Conservation of Plant Diversity through Local Rituals and Practices
Author: Gayacharan
ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi-110012

India is home to 47,513 plant species representing as much as 11.4% of world flora. Around 28% of the total plant species that occur in India are endemic to the country. The local plant species especially which are endemic to particular region involves centuries long close association with the humans. During the course of evolution, humans have invented several kinds of uses of surrounding plant species as food, shelter, medicine, aesthetic uses, etc. This was always a mutual symbiotic relationship between plants and humans which lead the conservation of an important portion of total plant diversity through local practices and local rituals being followed by different communities. Recently this close relationship is harshly being affected because of deforestation, increased human pressure on natural resources, loss of natural habitats due to heavy infrastructure development, poor inheritance of local knowledge, modern technology oriented new generation giving least importance to local knowledge, poor government policies, etc. In this manuscript some of the examples of conservation through such practices and local rituals are discussed.

Conservation through medicinal uses:

Medicinal use of plants is the major factor of plant diversity being conserved in wild as well as grown for medicinal uses. There are thousands of plants with various medicinal uses and are still being used by local people and tribal communities. These are also sold commercially as ingredient compounds by different global brands like Dabur, Baidyanath, Himalaya, Patanjali, etc. Some of the plants, their medicinal uses and distribution are listed table 1.

Table 1: Plant species and their traditional medicinal uses being followed by local communities

Plant name Traditional medicinal uses Distribution
Ulat kambal (Abroma augusta) uterine tonic, menstrual flow regulation, urinary trouble, bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, poisonous boils, diabetes, rheumatic pain and sinusitis, etc. hotter parts of India up to 1500 m asl, Bangladesh, Pakistan
Rati (Abrus precatorius) cough, cold, purgative, emetic, tonic, aphrodisiac, sciatica, stiffness of shoulder joints and in paralysis, etc. throughout India up to 1200 m asl
Harikasa (Acanthus ilicifolius) snake bite, asthma, paralysis, leucorrhoea and debility, rheumatism, neuralgia , etc. mangroves of Indian peninsula and the adjoining areas
Bish, Mahoor (Aconitum ferox) leprosy, fever, cholera, nasal catarrah, tonsillitis, sore throat, gastric disorders, debility, sedative and diaphoretic, neuralgia and rheumatism, etc. alpine Himalaya
Bel (Aegle marmelos) chronic diarrhoea and dysentery, laxative, astringent, digestive, antidiuretic, anthelmintic, antipyretic, carminative, etc. throughout India
Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata) fevers, worms, dysentery, beneficial to liver and digestive ailments, etc. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and SAARC countries
Ghritakumari (Aloe vera) menstrual diseases, stomach pain, tonic after pregnancy, uterine disorders, high fever, menstrual suppressions, nervous imbalance, inflammation, colic pain, etc. North Africa, Canary Islands and Spain, India
Isharmul (Aristolochia indica) abortifacient, diuretic and anti­inflammatory, promotes digestion and controls menstruation, stimulant, tonic, fevers, etc. throughout Indian plains and lower hilly regions
Satwar (Asparagus racemosus) demulcent, aphrodisiac, diuretic, antidysenteric, impotency, azoospermea, etc. throughout tropical and subtropical regions of India
Barambhi (Bacopa monnieri) tranquilizer, musculature relaxant, antispasmodic, anticancer, asthenia, nervous breakdown, etc. marshes throughout India, up to 1300 m asl
Dhak (Butea monosperma) aphrodisiac, analgesic, anthelmintic, elephan­tiasis, piles, ulcers, tumors, dropsy, etc. plains of India, up to 1300 m asl
Sadabahar (Catharanthus roseus) antimitotic, cancer, emetic, hypotensive, sedative, antiviral, etc. West Indies and gardens in India
Kemuka (Costus speciosus) carcino­genic tumours, astringent, acrid, cooling, purgative, aphrodisiac, anthelmintic, etc. throughout India
Datura alba aphrodisiac, narcotic, antispasmodic, gastropathy, anticancer, anthelmintic, spasmogenic, etc. throughout India
Balkuwari (Ginkgo biloba) cardiovascular disorders, Parkinson's disease, antibacterial, brain tonic, regulates neuro-transmitters, migraine, vertigo, Alzheimer's, etc. Darjeeling
Tamala (Garcinia xanthochymus) Antibacterial, cooling, digestive, emollient, demulcent and cholagogue, etc. India and Myanmar
Holarrhena pubescence Hypotensive, abdominal and glandular tumours, anticancer, anti protozoa, hypoglycaemic, astringent, diarrhoea, intestinal worms, regulates menstruation, etc. India up to 1500 m in the Himalaya
Conservation through local practices:

A large proportion of plant diversity is being utilized in local practices and rituals. Understanding local rituals, practices and belief of indigenous people helps in long term conservation of plant species. Indigenous people are growing generations old crops through inherited seeds not only for food, but they also have invented several other uses of social, cultural and religious importance. Not only crops but wild plant species have been much explored by native people for their needs other than food. This kind of indigenous knowledge is inherited through generations by the native communities and still prevalent in local areas at least by tribal communities. The local practices pay critical role in survival of plant species as well as native communities. There are hundreds of tribal communities spread throughout India which are the rich source of indigenous knowledge. Some examples of local tribal communities are: Abors (Arunachal Pradesh), Badagas (Nilgiri), Baiga (M.P.), Bhils (M.P., Rajastan), Bhot (Himachal Pradesh), Bhotias (U.K.), Chakma (Tripura), Chenchus (Andhra Pradesh), Garos (Meghalaya), Gonds (M.P., Bihar, Orissa, A.P.), Gujjars (H.P., Rajasthan), Jarawas (Andaman), Khasis (Assam, Meghalaya), Kol (M.P.), Mundas (Bihar, Orissa, W. B.), Nagas (Nagaland), Santals (Birbhum region in Bengal, Hazaribagh, Purnea in Bihar, Orissa), etc. Some of the local practices utilizing plant species followed by local tribes are listed in table 2.

Table 2: Some plant species and their uses by local communities

Plant name Local practices
Cassia fistula treating snake-bite, purgative, rheumatism, flowers are cooked as vegetable, making grinding “Ookhala and Mosati”, making garlands, etc.
Pumaria (Cassia obtusifolia) treating ringworm, ulcer, tuberculosis; used as vegetable; dry stem and branches are burnt during night as an alternative torch
Kesundo (Cassia occidentalis) the decoction of fresh leaves used by the tribals to cure foot and mouth diseases of cattle; paste of roots to cure ringworm and paste of fruits against scorpion-stings, etc.
Sonamukhi (Cassia senna) to treat habitual constipation
Seemia (Cassia siamea) known for quality wood, used for making household and kitchen articles, etc.
Puaria (Cassia tora) pods are cooked as vegetable, seeds are powdered and used as a substitute for coffee, washing the clothes, etc.
Malkangani (Celastrus paniculatus) stem-bark taken orally to cure snake-bite, seed-oil on forehead to cure headache, seeds with sugar and ghee as a health tonic, sweet gum id eaten by the children, etc.
Safed-musali (Chlorophytum tuberosum) the root-powder is taken with milk to cure bone fracture.
Subali (Chrozophora rottleri) leaves are used to overcome sunstroke, leaves are used as a fish poison for hunting them.
Hulhul (Cleome gynandra) decoction of seeds for cough, cold and fever, leaf-juice dropped in the ear to cure intermittent fever, rheumatic pains and headache, intestinal ulcer, 5-10 gm seed-powder daily after dinner to cure painful piles and for removing intestinal worms, leaves as vegetable to cure night-blindness, leaves and seeds are also used as fish poison and to kill lice, etc.
Anni (Clerodendrum phlomoidid) leaves are used to kill lice and ticks, tender twigs are used for making bows and arrows by the Garasias tribe, treatment of cattle suffering from diarrhea and worms, etc.
Gokarni (Clitoria ternatea) alcoholic extract of the roots to treat fever. Damor and Dhanka tribes apply seed paste on testes to cure swellings due to syphilis. Bhil and Garasia tribes leaf extract to cure congestion of liver.
Cocculus hirsutus root powder used in rheumatism and venereal diseases; Juice of leaves is antiseptic and applied on old eczema; Decoction of leaves with sugar is taken to cure leucorrhoea.
Pilwan (Cocculus pendulus) juice of ripe fruits yields a durable purple-blue dye which is used as ink and for dyeing the cloths.
Sankhpushpi (Convolvulus prostrates) as brain tonic and laxative
Gundhia (Cordia gharaf) The mature fruits are eaten by most of the tribal communities to cure constipation, piles, intestinal worms and toothache.
Conservation through local taboos:

The traditional beliefs of the indigenous or tribal people are helping in conservation of the plant diversity and the entire forest areas. The traditional beliefs and any other alternative local practices and rituals play as constant reminders to the local people plant species conservation. Some part of forest area or village areas is traditionally recognized as sacred place called as sacred groves, which is forbidden from any kind of harm. Each sacred grove carries its own legends, lore, and myths. The adherence to taboo and fear of bad consequences like land barrenness and even death, helps in the continued preservation of sacred groves. Similarly plant totem is another belief of tribal communities which helps in conserving several plant species. Peepal (Ficus religiosa) and banyan (F. benghalensis) trees are important totem plants. Both trees are worshiped in Hinduism, believed to be abode of spirits, deities. Scientifically both trees are known for air purification and several medicinal uses, more importantly they serve as food for several animals and birds during off season when food is scarce. Few examples of plants and their associated taboos are listed in table 3.

Table 3: Plant species and their associated beliefs (taboo) being followed by local communities

Plant name Taboo
Ganiara (Cochlospermum religiosum) this species is considered as a plant totem (spirit) of Ganawa clan of Bhils and, therefore, they conserve it.
Gugal (Commiphora wightii) the tribes and other native communities believe that fumes of dry gum ward off evil spirits and please their god. Bhils take bark powder to cure cough and cold and they also inhale the fumes of gum to cure fever, bronchitis, nasal catarrh, laryngitis and phthisis.
Gundhia (Cordia gharaf) considered as a plant totem (spirit) of Gunadia clan of Bhils; mature fruits are eaten by most of the tribes to cure constipation, piles, intestinal worms and toothache.
Sitaphal (Cucurbita moschata) Garasia tribe uses the fruits for Jhada ritual to ward off evil spirits and evil eyes effects.
Amar-bel (Cuscuta reflaxa) Bhils tribe use stem and branches for Jhada ritual to ward off evil spirits and evil eyes effects.
Sesum (Dalbergia paniculata) the species is considered plant totem of Barberia clan of Bhils, therefore, worshipped by them.
Goya-khair (Dichrostachys cinerea) the stem-bark and roots are tied on the right arm of the child to protect him from evil eyes by Bhils and Garasias.
Amaltash (Cassia fistula) Bhil and Saharias keep dry fruits under pillows to protect their children from getting them frightened during sleeping.
Arni (Clerodendrum phlomoidid) the tribals rub the juice of plant on the body of infant child to ward off evil spirits.
Conservation through aesthetic values:

Humans and plants have evolved so closely that not only, food, feed and fodder but their aesthetic perceptions are also evolved with plants. Though each plant species has associated aesthetic value, there are some plant species which have been given more importance. Several plant species have been recognized and being utilized by humans for their aesthetic feelings, and gaining mental peace. Since ancient times, they are used for their beautiful flowers, leaves, fruits, fragrance, etc and are planted in surroundings. Such plant species not only beautifies residence areas but also ecosystems and earth as whole. The loss of natural beauty accompanies the loss of total biodiversity. In modern days gardens are major resource of such plant biodiversity and this way it helps in conserving them.

To conclude, I believe that plant species conservation is only possible if indigenous people and tribal communities are sensitized, given importance by designating them as conservator, encouraged to follow their traditional practices and share it with others.

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