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 5: Medicinal supply of indigenous drugs

The outlook is not so gloomy now as it was more than twenty-five years ago, when I commenced the study of the subject. The Petit Laboratory established in Bombay was almost the first institution intended to work out the pharmacology of Indian drugs. For this purpose, the late Dr. K. N. Bahadurji was appointed to its charge.

The Indian Medical Congress held in Calcutta in 1894 recorded the following resolution:—

“That it be recommended, to the consideration of the Government of India that an extended use of indigenous drugs is most desirable.”

It was on this resolution that the Government of India appointed the Indigenous Drugs Committee which held their first meeting in Calcutta on January 3rd, 1896. In appointing this Committee, it was stated,

The points to which the Government of India desire more particularly to invite the attention of the Committee, with a view to their careful consideration, are the practicability, as well as the utility, of—

(a) encouraging the systematic cultivation of medicinal plants indige nous to India;

(b) encouraging the increased use in Medical Depots of drugs of known therapeutic value; and

(c) sanctioning the manufacture of stable preparations of certain drugs at the Depots.

Regarding the above the Government of India desire that the Committee should further consider, and report their opinion as to the action which would be best calculated to give the suggested encouragement. The Committee should further consider, from a practical point of view, the question of initiating, as a Government measure, experiments to test the reputed therapeutic value of indigenous drugs. The Government of India, as at present advised, are inclined to the opinion that such investigations can more profitably be left to the enterprise of private individuals.

This Committee has so far published two useful reports.

The Ayurvedic practitioners are holding conferences every year in different cities of this country, in which medicinal plants and drugs are exhibited. This will greatly advance the cause of the more extensive use of indigenous drugs. The chemistry of Indian medicinal plants is being investigated by several chemists in different laboratories of India, as is evident from their reports published from time to time in journals of Chemical Societies and of other learned institutions. The quarterly journal, named “Food and Drugs,” of Calcutta, now defunct, published several interesting papers on indigenous drugs. There are also a few workers in Tata’s Research Institute, Bangalore, investigating this subject. Fifty thousand rupees have been donated to the Tropical School of Medicine recently established in Calcutta, by His Highness the Maharaja of Durbhanga, and ear-marked for the investigation of the properties and uses of indigenous drugs.

But at present there is no Pharmaceutical Society or School of Pharmacy in this country to carefully study and investigate the subject of indigenous drugs. The establishment of such an institution is highly desirable; so also of farms of medicinal plants. Regarding the growing of medicinal plants, Mr. F. A. Miller writes in the Journal “American Pharmaceutical Association III, pp. 34-38” that the time has arrived to reduce the work of drug cultivation to an exact science and to determine the commercial possibilities of the most promising forms, in the same manner as has been done in agricultural and other economic farms.”[1]

The present war, as mentioned before, emphasises the necessity of extensively growing medicinal plants especially in India where, with little difficulty, economic plants of all lands can be cultivated.[2]

The establishment of medicinal farms in well selected localities[2] will exercise scientific control over the cultivation of medicinal herbs and plants. Regarding the advantages of conducting a farm of this nature Messrs. Burroughs Wellcome and Co., who have established such a one, write:—

“1. A drug may be treated or worked up immediately it has been collected.

“2. Herbs may be dried, if necessary, directly they are cut, before fermentation and other deteriorative changes have set in.

“3. Freedom is ensured from caprice on the part of collectors, who, in gathering wild herbs, are very difficult to control in the matter of adulteration, both accidental and intentional.

“4. Opportunity is provided to select and cultivate that particular strain of a plant which has been found by chemical and physiological tests to be the most active, and which gives the most satisfactory preparations.”

We know there are many plants mentioned by Hindu medical authors which are not procurable now. We have to refer to such names as those of Kākolī, Kṣira-kākolī, Medhā, Mahā-medhā, Jīvaka, Ṛṣabha &c. Perhaps this extinction of valuable medicinal plants of ancient India is well explained by what Mr. J. L. Stingel writes in the American Journal of Pharmacy for 1912 (pp. 299 et seq) regarding Hydrastis that with the progress of civilisation the plant has diminished. He says that “the scarcity of this valuable drug cannot be entirely attributed to lack of plants or to extinction, but to other conditions, which tend to prevent identification at the time of collection.” This shows also the necessity of rational cultivation, and hence of medicinal farms.[3] Many have been disappointed from the use of indigenous drugs for which the cause is not far to seek.

A writer in the Calcutta Review for 1869 (p: 199) said:—

“The distrust of bazar medicines is, we are convinced, well warranted by facts. In many cases bazar medicines are simple trash. Let any one only look at the system of storage followed in a pansari’s shop, and one very evident reason of this will be apparent. His wares are of all degrees of staleness, the stock of many of them inherited from his father or grandfather and long ago inert. Stoppered bottles are things unknown, and all substances are alike stowed in bags or earthen vessels, exposed to every variation of the atmosphere in respect of heat and moisture, and to the attack of every kind of insect. * * * Many are adulterated, and as a matter of course, none are labelled.”

The above also shows the necessity of medicinal farms and the establishment of depots for the supply of reliable preparations of indigenous drugs.

It is the bounden duty of educated Indians to do all that lies in their power for the proper study of Indian medicinal plants and drugs. In 1879, the Calcutta Review wrote:—

“The resuscitation of Indian medical science is a noble and useful work which ought to be performed by educated Hindoos. * *  It is perfectly true that Indian drugs ought to be largely studied and used by medical practitioners in this country. European medical men fully admit this truth and some of them have labored earnestly and assiduously to accomplish this object. But it is easy to understand that the efforts of foreigners must be necessarily imperfect and unproductive of adequate results. Upon educated Indian members of the profession, therefore, devolves this great and solemn duty, for it is they alone who can discharge it adequately and well. * * In India the foreign and the indigenous systems ought to be read together if full benefit is to be derived from either.”


Footnotes and references:


[Chemical Abstracts for February 20th, 1914, p. 786.]

Mr. R. P. Craford writing in Scientific American Supplement, September 8, 1917 on “ Reducing drug plant cultivation to a science,” says, “ that drug plant cultivation is far from easy and the institution that works out these problems in connection with several score different plants has a difficult task ahead, but one which may pave the way toward American independence in drug science.”

Scientific cultivation of drug plants in this country will make India independent in drug science.


Lieuteuant-Colonel Sir Leonard Rogers, M. D., F. R. C. P., K. C. I. E. I. M. S., the founder of the Calcutta Tropical School of Medicine is reported to have said before the Indian Industry Commission, that “most of the drugs imported into India were absolute refuse, and considering that one-half of the drugs in the British pharmacopoeia are indigenous to India and that most of the rest could be cultivated there is clearly an opportunity of developing an industry that has been almost neglected, and if India is to grow its own drugs it must take care that it gets them unadulterated.”


A few enterprising Ayurvedic practitioners of Calcutta have established such farms in the neighbourhood of that city. But these are on small scale.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: