By Darshan Shankar


FRLHT-TDU Campus landscaped with 1500 species of Medicinal Plants

A little known fact regarding the species composition of Indian forest flora is that 40-70% of the flora across ecosystems and all the six vegetation types viz., tropical evergreen rain forests, deciduous or monsoon type of forests, principal dry deciduous forests and scrubs, semi desert and desert vegetation, tidal or mangrove forests and mountain forests are species of medicinal values1. This makes medicinal plants the largest plant taxon in forest flora. In certain ecosystems easily accessible to human communities like the deciduous forests the proportion of medicinal taxa in the forest flora can be as high as 70%. In evergreen forests due to their inaccessibility it may be lower. A little reflection on this information may replace surprise with understanding about the reason for this high proportion and composition of medicinal plants in the floristic diversity in various habitats. The source of information about medicinal plants is from local human communities. The human need of plants is for food, fuel, housing, crafts, clothing and medicine. The number (not quantity) of species needed for food, fuel, housing etc. is far smaller than the species needed and discovered for their medicinal values for human, animal and agricultural use. Hence not only in India but across all societies in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe, it is the fact that communities use the largest number of wild plants for healthcare. It is known that the first botanical garden in Europe in modern times was a physic (medicinal) garden established in the University of Pisa created by Luca Ghini in 15432. In India and several developing countries, the use of plant life for healthcare was a practice since 3000 BC, and it has remained a living tradition until now when millions of homes, community healers, folk veterinarians and farmers continue to use ecosystems specific medicinal plants.

1.1 Profile of India’s medicinal flora.

An unambiguous and bold definition of “medicinal plant” is provided in traditional knowledge systems in India.
The 6th century Ayurvedic text, Ashtanga Hrudayam gives an extremely emergent definition of medicinal plants as below.

“Jagatyevam anaoushadham na kinchit Vidyate dravyam vasatnanartha yogayoh3”

Medicinal Plant species in the Bio-geographic zones of India

This verse means that every plant has potential medicinal properties. However, at a particular stage of social history, plants are declared to be medicinal only when their properties or uses have actually been discovered by some system of medicine or health care. “Medicinal Plants” may thus be defined as those botanicals listed and used in Ayurveda, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa, Unani, Homeopathy, Allopathy and the ecosystem and ethnic community specific folk systems of medicine4.

A staggering 65815 species of medicinal plants are in use in more than 250,000 (TKDL – CSIR)6 unique formulations across these healthcare systems. This extent of the use of diverse botanicals is perhaps the largest in the world. The medicinal plants are sourced from all habitats and landscapes across the country from the trans-Himalayas to the coastal regions, from arid and desert habitats to mangroves and evergreen forests. Related to medicinal plant resources there exists sophisticated systemic knowledge of biology, pharmacology, diagnostics, therapy and pharmacy, which is documented in around 100,000 traditional medical manuscripts.

With the advent of cutting edge research in the frontiers of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, systems biology, pharmacogenomics and combinatorial chemistry, scientists are beginning to rediscover the value of systemic knowledge alongside their vast repository of natural resources.

The table below (TDU database 2019) enumerates the number of species used across different systems of healthcare in India.

TABLE: TDU database 2019

As per a published report of NMPB (2017)7 out of 6500 medicinal plant species traditionally used by Indian communities, only 1622 botanicals corresponding to 1178 plant species are found to be in all India trade. Of these 42% are herbs, 27% trees and 31% are shrubs & climbers. Only 242 species witness high volume trade (>100 MT) annually. The major botanical families to which these species belong to are Fabaceae, Asteraceae, Lamiaceae, Malvaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Acanthaceae, Apocyanaceae, Caesalpiniaceae, Solanaceae, Convolvulaceae, Mimosaceae, Phyllanthaceae and Rubiaceae. Diverse parts of plants (leafs, flowers, fruit, seed, bark, root, resin, gum) serve as medicinal raw drugs. Nearly 53% of the medicinal plant species are subject to destructive methods of harvest, as
the medicinal parts harvested include underground parts, wood, bark & whole plant. It is observed that 85% of the traded species and 70% of the demand are met from wild sources.

High Volume Traded Medicinal Plant List prepared by FRLHT


2. Key role of FRLHT – TDU in the recent history of Indian initiatives for insitu conservation of medicinal flora

The first comprehensive program for insitu conservation of medicinal plants in the country began in 1993 under a bilateral cooperation program between MoEF GoI and DANIDA.

FRLHT (Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions, Bangalore) recently legislated into the “Trans- Disciplinary University”, was the national technical coordinator of the medicinal plant conservation program. The execution of the program was undertaken by State Forest Departments (SFD) of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. During 1993-2004, 34 Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs) were established across different forest types to conserve wild populations of medicinal species. Subsequently 74 more MPCAs were established in 9 other states (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh) under UNDP supported CCF I (Country Coordination Fund), CCF II and Global Environment Facility (GEF). Altogether 108 MPCAs across 12 States were established during 1993-2014. Additionally, during 2008-2018 the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB) has independently established 102 MPCAs. Today the size of India’s MPCA network has grown to over 210 sites. Each MPCA is of an average size of 200 Ha, and they are distributed across 21 States of India. This is the largest insitu conservation network for conserving wild gene pools of medicinal plants in the tropical world. However, it is hardly known to conservationists and even at times to policy makers that India is a global leader in insitu conservation of medicinal plants.

In hindsight, on review of the MPCA’s program in 2019, despite its size, the program in India has serious limitations, which if corrected can result over the ensuing decade in the creation of a globally significant conservation effort for medicinal botanicals that can benefit not only India, but countries all over the world.

3. In 2019: TDU working on a plan to build upon the conservation initiatives of the last two decades

There are 6581 species of medicinal botanicals documented in India. The actual number may in fact be much higher of the order of 10,000 species, but due to limited ethno medical studies across the length and breadth of India, the current documentation is of the order, as mentioned above. Obviously one needs to prioritize species for insitu conservation. Reflection on the matter would suggest that the priority should be on species that are in high volume trade and actual use and alongside key parameters like their endemism and current population status. It is also important to appreciate that the practical execution of a national program for insitu conservation of wild gene pools of medicinal botanicals can only be done at State levels with the active involvement of State Forest Departments. Thus the scientific execution of a contemporary, world class Medicinal Plant Conservation Program needs four kinds of prior information.

Firstly, knowledge about which are the medicinal species in high volume all India trade and of species that are largely sourced from wild forest habitats. This information is available today in the Trans-Disciplinary University from the work of the last two decades.

Secondly, it is necessary to analyze traded species that are endemics or assessed to be under higher degrees of threat as per IUCN criteria. This information is partially available today and more analytical and field work needs to be done to bring to the table rigorously determined information.

The third requirement is ready access to a database on the occurrence of the medicinal flora in all the 29 States and 7 union territories in India. This information is partially available and needs to be deepened.

Fourthly, it is essential to have reliable information on the natural geographical distribution of the highly traded endemic and threatened species. This information is largely available but incomplete in the geographical distribution databases established over the last two decades by the Trans-Disciplinary University. Ideally the distribution of medicinal species should be determined not only at State levels but also at taluka levels for meaningful applications of the knowledge of medicinal botanicals, particularly in the context of health and livelihood security.

It is based on the above four kinds of information at State level that forest managers and policy makers can deepen the efforts of the last two decades by focusing on highly traded, endemic and threatened medicinal taxa that are State specific.

3.1 Need for revisiting the MPCA program to 1993-2015

The already established 210 MPCAs were created during 1993–2015 across 21 States. Today they definitely need to be revisited to analyze how many of them are appropriate sites in the light of information available in 2019 which was not available in 1993-2015. In 1993 there was not even a comprehensive check list of the medicinal plants of India and no information on the 242 botanicals known today to be in high volume trade, several of which are endemics and threatened. The early MPCAs were therefore established in vegetation types and sites selected only on the criteria of capturing species diversity. However today MPCA sites have to be very carefully selected by State Forest Departments to capture gene pools of the breeding populations of highly traded endemics and threatened medicinal plants that occur in the particular State. In most of the 21 States the MPCA program is dormant. Some MPCAs may indeed harbor populations and gene pools of one or more of the priority 242 species, others may merely have populations of medicinal species, but they may not be significant sites in respect to carrying viable breeding populations of the priority species for insitu conservation.

Further refinement of the MPCA program will subsequently happen when State Forest Departments support genetic studies to select specific MPCA sites rich in gene pools of highly traded endemics and threatened species, including studies to determine the number of MPCAs needed for a particular medicinal species to conserve its hot spots of intra-specific genetic diversity across its geographical distribution range. For example, in the case of an endangered and threatened species like Saraca ashoka, which is distributed from pockets in Kerala, TN, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Orissa, Meghalaya, Assam and Manipur, the gene pool cannot be captured in one MPCA site because of its genetic diversity. However, in the case of an endemic species like Pterocarpus santalinus, which is endemic to Tirupati, Nellore, Kuddapa and Kurnool in AP, one MPCA site may suffice. A further quantum jump to the program will take place when genetic material of therapeutic value from MPCAs is made available to breeders for ex- situ multiplication. It is also important to put in place sustainable Joint Forest Management (JFM) programs around MPCA sites to ensure community benefits from the conservation program.

Red Listed (Near threatened and above) medicinal plants list prepared by FRLHT
(Based on IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria)


4. The rich Indian knowledge base of medicinal botanicals and its resonance with the emerging concept of ONE HEALTH

There are estimated to be 100,000 medical manuscripts containing knowledge of the uses of medicinal botanicals for human (Ayurveda), veterinary (pashu-ayurveda) and agricultural (vriksh-ayurveda) applications. TDU has initiated work on cataloging and digitization of medical manuscripts of India and completed cataloging of 17,000 manuscripts.

TDU believes that interfacing traditional knowledge of healthcare with advanced scientific research will
contribute to two emerging global needs viz., Integrative Health Sciences and ONE HEALTH.

This is the future TDU vision for conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants, and we will be pleased to collaborate with genuinely interested and competent international organizations for the execution of the vision.

5. The 10 innovation objectives we visualize during the ensuing decade (2019 – 2029)

  1. Create an open access portal on native medicinal plants searchable at taluka, town, city, state,
    and regional levels with spatial information on occurrence, populations, trade and threat status, insitu conservation initiatives, local nurseries and herbal gardens and reliable applications
    of indigenous knowledge for human, vet and agriculture. The portal will be searchable at taluka, town, city, state, and regional levels.
  2. Demonstrate a strategy for strengthening management of Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCA’s) by State Forest Departments (SFDs) and in the preparation of State level 5-year plans for conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants.
  3. Build Capacity in State level research institutes to engage in collaboration with SFDs for long term threat assessment and species recovery of medicinal botanicals.
  4. Demonstrate methodology for conducting genetic variability and plant endophyte studies on selected clinically important species, which are critically endangered in order to support both
    insitu conservation and sustainable use programs for user groups.
  5. Create network of home and community gardens and nurseries in selected talukas.
  6. Demonstrate models for health and livelihood security programs executed by community based organizations in partnership with professional organizations.
  7. Strengthen national herbarium and raw drug repositories of medicinal botanicals in TDU and regional herbaria in selected research institutes and botany departments.
  8. Develop innovative medicinal plant extract library in TDU of traditionally used fractions and not only bio-actives.
  9. Build Capacity in State Forest Departments, research institutes, regional herbaria, folk healers, citizen groups and community based organizations by designing and implementing specialized education and training programs for insitu conservation, threat assessment, species recovery, nursery techniques, herbarium and raw drug repository management, digitization techniques, assessment of genetic variability and indigenous knowledge of plants for human, veterinary and agricultural purposes.
  10. Seed International Cooperation with relevant foreign universities and research organizations engaged in research and outreach on biodiversity

Darshan Shankar is Vice Chancellor of the Trans- Disciplinary University (TDU) Bangalore, India. TDU ( is a legislated form of FRLHT, which is a member of the Sacred Seeds Network.

11. FRLHT analysis of proportion of medicinal plant species across 34 MPCAs in south India, verifiable from available botanical survey records of 34 MPCAs carried out by Prof Ravi Kumar, unpublished.
12. “The History of Botanic Gardens”. BGCI. Retrieved 8 November 2011.
13. Ashtanga Hrudayam a foundational Ayurvedic text
14. Ayurveda Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa, Unani, Homeopathy, Allopathy and the ecosystem and ethnic community specific folk systems are the healthcare knowledge systems,practiced in India
15. FRLHT-TDU database on Medicinal Plants of India, 2019
16. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, CSIR 2019
17. National Medicinal Plant Board, Demand and Supply Study 2017, GS Goraya and DK Ved.