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Compendium of Indian Folk Medicine and Ethnobotany (1991-2015)


Compendium of Indian Folk Medicine and Ethnobotany (1991-2015) by Vartika Jain and S.K. Jain. New Delhi, India: Deep Publications; 2016. Hardcover, 542 pages. ISBN: 978-93-80702-10-0. $125.00.

India has something unique that I wish we had here in the United States: a central government Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH). Besides a mandate of standards for education, clinical practice, and research for the codified and scholarly Indian systems of medicine, the scope of the Ministry of AYUSH includes research into India’s extensive non-codified oral traditions that stem from regional, tribal, and folk medicines. Concerning the latter, this new work makes a considerable contribution to the ethnobotanical literature and, in particular, to the awareness of India’s rich heritage of indigenous medical knowledge.

This well-referenced, 542-page compendium was compiled by Vartika Jain (VJ), PhD, of the department of botany at the Government Meera Girls College in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and the now-90-year-old Sudhanshu Kumar Jain (SKJ), PhD, former director of the Botanical Survey of India and founder-director of the S.K. Jain Institute of Ethnobiology in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. The reason that a specific 25-year period (1991-2015) is provided parenthetically as part of the book title is because this work is a sequel to SKJ’s 1991 book, Dictionary of Indian Folk Medicine and Ethnobotany: A Reference Manual of Man-Plant Relationships, Ethnic Groups & Ethnobotanists in India (Deep Publications, 1991). While the 1991 dictionary covered 2,532 plant species, this 2016 compendium provides ethnobotanical data on a total of 4,663 plant species. Of the 1,000 references cited in this book, 246 of them are tribe-specific and cover 141 tribal groups. (There are, however, more than 700 different tribal and other distinct ethnic communities in India.) Sixty-six  references are single genus/species-specific, and nine are botanical family-specific.

Organized like an encyclopedia, the 4,663 different species are listed by Latin binomial in alphabetical order. The authors mainly relied on two authoritative sources for nomenclature of angiosperms, gymnosperms, pteridophytes, and bryophytes of the plant kingdom: The Plant List (a collaboration between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Missouri Botanical Garden) and the Tropicos database (Missouri Botanical Garden). For nomenclature of fungi and lichens, the authors used the MycoBank database (International Mycological Association) and for algae, the AlgaeBase database (National University of Ireland) was accessed. If the authors were uncertain of the identity of a species (and in the absence of voucher specimens), the name is qualified with a question mark in parentheses.

For brevity, due to the already large size of this book, abbreviations are used throughout for plant parts (e.g., rb = root-bark), names of diseases (e.g., malar = malaria), indications for use (e.g., flatu = flatulence), pharmacological action (e.g., galact = galactagogue), ethnobotanical use categories (e.g., Med = medicine; Ed = Edible; and Symb = symbolic), and zones of India where the plant is used (e.g., zone A = Jammu & Kashmir [JK] and Himachal Pradesh [HP]). Fortunately, the footer at the bottom of each two-page spread provides abbreviations for the plant parts and the eight designated regions of India. Until one memorizes all of the other abbreviations used, there will be some paging back and forth to the lists of abbreviations. Each abbreviated listing also includes the numeric reference, which is very helpful.

To illustrate, some selected uses for Moringa oleifera (Moringaceae) are described in the text as follows: “Med galact (lf 377 F; lf 952 F),” which means that the leaf is used in folk medicine as a galactagogue in region F — Madhya Pradesh (MP), Maharashtra (MH), and Andhra Pradesh (AP) — supported by references 377 and 952; “musical instrument tambura (wd 532 B; wd 533 B),” which means that the wood of the tree is used to make tamburas in region B — Punjab (PB), Haryana (HAR), Rajasthan (RAJ), and Gujarat (GUJ) —  supported by references 532 and 533; “Symb. bk spread in house to ward off snake (3 D),” which means that the tree bark is used symbolically to keep snakes out of the house in region D — Bengal (BENG), Bihar (BI), Jharkhand (JHA), Chhattisgarh (CHH), Orissa (ORI), and Sikkim (SKM) — supported by reference 3.

One set of data that may be lacking in this work relates to the geographical origin of the listed species. Given that this is a compendium of folk medicinal and ethnobotanical uses by tribes in India, one could easily make an (incorrect) assumption that the 4,663 listed species are also native to India (and therefore part of the traditional ecological and medical knowledge of India). The listings do not provide information as to whether a species is native to India or introduced, naturalized, escaped from cultivation, and/or invasive. I was initially surprised to find listings for several native American plant species, including papaya (Carica papaya, Caricaceae), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, Papaveraceae), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, Passifloraceae), chocolate (Theobroma cacao, Malvaceae), and corn (Zea mays, Poaceae), among others.

Digging deeper, I found that many species native to the Americas (North and South), as well as to Europe and the Mediterranean region, are included in this work. That is not to say that introduced species cannot have legitimate folk medicine uses in a new country, but only to say that these would be relatively new, as opposed to ancient, uses. Many plants have been transported and have adapted to new ecosystems, especially during the European colonial period.

I will be making good use of this compendium and can recommend it, as the authors do, to anthropologists, botanists, historians, linguists, nature conservationists, and those engaged in phytopharmaceutical research. As a researcher of botanical nomenclature, I greatly appreciate (and will make use of) this book’s “Index to Local Names,” which covers 179 pages and contains more than 21,000 local plant names with their corresponding Latin binomial. In the future, when colleagues contact me by Skype, they will see this book on a shelf right behind me where I can easily reach it when carrying out desk research.

—Josef A. Brinckmann, DHL (Hon)
Traditional Medicinals
Sebastopol, California