Biolaya

Threatened Species

Threatened Species

There are several official lists of threatened species; the most widely recognised are CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) and the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List. There are also various local and national ‘red-lists’. They don’t always agree, and they all have different criteria for listing a species, but they all provide a valuable starting point and guide for working on conservation projects.

Below I have compiled a selection of my top threatened Himalayan herbs. All of these are included in CITES, and some are also in the IUCN Red List. But from my perspective, they are all herbs that we spent a lot of time working with; we have walked for many days searching for them, visiting them at different stages of their lives, and raising their young from seeds and cuttings in our nurseries. So, to me they are much more than a ‘red-list’; they have become old friends.

Jatamansi

Botanical name: Nardostachys jatamansi / Nardostachys grandiflora
Common name: Indian Spikenard
Hindi Name: Jatamansi / jatamamsi
Local Name in Seraj Area: Nehani (not to be confused with Valeriana jatamansi which is also called ‘nehani’ in other parts of Kullu)
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II*

Of all the threatened species of Himalayan herbs, Nardostachys jatamansi sits undisputedly at the top of my list. In Himachal Pradesh it has become extremely rare – it took us two years and several failed missions to find a single plant. The only plants we did find were high up in the mountains at around 4000m on almost vertical cliffs in the Great Himalayan National Park. I am told that it is more common in Nepal, but still in rapid decline.

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. Traditionally, the local villagers used it to treat people with mental illnesses or people suffering from fits. Its hairy rhizomes contain a volatile oil with a beautiful aroma, highly valued as a relaxing / consciousness-raising essential oil.

We made several attempts at cultivating jatamansi, but never succeeded on a large scale. This is partly due to the difficulty of obtaining seeds and seedlings, and partly due to the difficulty of replicating the conditions in which it likes to grow. Scientists at HAPPRC (the High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre) in Uttarakhand have demonstrated that it is possible, and of all herbal endeavours I personally think that large-scale jatamansi cultivation is one of the most important waiting to happen.

There is a loophole in the CITES regulations that means that it is legal to export the herbs in a processed form, including as an essential oil. To me this seems mad, as essential oils require vast amounts of raw herb to produce. From what I have seen in the UK, spikenard oil appears to be gaining in popularity, and few people seem to be aware of the fact that it is an endangered species.

Until there is a verified sustainable source of jatamansi, I would urge people to stop using spikenard oil, and if possible to support efforts being made to conserve it. It is really on the edge and too precious to risk losing forever.

Jatamansi grows at high altitudes, and is often found growing on cliffs or steeps rocky slopes
The name 'jatamansi' is said to come from 'jata', the hindi word for dreadlock, as the hairy root resembles the dreadlocks of a Sadhu
A precious jatamansi seedling germinated from seed. It will take another 3-4 years before this plant can be harvested

Kutki

Botanical name: Picrorhiza kurroa
Common name: Kutki
Hindi Name: Kutki
Local Name in Kullu: Kurroo
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

Like jatamansi, kutki grows high above the tree line and for six months of the year lies dormant deep under the snow. Although more common than jatamansi, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find and is becoming confined to the same inaccessible locations as collectors continue to harvest it in large volumes.

The word ‘kurroa’ means bitter in Hindi – aptly named due to its extremely bitter roots and rhizomes. It is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine, used primarily as a liver tonic. In Kullu it is traditionally used for any type of stomach complaint and/or fever, often in combination with patish (Aconitum heterophyllum).

Of all the herbs that are new to cultivation, kutki is the one that has had the most success in government research institutes and nurseries, and as a result it is relatively easy to get hold of seedlings. Kutki was the herb that we did the most work on, and I have written more about our experience in Kutki at Chanyara Farm.

Kutki growing in the high meadows above Deushar (approx. 3500m)
Like jatamansi, kutki can also be found growing on rocky cliffs
Kutki is harvested for its extremely bitter rhizome

Kushta

Botanical name: Saussurea costus, formerly known as S. lappa
Common name: Kushta / Kuth
Hindi Name: Kuth
Local Name in Lahaul: Koont
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

Kushta is the only medicinal plant species in India listed under appendix I (i.e. currently threatened with extinction). It is said to be endemic to the Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranachal. We never actually found a plant growing in the wild, but I’m told it can still be found further north in parts of Kashmir.

Although considered critically endangered in its natural habitat, Kushta is the only species in this list that is already a well-established cultivated crop, and as such appears to be in little danger of disappearing altogether. In Lahaul district, every farmer knows how to grow kushta and it is common to see it growing alongside other cash crops such as peas and potatoes (we partnered with a farmer in Lahaul to grow kushta and pushkarmool).

The plant grows to about 5 feet in height and has large leaves similar to burdock (Arctium lappa). Presumably its conspicuous size and lack of hiding places would have contributed to its rapid demise in its natural habitat.

It produces an incredibly aromatic rhizome with a wide range of medicinal uses. Traditionally it has most commonly been used to treat coughs, colds, ulcers, rheumatism and digestive disorders. Modern research has verified that it is an effective anti-inflammatory. Its essential oil is also sometimes used in perfumes and hair oil.

Kushta has been banned in the US (rather unfairly) because it shares the same Chinese name – Mu Xiang – as several Aristolochia species that contain compounds that are said to be carcinogenic. There is no evidence to suggest that Kushta contains any toxic compounds; in fact, to the contrary, it has been shown to cleanse the body of toxic accumulations.

Cultivated kushta (or kuth) in Lahaul
Kushta produces extremely aromatic roots
The plant looks very similar to burdock (Arctium lappa) - the most recognisable difference are the winged stems

Bankakri

Botanical name: Podophyllum hexandrum
Common name: Himalayan May Apple
Hindi Name: Bankakri
Local Name in Kullu: Bankakri
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

The Himalayan May Apple, known locally as bankakri, joins the list of threatened species due to the fact that its roots contain a highly valued compound called podophyllotoxin, used in pharmaceutical drugs to treat various forms of cancer. Scientists are yet to find a viable way to synthesise podophyllotoxin so the industry continues to rely on plant material as its primary source of raw material.

Bankakri has a unique umbrella-like leaf structure, and once mature produces a huge bright red fruit, not unlike a vine tomato. It produces many long thin roots that grow deep into the ground (I once tried to fully uproot a plant and it resulted in a surprisingly large hole). Its most distinctive feature though is its single upward-facing flower, which begins its life as a bud that is formed before the plant has even emerged from the soil.

My experience of bankakri was that populations were distributed very randomly; sometimes we would walk for a week without seeing a single plant, on other occasions we would find patches of forest where it grew in abundance. I’m not sure whether this is a result of a natural affinity to certain environments, or because certain villages have been more ruthless and efficient in uprooting the plants for the market. But it’s reassuring to know of a few spots where its future appears to be well secured.

A young bankakri plant
The flower bud is formed before it even emerges from the soil
Another young bankakri plant

Chora

Botanical name: Angelica glauca
Common name: Smooth Angelica
Hindi Name: Chora
Local Name in Kullu: Chora
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

Angelica glauca likes to grow amongst the undergrowth, usually in the rich, moist soils of semi-shaded forest at an altitude of around 2500-3000m. Growing up to 2.5m in height, it normally only reveals itself above surrounding greenery once it reaches full size and produces its distinctive umbelliferous flowers and seeds.

Endemic to the Western Himalayas, chora has joined the list of threatened species because of its valuable aromatic rhizomes, which are used both in Ayurveda and in local folk medicine primarily as a medicine for treating stomach and digestive issues. As with its Chinese cousin Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis), it is also referred to as ‘female ginseng’ because of its properties of helping to balance hormones and provide relief from discomfort and fatigue during menstruation.

Chora also tastes delicious and is traditionally used as a cooking spice in the villages; the dried root is ground into a powder and a small amount added along with turmeric and other spices – presumably a good preventative for inevitable aromas caused by the staple diet of rajma beans!

Angelica growing in our garden in Deushar
Angelica glauca is known as 'smooth angelica' because it is glabrous, meaning that it has no hairs
Umbelliferous seed head typical of the Apiaceae family (same family as carrots, celery etc.)
As with all the threatened species, chora is harvested for its roots

Patish

Botanical name: Aconitum heterophyllum
Common name: Ativisa / Atis
Hindi Name: Atis
Local Name in Kullu: Patish
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

Everyone in the villages of Kullu knows about patish. Along with kutki, it seems to be one of the few herbs that is still used – mainly by the older generations. To my frustration, very few of the locals could resist walking past a plant without uprooting it and stuffing the little white root it in their pocket.

In the villages patish is used primarily for treating stomach pains and fever. It is also said to treat many other ailments, including snake-bites, impotence, liver disorders and post-fever weakness, to mention a few. It is an important ingredient in various Ayurvedic formulas, including Tribhuvankirti, which is used to treat chronic fever.

As with all aconites, patish contains some toxic compounds and can be dangerous in high doses. In the villages it is often taken in its raw form, but most literature claims that it needs to be purified before use. The traditional method for purification is to boil it in cow’s urine – this may sound like a strange practice, but recent research has validated this as an effective method of converting toxic ‘diester-diterpenoid alkaloids’ (DDAs) into less toxic ‘monoester-diterpenoid alkaloids’ (MDAs).

I would like to have done more work with patish, but there was no demand from our buyers so we limited the scale of cultivation to small trials for our own interest. There were other organisations (such as Pragya), and a few individuals in the villages, who had successfully cultivated it on a significant scale.

Flowering patish in the valley high above Deushar
Patish leaves - distinctive for the way they wrap around the stem
A patish flower
An immature patish seed head - photo taken in the Great Himalayan National Park
The plant is harvested for its small white root

Hathpanja

Botanical name: Dactylorhiza hatagirea
Common name: Himalayan Marsh Orchid
Hindi Name: Panja
Local Name in Kullu: Hathpanja
Conservation Status: CITES appendix II

Of all the threatened species, hathpanja stands out with its spectacular pink flowers – a trait of evolution that acts as a useful beacon for pollinators, but also has the unintended consequence of easily revealing its location to herb collectors.

Hathpanja is a terrestrial orchid – in other words an orchid that grows out the ground rather than up a tree. Like all orchids, hathpanja is evolved a complex dependency on mycorrhizal fungi and specific insect pollinators, without which it is very difficult – perhaps impossible to cultivate and/or propagate. The only time we were successful in germinating the seeds were when we scattered them in the soil below a mother plant growing in its natural habitat.

Hathpanja’s medicinal properties are concentrated in its small tubers that when dried resembles a small hand. The name ‘hathpanja’ comes from the words ‘hath’ meaning hand, and ‘panja’ meaning five, referring to the five ‘fingers’ on the hand. The dried tubers are used primarily as a general tonic. It is given to women after giving birth to increase regenerative fluids, and is also used as an aphrodisiac and to improve general sexual health.

The highly distinctive (and conspicuous) Himalayan marsh orchid
A close-up of its beautiful pink/purple flowers
The root is said to resemble the five fingers on a hand, thus its name 'hath' (hand) 'panja' (five)
The dried root: these tiny roots are traded in tonnes

Other Species

All of these herbs listed above are listed as threatened or endangered under CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) or the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List. The process for registering threatened species is bureaucratic and slow though, and in many cases the actual situation on the ground is much more fluid; demand for herbs can suddenly explode, and just as quickly subside. There are some species listed on CITES that to me do not seem threatened at all; for example, Dioscorea deltoidea (known locally as shingli mingli) is listed under appendix II of CITES, yet I could find it growing everywhere in the forest behind Deushar. On the other hand, shortly before leaving Kullu in 2012 I witnessed a sudden explosion in demand for the roots of a species called Trillium govanianum, known locally as Naag Chattri, which led to total annihilation of plant populations in all the forests around me. As far as I am aware this has not been included in CITES or the IUCN Red List. I don’t know when the next round of CITES assessment is, but there is a real risk that it will be too late.


*Definition of CITES appendices I & II:
CITES, Appendix I Definition = “Species threatened with extinction”.
CITES, Appendix II Definition = “Species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival”.