Indian Medicinal Plants

by Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar | 1918

A comprehensive work on Indian Botany including plant synonyms in various languages, habitat description and uses in traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda....

Introduction, part 1: History of the study of medicinal plants

Since disease, decay and death have always co-existed with life, the study of diseases and their treatment must also have been contemporaneous with the dawn of the human intellect. The primitive man must have used as therapeutical agents and remedial measures those things which he was able to procure most easily. There is no authentic record of medicines used by the primitive man. But the Rig Veda which is the oldest book in the library of man supplies curious information on the subject. From it, we learn that the Indo-Aryans used the Soma as a medicinal agent. It is not quite certain what the Soma plant was. This plant has not yet been satisfactorily identified. The Indo-Aryans used the plant for sacrificial purposes and its juice is described in the ancient Aryan literature as a stimulating beverage. The word oṣadhi (oshadhi) literally means heat-producer. When the Indo-Aryans came to use the Soma plant for therapeutical purposes, they came to possess a knowledge of the medicinal properties and uses of herbs and plants. Hence, Oshadhi (oṣadhi) applied to all herbs and medicinal plants.

The knowledge of medicinal plants must have been accumulated in the course of many centuries. In his work on Plants and Animals under Domestication, Darwin says;—“From innumerable experiments made through dire necessity by the savages of every land, with the result handed down by tradition, the nutritious, stimulating and medicinal properties of the most unpromising plants were probably first discovered.”[1]

The “doctrine of signatures” would also account for the use of several plants as medicinal agents. This doctrine is based on the resemblance in shape or color of some product of the vegetable kingdom with some organ in the animal economy. In the ignorance of anatomical or physiological data to work upon the primitive man thinks that these articles possess some action on those organs which they resemble in shape, size or color. Again, another reason for the extensive use of vegetable drugs may be the fact that plants are everywhere at hand, their number is very great and their forms are distinct and peculiar and thus are procured without trouble.

It is greatly to the credit of the people of India that they were acquainted with a far larger number of medicinal plants than the natives of any other country on the face of the earth. The vegetable Materia Medica of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Chinese and Arabs does not display such an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and drugs as does any of the authoritative medical works of the Hindus. The knowledge of herbs possessed by the aborigines of America, Australia or Africa, is also not very great. Regarding the medicinal agents of the American Indians, Mr. B.F. Stacey says:—

“From a thorough investigation I am convinced that the list is not lengthy, and that there is but little to be learned from their school of practice or repertoire of medicinal agents.”[2]

Mr. J. N. Rose, in his “Notes on Useful Plants of Mexico.” says:—

“The country people and Indians seem to have but little knowledge of medicine, generally using teas made of bitter and strong-smelling herbs.”

Mr. J. H. Maiden writes in his “Useful native plants of Australia.” (Pp. 146-147):—

“In fairness to ourselves we must confess ourselves very little indebted to the Australian aboriginal for information as to the medical (or in fact any other) properties of our plants. The poor aboriginal chiefly takes interest in the vegetation as supplying him with his scanty food, or as affording him fibre useful in securing fish and other animal substance. As far as we know, the Materia Medica of the blacks is of a very meagre description, yet the acquisition of even such little knowledge as they are supposed to possess has been slow and difficult, inasmuch as persons who have lived in a state of nature with them have not been distinguished for either their medical or botanical knowledge.”

He has very truly observed:—

“With the native Materia Medica of India, for instance, the case is very different. While some remedies are evidently used fancifully, and others for every disease to which the human frame is liable, much of the knowledge in regard to it is exact, the outcome of intelligent observation and enquiry. * *”

It may be that much of the knowledge of plants, once possessed by the ancestors of the present aborigines, has become lost to the world owing to their ignorance of the art of writing.[3] But we should not treat with contempt the knowledge of herbs possessed by aborigines. There can be little doubt that their “medicine men” possess a remarkably accurate knowledge of the medical uses of the plants around them. We should remember that they have taught us the uses of some of our most important drugs. It is to them that we are indebted for our knowledge of Cinchona in malaria, Digitalis, Strophanthus and Physiostigma in heart diseases, and of Quassia as a bitter tonic. We cannot, therefore, sufficiently admire the practical wisdom of the ancient Hindus when they enjoined on the votaries of the healing art the penetration forests and the climbing of mountains to examine the qualities and properties of the medicines in their natural situations, and gather information regarding them from hunters and shepherds who may have had opportunities of witnessing their effects.

About a generation ago, the use of plants and herbs as remedial agents was greatly discredited. The late Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton drew an analogy between the weapons and tools employed in art or warfare, and the implements used by man in the treatment of disease in different ages. It is customary to divide the progress of civilization into four stages, characterized by the nature of the weapons employed. “In the first or Paleolithic age, man employed weapons or tools of flint roughly chipped into shape and unpolished. In the next or Neolithic age, the implements consisted of stone, bat they were polished. The next age is characterized by the employment of bronze as a material, and the fourth and highest stage by the employment of iron. * * * * In the same way, we may recognise four stages in the development of the implements in the treatment of disease. In the first stage crade drugs were employed, prepared in the roughest manner, such as powdered Cinchona or metallic antimony. In the next stage, these were converted into more active and more manageable forms, such as extracts or solutions, watery or alcoholic. In the third stage, the pure active principles, separated from the crude drugs, were employed, e.g., morphine and quinine. In the fourth stage, instead of attempting to extract our medicines from the natural products in which they are contained, we seek to make for ourselves such substances as shall possess the particular action we desire.”[4]

This method had been pursued since the time when Professors Crum Brown and Fraser were able to demonstrate the connection between chemical constitution and physiological action. With the help of the advanced chemistry of modern times, an attempt to establish rational therapeutics was being made by the leading pharmacologists of the world. Thus the employment of inorganic salts and chemical principles obtained from the vegetable kingdom, which had been much in vogue about half a century ago, was being gradually abandoned in favor of derivatives obtained from coal-tar and various alcohols. As was once pointed out by the authors of the Extra Pharmacopoeia, “the place in medical treatment, of quinine and morphine, the two mainstays of the medical practitioners of twenty years ago, is in a great measure filled by antipyrin, antifebrin, phenacetin, exalgine, and salicylate of sodium on the one hand, and by sulphonal, tetronal, chloral, &c., on the other.”[5] The day was eagerly looked forward to when the articles of our organic materia medica were to be supplanted by the creations of the chemist.

Analogy however is no safe guide in science. So Brunton’s comparison of the different articles of Materia Medica to the weapons of the different geologic periods, is, to say the least, very fallacious. There is something like what may be called “Fashion in medicine.” It is due to this “fashion,” that some of the good old remedies are labelled “out of fashion.” For long it was not considered fashionable to use crude herbs. Synthetic remedies were the fashion of the day. It is not only the great war which is now raging in Europe that has made the pendulum of fashion swing from one extreme to the other, but the oscillation was visible even a considerable time before the outbreak of the War.

Thus a reaction seemed to have set in, in favor of plants being used as medicines. Referring to the use of the Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus) as a remedy in Typhoid fever and other infectious diseases of the intestine—a paper read by Dr. Max M. Bernstein, M.B., before the Hunterian Society of London and published in the British Medical Journal for 7th February, 1903,—Sir James Sawyer, M. D., London, F.R.C.P., Senior Consulting Physician to the Queen’s Hospital; and Ex-Professor of Medicine in the Queen’s College, Birmingham, wrote in the British Medical Journal for February, 4 28th, 1903:—“Long have some of us dwelt with affection, and with hope of finding modern uses for some old drugs which were being lost to sight and to memory in the limbus of the past, and perhaps not without some practical success, upon the archæology of our Medicinal “Simples,” upon the histories and lore, upon the forms, virtues, and renown of many old-time Medicinal plants, upon plants called simples because each of them has been held to enshrine its particular curative virtue, and so to furnish a simple remedy for some symptom of disease, or for some individual morbid manifestation. Perhaps we have loved to walk, as Evelyn did, “into a large garden, esteemed for its furniture one of the fairest, especially for simples;” or perhaps we have followed our own Garth, “when simpling on the flowery hills he strayed.”

*                    *                    *

“True is it to-day as when Sir Thomas Watson so declared a third of a century ago that ‘the greatest gap in the science of Medicine is to be found in its final and supreme stage—the stage of therapeutics.’ Therapeutics advances by our increasing knowledge of the nature of morbid processes and of the physiological effects of remedies, and also by studying again many a good old drug by the light of later scientific methods and also by judicious selection from the traditions of popular medicine. Such selection gave us Digitalis.”

Dr. Ischirch, Professor of Practical Chemistry in the University of Berne, is reported in the Lancet of 2nd October, 1909, to have said:—

“We may assuredly hope that medicine, when it has thoroughly ruined its digestion with synthetical remedies and tested all the organs of the animal body, will return to the most ancient remedies of mankind, to the medicinal plants and drugs, for the utility of which the experience of the thousands of years vouches.”

There were other medical men also who were coming to look upon drugs of synthetical origin acting upon the system as foreign bodies, depressing and paralysing its functions. But according to them such was not the case with the drugs of vegetable origin which in their natural combination meet nutritional conditions of the system. The possibilities and potentialities of medicinal plants and vegetable drugs have not been as yet properly and fully studied. In an article on “the teaching of chemical medicine,” in the British Medical Jurnal of 3rd January, 1914, Dr. Mackenzie wrote that:—

“Not one single drug has been carefully studied so as to understand its full effects on the human system, effects that could be easily recognised had a systematic examination been carried out when it was administered in the hospital wards.”

The above observation of Dr. Mackenzie is fully borne out by what Dr. Charles J. Macalister, M.D., F.R.C.P. has discovered, as reported in the British Medical Journal of January 6, 1912, in Symphytum officinale, a plant known as “comfrey” in England. He considers it as a “potent cell proliferant.” It was a long forgotten remedy which was used in olden times to heal ulcers. On analysis, the root of the plant was found to contain allantione to which Dr. Macalister attributed its action as a potent cell proliferant.

Dr. William Bramwell, M.A., M.D., B. Ch., of Liverpool, concluded a note on the above-named plant published in the same issue of the British Medical Jurnal in the following significant words.

“It is indeed refreshing and gratifying, in these days of serums and vaccines and highly complicated preparations, the administration of which, in some cases, is fraught with the gravest possible danger and soul-harrowing anxiety on the part of the administrator, to find a physician of Dr. Macalister’s standing setting on foot the investigation of so simple and natural a remedy as common comfrey.”

The present war has shown the necessity of using herbs and plants in preference to Synthetics. The President of the Botanical section of the British Association held at New Castle in 1916, very truly observed, regarding the medicinal plant industry,

“Experience would indicate that here is opportunity for investigation, and, unless due care is taken, also danger of waste of time, money and effort A careful systematic study of species, varieties and races is in some cases desirable in order to ensure the growth of the most productive or valuable plant; and such a study might also reveal useful substitutes or additions. Here the co-operation between the scientific worker and the commercial man is imperative.”

The study of medicinal plants is neglected by medical men all over the world, but more so in India. These are contemptuously referred to as “old women’s” remedies.[6] It is our misfortune that the chemistry and pharmacology of most of these plants have not been properly investigated.

The late Right Hon’ble Mr. Gladstone was a man of extraordinary genius. As a scholar, politician, and statesman he will ever shine in the pages of English history as long as England is not effaced from the map of the World. In the course of a speech, delivered on the 26th March, 1890, on the occasion of the opening of Guy’s Hospital Residential College, referring to the importance of the study of Botany with a view to learn the “qualities of plants which are so remarkable and power ful in their healing capacities,” he said:—

“I am not aware whether Botany now forms a recognised branch of the medical education, but I cannot help wishing that it did, and hoping that it may in the future, first of all, not only because it is in itself a most beautiful and interesting study exercising the mind without fatiguing it, and stimulating the imagination without leading it astray, but also, because I cannot help wishing, although I know it is too much to expect of our actual medical men, that they should be careful observers of nature, yet in their younger years, before they have entered on their great career, I cannot help wishing that they had the habit of noticing all the qualities of plants which are so remarkable and powerful in their healing capacities.”

Then Mr. Gladstone narrated an anecdote, how the leaves of a plant healed the cut on his finger caused by an axe in wood-cutting.

“You will think it ludicrous, if I were to tell you a little anecdote of my own, which is of the very simplest character, and it is so small and so slight as almost to be contemptible, but still it illustrates what I mean. I have been given, as is pretty well-known, or at least, I have been given to the pursuit of wood-cutting. From a pure accident, I drew my fingers the other day along the edge of the axe which was lying close by, and which was tolerably sharp, and cut my finger. Upon searching about me I found I had no handkerchief available. I wanted to staunch my little wound. Not having a handkerchief, I got a leaf and put it on the wound. I am bound to say that this was not the result of botanical knowledge, but it was a purely empirical proceeding on the chance of the quality of the leaf. But there was a curious result. I knew the time nature occupied in healing a little breach of continuity, and when I put on the leaf, I assure you it is the fact, that it healed in exactly half the time. It is hardly worth mentioning such a thing as I say but I cannot help having the belief that there are good treasures in nature more than have heretofore been explored in every branch. To make medical students, before they have come to their great responsibilities, observers of the great qualities and capabilities of plants, I cannot help thinking that some good will be done.”[7]

The importance of studying the subject of Indian medicinal plants has been again and again insisted on by several writers. It is too late in the day to discuss the necessity of such a study. The ease and cheapness with which these are procurable, the marvellous powers that are attributed to them in the cure of different maladies by natives of India, should induce us to investigate their properties and settle once for all their claims on our attention.

Dr. John Lindley was a renowned botanist. His views on the subject of vegetable drugs deserve careful consideration. In the preface to his work on Flora Medica, he wrote:—

“No one will be bold enough to assert that the physicians already possess the most powerful agents produced by the vegetable kingdom; for every year is bringing some new plants into notice for its energy, while others are excluded because of their inertness. In tropical countries, where a fervid sun, a humid air, and a teeming soil give extraordinary energy to vegetable life, the natives of those regions often recognise the existence of potent herbs unknown to the European practitioner. No doubt such virtues are often as fabulous and imaginary as those of indigenous plants long since rejected by the sagacity of European practice. But we are not altogether to despise the experience of nations less advanced in knowledge than ourselves, or to suppose, because they may ascribe imaginary virtues to some of their officinal substances, as has been abundantly done by ourselves in former days, that therefore the remedial properties of the plants are not worthy of serious investigation or that their medical knowledge is beneath our notice because they are unacquainted with the terms of modern science. It is not much above 20 years since an English officer in India was cured of gonorrhoea by his native servant, after the skill of regular European practitioners had been exhausted. The remedy employed was Cubebs, the importance of which was previously unknown, and the rationale of whose action is to this day beyond the discovery of physiologists. It is of undoubted value in urethral catarrh: and who shall say that there are not hundreds of equally powerful remedies still remaining to be discovered. * * * and it must be sufficiently apparent to all unprejudiced minds, that the resources of the vegetable kingdom, far from being exhausted, have hardly yet been called into existence. It is presumptuous for the theorist to assert that he already possesses a remedy for all the maladies that flesh is heir to; it is mere idleness in the routine practitioner, carried away by the attraction of spacious generalities, to fancy that one tonic is as good as another tonic, or one purgative as another purgative. In reality the true cause of the different actions of medicines upon the human body is admitted by the highest authorities to be wholly unknown; and surely this is in itself the best of all reasons why we should not assume that we already possess against disease all the remedies which nature affords; on the contrary it should stimulate us to reiterated enquiries into the peculiar action of new remedial agents. * * *

“And they (i.e., European practitioners) find the medicines which are powerful in Europe, comparatively inactive in other climates. The heat of a country, its humidity, particular localities, food, and the social habits of a people will predispose them to varieties of disease for which the drugs of Europe offer no sufficient remedy, and will render that which is relied upon in one country unworthy of dependence in another. Thus the Cinchona bark of Peru, important as it is in Europe, is, we are told, rejected by the people among whom it grows, because it is found too stimulating and heating for their excitable constitutions. And speaking of Ipecacuanha, Dr. Yon Maritus, who so carefully examined practically the Materia Medica of Brazil, asserts “nullumest dubium quin Emetica in terris zonne fervidae subjects effectus producent multo magis salutares quam in regionibus frigidioribus.”

“This last observation seems to indicate, that if emetic plants are so much more common in hot than cold countries, it is because there is so much greater a necessity for them. The late Mr. Burnett, and many other persons, have asserted that every country spontaneously furnishes remedies for those maladies which the people of the soil are naturally subject to, and that the foreign drugs imported into the markets of Europe would soon be superseded to a great extent, if the properties of European plants were carefully examined. It is contended, in illustration of this opinion, that Salicine, obtained from our native Willows is equal in energy to Quinine, and that it is formed by Providence in low marshy places exactly where remittent and intermittent fevers are experienced most frequently, and with the greatest severity * * * * * * * *

“Such a subject of investigation is by no means unimportant when it is considered * * * that exotic drugs are not only costly, but often so much adulterated as to be unfit for use * * * *

“It by no means follows that plants are inert because medical men have reported unfavourably of their action. The most powerful species have had their energy destroyed by unskilful preparation, or by not knowing at what season to collect them. * * * * * * * the very nature of the climate of tropical countries generally causes the properties of plants to be more concentrated and completely elaborated than in Northern latitude.”

Footnotes and references:


Vol. I, p. 325.


The Ph. J. of May, 30, 1874, p. 958,


Writing of America one botanist says that “when our forefathers came to this country they found the natives in possession of much medical knowledge of plants. Having no remedies prepared by scientific skill, the Indians were led, by necessity, to the use of those which nature afforded them; and, by experience and observation, they had arrived at many valuable conclusions as to the qualities of plants. Their mode of life, leading them to penetrate the shades of the forest, and to climb the mountain precipices, naturally associated them much with the vegetable world. The Indian woman, the patient sharer in these excursions, was led to look for such plants as she might use for the diseases of her family. Each new and curious plant, though not viewed by her with the eye of a botanist, was regarded with scrutinizing attention: the colour, taste, and smell were carefully remarked, as indications of its properties. But the discoveries and observations of the Indians have perished with themselves; having had no system for the classification or description of plants, nor any written language by which such a system might have been conveyed to others, no other vestige remains than uncertain tradition of their knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants.”


The British Medical Journal for August 14th, 1886, p. 326.


Extra Pharmacopoeia by Martindale and Westcott. Preface to the sixth edition, p. III.


Dr. John Foote, Associate Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Georgetown University, Washington, writes of the importance of Trees in Medicine as folloms

“And yet, in spite of the pharmaceutical image breakers and the therapeutic nihilists, some of the most valuable remedies used in medicine come from trees. * * *

“And if, as has been asserted, the decadence of Home was really due to malaria, and if her glory was obscured by a cloud of mosquitoes rather than by the dust of battles, then it may be that the possession of some cinchona and the planting of the eucalyptus in the Homan marshes might have prevented a great civilization from withering and fluttering away and changed the countenance of history.” [Scientific American Supplement, January 13, 1917 p. 26].


Guy’s Hospital Gazette for 29th March 1890, p. 72.

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