Uttara Kannada district, known for its scenic places, is also home to vibrant flora and fauna. As per studies, around 500 plant species with medicinal properties are found in the region. Now at least 10% of them are considered to be endangered in their natural habitat due to either negligence or over-harvesting. A majority of these medicinal plants are used as raw materials in herbal industries.
As the threat of losing some valuable medicinal plant species is looming large, some individuals and non-governmental organisations, apart from the Forest Department, have realised the need to conserve and multiply the diverse native flora and are acting towards it.
Vedashrava Sharma (60), an ethnomedical practitioner near Gokarna, has cultivated more than 400 varieties of rare herbs in his 10-acre farm, Ashoke. Ankole (Alangium salvifolium), akshate balli (Bridelia scandens), agnimantha (Clerodendrum phlomidis), flame lily (Gloriosa superba), Malbar nut (Justicia adhatoda), karkatajihva (Leea indica), daruharidra (Coscinium fenestratum), crepe-ginger (Costus speciosus), kasamarda (Cassia sophera), guduchi (heart-leaved moonseed, Tinospora cordifolia), several varieties of Garcinia, etc are grown at Ashoke. With his deep understanding of the properties and use of medicinal plants, Sharma participates as a resource person in many workshops where he trains enthusiasts in the identification and propagation of herbs along with the preparation of homemade remedies. He has documented locally available herbs and their health benefits in his book, Prukruthi Sanjeevini.
Prakash Krishna Bhat has developed Ashoka Vana in his betta land (minor forest) at Ademane village in Sirsi taluk. This two-acre patch has over 2,000 plants. “Healing properties of some of the herbs always intrigued me and drove me into this venture five years ago,” he says. Prakash aims to create awareness among the people about the importance of herbs and the need to conserve them. Ashoka (Saraca indica), Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), Salacia (Salacia reticulata), Mappia (Mappia foetida), Ramapatre (Myristica malabarica), Galanga (Alpinia galanga), madhunashini and bilva are some plants grown here.
There are several other enthusiasts like Shantaram Hegde Heepnalli, Ganapathy Isloor, Anand Nayak Beernajaddi, Manjunath Hudlamane who are making best possible efforts in the identification, conservation and rational usage of herbs. Ganesh Nevarekar of Nandanagadda village in Karwar has taken his passion for herbs to a whole new level. He has developed a nursery of herbal plants and taken up commercial cultivation of plants like red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus), Salacia (Salacia reticulata) and Mappia foetida.
Youth For Seva (YFS), a local organisation, has been creating awareness on the medicinal properties of herbal plants. “We intend to document the rationale behind the traditional use of certain herbs on some occasions. If we can shed light on the folk knowledge, that will have a positive impact,” says Umapathy Bhat, convener of YFS. Conducting workshops for children and interested youth on the preservation, multiplication, identification of medicinal plants and sharing information on the importance and use of locally-available herbs, encouraging growing herbs on terrace gardens and in backyards, documentation of medicinal plants and ethnic practices are being carried out by YFS.
“One of our major achievements is the development of Pavitra Vanas (patches of plants), a set of medicinal plants grown in a specified pattern,” says Umapathy Bhat. Several combinations of plants are described in the ancient literature. Nagendra Bhat Hitlalli, an octogenarian Sanskrit scholar, studied the concept of Pavitra Vanas and outlined different kinds of vanas. Each vana has a specific plant placed in a specific direction. For example, Panchavati Vana is a set of five plants where bilva (Aegle marmelos) is planted at the centre, atti (Ficus racemosa) in the east direction, shami to the west, peepal to the north and neem to the south direction. So far, such herbal gardens are developed in over 60 places in the State. Dr Panduranga G, a physician who has developed a Panchavati Vana at his farmhouse in Hubballi, says, “Hundreds of people visit this place every day. Walking along the rows of plants is refreshing.” Premises of Kanmane Nisarga Jnana Kendra at Kalave, near Sirsi, is dotted with several medicinal plants. A Varna Oushadhi Vana, with over 50 plants, each representing one part of the human body, is being developed on the campus. “We aim to impart knowledge about such medicinal plants and their health benefits to children and other enthusiasts,” says Shivananda Kalave, convener of the centre.
Many religious and spiritual centres around Sirsi are also preserving medicinal plants and the knowledge associated with them. The three-decade-old Sasyashastreeya Vana developed by the Forest Department in Bakkala village, 15 km away from Sirsi, is the first-of-its-kind in the State. It is a repository of numerous medicinal plants, planted in various patterns. Labels on the plants, with English and Kannada names, and other signboards guide the visitors through the park. Though there is a scope for improvement, the park is an ecologist’s delight and is a much-visited place.
A systematic approach is the need of the hour to preserve this natural wealth. Madhurai-based Sustainable-agriculture and Environmental Voluntary Action (SEVA), headed by P Vivekanandan, has standardised a set of 20 ethnoveterinary practices. He conducts ethnoveterinary workshops and demonstrations for farmers. Such efforts help utilise the health benefits of local herbs for livestock, thereby driving people to conserve them.
The Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), based in Bengaluru, has formed a network of Medicinal Plants Conservation Areas (MPCAs) across different states of the country to promote conservation of wild medicinal plant resources. This effort, over the last 20 years, in collaboration with the State Forest Departments and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, has resulted in the development of 108 in situ conservation sites in 12 states.
Another initiative of FRLHT is the creation of a national repository of Indian medicinal plants which is the only medicinal plant herbarium in the country engaged in collection, identification and curation of dried plant specimens. This herbarium has been designed as a bio-cultural herbarium to provide information on vernacular and botanical names of different medicinal plant species, alongside the details of specific locations and their collection. Almost all the native medicinal plants currently in trade are on display.
“We have facilitated many farmers’ groups to develop medicinal gardens. Those interested can get medicinal plants from our herbarium for their kitchen gardens,” says Dr B S Somashekhar, a senior official at FRLHT. Sathish Hegde, assistant director of Horticulture Department, Sirsi, says, “If interested farmers make a group, we can support them to develop backyard medicinal gardens by providing necessary inputs with the help of FRLHT and the Forest Department.”
Indira Hegde Hulimane, a farmer in Uttara Kannada, has a backyard garden where she has grown herbs. She uses them as the base for home remedies. “Certain common herbs that could be used for minor ailments should be made available in the kitchen garden. Collective efforts to grow such herbs would fetch a subsidiary income, both in rural and urban set-ups,” she feels. That’s nothing but gardening with herbs!