In Search of Jatamansi
Much of my knowledge of Himalayan herbs comes from searching for rare herbs in the mountains. Every trek was spectacular in its own way, but there were a few that stood out – none more so than the treks into the Great Himalayan National Park to search for the most elusive of all the threatened species: Nardostachys jatamansi.
In 2008 we organised an 8-day trek with two leading Ayurvedic herb companies, Pukka Herbs and Banyan Botanicals, to search for jatamansi, ending up at Chanyara farm. After the trek I was invited to write an article for the LA Yoga Magazine on our experience. Below is the original version of that article. I have made very few changes since 2008 so some of the information is a little outdated, but it brings to life some of the magic of searching for and finding these incredibly rare plants in their natural habitat.
Our group of plant hunters in October 2008
In Search of Jatamansi: A Modern Day Plant Hunt
For the modern day plant hunter, Nardostachys jatamansi, or Indian Spikenard, could be described as the holy grail of Ayurvedic herbs. Growing at four kilometres above sea level on steep rocky cliffs in the Himalayas, buried under snow and ice for half the year and hidden in mist and cloud during the monsoon months, it is hard to find a herb more elusive and alluring.
As a medicine, jatamansi has the unusual dual properties of relaxing the nervous system whilst making the mind more alert; it is the perfect herb to help a stressed out world, or to focus a restless mind in meditation. Its power emanates from its aromatic hairy rhizomes, which resemble dreadlocks, known as ‘jata’ in Sanskrit – thus the name jatamansi.
Two thousand years ago, jatamansi found its place in history during ‘The Last Supper’ when “a costly ointment of spikenard” was anointed onto the feet of Jesus by Mary Magdalene. So costly was the ointment that Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, criticised the act as a waste, claiming that it might have been sold for three hundred denarii (the equivalent income of three hundred days work) and the money given to the poor.
Twenty centuries later jatamansi clings to its existence on Himalayan cliffs, rarely seen by anyone except for the occasional village herb collector seeking to uproot its aromatic rhizomes to sell to traders in the local market. The high demand for the medicinal properties of its dried rhizomes has led to wide-spread over-exploitation and what was once very costly has now become very rare. Jatamansi is currently listed under appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) as a species that ‘is not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival’.
My interest in Himalayan medicinal herbs began in 2002 when I started to experiment with cultivating threatened herb species for an Ayurvedic Herb company in the UK called Pukka Herbs. At the time I was working with an NGO planting trees in Himachal Pradesh in North West India and the idea of growing threatened herb species fitted in perfectly with what we were already doing. Pukka Herbs gave me a list of seven botanical names, none of which I had ever heard of, and I embarked upon a mission to identify the plants, collect seeds and multiply.
It took me two years to find my first jatamansi plant. By this time, I had already identified all the other species listed by Pukka Herbs, and we had started propagating some of them in high-altitude nurseries. Jatamansi was the last remaining species to be found, and my interest in finding it had evolved into a mild obsession! Previous treks into the mountains in the Kullu District, carrying ‘wanted’ photos of the jatamansi to show to shepherds, had all ended without success. It was not until September in 2004, following the advice of a local herb collector, that we finally found a jatamansi plant growing on a vertical rock-face three days walk into the Great Himalayan National Park.
It is hard to describe the excitement of finding a rare herb after searching for it for so long. I have travelled with bird watchers and marvelled, often enviously, at their enthusiasm at seeing a small grey bird that to me looks like, well, a small grey bird. So I can understand when others who trek with me find it hard to share my excitement having found a plant that to them looks like quite ordinary, like any other small green plant on the mountainside.
The first time I found jatamansi was as frustrating as it was exciting. The day had started with an important discussion with all the members of our team; three foreigners, a local guide (a herb collector himself), two porters and a cook; we were all to scour the cliffs and anyone who found jatamansi was to immediately tell me, and under no circumstances should anyone uproot a single plant.
Later that morning our cook Tek Ram struck gold; I heard his shout of delight first and then saw his beaming grin as he clambered over the top of a cliff towards me shouting “milgaya, milgaya!!” (I found some!). With the same beaming grin he then proceeded to empty jatamansi roots out of his pockets… “Noooooooo!!!” I shouted, but it was obviously too late!
His justification was that I would never have been able to climb down the vertical cliff where he found them, so he brought them to me. He was right, there was no way in the world I would have climbed down that cliff, and I suppose I can’t fault his intentions. Nevertheless I made my feelings clear, requested him to replant the roots on the same cliff and called an emergency meeting to repeat the morning’s discussion again.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon, having felt increasingly sick with the thought of Tek Ram’s pockets full of jatamansi roots in the morning, that finally I found a plant with its roots in the soil. It was a beautiful specimen, growing out of a crack in a vertical rock-face. It had finished flowering and some of the leaves were just starting to turn yellow. There were some seeds that may have been ready to collect, but after the day’s events and having only found a single plant, I could not bring myself to rob it of its chance to regenerate in its natural habitat. I simply sat with the plant in silence, grateful to have the opportunity to see it growing in the wild, and relieved to know that Tek Ram’s roots had not been the last surviving plants in the National Park! I took a few photographs, paid my deep respects and wandered peacefully back down the ridge to our camp.
Two years later, in 2006, I started working part-time with Pukka Herbs, visiting their herb projects around India and Sri Lanka. Through them I also became associated with one of their close partners, Banyan Botanicals, an Ayurvedic herb company in the US. One of the highlights of each year since then has been our annual herb tour when Sebastian and I from Pukka Herbs, and Kevin and Scott from Banyan Botanicals spend two weeks together visiting farms and jungles in South India and Sri Lanka. This is a time when we are able to indulge in our shared passion of Ayurvedic herbs, and inevitably many a long journey has been spent dreaming up plans for a Himalayan pilgrimage in search of Jatamansi.
It took us another two years before we finally managed to arrange a jatamansi pilgrimage, an eight-day trek through the Great Himalayan National Park to the same cliffs where I had found it four years previously. By this time, I had set up my own company, Biolaya Organics, with the aim of cultivating threatened Himalayan herb species in high-altitude farms to reduce pressure on the plants in the wild. One of our farms is located on the border of the National Park, which meant that we were able to organise our trek so that we would end up at the farm on our final day to see the herbs that we had seen in the mountains being cultivated in fields.
Both Pukka Herbs and Banyan Botanicals have supported our efforts in setting up this farm by helping to fund the purchase of seedlings and some of the costs of organic certification, and offering to buy the dried rhizomes. Jatamansi was a key ingredient of Banyan Botanicals’ best-selling ‘Tranquil Mind’ formula, but was removed after they discovered its status as a threatened species. Since then it has been a dream of both companies to help conserve Jatamansi and other threatened herbs, and to help set up a sustainable supply so that it may once again be made available without detriment to the species’ long-term survival.
Despite its impressive sounding name, the Great Himalayan National Park is one of the least known national parks in India and there are only a few tour operators organising treks within the park. Even the busiest of the park’s trekking routes are only visited by a few groups a year, allowing nature to effortlessly reclaim any footprints (and most footpaths) left behind by its visitors.
The route that we took was tailor-made for finding jatamansi. This meant taking a sharp diversion off the main path early on the second day and walking steep uphill through undergrowth for the next three days. For herb enthusiasts, walking steadily upwards through the different altitudinal zones of a Himalayan mountain is a slow, sometimes exhausting, yet extremely rewarding experience; in the rich, dark soils of the forest we found valerian, Himalayan may apple, manjishta and shatavari, higher in the open meadows St. John’s wort, yarrow and oregano, then higher still in the rocky slopes rhubarb, chirata and tansy. With each few steps we would find a new colour, taste or smell, many familiar, most of them unknown. The ultimate rewards, rare herbs such as kutki, atis, and jatamansi lay further ahead, above the tree line at the highest point of the trek.
One of our guides, Ram Singh, was an experienced herb collector and had spent many years collecting jatamansi before the National Park was established and herb collection was banned. We quizzed him endlessly as we walked up the mountain; in return he told us fascinating, sometimes terrifying tales of herb collection, how he and his friends in the village would lower each other down the cliff with home-made hemp rope tied around their wastes to reach the biggest jatamansi plants, and how each year at least one person in the area would lose their life by slipping off the cliffs while collecting herbs.
On the third day, having emerged above the tree line and slowly making our way up a long ridge, we stopped to drink water and take in the views. Ram Singh sat ahead with Tek Ram (the same Tek Ram who had been with us four years earlier) scanning the cliffs that lay about hundred feet beyond. Ram Singh had spotted what he believed could be an area of Jatamansi plants.
Tek Ram leapt to his feet and bounded from rock to rock across to the base of the cliffs and up the rock-face. Half way up the cliff he turned back and shouted, “Milgaya!!!”… We had found jatamansi!
My own joy briefly turned to panic as it occurred to me that Tek Ram may be tempted again to uproot some plants to show the rest of us, so I also leapt to my feet and bounded after him. To my relief, I found him precariously balanced half way up the cliff, this time armed with a digital camera, photographing the plants that we couldn’t, or didn’t dare to reach!
It was the first week of October and by this time the plants had already turned yellow. In the lower portion of the cliff there were a few small plants, higher above that where even Tek Ram could not reach, were some enormous plants. The knowledge that they were out of reach of any of our guides was comforting; the species may be vulnerable to exploitation but it has chosen a niche environment where I believe it will continue to survive.
Being in the ‘jatmansi zone’ is in itself a profound experience. The plant, by necessity of its chosen niche, draws one high above the world into a place of deep silence and beauty. Snowy peaks glisten on the horizon, and row upon row of blue mountain ridges fade into the distance below. The excitement and anticipation of the plant hunt transforms into a deep sense of reverence. The experience draws one inside, the outer world providing a mirror to the inner world, the clutter of daily life dissolving into wide-open spaciousness – the very same qualities that the rhizomes impart when consumed as a herbal medicine.
In practical terms it is hard to understand why a plant would choose to grow in such an extreme environment if it wasn’t for the appreciation of solitude and beauty. Some may argue that its instinct for self-preservation inspired it to grow on the cliffs rather than the fertile meadows below, or that it used to grow in the meadows but has all been uprooted by herb collectors, leaving only the plants on the cliffs that remain out of reach. I prefer the explanation that jatamansi has chosen this environment for the higher qualities of its existence, that like us on our pilgrimage, it too draws upon the silent powers of the high mountains and within its spaciousness comes closer to knowing its true nature.
Whatever the explanation, it is the inspiration found in the plants and the mountains, the appreciation of solitude and beauty, that drives us to keep working in this environment and contribute in whatever way we can towards its conservation.
We continue to cultivate threatened herbs, and are now developing projects to provide herb collectors with alternative sources of income through sustainable collection of more common herbs such as wild oregano. On Chanayara farm, the final destination of our jatamansi pilgrimage, we have had very promising results with some of the species such as kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa) and Himalayan marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza hatagirea). Jatamansi has proven to be more challenging to grow, and despite huge efforts to propagate the plant on a large scale we still only have relatively small quantities. Our efforts continue and we hope that before long you also will be able to experience the benefits of jatamansi with the knowledge that it has been grown sustainably and that the plants in the wild are left alone to enjoy their peace and solitude.