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, herbaria 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 to this chapter which deals with the relationship between medicinal plants and the total filed of ethnobotany.

 According to Schultes (1962), ethnobotany is “the study of the relationship which exists between people of primitive societies and their plant environment”.  The term is not new even to India, Kirtikar and Basu (1935) stated”, The ancient Hindus should be given the credit for cultivating what is now called ethnobotany”.

Ethnobotany, is 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 and pharmacologists etc.

 Though ethnobotany provides several approaches in plant researches, here only the resources which help in medicinal are plant-research mentioned.

Archaeological resources

India has a rich treasure of archaeological sculptures of antiquity, which can be of great value in tracing the plants which were used during early civilization.

Sithole (1976) described about 40 such plants from bas reliefs on the gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi and the railing of Bharhut tupa, belonging to the first and second century B.C., respectively.

Literature resources

Our ancient literature can also be tapped for information on medicinal plants. No authentic record of any kind except a few archaeological sculptures of Mohenjo-Daro is available from the prevedic period in this country. But, Rigveda and Atharvaveda, which date back to 2000 to 1000 B.C. which are our oldest Vedic literature resources, contain valuable information regarding medicinal plants of that period.

Sharma (1968-69) enlisted 248 botanical drugs which are mentioned mainly in Atharvaveda and Rigveda. Singh and Chunekar (1972) published a glossary of such medicinal plants, which have been mentioned in Charak Samhita, Sushurta Samhita and Ashtanga Hridiyam.

Perhaps the outstanding example, at least in modern times of the use of the literature is the huge compilation of all anti-tumour plants, cited in old texts and local folk medicine from all over the world for screening purpose at Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Center (CCNSC) (Hartwell, 1967-71).

Recently, checklists of Ayurvedic and Yunani treatises have been published (Anonymous 1962 and Tripathi et al, 1978). A list of some of the important Indian treatises is presented in Table 3.

Indian treatises Authors Dates No. of medicinal plants included.

Herbarium Resources

Herbarium sheets and field notes have also proved to be a good source of ethnobotanical data. The most outstanding example of this type of research is of Dr. Altschul, who searched about 2.5 million plant specimens in Harvard University Herbarium and from these 5,178 useful notes of drugs and food value were recorded (Altschul, 1973).

Field Resources

The plants have become the never ending source for new biodynamic compounds of potential therapeutic value. Ethnobotanist brings out from the field the suggestion as to which raw plant material may be tapped and for this, he gets clues from the tribals.

Atkinson (1882) published 12 volumes of the Gazetteer of North West Provinces of India, three of which are concerned with the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalayan Region. Recently, the Central Councils for Research in Ayurveda, Siddha and Yunani conducted several medicobotanical surveys in some important ethnic and tribal regions of the country.

It was found that the Nicobaris use the resinous wood of Canarium and Dipterocarpus spp. for repelling mosquitoes and as a torch.

 In the Nilgiris, the decoction of Bambusa arundinacea is used as an abortifacient (Ragunathan, 1976).

Comparative study of the Ethnobotanical Resources

Ethnobotany becomes a more important and interesting subject when its study reaches a point when the results are studied comparatively. For example, Ficus religiosa and Ficus racemosa are among the most important sacred as well as medicinal plants of antiquity.

In Atharvaveda, Ficus racemosa is attributed the property of increasing the number of domestic cattle, giving virility and strength of its wearer, add to the fertility of his land and growth of the fruits.

In Charak Samhita there are about 23 references of Ficus religiosa corresponding to medicinal and other properties. A few therapeutic uses described there are : in fever, in rheumatism, in urinary troubles, in spermatorrhoea, in pile and in dysentery (Vidyalankar, 1959).

Schultes (1963) rightly stated, “Our challenge is to salvage some of the modern medico-botanical lore before it becomes for ever entombed with the cultures that give it birth”.

Kirtikar and Basu (1935) stated, “The only way to illumine the whole field of native therapeutics is to survey it in small tracts and sift the value of those drugs peculiar to each province… There is wide feeling that there is beneficence in the scheme of nature which provides in every country, suitable remedies on the spot for the ill to which humanity is locally most prone. Very little has been done so far to incorporate in the practice of physicians in the country the medicines which in India nature scatters broadcast from her lap”.

Wild medicinal plants in Indian Folk Life - A Historical Perspective

Pats of over 3500 wild species are used to cure ailments in man and his domesticated animals :


S. No. Ailments Plant used

1. For wounds and as disinfectant. Panicum anidotale, Artemisia maritima

2. Bronchisl troubles. Bulbs of Urginea indica

3. Blood purification and promoting lochial discharge. Mollugo cerviana

4. Urinary troubles. Glinus lotoides

5. For swellings. Root paste of Corallocarpus epigaeus

6. As tonics Neurada procumbens and Colchium luteum, seeds of Mimosa hamata root of Asparagus recemosus

7. Pneumonia Achyranthus aspera

8. Diarrhoea Podophyllum hexandrun; Salvia aegyptiaca

9. Chest pain Cuscuta hyalina

10. Rheumatism Carum carvi, Inula racemosa

11. Gastritis and fever Achillea millaefolia

12. Spleen disorders Capparis spinosa

13. Hyperacidity Nepeta lingibracteata

14. Skin diseases Ranunculus hirtellus

15. Conjunctivitis Thalictum minus

Plants in folk medicine of the Himalaya

The Himalayan ranges are inhabited by a large tribal population, often with their distinct way of life, traditions, dialects and cultural heritage. The Himalaya have bestowed them with vast, varied and even endemic plants. The tribals have learnt to utilize local herbs for different ailments after centuries of trials, often at the risk of loss of human life. Many tribal beliefs forbid them to unravel the virtues of the plants to outside world. But, it is also true that till recent little concerted effort had been made to document this knowledge by detailed ethnobotanical surveys.

 Some folkore medicines of the region have proved efficaceous after detailed pharmacological and clinical trials. Rauvolfia serpentina roots are a classical example. Coptis teeta is another plant which has given encouraging results. The oil of seed kernel of Hydnocarpus kurzii, from upper Assam and Tripura hills, has proved useful in the treatment of leprosy and skin diseases. The roots of Nardostachys grandiflore have provided a safe sedative.

Use of plants in folk medicine by tribals of Central India.

Use of plants in folk medicine is very prevalent in Central India (Jain, 1963, Jain and Tarafder, 1963). More than one hundred plants were reported to be commonly used in medicine in the district of Bastar (Jain, 1965). Some plants are used singly, whereas others are used in mixture. Similarly, certain plants were considered useful in only one disease whereas several had multiple uses.

Many medicinal uses reported by tribals of Bastar appeared to be unknown or little- known outside their community. Examples of a few such plants are given below:

Cassia tora (Charota) : Tender leaves eaten to prevent skin diseases.

Combretum decandrum

(Ainti) : Oil from seeds applied on eczema.

Flacourtia indica

(Kakai) : Bark applied on eczema.

Nyctanthes arbortristis

(Harsingar) : The inflorescence and young fruits pounded in water; this is used for relieving cough.

Polygonum plebejum

(Chatibhaji) : The plant eaten as a vegetable to promote lactation.

An Ethno-Medico-Botanical survey of Ambikapur District, M.P. – Ethno-Medico-botanical surveys of tribal area of Ambikapur distt. M.P. were conducted during 1990 and 1991 and folk-lore information on forty medicinal plants was recorded with the help of Corwa, Oraon and Pando tribes. The Tribals are living in Asad, Dindo, Kusmi, Mainpat, Janakpur, Sonhat and Rampur forests of Ambikapur district. Some noteworty plant species which are used in the treatment of various diseases are Boerhavia diffusa (Elephantiasis), Hemidesmus indicus (Stomach ulcer), Indigofera cassioides (Antifertility agent), Leea macrophylla (Chest pain).