Medicinal plants used in traditional medicinal system
India due to its unique variety of geographical and climatic factors had a rich and varied flora of medicinal plants. No wonder that out of a total number of over 15,000 plant species in India, about 2000 are known to have medicinal properties and some of them are used even as home remedies in the rural and remotest parts of our country (Arora, 1985).
The glimpses of Indian ethnobotany by Jain (1981) and the Bibliography of ethnobotany by Jain (1964) form the first books of the subject in India. Of the several field workers in the tribal community of India, the noteworthy ones are Bedding (1925), (1927) and (1929) on the Santhal areas, Elwin (1943) in Central India, Gupta (1963) on Bihar, Shah and Joshi (1971) on the Kumaon Himalaya. Currently work is carried out under a Department of Environment (Govt. of India) supported co-ordinated project on ethnobiology, besides several Universities and institutions (Jain 1981, Jain and Rao 1983 and Jain 1964).
Ethnobotany is usually defined as anthropological approach to botany. There are several methods of ethnobotanical research and those relevant to medicinal plants are archaeological search in literature and the field studies.
“Man ever desirous of knowledge has already explored many things but more and greater still remains concealed, perhaps reserved for far distant generations who shall prosecute the examination of their creator’s work in remote countries and make many discoveries for the pleasure and convenience of life …….”. The above quotation of Linneaus is the most appropriate with the relationship between medicinal plants and the total field of ethnobotany (Jain, 1997).
Ethnobotany in totality is virtually, a new field of research and if this field is investigated thoroughly and systematically, it will yield results of great value to the ethnologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, plant geographers, ethnobotanists, botanists, linguists and ultimately to phytochemists and pharmacologists.
The term “ethnobotany” has often been considered synonmymous with “traditional medicine” or with “economic botany”. The scope, concepts and implications of ethnobotany have been expanding at a very fast rate (Schultes 1962, Jain, 1967, 1987 A & B).
During last 30 years, studies have proceeded along various lines such as the ethnobotany of specific tribes of certain region, of particular plant groups, diseases and along various other miscellenous subject or inter disciplinary approaches. Through organised study or research in ethnobotany is recent, many earlier publications contain valuable material of ethnobotanical importance. Ethnologies on tribes living in different parts of the world works on indigenous medicines and botany and sometimes even forestry and travel accounts contain data of ethnobotanical signifiance.
Organised study of ethnobotany is only about 4 decades old in India and during this period about 300 papers have been published on various aspects of ethnobotany. These papers describe plants used in medicine, food other material culture, like in building houses and a variety of tools. They also deal with magico-religious association like worship, taboo, offering and totems. In these publications there has not only been considerable narration of known uses and relationship but also duplication in reporting ethnobotanical studies on various sub-groups of the plants kingdom like on algae, fungi, bryophytes, pteridophytes, lichens etc are sub-disciplines and have been name ethnoalgology, ethnomycology, ethnobryology, ethnopteridology, ethnolichenology etc. Studies on special ascepts of botany like systems of classification, medicinal uses, palaeobotany, ecology, ethnomology of plant names etc are also sub-disciplines and have been termed as ethnotaxonomy, ethnomedicobotany, ethnoecology, palaeobotany etc. But when the inquiry in ethnobotany extends beyong ordinary realm of botany and has significant input of another branch of science like archeology or medicine, the work becomes inter disciplinary.
According to Schultes 1962 “Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship which exists between people of primitive societies and their environment. In more simple words, it is an anthropological approach to botany”.
The term is not new even to India . Kirtikar and Basu (1935) stated that the ancient Hindus should also be given the credit for cultivating what is now called ethnobotany.
Tree worship plays an important role in the religious history of Aryan race in India. The ancient Indian cultures flourished in the midst of dense forests. Sages and Rishis used to impart knowledge to students in their hermitages in dense forests. Since plants are the oldest associations of man, they are offered in worship of several deities. Plants are used for religious performances, among all races of mankind. In Buddhist literature many references of tree worship and tree culture are available (Chaudhary and Pal, 1997).
Plants have been an integral part of Indian life and culture and hence all aspects of folk literature, namely folk songs, folk tales and folk proverbs of our country have profuse reference to trees, shrubs, climbers and their flowers and fruits.
Folk songs : References to the trees and flowers are found profusely in folk song, particularly in songs of worship of plants. Folk songs in praise of Bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris Schard. ex. J.C.Wendl), Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), and Amaltas (Cassia fistula Linn.) are sung, believing these plants are the abode of several Gods and Goddess (Agarwal, 1997).
Flowers, fruits and plants as offerings : Religious songs have references to offering of flowers and fruits Palas (Butea monosperma O. Kuntze.), Kachnar (Bauhinia variegata Linn.), and Mahua (Madhuca indica Gmel.) etc bear flowers and fruits which are offered to Gods and Goddess to invoke blessings for the fulfiliment of wishes (Matiyani, 1957).
Festivals of trees and flowers : In Bundelkhand, at the time of the festival of Mamulian girls decorate the spiny, green branches of Babul (Acacia arabica Willd.) with colourful flowers. They offer various fruits to the trees for the fulfillment of their wishes (Sankrityayan and Upadhyaya, 1960).
Trees, plants, flowers and fruits in rite : Certain trees like Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), Palas (Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.), Sandal wood (Santalum album Linn.) find a prominent place in songs sung in religious rites. On auspicious occasions, such as birth of babies, thread ceremonies, marriages and other religious functions, all have associations with mandaps made from bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris Schard. ex. J.C. Wendl) and plant culms, the paintings of floors with sandal (Santalum album Linn.) and the decoration of doors with mango leaves. In thread ceremonies Palas (Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.) is an essential item Uppadhyaya, 1960).
Good omens from trees and plants : On important occasions, when man feels that his efforts and work are enough to bring forth result, he begins to depend on good and bad omens and oracles and totems Anonymous (1959). To get leaves of peepal ( Ficus religiosa Linn.), to burn camphor in a sandalwood (Santalum album Linn.) lamp, to wear a garland of Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.), or to keep plants of basil and sandal wood in the house are symbols of wealth and religious faith. It is believed that if basils fruits are put on the head of a person at the time of death, he goes to heaven.
Taboos of certain trees and plants : It is considered bad to pluck flowers in afternoon. In Uttar Pradesh even folk songs for children prohibits the cutting of peepal (Ficus religiosa Linn.), banyan (Ficus bengalensis Linn.) and sandal (Santalum album Linn.) trees . In Kumoan , cutting of timber after sunset is believed to attract illness of children (Anonymous, 1959) .
Totems based on trees and flowers : Childless women do a number of totems for having a son . In Bhojpur, the offering of sesame (Sesamum indica Linn.), rice (Oryza sativa Linn.) etc to the sun near a river bank is a totem (Upadhyaya, 1960).
Tribal women offer many totems on bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris Schard. ex. J.C.Wendl) or babul (Acacia arabica Linn.) for successful completion of son’s marriage. The people of Oudh believe that if flowers of Ketaki (Pandanus fascicularis Linn.) and Palas (Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.) are touched to the body of a snake bitten person accompanied with some Mantras, he is cured .
Trees and flowers in decoration : The use of flowers in decorating hair is a speciality of Bihar, Gujrat and several other states. According to Gujrati folk songs Rama fell in love with Sita mainly due to the beautiful floral decoration of her hair.
Sandal (Santalum album Linn.), turmeric (Curcuma domestica Valeton.) and other plants are used in the formation of a paste for improving the complexion of a bride . Brides use sandal (Santalum album Linn.), rose (Rosa damascena Mill.) to perfume their body. References to the use of palas(Butea monosperma O.Kuntze.) for dying clothes are common in folk songs, particularly of Kumaon. In Bengali songs, references are made for decorating the walls of houses with straws of rice (Oryza sativa Linn.) and several flowers (Agarwal, 1997) .
Plants in similes and metaphors : Many plant names appear in similes and metaphors in Hindi literature e.g. the red lips of the beloved have been compared with red flowers of kachnar (Bauhinia variegata Linn.) and of the silk cotton tree.
In a Magahi song there is a mention of sandalwood (Santalum album Linn.) tree crying when the king takes Vanaprastha and becomes a Yogi. Aryani, 1965 stated that how beautiful is such personification of the qualities of plants and their parts in the human beings?
Folk proverbs : Things which cannot be remembered or explained easily are learnt, taught and emphasised through proverbs. A person who understands the tricks of the cunnings tell him that Tum dar dar Hum pat pat i.e. I will keep away from you.
Talking of very high prices, the proverb says “Chana chironji ho gaya, gehun ho gaya dakh” i.e. The gram become as expensive as chironji and wheat as grapes (Sahal, 1949).
The vast knowledge of plant utility, geographical occurrence and biology and phenology in whatever crude manner the man understood them, resulting in such an association with them that the plants entered his folklore, idioms and phraseology. Scores of examples of this can be picked up from Indian folk literature. Plants have been used to characterize the different region of the states also. For example:
Aonla , aonla Mewar
Bawul , bawul Marwar
Here plants are used to distinguish Mewar from Marwar. English rendering would be Cassia auriculata Linn. Characterizes Mewar, whereas Acacia nilotica Indica. characterizes Marwar.
Below is the statement of Raja Bheem where he uses names of plants to distinguish his own land from that of his enemies in Rajasthan.
“Wherever the Aonla (Cassia auriculata Dell.) put forth its yellow blossom, the land is of right ours; we want nothing more, let them enjoy their stunted Babuls (Acacia nilotica Indica.), their Kureels (Capparis deciduas), the aak (Calotropis procera) but give us our sacred Peepal (Ficus religiosa Linn.) and the Aonla of the border .” [ English rendering by Todd , (1829) ]
Folk tales : Like songs and folk proverbs, the folk tales also have references to the association of plants with good and bad omens. They discuss the resemblance of human beings with birth and several other characteristics of plants.
In the story of Tulsi, it is said that when Sati Vrinda cursed Vishnu and made him a black stone (which the Hindus call Shaligram) then Vishnu also cursed Vrinda and made her the Tulsi - the plant Basil (Ocimum sanctum Linn.). About the Peepal ( Ficus religiosa Linn.) and Palas (Butea monosperma O. Kuntze.), it is said that once Parvati became angry with Vishnu and Brahma and cursed them. The result was that the first Peepal (Ficus religiosa Linn. ) tree was created from the body of Vishnu and the first Palas (Butea monosperma O. Kuntze.) tree was created from the body of Brahma ( Chaturvedi , 1965 ).
Some folk tales refer to the help rendered by plants to their dear ones whom they seemed to recognize according to folk tales of Malva. Sonabai took refuge on a sandalwood (Santalum album Linn.) tree to save her chastity. On her prayers the tree grew higher and higher protecting her from her oppressors. Finally the tree split concealing Sonabai and thus saved her honour.
Thus, from the very ancient times, Indian folk life has not only been including trees, plants and flowers as members of their own family but has also found in them the image of God (Jain, 1958). It is for this reason that the songs, tales and other expressions are replete with deep affection for trees and plants .
Plants used as cosmetics :- Every plant existing on this planet has economic qualities either edible, medicinal or commercial (Kaushik , 1988). The plants used in cosmetics donot merely enhance beauty but have definite medicinal value also (Sharma, 1979). They are being tested since time immemorial and proved to have side benefits in place of adverse effect generally produced by synthetic and chemical based harmful products (Parashar, 1965). A number of plants may be processed in cosmetics which are in great demand in India and abroad likely (Upadhayaya, 1985) For Chunekar , 1969 ; Nandkarni , 1975 , Acacia concinna DC. Vern. Shikakai ; Pods are blended into shampoo and hair cleanser with Sapindus mukorossi Gaertn Vern. Ritha to promote hair growth and to stop hair splitting, falling and dandruff.
Fibre : Cordage , garments , sacks , mats , shawls , coarse cloths , and ropes also used for tying rafts and dragging elephant etc are made from fibres bark of Acacia senegal Willd.(Kumta), slender twigs of A. nilotica Indica. , Butea monosperma O. Kuntze, (Palas), bark of Erythrina suberosa Roxb. (Pangra) and E.varigata orientalis Merr.(Parijate) (Mittre, 1997) Bauhinia vahlii W.and A. ( Siadi ) (Caesalpiniaceae) is the most commonly used plant. Its bark provides very strong fiber and this fiber is put to multifarious uses (Jain et al, 1973).
Agricultural implements : Tool handles, axes, shafts, pounders, mortars, wheels, carts , ploughs , yokes and for sugar and oil pressers are made from the wood of the following Acacia nilotica Indica. , Albizziz spp.(Siris) , Cassia fistula Linn (Amaltas), Pongamia pinnata Pierre., (Karanj) , Pterocarpus marsupium Roxb. (Bijsal) and P. santalinus Linn (Rakta Chandan) , Pamarindus indica , Xylia nylocarpa .
Dyes : Dyes are also obtained from flowers of Butea monosperma O. Kuntze. (Palas) , Caesalpinia sappana Linn. (Bakam) and leaves of Tectona grandes. Red dyes from Caesalpinia coriaria Willd. (Divi-divi.) . Indian ink is prepared from the bark and leaves of Terminalia catappa Linn. Blue dyes from leaves of Indigofera tinctoria Linn.(Neel) and the root of Petrocarpus santalinus Linn. (Rakta Chandan) ( Jain , 1997 ) .
Manure : Leaves of Derris indica Benth.(Karanja) and Pongamia pinnata Pierre. (Karanj) are used for rice fields . Leaves of Derris indica Benth . (Karanja) for sugar cane fields . Sesbania cannabiana Poir.(Jayanti), Cyamopsis tetragonoloba Taub (Guar) , Vigna unguiculata Walb (Lobia) are the other wild plants of which leaves are used as manure .
Biodiversity control Crabs in Paddy : Farmers in Gujrat use crushed flowers of Butea monosperma O Kuntze.( Palas ) to drive away crabs in paddy field .
Khejiri ( Prosopis cineraria Linn.) is most common tree in the Thar desert of Rajasthan . They are grown all over the crop fields . Crops like millets, moth ( Phaseolus aconitifolius Jacq.),Curry beans ( Phaseolus lunatus Linn.), moong (Phaseolus mungo Linn.) leaves and oil seeds grown well in combination with it . Recent researches indicate that it brings up moisture and nutrients from underground soil for crop grown above . The leguminous plants or trees in field also fix nitrogen by nitrogen fixing bacteria in the root nodules and green manure to the soil by their leaf fall .
Protection for clothes from insect :- Leaves of Trigonella foenum - graecum Linn.(Methi) are placed with clothes to protect them from insects .
Oil from wild plants :- Oil used as luminant and cooking medium is obtained from seeds of Derris indica Benth.( Karanja ).
Incense and perfumes :- Being fragrant , Sandal ( Santalum album Linn.) and wood is burnt in temples .
For brushing teeths :- Twings , wood , bark of Indigofera oblogifolia , Acacia nilotica spp. and A. indica are used for brushing teeth .
Substitute for betelnut :- The vegetable lime used in Ceylon in betels is obtained by burning the bark of Terminalis alata Heyne . ex.Roth.(Asan , Sain , Saj ).
Charcol plants :- Charcol of Acacia catechu Willd. (Katha)is used in iron smelting Gold and silver smithy :- The stem of Abrus precatorius Linn.(Chrimiti)is used by jewellers to increase adhesion while soldring delicate ornament
Sacred plants : A few trees such as Santalum album , held sacred by Hindus . Dried inflorescence of Prosopis cineraria Linn. ( Khejiri ) is held sacred by the Vaishnavas . Achyranthes aspera Linn. ( Chirchiri )is used scared payees in Rajastan desert .
To wrap tobacco : Leaves of Bauhinia racemosa Lam.(Mawal ,Ashta)and B.vahlii Wight. and Arn. ( Mahul )are used .
As cooling screens in hot weather : Screens are prepared from Alhagi pseudo-alhagi Linn.(Javasa)
Marking of the foreheads by Hindus .
Paste of sandalwood ( Santalum album Linn.) and shikakai ( Acacia concinna DC. Vern. ) shikakai is used .
Unconventional cultivars or wild plants used as cereals :- Seeds of Amaranthus hybridus and Amaranthus cruentus var paniculata are made into flour and eaten in Coimbatore district and by the Nilgiri Badagas who also cultivate it , seeds of Vigna trilobata are eaten by the poor people and bread made from seeds of Vigna mungo is used in religious ceremonies .
Other material cultures :- Pterocarpus marsupium Roxb. (Bijsal) ( Papilionaceae ) provides gums useful for medicines and industries . The local tribal usually collect gums for contractors . A number of timbers are used for making instruments particularly Pterocarpus marsupium Roxb. ( Bijsal ) ( Papilionaceae ) and Terminalia alata for drums (Jain, 1965a ).
Feeds and fodders for domestic animals:
(A). Birds and poultry: Seeds of Cannabis sativa .
(B). Cattle : Petrocarus marsupuim Roxb (Bijasal), Vigna lobata Walp.(Lobia) in Rajasthan , M.P. , Maharashtra .
(C). Camel :Leaves of Acacia nilotica Indica. (Babul)
(D). Horses : Melilotus indica All. (Banmethi), Medicago sativa Linn.(Alfalfa).
(E). Sheep : Indigofera oblongifolia Forsk. (Raktapala).
(F). Goats : Indigofera cordifolia Linn (Surmainil), leaves of Prosopis cineearia Linn. (Chaunkra), Pithecelobuim dulce Benth. (Dakhani babul, Vilati imli) and Acacia nilotica Indica. (Babul).
Ethnomedicine is here taken to mean knowledge and practice that have survived only folklore in certain human societies , particularly among the primitive and rural societies . This is a world wide interest in folkores about medicinal herbs for lead to new sources of drugs . Study of folkfores fall within the discipline of ethnobotany .
Ethnopharmacology is a multi disciplinary area of research based on botany , chemistry , pharmacology , archaeology , anthropology , history etc and is contributing to the search for new natural products with one or other biological activities .
The classical botanical source , originally employed as a native remedy has yielded a number of pharmacologic agents . A large number of modern medicinal properties are known to possess one or other medicinal properties and are in use in the Indigenous system of medicines.