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Indian Plants in Medicine

There is a highly significant story related to Jivaka, physician to Lord Buddha and his followers. Jivaka spent full seven years of intensive study under his guru, at the university of Takshashila, where he earned a name for effecting amazing cures. As a final test his guru gave him a spade and sent him out to search, within a radius of several miles, for any plant devoid of medicinal value. Jivaka passed the test with flying colours when he came back and said he could find no such plant!

Indian medical systems, among them the ancient science of Ayurveda, have always been aware of the medicinal value of plants. To cite but one example, for at least 2500 years before the West recognised the medicinal properties of the rauwolfia root that Indian medicine men had been using it to calm violently disturbed patients. They called it snakeroot and used it to treat, apart from `moon madness' or lunacy, a whole range of afflictions, from snakebite to cholera. In the 1940's Indian scientists isolated the active substances from rauwolfia and discovered its added benefit as a remedy for high blood pressure.

For thousands of years, Indian plants have been attracting attention in foreign countries. Dioscorides mentions many, including datura smoke for treating asthma, nux vomica for paralysis and indigestion, croton as a purgative. Pliny complained of the heavy drain on Roman gold to buy costly Indian drugs (and spices). Some Indian plants or their extracts have already been adopted by modern medicine, including psyllium husk (isabgol) for bowel problems. Many other plants that have been used exclusively in folk medicine now have allopaths hunting for them. These include herbs like Cassia fistula which shows antibiotic activity. A keen search for contraceptives for men has led to research on likely plant material such as bamboo shoots, betel leaf and papaya seed.

The Madagascar periwinkle with its pink/white flowers is a hardy perennial that grows without fuss in countless Indian gardens. So persistent is the flowering that the shrub has come to be known as sadabahar, meaning `ever bloom'. In the 1950's, the periwinkle yielded some alkaloids, particularly useful in the treatment of leukaemia. Great piles of crushed periwinkle leaves are now exported from India to the U.S. to be ground and processed into anti cancer drugs. It takes 12 tons of leaves to extract one ounce of the active ingredient, hence the bulk.

India has an impressive list of medicinal plants, almost all of them native to the soil. Towering above the rest is the neem (margosa). All parts of this ubiquitous tree are bitter and are used in medicine. A decoction of neem leaves helps fevers, particularly malarial fevers, liver problems such as hepatitis, boils and all kinds of skin diseases. Extract of neem is a powerful insecticide, poisonous to insects and parasites.

The amla (emblica officinalis) has been hailed as a nugget of Vit. C in heat stable form. One amla fruit is said to pack more Vit. C than a dozen oranges. It is great for treating respiratory complaints and for rejuvenation of both body and the hair. According to Charka, august physician of yore and father of ayurveda, a regular intake of amla or amla based preparations is a sure method of stalling the ageing process.

Amla joins with two other plants haritaki and bibhitaki to make the super combination known as triphala (three-fruit-combine). Whether used externally or internally, the benefits conferred by triphala are legion. The most significant being rejuvenation of the membrane of the intestinal tract.

The small thorny tree known as bel (Aegle marmelos) yields a fruit that is a panacea for digestive disorders. The bamboo has, on the inside of its stem a white, powder deposit known as tavashir which has marked decongestant properties, particularly useful as a local application in tonsillitis. The large, handsome evergreen camphor tree is the traditional (as opposed to synthetic) source of camphor. Used extensively in ritual worship, camphor is a favoured ingredient of liniments and medicinal oils because it liquefies obstinate body secretions and causes them to flow. Gugul (Commiphora mukul), a small tree which grows in arid regions, produces a resin with marked anti-inflammatory properties, making it perhaps the best medicine going for arthritis. It also helps scrape away fat from the body.

Asafoetida is the resin collected from the living rhizome and root of the small tree Ferula foetida. There are few remedies superior to asafoetida for relieving colic and abdominal distension. The fragrant sandalwood comes from a small tree (Santalum album). Used as paste or powder, it calms skin eruptions. Taken internally it cools the body and mind, while helping to improve the concentration. Tagara (Valeriana wallichii) has long been used as a sedative and anti-spasmodic. Being a natural tranquillizer, it is particularly useful in the treatment of hysteria and epilepsy.

Castor oil, universally disliked but dependable, is a product of the castor plant, also known as eranda (Ricinis communis). The plant grows wild in India. So does berberis (Berberis aristata), used to control jaundice and inflammations ranging from gastro-enteritis to conjunctivitis. A special boon for those suffering from piles. Berberis is a native of hilly areas.

The hibiscus shrub has great cooling properties. Crushed leaves of hibiscus, applied to the scalp in summer, prevent dandruff and lend lustre to the hair. Dried and powdered henna leaves, made into a paste, soothe rashes, particularly eczema. The paste applied before a regular shampoo makes the hair soft and silky. The dried and powdered rhizome of the turmeric plant is a powerful antiseptic for external wounds as well as intestinal infections. And be it said to its everlasting glory, a level teaspoon of turmeric in a glass of hot milk, taken at bedtime, can and does stave off an attack of flu. Laced with honey, this combination even helps a case of trauma. The grass known as cuscus (vetiver) purifies the blood and helps reduce fever, while soothing both vomiting and diarrhoea.

But it is not possible to list all the benefits that accrue from the tulsi plant (Holy basil). We shall, however, make an attempt. It protects the throat, skin, digestive and respiratory tracts. Combined with ginger juice, black pepper and honey, it cures catarrh. It is a tonic for the heart and has been found effective n the first stages of many cancers. Tulsi purifies the air and is an insect repellnt. No wonder the word `tulsi' itself means `matchless'.

While dwelling on the virtues of tulsi, we can't possibly forget fenugreek (methi). A powerful tonic for the digestive, respiratory and nervous systems, it is an all-round pick up for the human organism. Highly effective in the treatment of both diabetes and high blood pressure, fenugreek also holds promise for certain types of arthritis. As if this were not enough, a hair cleaner made from soaked and ground seeds of fenugreek, prevents premature hair loss.

Saffron relieves respiratory congestion, mint and coriander are digestives. Drumstick leaves help high blood pressure, the fruit tones up the heart and circulatory system. The ripe fruit of the tamarind stimulates the appetite and digestion. Garlic lowers both blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and ginger is definitely anti-catarrh, beside being a safe and sure digestive. Aloe, the succulent that requires little persuasion to grow, contains allantoin, a substance known for its healing properties. Thus aloe is applied externally to burns, rashes, inflammations and other painful conditions, with excellent results. Highly prized aloe now forms part of many brands of face creams and moisturisers worldwide.

But we are touching only the fringe of the subject. The average Indian grandma/housewife is familiar with medicinal plants growing in her own kitchen garden or neighbourhood. Hundreds of herbs and plants are in regular use by medical practitioners. Even so, hundreds more lie unidentified and unexplored, their virtues described in ancient texts but known only to a few.

India not only has a host of medicinal plants, it also has a host of do's and dont's laid down for collecting the required portions - leaves, roots, fruit etc. of these plants. How a herb is grown and gathered affects its qualities. Thus plants collected for medicinal use should have no impurities nearby and the location should be far away from a graveyard or cremation ground. Likewise there should be no termite mounds in the vicinity. On no account is an insect infested plant to be picked. And, significantly, plant material is to be gathered at its freshest, that is, early in the morning for purpose of Alternative Medicine in India