acid rain pollution, mining soils, extremely acid or alkaline soils, and so on. They help plants overcome the shock of transplanting, so are very valuable in afforestation programmes.

Although about 300,000 plant species are believed to have mycorrhizae, only 130 species of mycorrhizal fungi have so far been described.

Western Ghat forests are gene banks of mycorrhizal fungi. We should look for them, study them and put them into use in agriculture and forestry.

Biological control of mosquitoes using fungi

One day, it may be possible to control mosquitoes using fungi.

Mosquitoes carry various human diseases-such as malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. They breed and lay eggs in stagnant ponds and ditches. About 6 species of fungi are known to infect mosquitoes.

The bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis and B. sphaericus are used to control mosquitoes. It may be possible to develop certain fungi to control these insects, too.

Western Ghat streams, fields, ponds and other natural water bodies are storehouses of these fungi.

Decomposition of dung

We may turn up our noses, but dung is an important energy resource in forest and grassland ecosystems.

Some fungi are specialist dung decomposers. Dung cannot be decomposed completely without fungi.

Fungi are intimately involved with herbivorous animals. An example is Pilobolus. Several species are known from the Western Ghats. This fungus can shoot out spores onto vegetation up to 3 meters away. The spores germinate only if they pass through the gut of herbivorous animals.

Litter decomposition in forests Fungi and other organisms degrade the leaves, twigs and other organic litter that fall to the forest floor all year round. Different fungi decompose different substances. In general: Mucoraceous fungi decompose sugar Ascomycetous forms decompose cellulose (e.g., leaves) Basidiomycetes decompose lignin (e.g., tree bark).

Fungi in poetry The great Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote... "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou!" Bread and wine are both made with fungi.

Three types of fungi

Fungi in stream ecosystems

Many rivers flow from the Western Ghat hills to the sea. Several types of aquatic fungi are important in the stream ecosystem.

Fungi in stream ecosystems

Invertebrates such as crustaceans living in the stream cannot directly consume leaves that fall into the water. Fungi colonize these leaves and condition them so they can be eaten by invertebrates. These crustaceans in turn form food for fish in the stream.

Aquatic fungi are sensitive to organic pollution. They are unable to tolerate water contaminated by material such as nitrogenous fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides.

Fungi in stream ecosystems

Prepared by Dr. D. J. Bhat

6.6 Conserving fungi

There is a strong bias in most people's thinking about biological. conservation. We worry about the future of giant pandas in China, orang-utans in Indonesia, tigers of India and the mountain gorillas in Africa. Humans seem to have an emotional investment in these and other large animals. We also worry about trees and flowering plants. Large sums of money are raised and spent to save such species.

But when it comes to fungi, what do we find? Here is a whole kingdom made up of hundreds and thousands of species!


· Carry out most global recycling.
· Are vital to crop production through mycorrhizal relationships with plant roots.
· Give us penicillin, griseofulvin, cyclosporine, anticancer taxol and other medicines.
· Enrich our diet with their tasty fruit bodies.
· Enable us to make bread, wine and some of the best cheeses.

In situ conservation

Like other organisms, fun&i can be conserved both in situ (in their natural environment) and ex situ (outside this environment). Ex situ conservation of fungi normally means in test tubes in the laboratory.

Nowhere in the world is there a single plot of ground dedicated solely to the preservation of fungal biodiversity. A suitable site for such a reserve could be in the moist forests of the Western Ghats in southern India, where the fungi enjoy a long fruiting season, display exuberant biodiversity, and play a vital role in the dynamics of the ecosystem. The decomposers on fallen trees and on all kinds of plant litter; their penetrative and digestive talents; the mutualistic abilities of symbionts (e.g., the mycorrhizae and lichens); the tree-killers; parasites; leaf-spots and the cannibals! Many more hitherto unknown fungi await recognition from the Western Ghat "hotspots". Preservation of these forests should be our priority task.

Fungal hotspots

"Hotspots" of fungal diversity along the Western
Ghats include the following forests:


· Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, Molem
· Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao


· Kaiga forests, North Kanara
· Sharvati river valley, Genusoppa
· Kodachadri hills, Shimoga
· Bababudangiri, Chikmagalur


· Nilgiri hills range
· Mundandurai Wildlife Sanctuary, Kalakadu

Fungal hotspots

Culture collections

Fungi are small, simple organisms, so they can be conserved in the laboratory relatively easily. They must be kept in a nutrient medium of agar (a jelly-like substance made from seaweed) and other ingredients. The best combination of ingredients for the medium depends on the type of fungi to be maintained.

The fungi are first grown in glass petri dishes containing nutrients. They are then transferred to test tubes containing nutrients and are stored at low temperature. The cultures can be maintained for hundreds of years.

International organizations help conserve fungal cultures. Most of the cultures isolated from Western Ghats fungi have been deposited at the International Mycological Institute in the United Kingdom. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, maintains the national culture collection.

The world's chief collections of fungal cultures are in Washington, D.C. (United States of America), Baam (the Netherlands) and Kew (United Kingdom).

Fungi in biotechnology

Fungi are used extensively in biotechnological processes. For example, breweries all over the world use yeasts with biotechnoloigcally engineered genes. The flavour of the beer has a lot to do with the strain of yeast.

Fungal culture collections contain many novel genomes, so will have much use in biotechnology for' medicine, food, -agriculture and industry.


To grow yeast, you will need

· 1 packet starter yeast
· 1 tablespoon sugar
· 200 ml warm water

Dissolve the sugar in water. Sprinkle the yeast on top. Leave the jar in a warm room. As the yeast begins to use the sugar, the jar will fill with foam. Foam is formed as the yeast changes the sugar into CO2. Baker's yeast is the earliest known biotechnological use of fungi.

What is bread?

Bread dough is mixed with a little sugar and yeast. Each yeast cell feeds on the sugar, swells up and splits into two new cells. Each new cell in turn feeds, swells and splits, forming millions of new yeast cells. These cells form and form carbon dioxide bubbles inside the dough, making the dough rise. When the bread is baked, the bubbles are filled with air. Without yeast to change the sugar into CO2, the dough won't rise. Yeast adds flavour, too.

Fungi in biotechnology

Prepared by Dr. D. J. Bhat

6.7 Edible mushrooms

Mushrooms are beneficial higher fungi. They have been used as food ever since the hunting-and-gathering stage of our prehistoric forebears.

A majority (80-90 %) of the edible mushrooms belong to the taxonomic order Agaricales.

India's mushroom biodiversity

Mushrooms in India are very diverse but not well known. India has from 1105 to 1208 species of mushrooms belonging to 128130 genera. Of these, only 300-315 species belonging to 75-80 genera are considered edible.

The Western Ghats have a wealth of mushroom flora: 700-750 species belonging to 70-75 genera. Of these, only 70-80 species are known by local communities in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to be safe for human consumption.

Among all the popular edible mushrooms, the species of the termitophilic genera Termitomyces, Podabrella, the wood decomposer Pleurotus, and the ectomycorrhizhal Boletaceae are dominant.

Wild edible mushrooms have interesting local names. These are derived from either the habitat (e.g., Roen olmi = termite hill mushroom), shape (Khut olme = mushroom with crutch, Fugo = balloon), colour (Tamdi olmi), size or occasionally the fruiting season (Shit) olmi, which fruit during winter).

Fungi as friends and foes of humans

As friends

As foes


Plant diseases


Animal and human mycoses

Plant growth hormones

Industrial enzymes




Biological control


Mycorrhizal associations

Mushroom diversity in Western Ghats states




Edible spp.





















Tamil Nadu




* Edible species only

World mushroom biodiversity
Order Agaricules









Edible sp.



Edible mushrooms

Termite hill mushrooms

As their name suggests, termite hill (or "termitophilic") mushrooms grow on termite hills. Termites cultivate these mushrooms and eat them to obtain enzymes and nitrogen. People harvest the mushrooms which emerge from the underground fungal combs and market them in large quantities.

The entire life cycle of these popular mushrooms is considered ecological magic by local termite-hill goddess worshippers. The mushrooms have given rise to many interesting taboos and folk-beliefs. For instance, the termite hills are closely guarded and revered as the abode of a popular local goddess. These beliefs once checked the exploitation of mushrooms and destruction of the termite hills, but a sudden spurt in consumer demand for wild termite hill mushrooms (especially in Goa) is threatening this conservation ethic.

Almost half the above-ground plant litter in the Western Ghats forest and bamboo groves is recycled by Termitomyces. This is a vital way the soil nutrient reservoir is enriched.

Termites and the gods

The termite hill goddess is venerated in Konkan, Goa and Kanara and is known as "Santeri", "Bhumikon, "Shantala" or "Shantadurga". Every temple has a holy termite in the sanctum sanctorum.

Termite hills

Termitophilic mushrooms of the Western Ghats

The Western Ghats have world's largest gene pool of Termitomyces. This diversity is threatened by overexploitation and subsequent extinction.


World (spp.)

W Ghats (spp.)










Termite hills

Each hectare of forest in the Western Ghats has about 810 termite hills. In mixed forests, termites invade between 21 and 79% of trees. Termites turn over large amounts of soil by plastering on trees and the ground.

The plant material taken inside the termite hill ends up in the "fungal comb". Each comb weighs 28-31 kg.

The Termitomyces fungus in the comb decomposes 167 to 341 kg of organic matter a year.

Fungi and their "masters"

The biodiversity of Termitomyces fungi parallels their "masters" or partners-the termite species that cultivate them for food.

Dominant termite species*

Dominant fungus species

Odototermes horni

Termitomyces striatus

O. obesus

T. heimIi

O. feae

T. currhizus

O. wallonensis

T. mammifornis

O. redemand

T. clypeatus

O. malabaricus

T. microcarpus

O. brunneus

Podabrella microcarpa

Macrotermes sp.

Microtermes sp.

* all of Macrotermitinae subfamily of higher termites


Significance of biodiversity

· The Western Ghats mushroom flora closely resemble flora of Africa and South America. This affinity is related to geodynamical events like plate tectonics.

· Saprophytic or decomposer mushroom genera such Lepiota and Macrolepiota marasmius, opportunistic parasites such as Pleurotus and Lentinus termite, cultivated fungi such as Termitomyces, and ectomycorrhizal partners such as Russula help maintain the ecosystem by catalyzing the mineralization of organic matter.

· Carnivorous mushrooms species control nematode populations.

· Edible mushrooms provide a seasonal source of food to tribals. Wild mushrooms and their habitats such as termite hills have become fountainheads of folk belief systems and interlinked cults.

Threats to mushroom biodiversity

· Lack of comprehensive surveys.

· Habitat destruction (e.g., deforestation).

· Mega-projects (e.g., dams, highways, railway tracks).

· Shifting focus of urbanization and industrialization towards the hills from overcrowded coastal areas.

· Monoculture plantation such as eucalyptus, rubber and oilpalm.

· Kumeri, or "slash-and-burn" cultivation.

· Land use change and land development.

· Pollution.

· Artificial vegetation breaks.

· Increasing demand for wild edible species.

· Lack of public awareness and indifference of local authorities.

Common hymenophoral habit type in Agaricales

1 Amanitoid
2 Agancoid
3 Pholiotoid
4 Tricholomatoid
5 Clitocyboid
6 Collyboid
7 Mycenoid
8 Marasmioid

Edible mushrooms are balanced protein foods





Button mushroom
(Agraicus sp.)




Dingri/oyster mushroom
(Pleurotus spp.)

90 *



Termite hill mushroom Termitomyces sp.)




Paddy straw mushroom
(Volvanella spp.)




% on fresh weight basis.
These species also contain thiamine, riboflavine, niacin, calcium, iron and phosphorus.

Ghost lights

Mycelium and fruiting bodies of bioluminescent mushroom species such as Lampteromyces, found in Western Ghat forests, emit a faint blue-green or violet light, occasionally illuminating entire forest at night. This "ghost glow" helps in spore dispersal.

Suggested conservation measures

· Extensive survey, documentation identification and cataloguing of mushroom species.

· Market surveys to establish exploitation consumption/trends

· Field studies to identify "hot spots".

· Notification of endangered species and habitats.

· Demarcation of "micro-bioreserves" of fungi/mushrooms.

· Detailed plan for controlled exploitation of non-endangered species on basis of phenological studies.

· Ex-situ conservation in the form of dried herbarium, spore-deposits and mycelial (tissue) cultures.

· Domestication of wild edible species e.g., Termitomyces for commercial cultivation.

· Establishment of valuable mushroom germplasm banks.

· Development of wild species mycelial culture to manufacture bioactive molecules, enzymes, polysoccharides, protein pellets, flavour and natural mycodyes, e.g., melanin.

· Culture of ectomycorhizal species as bioinoculants for use in agroforestry.

· Public awareness campaign through the mass media.

· Aesthetic use of mushroom biodiversity for nature promotion, e.g., in philately, models, cards and games.

· Removal of techno-legal ambiguities in existing eco-conservation and forest protection laws to incorporate concerns regarding fungal and mushroom biodiversity.

· Involvement of local communities and NGOs in a biodiversity awareness drive.

Ban on collection

A ban on wild mushroom collection in sanctuary areas of Goa was imposed after considerable lobbying. Despite political pressures, the forest department of Goa stood its ground and has enforced the ban since June 1992. Goa is the first state in Western Ghats to impose and enforce such a ban, aimed primarily to conserve the rich, diverse and precious edible Termitomyces gene pool.

Natural, biodegradable hair dye from fungus

Antromycopsis, a non-fruiting mushroom, produces drops of sticky viscous, black fluid on tips of its erect. mycelial bundles. This was found to be made of melanin. Non-toxic and insoluble in water, it could be manufactured in large quantities for use as hair dye.

Popular Goan mushroom dishes

Hot and spicy mushroom bhaji
Fried mushrooms
Mushroom kebabs
Omelettes, pizzas, mushroom sauce, pickles
Mushroom biryani and pulaos

Wild edible mushrooms are cooked in many ways in Goal. The nutritional value of mushrooms as sugar-free, protein-rich food supplement is well known. Although the demand for edible mush
rooms is rising due to the growth of tourism, only a few species are cultivated on a minor scale. Pressure on the wild population of edible mushrooms remains unabated.

Prepared by Dr. N. Kamat

6.8 Microbial biodiversity of salt pans

Salt pans are rectangular soil-based basins, protected by mud bunds. They are used to collect and evaporate water from the sea or estuaries to make brine and eventually crude crystalline salt. Common salt is not pure sodium chloride; it contains varying amounts of sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium

Ecology and seasonal cycle

Salt pans in Goa are inundated by tidal waters and monsoon runoff. They undergo three seasonal phases: submerged (June to November), shallow (December to February), and drought (March to June).

The light intensity, temperature, pH and oxygen content of the water and sediments change from season to season. Such extreme physicochemi cal changes are detrimental to normal life, but allow microorganis ms capable of adapting to survive.

Salt pans in Goa

Goa has about 200 salt pans along its 105 km coastline.

Salt-loving microbes

Salt-loving microorganis ms are called "halophiles". They include fungi, diatoms, bacteria and cyanobacteria, which occur as free forms or in associations called "mats". Two types, halophilic archaebacteria and cyanobacteria are of special interest due to their significance to the ecosystem and economic potential.

Halophilic archaebacteria

This unique group of bacteria is one of the oldest forms of life on earth. They can adapt to major changes in temperature, oxygen, salinity and acidity, unlike true bacteria, plants and animals.
Some archacbacteria have photosensory pigments that enable them to use the sun's energy to grow and reproduce.

Salt lovers

· Slightly halophilic: tolerate 5-7% NaCI (salt) content.
· Moderately halophilic: tolerate 8-14% salt content.
· Extremely halophilic: tolerate 14-35% salt content.

As evaporation increases the salinity of a salt pan, only extreme halophiles called halophilic archaebacteria grow.

Types of halophilic archaebacteria

Rods, disks, cups, squares, rectangles and triangles.


Change in shape as they grow.

Types of halophilic archaebacteria

In 1980, these remarkable organisms were assigned to an exclusive biological kingdom, "Archaebacteria".


Cyanobacteria have pigments which harness light energy and fix carbon. Some also fix nitrogen and increase soil fertility.

These microorganisms occur in a wide range of forms: spheres, hemispheres, cylinders, elliptical, filaments-branched and unbranched.

Halophilic cyanobacteria:

· Fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the nitrogen economy of the neighbouring khazan (saline) paddies.

· Fix atmospheric carbon as biomass which is then available as feed to shrimp cultures of khazan land.

· Take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen.

Economic importance

Both halophilic archaebacteria and Cyanobacteria could be harnessed for agricultural and industrial use, for instance, to produce biogas. With their ability to adapt to toxic levels of chemicals and physical stress, they could also be used to remove heavy metals, crude oil and suspended matter from polluted water.

Potential uses of halophilic micro-organisms

Halophilic archaebacteria



Beta-carotenes, detergents, oil recovery

Food (nutrient supplements), livestock feed production, textile dyes, food colours, biofertilizer production.

Pollution control

Heavy metal adsorption, oil degradation

Heavy metal removal, oil degradation, water recycling

Non-conventional energy

Photochemical energy, biogas

Hydrogen fuel cells, biogas production


Artificial light-sensitive - pigments

Salt pans under threat

Goa's salt pans are becoming extinct due to use of land for housing, roads, railways and aquaculture. Pollution (such as oil and grease) from barges and other boats, monsoon runoff from mining areas, and industrial effluents in estuarine waters put a heavy stress on even the tolerant halophilic microorganisms. These pollutants may also contaminate the salt produced in the pans.

Salt pans under threat


Salt pans are an important ecological niche for microorganisms involved in the cycling and fixing of oxygen, sulphur, carbon and nitrogen.

· Salt pans should be protected from encroachment and pollution.

· Research is needed to isolate these unique microflora and conserve them for biotechnology research and industrial use.

Prepared by Dr. I. Furtado