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Interest and support for the conservation and development of medicinal and aromatic plants is increasing in all parts of the world. This is due, in part, to a growing recognition of their role in the provision of culturally relevant and affordable health care in creating sustainable livelihoods and in the vital conservation of biodiversity. This has also drawn the attention of the world community towards the need for creating mechanisms to ensure sustained development of the sector and to allow sharing of information between countries, organizations and agencies.

As per World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, almost 80% of the population of developing countries relies on traditional medicines, mostly plant drugs, for their primary health care needs.  In fact it is well known that even in developed countries, the use of traditional medicines is quite prevalent.  Also, modern pharmacopoeia still contains at least 25% drugs derived from plants and many others which are synthetic analogues built on prototype compounds isolated from plants.  Demand for medicinal plants is increasing in both developing and developed countries due to growing recognition of natural products being non-narcotic, having no side-effects, easily available at affordable prices and sometime the only source of health care available to the poor. 

Over 30% of the world’s plant species have at one time or another been used for medicinal purpose. Of the 2,50,000 higher plant species on earth, more than 80,000 are medicinal. Two third of plant species used for medicinal purpose comes from developing countries. The products relating to about 20,000 higher plant species are being marketed world over. About 120 chemical compounds of plant origin have been developed into modern pharmaceuticals. The natural essential oils and their fragrance are perhaps the most remarkable products of plant metabolism and these products have influenced human thoughts and emotions since the beginning of our civilisations. A realisation of the therapeutic value later made use of these materials in medicine as curative, cooling, antiseptic and preservative.

It is estimated that world market for plant derived drugs may account for about Rs.2,00,000 crores. Presently, Indian contribution is less than Rs.2000 crores. Indian export of raw drugs has steadily grown at 26% to Rs.165 crores in 1994-’95 from Rs.130 crores in 1991-’92.   The annual production of medicinal and aromatic plants raw materials is worth about Rs.200 crores. This is likely to touch US $5 trillion by 2050. In respect of essential oils, aroma chemicals, natural flavours and fragrance, the demand projections of industrial raw material are valued at US$ 12 billion. In the world-wide flavour and fragrance market, essential oils constitute about 17 per cent. The estimate of world production of essential oils varies from 40,000 – 60,000 t/annum. The world essential oil production at raw material level was around US$ 1 billion in 1994, of which 55-60% goes to food flavours and 15-20% to fragrance.

The world population is likely to reach 11.5 billion by the year 2020.  Assessing the current status of health care system, inadequacies of synthetic drugs are likely to be more glaring in the coming years.  Increased emphasis on the usage of plant material, as a source of food, medicine, fragrance and flavors, dyes, and other items of daily use will be imminent.

India’s potential

India is known for its plant resources from time immemorial and is one of the world’s 12 bio-diversity centers sheltering over 45,000 different plant species. India’s diversity is unmatched due to the presence of 16 different agroclimatic zones, 10 vegetation zones, 25 biotic provinces and 426 biomes. Of these, about 15,000-20,000 species have good medicinal value. However, traditional communities use only 7000-7500 species for medicinal purpose. The trade of medicinal plants in India is estimated to be to the tune of Rs. 550 crores/annum. Total turn over of ayurvedic and herbal products is around Rs. 2300 crores. About 1300 species of plants native to the country are known to possess aroma. However, India produces limited items of commercial value both from wild and cultivation. Export of essential oils from India during 1996-97 is Rs. 27.7 crores. Total production of fragrance in the country is to the tune of 8400 tonnes in 1997. Domestic demand for fragrance and flavours is increasing in tune with the increase in the purchasing power. The internal demand for flavours during 1996 was 33188 tonnes. It is predicted that India is growing to be one of the world’s largest economies in the next millennium. Our plant genetic resources and technological skill will play a significant role in attaining this enviable position.


Biodiversity or Biological diversity pertains to the variety of species including plants, animals, human beings, microorganisms and ecosystems in a region, country, continent or the entire globe. Biodiversity comprises every form of life from the tiniest microbe to the mightiest beast or tree.

Loss of biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity occurs when either the habitat essential for the survival of a species is destroyed, or particular species are destroyed. The former is more common as habitat destruction is a fallout of development. The latter reason is encountered when particular species are exploited for economical gain or food. Extinction of species may also be due to environmental factors like ecological substitutions, biological factors and pathological causes which can be caused by nature or man.

Natural causes for the loss of biodiversity

Natural causes include floods, earthquakes, landslides, natural competition between species, lack of pollination and diseases.

Man-made causes for the loss of biodiversity

  • Destruction of habitat in the wake of developmental activities like housing, agriculture, construction of dams, reservoirs, roads, railway tracks, etc.

According to Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the closed tropical forests are disappearing at the rate of 7.5 mha per year and the open forests at the rate of 3.8 mha a year. According to UNEP, roughly 16-20 mha of tropical forests are being burnt or axed each year. i.e. more than the size of a football pitch every second for various developmental activities and for meeting the requirements of food, fodder and fuel for the growing human and livestock population.

The rate of deforestation in the tropics is much faster than in other parts of the world and is equivalent to about 21.5 ha/min. In India, about 1.5 mha of prime forests were felled during the 1980s. This has played a major role in the loss of biodiversity.

  • Pollution, a gift of the industrial revolution can be given the pride of place for driving a variety of species in air, water and land towards extinction.

Biodiversity conservation

Having been through the reasons for the need for biodiversity and the effects of loss of biodiversity it becomes evident that ultimately the survival of the human race itself is threatened. Therefore the conservation of biological diversity is of paramount importance to the survival of man and only he can initiate and sustain a strategy for the same.

 The main objectives and advantages of biodiversity conservation are as follows:

  • Conservation of biological diversity leads to conservation of essential ecological diversity to preserve the continuity of food chains.

  • The genetic diversity of plants and animals is preserved.

  • It ensures the sustainable utilisation of life support systems on earth.

  • It provides a vast knowledge of potential use to the scientific community.

  • A reservoir of wild animals and plants is preserved, thus enabling them to be introduced, if need be, in the surrounding areas.

  • Biological diversity provides immediate benefits to the society such as recreation and tourism.

  • Biodiversity conservation serves as an insurance policy for the future.

 The Conservation practices should include:

Ex situ conservation
Conserving biodiversity outside the areas where they naturally occur is known as ex situ conservation. Here, animals and plants are reared or cultivated in areas like zoological or botanical parks.
Reintroduction of an animal or plant into the habitat from where it has become extinct is another form of ex situ conservation.
Seedbanks, botanical, horticultural and recreational gardens are important centres for ex situ conservation.
In situ conservation
Conserving the animals and plants in their natural habitats is known as in situ conservation. This includes the establishment of

  • National parks and sanctuaries

  • Biosphere reserves

  • Nature reserves

  • Reserved and protected forests

  • Preservation plots

  • Reserved forests

Agrobiodiversity conservation

After the introduction of cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, sunflower, soyabean and so on, farmers became victims of monocultures in their greed for money. Therefore many of the indigenous varieties of crops were lost. Moreover, the hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables (e.g. tomatoes), introduced for pulp are more susceptible to disease and pests. Though hybrid varieties are preferred, traditional wild varieties of the seeds should be conserved for future use in the event of an epidemic which would completely wipe out the hybrids.

Botanical gardens, agricultural departments, seed banks etc., alone should not be given the responsibility of agrobiodiversity conservation. Every farmer, gardener an cultivator should be aware of his role in preserving and conserving agrobiodiversity.

Conserved Areas Of India

The biodiversity in India is being conserved through the establishment of Sanctuaries, National Parks , Biosphere Reserves , Reserved Forests, etc., after the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. But even before this Act had been passed, some states had their own legislations and the Indian Forest Act of 1927 allowed the setting up of wildlife sanctuaries.

National Parks and Sanctuaries

These have been created exclusively for protecting the wild flora and fauna in all parts of India and for the purpose of protecting and propagating wildlife.

Biosphere Reserves

Their basic purpose is the conservation of the biotic community as a whole. So far we have 7 biosphere reserves and 7 other potential sites have been identified to be declared as biosphere reserves.

Botanical Gardens

Their main objective is to study and conserve the diversity of plant life of a region or nation. This is known as ex-situ conservation under which rare and threatened plants may be raised in a botanical garden so as to conserve them for posterity. There are about 78 well established gardens in India.

Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Conservation

Medicinal and aromatic plants continue to be an important therapeutic aid for alleviating ailments of humankind. The importance of plant based medicine waxed and waned during the last 200 years. Advancements made in synthetic chemistry along with the discovery of antibiotics and cortico-steroids and their artificial synthetics caused rapid decline of plant based medicines particularly in the developed nations during the century. The developing nations depend on the other hand mostly on plants for their medicine. In recent times, however, due to the increasing realization of the health hazards and toxicity associated with the indiscriminate use of synthetic drugs and antibiotics, there has been a renewal of interest in the use of plants and plants based drugs throughout the world. According to WHO, the resurgence of public interest in traditional medicine is on the increase because of a sweeping green wave and a large number of plant drugs are now sold in the 'health food shops' all over the world including the developed world. The preventive and promotive aspects of the Eastern traditional systems of medicine particularly that of India and China are finding increased popularity and acceptance through out the world and scope for developing plant based drugs assumes greater significance at a time when modern medicine has failed to provide cure for the dreadful diseases like cancer, AIDS, arthritis, liver diseases and other diseases of unknown etiology.

The resurgence of public interest in plant based medicine coupled with the rapid expansion of pharmaceutical industries have necessitated an increased demand for medicinal plants leading to over-exploitation that threaten the survival of many rare species. Confronted by such unprecedented genetic loss, disappearance of species and ecosystems conservation of our national heritage assumes paramount urgency. Over-exploitation and unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plant resources are posing great danger to the survival of several invaluable plant species in the wild. Habitat degradation due to increased human activities (human settlements, agriculture and other developmental projects), illegal trade in rare and exquisite plant species and loss of regeneration potential of the degraded forests have further accelerated the current rate of genetic erosion and species extinction. Considering the rapid loss of medicinal plants various measures have been initiated in India for conserving and sustainably utilizing the medicinal plant genetic resources.

Current practices of harvesting are unsustainable, resulting in depletion of resource base.  Medicinal plants based industries in India also lack a proactive and socially responsible approach, and are therefore partly responsible for inefficient, imperfect, informal and opportunistic marketing of medicinal plants. 

The collections in most cases are done by villagers and tribals, without paying attention to the stage of maturity, dried haphazardly and stored for long periods under unsuitable conditions.  The quality of collected material, as such is often degraded.

Several medicinal plants have been assessed as endangered, vulnerable and threatened due to over harvesting or unskillful harvesting in the wild.  The Government of India has put 29 species in the negative list of export.

The other main source of medicinal plant is from cultivation, which is considered more appropriate for use in the production of drugs.  Given the higher cost of cultivated material, cultivation is often done under contract.  In the majority of cases, companies cultivate only those plant species, which they use in large quantity or in the production of derivatives and isolates, for which standardisation is essential and quality is critical.  More recently growers have set up cooperatives or collaborative ventures in an attempt to improve their negotiating power and achieve higher price.

Unique Features of Kerala

Kerala has been at the forefront of ayurvedic revolution in the country, endowed with rich biodiversity because of its natural topography comprising of all three biomes – hills, plateaus and coasts.  The state government has established R&D and educational infrastructure for further developing the science of traditional medicine, and also took the lead in promoting health tourism which has been equally popular among Indian as well as foreign tourists.

Some features that make Kerala an ideal place for the growth of traditional medicine, particularly the Ayurvedic system, are:

·        Kerala is host to one of the largest number of quality treatment centres and the largest number of treatment methodologies. Almost all the hotels and resorts in the state have Ayurveda centres, run by authentic and traditional Ayurveda institutions, making “health tourism” a unique selling proposition for the state.

·        Kerala has the largest pool of qualified and committed Ayurveda doctors and experienced therapists.

·       Kerala all the three kinds of biomes, namely hills, plateaus and coasts, making it a biodiversity hotspot having a rich source of medicinal plants.  Almost 70% of the herbal plants used in the formulation of Ayurvedic remedies are native to Kerala.

·       India’s premier learning institutions imparting Ayurvedic education are in Kerala.

·       Most manufacturers and practitioners of Ayurveda in the state follow the traditional and authentic form of the system, strictly adhering to regimens prescribed in the classical texts.

·       Kerala has proven expertise in the practice of the Ashtanga pradhan (all the eight divisions of Ayurveda) in its most comprehensive form as well as the panchakarma treatment.

·       The state has the distinction of making independent treatment contributions in the form of the very popular Navarakizhi and Thakradhara.

·       Kerala has developed the expertise for preparation of unique oils for external applications such as Mukkoottu and Kuzhambu. 

The conservation methods of medicinal and aromatic plants include the following.

In situ conservation (Eco-centric)

  • Biosphere reserves

  • National parks

  • Wild life sanctuaries

  • Sacred groves

  • Other protected areas

Ex situ conservation (Species/field centric)

  • Field cultivation (as pure/inter/avenue/hedge crops in homesteads, plantations, waste lands, etc)

  • Sacred groves

  • Botanic gardens

  • Arboreta

  • Biological parks

  • Bio-banks/cryopreservation (seed, pollen, embryos, genes)

 In vitro conservation(Biotechnology/Lab centric)

  • Somaclonal variation

  • In vitro mutagenesis

  • In vitro fertilisation

  • Embryo culture

  • Haploid culture

  • Protoplast culture

  • Genetic transformations

Successful field cultivation (as pure/inter/avenue/hedge crops in homesteads, plantations, waste lands, etc) requires the following.

Improvement of agricultural practices through agricultural university

  • Education and training of persons/groups engaged in collection of medicinal plants from wild sources.  Important aspects to be covered are identification of medicinal plants, time and methods for collection/harvesting, storage and post-harvest treatment practices, propagation, transportation etc.
  • Provision of training and extension services to farmers engaged in cultivation of medicinal plants, covering pre and post harvest management of the crops, covering
  • §         awareness  of new improved varieties

  • §         inter-cropping techniques

  • §         practices for organic farming

  • §         propagation techniques (including tissue culture)

  • §         irrigation requirements, particularly at critical stages

  • §         use of fertilizers & nutrients and crop protection chemicals

  • §         weed control

  • §         harvesting time and method

  • §         drying and storage

  • §         grading and cleaning

  • §         anti-microbial treatment

  • Visits of growers & collectors to demonstration farms & R&D centres
  • Promotion of co-operatives, as a means of self-regulation of trade

Reducing dependence on wild availability

  • Increasing the area under cultivation of medicinal plants, by providing  technical and financial assistance to farmers under various schemes of central and state government departments
  • Facilitation of medium term contracts between farmers/farmer co-operatives and processors/exporters (contract farming).  This would be mutually beneficial in terms of assured market for growers and assured availability for processors/exporters.
  • Government procurement through minimum support price which should also be remunerative for the farmers.  The co-operative federation does offer guaranteed off-take but the price not attractive enough.
  • Introduction of crop insurance scheme for medicinal plants grown in the proposed AEZ
  • Setting up of Demonstration/Model Farms 
  • Introduction of improved seeds and new high yielding varieties
  • Encouragement to inter-cropping of medicinal plants with cash crops such as coconut, rubber etc.

Conservation of the natural sources of medicinal plants

o       Establishment of herbal gardens or “vanaspati vans”

o       Re-planting of medicinal plants in forest areas (in situ conservation)

o       Training of persons and groups engaged in collection, to minimize damage to forests

Commercially oriented time-bound R&D programmes

o       Development of packages of “good agronomic practices” for collectors, growers (including for inter-cropping), for each of the selected medicinal plant species

o       Development of improved varieties (high yielding, disease resistant etc.)

o       Development and production of quality seeds and planting material, through tissue culture

o       Development of organic farming package

o       Creation of a gene bank through Tropical Botanical Garden & Research Institute (TBGRI), Thiruvananthapuram.

o       Active ingredients of important medicinal plants to be determined and their quality improved by combination of biotechnology and genetic engineering.

o       Search for new molecules, development of new drugs, their standarisation and patenting on high priority.

o       Development of production processes/equipments


Improvement of processing and quality control

o       Upgradation of production and protection techniques/equipment, through incentives and support schemes, including for certification to international standards.

o       Improvement of post harvest handling, to preserve quality and minimize losses during drying, chemical treatments, storage, packaging and transportation.

o       Training of personnel on various aspects of value addition, shelf life, storage & packaging of products (raw, extracts, preparations, drugs) as per international norms

o       Encouragement through technical support and financial incentives to processing units for adopting GMPs and international quality standards, including certification.

Strengthening of marketing co-operative(s)

o       Bringing more and more collectors under the co-operatives

o       Establishing Self Help Groups (SHGs) of growers

o       Involving private sector (processors, exporters and hospitality sector) through backward integration initiatives

Export Development

o       Studies in demand supply scenario and marketing

o       Creation of a scientific data base and information centre, for

·        statistics on world trade

·        price trends

·        demand patterns

·        competition

·        importers in various countries

·        regulatory aspects such as IPR, import regulations in important countries etc.

o       Promotion of contract farming between growers and exporters/processors

o       Facilitation of export marketing tie-ups for exporters and processors

o       International exposure of growers, processors and exporters

o       Other innovative marketing methodologies to develop and capitalize on Indian brand equity 

Diversity and pluralism are the characteristics of Indian environment and Indian society. The rich bio-diversity of plants and diverse knowledge systems in harnessing the plant bio-diversity provide an opportunity to meet the future challenges in agriculture, health care systems, fragrance, flavours and allied areas. The failures and non-sustainability of the so-called modern approaches to agriculture and health care systems could be re-assessed through our knowledge heritage and natural resources. If information technology holds today’s fate, biotechnology will determine the future of the coming millennium. Our rich bio-diversity, if conserved and managed properly, will provide the base for the revolution to take off. In order to ensure availability of raw materials of medicinal and aromatic plants in future, its intra-specific genetic resources must be conserved. For effective conservation, it is vital to identify the plants, outline their distribution and assess the scarcity or abundance. Steps should be taken to reintroduce the highly depleted species into those areas where they once grew wild. Priority for ex-situ conservation should be given to species whose habitat has been destroyed or cannot be safeguarded. Considerable traditional knowledge (both documented and undocumented) on use of these plants for human benefit is available but needs revitalization. Comprehensive data base is to be generated with all the pertinent data for judicial use and conservation, like scientific/vernacular/trade names, geographical distribution, status of availability, description of plant part used, method of collection, uses, major chemical constituents and biological activity, pharmacological/toxicological data, source of planting materials, demand/supply status etc. The gene banks thus created have to be put to in-depth characterization from conventional taxonomy to cellular and molecular levels. Future exploitation and utilization of genetic diversity of conserved resources mainly depends on the level of characterization and comprehensive understanding of genetics. The main components of such analysis include genetic identity (molecular fingerprints), relatedness (molecular diversity), structure (genotype) and gene location (DNA sequence).  Techniques using “molecular markers” has direct utility right from identification, documentation to IPR protection and management of biological wealth.


 In Situ conservation :
The conservation of ecosystems and natural habitats and the maintenance and recovery of viable populations of species in their natural surroundings and, in the case of domesticated or cultivated species, in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties.

Ex Situ conservation :
The conservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats.

Types of In Situ conservation :

  • Plants maintained at their natural habitat, i.e. in National Park (NP), Sanctuary,   ClosedArea (CA), Reserved Forest (RF), Protected Forest (PF), Biosphere Reserve (BR), etc.

  • Plants maintained through Cultivation practices;

  • Plants grown and maintained traditionally in relation to religious rituals;

    Types of Ex Situ conservation :

  • Field Genebank, Herbal Garden, Botanical Garden, etc.;

  • Seed Storage;

  • In vitro conservation utilizing techniques, like, Tissue Culture, Reduced Growth Storage, Synthetic Seed, Cryopreservation, DNA Bank, Pollen Bank, etc.

    National Park (NP) :
    National Parks provide protection to natural resources and biodiversity within the demarcated area. According to IUCN, this is the area mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation. There is no permission for grazing, exploiting or removing of any wild life form or biodiversity from these national parks. The administration is headed by Chief Wild Life Warden.

    Sanctuary :
    These are protected areas or reserves for protecting wild relatives of crop plants and endangered plants. As for example, "Orchid Sanctuary" in Arunachal Pradesh, “Gene Sanctuary” in Garo Hills for wild relatives of Citrus; in Meghalaya the habitat of Nepenthes Khasiana ( pitcher plant).

    Biosphere Reserve :
    Biosphere Reserve is an attempt for maintaining the integrity and biological support system for people and nature. It involves conservation, restoration and acquisition of gene pools of species of plants, animals and microorganisms in totality, by setting aside representative areas of wide ranging natural ecosystems throughout the world, for conservation and research. In India, Biosphere Reserve Programme was initiated in 1986 by Govt. of India and to date there are 12 Biosphere Reserves located in different bio-geographical zones.

    Tissue Culture Preservation:
    Tissue Culture techniques are nowadays widely used for conserving plant genetic resources. It is possible to conserve plant germplasm for short – medium term period by exploiting the technique. Methods like, micropropagation, callus culture, somatic embryogenesis can be used for maintaining the plant of interest for a period of time under in vitro conditions.

    Reduced Growth Storage :
    The principle of reduced growth storage is mainly based on manipulations of culture conditions / culture media to allow the cultures to remain viable, but with a slow growth rate. The main advantages are : culture deterioration can be detected visually and therefore loss of viability can be avoided; no requirement of frequent subculturing; less possibility of genetic damage etc.;

    Synthetic Seed :
    It is also known as artificial seed. The idea is developed by exploitation of encapsulation technology. Somatic embryos / meristematic plant tissues like, apical tip, nodal region, etc. are encapsulated with inert gelling matrices (Na-alginate, agar, agarose and many others) and kept under in vitro conditions / freezing temperatures (4o , -20o , -80o etc.) for different time periods. Main advantages are: cost effective; space saving; easily transferable; no genetic damage; successful growth resumption, etc.

    Cryopreservation :
    Cryopreservation means storage at low temperature most often in liquid nitrogen (-196o C) in a manner that viability is retained after thawing.This method is mainly meant for minimizing growth and development. This method is mainly applied for long term conservation of plant germplasm.

    DNA Bank :
    DNA Bank means storing the extracts of DNA in a –80oC freezer for conserving the genetic resources for long term. The conserved DNA can be used for purposes like, molecular phylogenetic study, production of previously characterized secondary metabolites in transgenic cell cultures, production of transgenic plants using gene from gene families, in vitro expression and study of enzyme structure and function and genome probe for research laboratories.

    Seed Storage :
    This is the most widespread method for conserving plant genetic resources. For seed producing plants, seeds can be dried to low moisture content and stored at low temperature to extend their longevity. Storing seeds is a relatively inexpensive conservation measure, and takes so little space that millions of seeds can be stored in a small freezer.

    Field Gene Bank :
    This is one kind of ex situ conservation where wild gene pool is conserved by gathering important plants in a restricted place.

    Botanical Garden :
    Botanic Gardens are institutions holding documented collection of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education.For more information

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