Category Archives: Medicinal plants

Scotland’s superfood weeds: using them at home & on the farm.

Following on from the report in the Scotsman on the superfood benefits of corn gromwell – http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/health-herb-to-become-super-crop-for-scots-farmers-1-3948583

Plantlife Scotland has put together a top 6 list of native plants, sometimes called weeds, that similarly provide high levels of key vitamins and minerals. These 6 plants all contain high levels of calcium, potassium, with magnesium, sodium and phosphorus, compared to perennial rye grass . Retaining these plants in species rich grasslands increases the availability of these minerals to grazing animals and helps diversify diets.

Some of these plants are superfoods for humans too . For example, nettles contain high levels of iron, calcium, potassium and manganese as well as vitamins a and c and beta-carotene. Traditionally made into soup, nettles can also be made into beer or eaten as greens or drunk as tea. And chickweed is high in magnesium, phosphorus, copper, vitamins A, C, B6, B12 and D.  Maybe we’re all missing something here: we have a superfood larder on our doorstep!


Dandelion
Dandelion

Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale
High in calcium and copper, compared to perennial rye grass. Used medicinally in the past and still used today as a diuretic, and as a tonic. It grows in a wide range of habitats including grassland and cultivated ground.

Common or stinging nettle: Urtica diocia
High in phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and copper, compared to perennial rye grass. Nettles contain many vitamins and minerals and are easily digested and have been used widely in the past to make soup, tea, beer or as greens. What’s more, cloth spun from nettle fibre was still being produced in Scotland into the late 18th century and a range of yellow to green-grey dyes were extracted. It was one of Scotland’s most useful plants. It grows in all habitats wherever the soil is rich in nitrogen.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

Spear thistle: Cirsium vulgare
High in calcium compared to perennial rye grass. It grows in grassy and disturbed habitats.

Yarrow
Yarrow

Yarrow: Achillea millefolium
High in potassium and calcium compared to perennial rye grass. Used extensively in the past as a medicinal plant for humans and animals. It was used to treat sheep scab on the farm. And in the home, it was used to treat consumption, wounds, stomach complaints, cuts and bruises. The tea was drunk to combat melancholy. It was also used to make beer. It grows in grassy habitats.

Chickweed: Stellaria major

High in phosphorus, potassium, and sodium. In the past this plant had many medicinal uses and used for example to treat rashes and rheumatism, constipation and coughs and insomnia. It grows on bare patches in cultivated land on rich soils. Often a garden weed.

Creeping thistle: Cirsium arvense
High in phosphorus, potassium and calcium, compared to perennial rye grass. It grows in grassy habitats.

Further reading:

SRUC technical note TN643 (October 2014): Weed management in grassland.
Tess Darwin (2008) The Scots herbal. Birlinn.

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Living change and changing lives.

Although life is in constant flux everywhere on the planet, change really is the one constant of life in Nepal’s remote landscapes like Dolpo. Two days flight from Kathmandu and with no road access, this area is both remote and self contained. But unchanging it is not.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Located on the border with Tibet, Dolpo has had its share of political change as borders open and close. The closing of the Tibetan border in the 1950s shut off access to traditional grazing lands to the north, to family and community ties built up over decades and to trading routes that were a tightly enmeshed system of year round survival. These have largely gone. The Dolpopa have moved on and changed.

Their ability to change is remarkable. With the economics of market veering sharply from north to south, the Dolpopa haven’t given up but instead have fallen back on their entrepreneurial reserves and created new niches for themselves. Once salt traders and middle men between the Tibetan salt traders from the north and the commodity traders from the south, the Dolpopa still play an intermediary role but now for Chinese foodstuffs and drink and luxury goods. Ever flexible, the Dolpopa retain their Buddhist religion but adopt Hindu names too. Anthropologists have a field day in Nepal: fascinating accounts of the social and cultural flexibility of the Dolpopa in the face of the massive political, economic and social changes wrought in Nepal from the 1950s right up until today illustrate just how flexible the Dolpopa are and how much they need to be. Kenneth Bauer’s 2004 High Frontiers illustrates this well as does James Fischer’s 1989 Trans Himalayan traders.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Although remote, Dolpo is doing OK today. There are estimated to be any number between 1,000 – 2,000 trekkers a year. This is not a substantial tourism trade. Yet businesses are doing well. Explore Dolpo, staffed largely by Dolpopa is the leading trekking agency in Dolpo and as well as organising its own treks, it supplies equipment to every other trekking company who fly in from Kathmandu. Hotels and tea houses are springing up along the main routes. There aren’t many – usually only one per settlement so relying on them as accommodation would not be feasible but they do supplement the camping grounds.

Some villages have been adopted by NGOs, although interest in the area appears to be waning. It was initially high following the release of the Hollywood feted film, Caravan, filmed on part of the main trekking route. Although not uniformly welcomed, the film shines a light on Dolpo and does bring trekkers to the area. Still, Action Dolpo supports development in Dho Tarap and Himalaya project is raising money for an amchi school also in Dho Tarap. Elsewhere in Dolpo, other villages have less attention focussed on them: earlier projects in Shey Phoksundo by WWF Nepal and in Bhijer now have lower levels of support, despite being brilliant ideas worth supporting. The Dolpopas are being left to their own resources again.

Yet these are significant. The current major source of cash income is the trade in yartsa gumba (Cordyceps sinensis), also known as caterpillar fungus or Himalayan gold or Himalayan Viagra, depending on which newspaper you read. It is not gold. It is in fact a fungus infected caterpillar that has great medicinal value and is currently trading at just over £9,000 a kilo. It does generate gold however and this is clear on the ground. Every year in the middle of August, Dolpopa traders cross the Tibetan border with caravans of yaks and horses to trade yartsa gumba for cash and basic goods. This trading window is open for 2 weeks a year. Dho Tarap was the most obviously affluent village we visited. There are lots of new buildings and smart wooden windows. All brought in by yak. And in the local shops, you find Chinese products including coca cola, beer, whisky, biscuits, noodles, chocolates, rice, wheat flour and much more. The Dolpopa are fast becoming consumers, thanks to the exploitation of yartsa gumba.

Yet this gold is not likely to last. As a fungus there is no reason that a sustainable harvest could not be gleaned. As long as there are sufficient mature fungi to produce spores and enough caterpillars for them to infect, yartsa gumba should keep growing. The fact however is that there is very little control on harvesting. Collection is not restricted to local people as it is elsewhere in the Nepal Himalaya. Habitat destruction during the harvesting season is anecdotally reducing the harvest gained every year. With too few fungi being left to produce spores, the future for this fungus looks pretty short. The question then will be, what’s next for the Dolpopa? With the spirit of entrepreneurism and the flexibility these communities have repeatedly shown over time, the Dolpopa will find something. I hope that they find it quickly enough to avert emigration and starvation, both of which happened last time the cash income supply dried up, when the Chinese shut the access to Tibet and subsidised salt arrived from India arrived.

Part of the answer could be sustainable tourism. The area is remote enough to continue to appeal to people who want to get away from it all. This really is ‘niche tourism’. There are a number of provisos to this however. The current lack of roads is actually an appeal to trekkers. Look at what is happening in Annapurna now the roads have been built. While roads may keep trekkers away, they make life more comfortable for local communities. And the amount of litter in Dolpo is serious. The plastic mountains there are going to keep growing and putting tourists off unless effective waste management strategies are quickly put in place.

Another part of the answer could be sustainable collection of medical plants, including yartsa gumba. There are no hospitals in Dolpa and only a few health posts. None with a doctor. Dolpopa rely on amchis, providing traditional health care, and are entirely dependent on medicinal plants. They need these plants to continue to be available because this is their access to a health care system. Sustainable collection practices, particularly for yartsa gumba, need to be put in place quickly however. Wild collection will always be limited and is not a complete answer. However, unlike other areas of Nepal, the cultivation of medicinal plants may not be an answer either in upper Dolpo. The area is too high and the climate too extreme. Other sources of cash income need to be found too.

Entrepreneurs from Dolpoa are already proving what can be achieved in the fields of art, Tenzin Norbu for example, and business, Expore Dolpo. The ethnic diversity of Dolpo is very high. The cultural cohesion at village level results in strong communities. The extreme climate and landscape appeal to trekkers and film makers. The area is extremely rich in biodiversity and natural resources.

The difficulty is achieving local community wellbeing and healthy ecosystems in a dynamic landscape. The Dolpopa need to get it right and so far they have. Living change is what they do well. But it’s a tricky balance for today’s generations to maintain for the future.

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Life in a rural village in Rasuwa District

Gatlang, in Nepalese terms, is nowhere particularly special. It’s not in a National Park, although it is on the Tamang Heritage Trail, adjacent to Langtang National Park. To me, it was a window into another intriguing world. It is also stunningly beautiful.

Gatlang village
Gatlang village

It all started when we met Pasang Tamang on the local bus to Thambuchet. An enterprising young woman, she runs a range of small scale businesses. She’s a famer, growing new medicinal plants, and she runs a ‘home stay’ where she invited us to stay. Homestays appear in villages where hotel accommodation is limited – there was a single guest house in Gatlang – and where enterprising villagers wish to raise some extra cash income. Pasang lives in a typical Tamang house in the village centre. She has three rooms – a communal living room/ kitchen and two sleeping rooms, one for paying guests. The toilet is downstairs in the yard – it was clean with its own tap and bar of soap.

The approach to Gatlang from Thambuchet is along the valley, beautiful in early November with the deep green of the pine forest, and the shafts of yellow from the mustard fields on the opposite valley side. The path takes you up along the valley side and onto a gently sloping wide terrace above which the houses cling. The terrace itself is farmed. In November it was golden with small fields of mustard, beans and maize and millet.

The houses pile on top of each other, with narrow stepped alleys between them. Traditionally built from stone with wooden shingled roofs and a fluttering prayer flag above, each house has a balcony, where the corn hangs to dry for winter. In the early morning, smoke from the house fires hangs in the low sun. Set before the snow capped Langtang peaks, the village has a timeless feeling about it reinforced by the frequent chortens lining the old road, flags muttering their prayers.

Livelihoods here are derived from the fields surrounding the village. Tiny terraces are planted, at this time of year, with corn and beans ready for harvest, with millet following on behind. Spinach and potatoes are other key crops. And along the field boundaries, the beginnings of a new industry in the form of chiraito, a medicinal plant used for a wide range of ailments including fever, jaundice and skin diseases. Also collected from the wild, the cultivation of this herb both protects its wild populations and provides a consistent cash income for villagers, without taking land away from food production. Fruit and nut trees are also appearing – apple and walnut were proudly pointed out.

Innovation runs high in Gatlang. A new cooperative has just started up: the Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative was set up by Gatlang villagers three years ago when they realised the potential value of medicinal plants in the Gatlang area. The members are interested in diversifying their crops to provide cash income and current efforts are largely concentrated on growing chiraito in crop margins and on land not used for food production. There are in addition some fields, not needed for food production, dedicated to chiraito alone. Some of these belong to Pasang.

Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC,  with Deborah Long
Pasang Tamang & Gomba Chilling, founders of HMHC, with Deborah Long

The Himalayan Medicinal Plants Cooperative (HMHC) aims to coordinate chiraito sales to gain a better crop price for Gatlang farmers – the villagers back down the valley get Rs 100 per kg more for their crop; to cut out the middlemen in the chiraito trade market and deal directly with processers; to work together to find investment for a community owned processing plant and to coordinate the growing of additional medicinal plants, including Pichorrhiza, Paris polyphylla and yew.

Meanwhile another villager, not a cooperative member, has started her own yew nursery where she planted yew cuttings in four beds under shade netting. When we visited, she was at the point of giving up as she was finding it difficult to tend the nursery and couldn’t see a way to derive benefits from it. The crop suffered from neglect as a result. However, now new links between her and the HMPC have opened up the opportunity for her to sell cuttings to local members as they work to diversify their crops. Yew is used locally to treat coughs, bronchitis and asthma. It also contains taxol, used to treat cancer. There is a high demand for the leaves and bark and there should be a large local market for cuttings as demand for yew is high and local farmers look to diversify their crops and income streams.

In this tiny Himalayan village, young entrepreneurs are finding new ways to generate extra cash income. They are seizing the moment and with some support from organisations like ESON, they are taking on the 21st century.

Finding the future in Dolpo

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When we were trekking through Upper Dolpo, we camped overnight in the high village of Bhijer and we were granted a vision of what future rural health care in Nepal could look like.

At the west end of the village is a gompa with a health post right next door. On the ground floor is a consulting room and  kitchens. Upstairs is another very different consulting room. There are two, because this health post offers both allopathic (western) and amchi health care. It was so obviously a good idea that I immediately wondered why we hadn’t seen this approach elsewhere.

However, not all good ideas get the support they deserve and need. Lama Tenzing is the amchi. Providing health care to the village has been part of his role as an amchi lama throughout his life. His daughter trained in Kathmandu as a nurse and returns home to run the allopathic clinic downstairs. In the past, funding from international donors built and equipped the clinic and paid for a doctor and a nurse. The nurse, the amchi daughter, is still here. The doctor is not.

As we walked through, our porters were taking advantage of our afternoon in the village to seek medical advice from the nurse. It was very quiet otherwise. Upstairs the traditional consulting room was welcoming with a wall of dried herbs in plastic pots facing a computer at the other end of the room. Herbs are collected locally, processed and then combined into medicines for common complaints like coughs and colds. Ingredients that cannot be collected locally are purchased in Kathmandu and then combined into medicines back at the clinic. Plastic chairs line up against the window, next to a large, low cushion where the amchi examines patients and prescribes treatment, reading their pulse and asking about symptoms.

Amchis do not generally accept payment for their consultations. Traditionally they were paid with gifts of barley or other commodities they needed to live. With the food they can grow themselves, this could be enough to live on. Although today, some people do pay amchis a small amount for their services, ingredients from Kathmandu cost real cash. Real cash is hard to come by if you do not charge for your services and the people you serve are poor.

There are other issues too: the allure of allopathic medicine is strong. Its results can be instant; it is modern and comes from the city. It treats symptoms if not always the cause. Of course, there are some diseases that allopathic medicine treats well – infections and cancer for example. But traditional medicine too has its place treating both symptoms and cause of both minor and chronic ailments.

What’s more, young people are not attracted into the life of an amchi. Apprentice amchis are rare and even where they are keen, they do not necessarily have access to training. Unless they have a mentor who is willing to train them up, there are few amchi schools in Nepal and as yet degree courses have to be pursued abroad.

And then of course there is access to the medicinal plants themselves. Older amchis find it difficult to get into the mountains to collect the plants they need. There is strong competition for the plants themselves from traders who collect to generate cash income. While amchis collect sustainably, traders often do not with the net result that the medicinal plant resources are under threat of over harvesting, impacting both the environment and the local health care system.

This is where the Himalayan Amchi Association is important. It aims to provide local communities with reliable health care, to safeguard amchi knowledge, to improve the educational opportunities for amchis and to contribute to the conservation of medical plants and the ecosystems on which amchi medicine depends. There are several areas where this overlaps with the aims of ESON, particularly in the conservation of medicinal plants, the protection of indigenous knowledge associated with them and the sustainable livelihoods and healthcare of rural communities. With both organisations based in Kathmandu and run by local people and with both organisations having extensive and well developed partnerships within and outwith Nepal, the opportunities are significant.

Medicinal plants: the life blood of Nepal

(c) Dominic Habron
(c) Dominic Habron

Plants are central to Nepalese life. Flowers adorn homes, gods and goddesses. Most people grow their own food. And traditional medicine is dependent on plants. Ayurvedic medicine is one of four traditional health systems in Nepal and is a major source of medical care in Nepal. It has its own government department, 2 government hospitals, 216 public dispensaries and pharmacies (Gewali 2008) and a new research and training centre. However, health care is sparse in Nepal: there are estimated to be about 21,205 people per doctor in Nepal, all hospitals are located within urban centres and of the 3468 health centres of health posts in rural areas, most are without proper medical facilities or trained health workers (Tiwari et al 2014). It is in this void that traditional medicine practitioners provide health care to 80% – 90% of the rural population, using hundreds of medicinal plants to cure simple and complex ailments (Tiwari et al 2014).

As a result of both of the diversity of medicinal plants native to Nepal and the high levels of dependency on them, medicinal plants and their conservation is a key issue. The current Minister for Forestry and Soil Conservation, within which sits the Department of Plant Resources, stressed the value of Nepal’s indigenous knowledge about native plants and their traditional uses at a workshop on 9 November. While we celebrate as a victory even the mere mention of plants in a Minister’s speech in the UK, in Nepal, it is recognised as a fundamental part of Nepal’s sustainable development.

The Minister’s stress reflects the reality that the conservation of these plants is a growing concern. High levels of harvesting of wild medicinal plants and the increase in cultivation of selected medical plant species is responding to a growing market from across the world (Gewali 2008). In 1998 – 1999, the total annual trade from Nepal to India, one of the biggest markets, was US$3.2 – 12.8 million (Gewali 2008). In this market, in 2003, a harvester of wild medicinal plants could make Rs 585 cash profit per year, compared to a village trader making 58 times more and a regional trader 4307 times more (Subedi 2003). While the village harvester makes the least amount, medicinal plant collection remains a very important part of income generation for Nepal’s rural communities.

Harvesting of course is not necessarily sustainable and plants collected from the wild constitute the major source: Gewali quotes 70 – 90% of plant species, 50 – 70% in terms of quantity, are plants collected from the wild. Of the 2,400 – 9,400 tons of exported herbal resources, five species made up more than 50% (Gewali 2008). Of these 5 species, 3 are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and 2 are listed on Nepal’s list of protected species against collection or export.

There are initiatives underway in mountain communities across Nepal to support the cultivation of medical plants. A key crop today is Swertia chirata (chiraita). Used for a range of ailments, chiraita treats fever, jaundice and digestion problems as well as coughs, colds, asthma, skin infections and more. Chiraita seed in 2014 cost Rs 25,000 per kg. 1 kg of seed would supply an entire village. The crop is planted on field edges and non cultivated areas of land and takes 2 years to mature. Income per kg in 2014 was Rs 600 in one of the villages we visited. In Kachenjunga Conservation Area in 2013, US$375,000 was generated by local people through the cultivation of chiraita (WWF 2013).With its value rising, interest in chiraita production is growing and as long as cultivation remains sustainable and does not impact on village ability to grow food, there is every reason to support wider cultivation of this important plant, moving pressure away from wild collected sources.

Traditional medicine is however highly dependent on sustainable collection from the wild by local healers. Reducing the pressure on wild plants from collection for cash insures future health care can be provided by traditional healers. They can then provide long term viable health care in rural communities.

This is moving against another tide however. Allopathic (western) medicine is increasingly popular and can provide quick relief. But it is rarely available in rural areas. It makes so much more sense to use the infrastructure of traditional healers to provide health care, with support from primary allopathic care where possible. What do I mean? See my visit to Bjher, Dolpo in the next blog.

In Nepal, plants do more than cure people. They also provide a cash income where there are few alternatives. Key to all this is their conservation. There is a long way to go – illegal trade in medicinal plants is fantastically high in Nepal but with so much riding on their conservation, there is a clear momentum to do more to protect them and their habitats.

Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal: unlocking the potential

Set up in 1998, the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal was conceived just as the links between natural resource use and community development in Nepal were coming into focus. With its highly diverse flora and the diversity of its people, many of whom retain a strong reliance on native plants, the need for an ethnobotanical home in Nepal was clear.

A small dedicated team of specialists, led by Professor KK Shrestha, has been the driving force of the Society ever since. Having delivered training programmes, published reports and books and coordinated local community development projects based on plant use, the society is now at a juncture. Its objectives

  • To enhance documentation and safeguard indigenous knowledge
  • To conserve plant resources
  • To enable sustainable utilisation of plant resources through coordination, promotion and research activities

are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago. But there are now new opportunities to be developed.

Nepal is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The 16 GSPC goals for 2020 are stretching for all signatories. Yet Nepal is making progress on arguably some of the toughest targets. Take, for example, Target 3: Development and effective sharing of advice and guidance for plant conservation and sustainable use, based on research and practical experience. With experience in medicinal plant conservation, sustainable use and cultivation and more recent involvement in small scale biofuel projects, ESON has built an effective model of working in strong partnerships with local communities, other NGOs, government and universities.

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ESON could contribute more by building on its current work too. Target 13 is a case in point: The decline of plant resources, and associated indigenous and local knowledge innovations and practices, that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care, halted. If Nepal is serious about delivering on the CBD and the GSPC, ESON, even as a tiny organisation with very few resources beyond its dedicated volunteer staff, is leading the way. With its partners, it is delivering projects to ensure a future for rural healthcare by conserving traditional medicine and its plant resources in remote areas.

The Nagoya protocol is another important area of work in Nepal, as it enshrines the rights of indigenous people to intellectual property rights over local biodiversity. Ethnobotany holds the key for the future of biotechnology, with the ability to save time and resources by working with indigenous people to shortlist potentially useful chemicals. This key brings with it a heavy duty however to ensure that those indigenous communities benefit economically from biotechnological developments. It is all too easy for successes in the laboratory to trail an amnesia about the very communities that provided, usually free of charge, the shortcut to success. If ESON is to provide such a service, it will be beholden to ensure those communities benefit economically into the long term future.

ESON is at a turning point. It is looking to reinvigorate its members and to inspire them to get more involved and help the society make more of a difference in the conservation and sustainable use of Nepal’s amazing flora. In developing a new 5 year plan, it is hoping to reach out to new partners and funders, to inspire them to support it in its work to ensure a future not just for plants, but for people too.

You can support their work by donating to my Just giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/Deborah-Long/

Conserving medicinal plants of Nepal

Woman with medicinal plant, Tatopani A Hamilton

The World health Organisation estimates that about 80% of the world’s population relies on traditional plant based medicine – wild medicinal plants. This is not a bad thing. These resources are locally collected and those who collect them have a vested interest in sustainable collection. Arguably relying on locally sourced medicine, accessed through local knowledge is a very sustainable health care model.

The problems only arise when demand rises, usually from trade.  The trade in medicinal wild plants has been identified as one of the biggest threats to medicinal plant communities in Nepal. Addressing it is vital.

The Ethnobotanical Society Of Nepal (ESON) – Allacy project in 2007,   Community-based Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Potential Medicinal Plants In Rasuwa, Nepal Himalaya, highlighted the value of a community led conservation approach. Local traditional medicine practitioners, local communities and ESON worked together to identify key actions to implement sustainable collection and ensure access for the local community to medicine going into the future. The approach has potential to be of value in all conservation circles, but it shows its most obvious benefits when it comes to medicinal plants.

There is an interesting parallel in the approach to plant conservation most usually adopted in countries like the UK. Plant conservation is not seen as a national priority. Where action is galvanised, it is often led by a ‘community of interest’, like Plantlife supported by its 8,000 members.

If we can bring the two approaches together, we have a strong model to roll out sustainable use of locally sourced plants, a locally accessible health care system and long term trade potential for wild collected plants. One of the keys however in achieving that final step is to value adequately the collected plants.  A start has been made through the Fairwild Standard http://www.fairwild.org. While this standard points a way forward, we need to see much wider adoption of community led conservation before we will see a change in the status of wild plants.

Image: (c) Alan Hamilton