Study suggests ‘Medicinal Plant Resources’ of Pakistan; are ‘Forgotten Gems’

ROME, Italy: Mariam Ahmed, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Adviser throws light on the value and importance of ‘Forgotten Gems’ our country is blessed with; the Medicinal Plant Resources of Pakistan. Rich natural resources, diverse ecological zones, and rich flora of over 6000 plant species are in abundance in Pakistan. In Pakistan, medicinal plants are naturally grown in many ecological zones throughout the country and on small scale some species are also cultivated. Temperatures fluctuate from below zero in the mountainous range to 50 °C in the southern plains.

According to Mariam Ahmed, “About 6000 plant species are reported in Pakistan and more than 1000 species are identified as medicinal and aromatic plants species. The demand of medicinal plants is increasing both in the developed and developing countries. The local communities of different regions of Pakistan have centuries old knowledge about traditional uses of the plants occurring in their areas.”

“This indigenous knowledge of plants has been transferred from generation to generation. The herbal system of medicine generally considered low cost treatment for various common diseases and rich diversity of medicinal plants are an important source of livelihood for majority of the rural and mountainous communities. The use of plants as medicine is an ancient practice. The uses of medicinal plants vary in different parts of the country due to indigenous knowledge and method of utilization.”

Different plant species have been used to cure a single disease or several diseases at a time. Approximately, 350-400 medicinal plants species are traded in different drug markets in Pakistan and also used by Unani and Homeopathic Doctors, believes Mariam. Most of the raw material of medicinal plants is harvested from forests and rangelands, only few medicinal plants are cultivated. Deforestation, over exploitation, over grazing, conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields resulted scarcity of medicinal plants.

According to a survey of different Pansar stores (herbal stores) in Pakistan indicate that total turnover of crude drug in country is worth about Rs.120 million. Few medicinal plants are also exported to different countries in small quantities. The prices of medicinal plants at village level are very low and villagers are generally not well informed about market prices.

The market value of medicinal plants increases 3 to 5 times from village to local shops and the prices at national market may be doubled to triple of the same item. Many medicinal plants are found in the mountainous and plains areas of Pakistan. Some species with high market value are over exploited like Glycyrrhiza glabra, Commiphora wightii, Ephedra intermdia, Saussurea lappa, Ferula foetida, Valeriana wallachii, Colchicum luteum, Bergenia ciliate, Paeonia emodi, Morchella species etc. and their productivity is also declining. Ecological conditions play a major role in the cultivation of medicinal plants and their active ingredients. Pakistan has a good potential of biodiversity of medicinal plants due to its varied climatic conditions. Medicinal plants are found more abundantly in the mountainous areas than in plains due to naturally conducive habitat and suitable climatic conditions.

Over exploitation of medicinal plants in Pakistan causes serious threat to the survival and regeneration of many plant species. Therefore, there is further need of research and development activities of medicinal plants in areas like ethnobotany, biodiversity conservation, productivity, propagation, cultivation, active ingredients, quality control, value addition, value chain and policy both at national and provincial levels. The traditional uses of plants are mainly in the form of crude plant extracts. However, the traditional uses of plants have also provided many active ingredients of many medicines in developed and developing countries. Advanced microbial and chemical methods can synthesis many medicinal and aromatic compounds from plants. Many active compounds have been isolated from the plants used in traditional medicines like Aloin from Alovera, santonin from Artemisia species, glycyrrhizin from Glycyrrhiza, ephedrine from Ephedra, berberine from Berberis species, silymarin from milk thistle. In the nutrition point of view, Amla is one of the richest sources of vitamin C.

Garlic a widely used plant in Pakistan is best known for its cholesterol lowering, anti-diabetic, antifungal properties. The compound Ajoene in garlic is one of the most important constituents and extensively investigated for its potent antiplatelet activity. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) plant traditionally used for many diseases now proved have properties of demulcent, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and blood purifier. Ispaghula (Plantago ovta) now used all over the world due to its proven properties like stomach problems, constipation, and cholesterol lowering. Haldi has been proved as antioxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic, anti-cancer and neuroprotective role. Tibbe-e-Nabvi provides the base for the traditional Unani system of medicine in Pakistan.

According to a Hadith said by Hazrat Muhammad (Peace be upon him) Kalonji is the treatment of all diseases except death. Some recent studies also revealed that Kalonji is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-hyperchloestrolemic. Further to this, Kalonji seeds contain over 100 valuable nutrients and regulate the immune system, treat allergy, improves digestion, lower blood sugar, dispel worms and parasites. In Europe sea buckthorn juice, jellies, liquors, candy, vitamin C tablets and ice creams are readily available. Clinical studies on the anti-tumor functions of sea buckthorn oils in China showed positive results. Sea buckthorn juice or oil has been successfully used to treat high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. The medicinal plants are the important source of primary health care in Pakistan. Still there are many unexploited medicinal plant species of Pakistan which may bring positive impact in the control of many emerging diseases after the discovery of active compounds and mode of action.

Further efforts and research on conservation, management, sustainable utilization, marketing, ethnobotany, chemistry, pharmacology and genomics are required to unlock the treasure and potential of medicinal plants resources of Pakistan. Based on traditional knowledge, current scientific techniques are continually exploring the active constituents in plants and new drug formulation are being made. Besides this, many medicinal plants have great potential in cosmetic industry, culinary herbs, herbal teas, and essential oils. The demand of alternative medicines and natural food products are increasing both in developed and developing countries. International development community and research organizations need to devote attention and invest some resources for further research and development of apparently neglected medicinal plants/herbs for nutritional and medicinal uses.

Such an investment would go a long way in pulling so many out of poverty in the developing world especially the rural and indigenous people, as a source of economic livelihood and make a major contribution to health and well-being based on natural remedies. Let us rediscover these forgotten gems!

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