If you pay a visit to any of the countless little shops in Khari Baoli – the ancient herb & spice market of old Delhi – you will find sack upon sack of dried herbs destined for manufacturers of Ayurvedic medicine and other herbal products throughout India and beyond.
Being a notoriously secret industry, it is unlikely that the shopkeeper will tell you where they’re from – and in many cases, having bought them through a chain of equally secretive traders, they themselves will have no idea.
If you do manage to trace the herbs back to their origin, more often than not it will lead you to the humble dwelling of a family living in the wilds. Many herb collectors are from the poorest families in a community – often from a low caste and with little agricultural land of their own. For some families, herb collection is their only regular source of income.
Unfortunately, booming demand for herbal products around the world has led to massive over-harvesting of herbs in the wild, threatening not only the future of many plant species, but also the livelihoods of herb collectors – a self-perpetuating cycle of dependence and destruction.
In the Himalayas, as with many areas of rich biodiversity, traditional collection practices have given way to a mad race into the mountains to reach the herbs before others. Local collectors have been joined by migrant workers, employed by traders to spend the summer months camped in the mountains uprooting all the herbs they can find. The consequences are devastating; forest floors are stripped of foliage and high altitude meadows are covered in ugly pockmarks where roots have been dug out the ground.
Many valuable Himalayan herbs grow at high altitudes and are buried under snow for at least six months of the year. Due to short growing seasons and cold temperatures, most of these plants grow very slowly and take several years to produce seeds. To survive the long winters, they store all their nutrients (and medicinal properties) in their underground parts, which is why so many are harvested for their roots and rhizomes. Unless a portion of the roots is left in the soil or replanted by the collector they have little chance of regenerating.
Combined with pressures from other human activities, including over-grazing of sheep and buffalo during the summer months, many of these high altitude herbs now cling to a very precarious existence.
Far away, in the bustling bazaars of Khari Baoli the only real clues of what is actually going on is diminishing size and quality of the roots. As demand continues to grow, the traders simply increase the price, encouraging more people to head into the hills to uproot what remains of the herbs, and so the cycle of destruction continues.
Those who are harvesting the herbs have no way of knowing that many species are endemic to the Western Himalayas (i.e. they exist nowhere else in the world). The unusually high concentration of endemic and endangered plants, combined with the impact of over-harvesting, has led to the Western Himalayas being declared as a biodiversity hotpot and a global priority for conservation.
The truth is I knew little of this when I first started to work with Himalayan herbs. At the time most of my limited knowledge of the medicinal herbs was gained from conversations with locals, whose descriptions often blurred the boundaries between myth and fact; there were plants that glowed at night; herbs made you live for two hundred years; and energy-boosting fungi that grew out of the heads of caterpillars (the last one is fact!).
The more time I spent in the mountains, the more I felt humbled and moved by its scale and raw beauty. As my connection with the landscape deepened, so did my awareness of the pressures it was under and my desire to do something about it. When I discovered that many of the most valuable herbs had become threatened from over-harvesting, I knew that’s what I wanted to work on, and I never looked back.
15 years later, I continue to work on herb conservation projects as ‘sustainable herbs manager’ for Pukka Herbs in the UK. My day-to-day work is a world away from the stories that embellished my early herbal education, but I am no less inspired by the magic of healing plants. The more I learn, the more I realise how little we know. Sometimes I wonder, perhaps there are herbs that make you live for two hundred years after all?
One thing I do know is that these herbs have served us for thousands of years, and – if we find ways to protect them – they will continue serving us for generations to come. The herbal knowledge of many indigenous cultures is increasingly being verified by modern science, and as we continue to combine ancient wisdom with the insights of today, I believe these plants have the potential to give us so much more than we can possibly imagine.
But we can’t just keep taking. If we don’t start giving back, and soon, their days really are numbered.