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 2: Vernacular names of medicinal plants

So far the indigenous drugs have not been carefully and systematically studied. The Executive Committee of the Calcutta International Exhibition for 1883-84, reported that “it must be admitted that our ignorance of the properties and uses of indigenous drugs is scarcely pardonable. It seems highly desirable that the whole subject should be gone into with greater care than has yet been done, both with the view of weeding out the worthless from the good, and of preparing the way for a number of the better class native drugs taking the place of some of the more expensive and imported medicines of Europe. It seems remarkable that so large an amount of aconite should be collected in Nepal and exported to Europe, in order to be re-imported into India before it can find its way to the poor people who crowd around our dispensaries. Illustrations of a similar nature can be multiplied indefinitely. Atropa Belladonna, the deadly nightshade, for example, is a common weed on the Himalayas from Simla to Kashmir, yet every ounce of the drug used in India is imported from Europe, the Indian plant having apparently been entirely overlooked.” [1]

But for the proper study of the subject, a work exclusively devoted to Indian medicinal plants has been a great desideratum in the medical literature of India. Messrs. Booker and Thompson writing as far back as 1855, said:—

“We have had a considerable experience both in medical and economic botany, and we announce boldly our conviction that so far as India is concerned these departments are at a standstill for want of an accurate scientific guide to the flora of that country.”[2]

The flora of British India commenced by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1872 is now completed. The great value of this work as a scientific guide to the plants of this country can hardly be doubted. The foundation of a medical botany of India should be grounded on this work. In this medical botany should be included all the plants that are used medicinally by the natives of this country. A very large number, perhaps the vast majority of these plants, will be found perfectly useless, but in the present state of our knowledge we are not justified in excluding any from the list. The great aim of this work being to collect and identify the medicinal plants of the country, it should, after giving the plants its modern scientific name, insert the synonyms under which it was known in former times.

The value of Sanskrit and vernacular names of plants has been much questioned by botanists for purposes of identification. But, I think, these synonyms help a great deal towards identification.

Much trouble will be saved to the experimenting physician by the help of the country names of plants. Modern India abounds with professional herbalists. There are the Musheras in Central and Upper India, whose principal livelihood consists in the collection and sale of medicinal roots and herbs.[3]

In Bengal there are the Malis, Bagdis, Kaibartas, Pods, Chandals, Kaoras and Karangas, who principally carry on the trade in jungle products.[4] In Bombay, the Chadras, Bhils, and Gamtas are the herbalists. Now, these communities can prove of immense service to our medical practitioners in supplying medicinal plants. But as they are not trained in any university so as to be able to understand the Latin or scientific names of plants, the only way to secure their services lies with the medical practitioners in mastering the native names of plants. A great deal of time and trouble will be saved by thus giving the vernacular names of plants the importance they deserve.

It is, however, proper to add that too much confidence can not be placed in the vernacular nomenclature. In India, in the same district, one and the same name is applied to two or more different plants. And in some instances, names without any significance are invented by villagers to satisfy the curiosity of enquiring botanists. These names are of no use. Such being the case, a knowledge of botany to critically examine a plant is absolutely necessary.

Besides botanical description and vernacular nomenclature, illustrations of plants prove a great help in identifying them. Though illustrations of several thousands of Indian plants are scattered in the works of Rheede, Roxburgh, Royle, Wight, Wallich, Beddome, Brandis, and Griffith and in the journals of the Linnan and other learned societies, yet a very large number of medicinal plants of this country remains to be illustrated.[5] The sooner illustrations of these plants are made the better for the cause of the study of indigenous drugs.

After proper means have been taken to identify the medicinal plants, so that we are quite sure that we all mean the same thing by the same name, we should turn our attention to the study of their properties and uses. We may commence such study with advantage, and it will be, moreover, of historical importance, if we first of all take into consideration the uses to which these plants were put in ancient times by the Hindus. With this view, we should consult the medical works of the Hindus, e. g., Charaka, Sushruta, Nighantu, &c.

Nor should we despise the experience and observation of the Greco-Arabic School of practitioners regarding the uses of the indigenous drugs. Thus the Taleef Sheriff (which has been translated into English), is an excellent work on therapeutics, and gives within a narrow compass the uses of some of the most important medicinal plants of this country.

We should also take into consideration those drugs which are in much use amongst rustics and villagers, and of which no account is to be met with in the works of either the Hindu or Greco-Arabic school of practitioners. It is a pity that no attempt has yet been made to collect information from the villagers regarding the medicinal virtues of plants that grow around them and the uses to which they are put.[6] If we turn to the past history of our art, we find that our knowledge regarding the properties of some of the most useful medicines has been obtained in this empirical way.

Lastly, we should not neglect to bestow our attention on those indigenous plants which have not been used medicinally by the natives of this country, but are in much use in other countries.

After recording the medicinal uses, we have to commence the more important subject, viz., that of “weeding out the worthless from the good” amongst these medicinal plants. For this purpose, we have to seek the aid of chemistry. It is well-known that plants generally owe their virtues as medicinal agents to certain characteristic alkaloids and principles present in them. Because a complete and full chemical analysis of the medicinal plants of this country has not yet been performed, it is therefore that there exists so much uncertainty regarding their actions. This isolation of principles will constitute a great improvement in pharmacy. For, then, instead of using preparations made from plants which differ in constitution from time to time, and vary in the strength of their active principles and physiological characteristics, depending on the climate, season, and amount of sunshine under which, and the soil in which, they have grown, we should use the active principles in which the same variability is unlikely to occur. Moreover, they would possess the advantages of being always alike, easily assimilable and capable of ready solubility, ease in administration and rapidity as well as certainty of action. Then a practitioner also could carry his whole dispensary in a portable form.[7]

This chemical analysis would also help us in determining the actions of medicines in health and disease. It should, however, be borne in mind, that chemical analysis but imperfectly reveals the real nature of many drugs. The presence of dissociated ions, of colloidal metals, with an action analogous to that of ferments, and of known and unknown physical properties, such as radio-activity, probably enter into the action of many drugs. All the phenomena of plant life are not explicable in terms of chemistry and physics; there are certain residual phenomena which point to the existence of what may be called in the present state of our knowledge, “vital force.”[8]

It is hence, that many medical practitioners have been disappointed with tinctures and other preparations of medicinal plants, because such preparations did not give any satisfactory results when prescribed to patients. Speaking of Oolut-Kumbal, (Abroma augusta) Dr. Bhoobun Mohun Sirkar wrote in the Indian Medical Gazette for May, 1900:—

“Attempts have been made to administer the drug in the more acceptable forms of tincture, pill or powder, but none prove so efficacious as the fresh viscid sap in substance in which form I have used it with wonderful results.”

It is well-known that the people of India use the juice of fresh vegetables for medicinal purposes. But on chemical analysis, these vegetables do not yield any peculiar chemical substances to which their curative virtues could be justly attributed. It has been the tendency of late, therefore, to disapprove the use of such vegetable remedies. A well-known medical man writes in Allbutt’s System of Medicine:—

“The chemical composition of a drug is not unfrequently the key to its pharmacological action............... If a drug have no active properties, it is surely devoid of medicinal effect unless it be a food; for medicinal action is the outcome of the effects of active principles on tissues. It is always possible that in any particular drug the active medicinal agent may have escaped notice; but in the present state of chemical science it is not likely that undiscovered principles reside in such substances as sarsaparilla and hemidesmus: yet these drugs are given on the testimony of experience,—a testimony no stronger than that which has supported scores of other agents eventually discarded. If the indications, given by the pharmacological examination of a drug, are opposed to experience in its favour, the latter must almost certainly be at fault.”[9]

But clinical experiences and observations of eminent physicians on the actions of a drug are as much entitled to respect and consideration as its pharmacological examination. So the view of the writer quoted above does not seem to us to be sound.

The modern method of therapeutical investigation is, first, to observe the action of a drug on a healthy animal, and then to make the results applicable to pathological states. The ancients recognised only one mode of studying the effects of a remedy, and that was by the simple observation of effects produced by drugs when administered in disease. This clinical observation of the action of remedies has been productive of some good, but it is questionable if much progress was effected so long as this method alone was employed. Towards the beginning of the nineteenth century, the necessity for ascertaining the actions of remedies by experiments on animals, was recognised by Bichat, Majendie, and others. This modern method of therapeutical research promises a great success. Working on this line, Lauder Brunton was able to use with success nitrite of amyl in angina pectoris. Here a correct application of a known action in a drug was made serviceable in the very first trial. The pharmacological experiments and clinical observations will thus settle the claims of Indian drugs on our attention.

Footnotes and references:


Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883-84, Vol. I, pp. 316-317.


Introductory Essay to the Flora Indica, p. 3, London, 1855.


An excellent account of this tribe is given by Mr. J. C. Nesfield, M. A., Inspector of Oudh Division, Lucknow, in the Calcutta Review for January, 1888. Mr. Nesfield writes “ Indian physicans (Yaidya) and Indian druggists (Pansari) are almost dependent as far as medicines are concerned, on what Musheras supply to them. * * It is much to the credit of Musheras that they have given a marked preference to the study of nature, and opened the door to the discovering of natural remedies. In fact, their knowledge of medicine is one of the chief characteristics of this tribe. * *

They collect medicinal herbs for sale and receive grain or money for what they supply. * * * I know of no parallel to such knowledge as that possessed by Musheras within India itself.” (Calcutta Review, pp. 40-41, for January, 1888.)


Hunter’s Statistical Account of Bengal, Vol. I, p. 27.


Most of the above mentioned works, however, are out of print, and being rare, are hardly within the reach of the most of the members of medical profession.


Vanauṣadi Prakāś, by Mr. Vasudev Chintaman Bapat, in Mahrathi, is as far as I know, the only work which gives the uses to which some of the medicinal plants are put by the natives of Concan.


The alkaloids have all been discovered within the last 100 years. For want of chemical investigation indigenous drugs are used in their crude forms, instead of their alkaloids or active principles. Brunton’s “Iron Age of Therapeutics,” is one of remote and uncertain future, but I believe a great deal of iron, if not steel, can be extracted, very useful for all practical purposes from the stones in the shape of our indigenous drugs.


Biochemistry of plants and animals has not yet been fully investigated. We do not know even much about the function of enzymes, regarding which two views are held one that they are a property and the other that they are a substance. Chemistry cannot produce them. They are found only as the products of protoplasm of living cells. It may be that many processes taking place in living cells are the results of Enzyme activity.


Dr. D. J, Leech in Yol. I of Allbutt’s System of Medicine. London, 1896,

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: