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Many orchid species face extinction in India

Written by: Staff

Chandigarh, Apr 9: Orchids, known for their ornamental as well as medicinal value, are facing a threat both from humans as well as from natural calamaties and many valuable spiecies in India have become extinct.

Used in the traditional system of medicines since vedic times, orchids are the largest family of flowering plants world over with over 30,000 species, out of which nearly 1250 species are found in India. These are mainly found in Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Jammu and Kashmir in the North besides Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and other states in the North-East and Lonavala and Khandala areas in the Western Ghats.

According to Prof S P Vij, former Head of the Botany Department at Punjab University and secretary, the Orchid Society of India said that some orchids endemic to Indian species are so ornamental and in demand because of their medicinal value that their natural population had been over-exploited. ''Nearly 150 species figure in the list of rare and endangered plants,'' he noted.

He said that a large proportion of the Indian forests have been felled and grasslands destroyed for agri-horticulture and other development purposes, destroying the orchid wealth. Besides natural calamities like landslides, floods, soil erosion and forest fire are the major factors responsible for the destruction of the orchid habitats. Human activity and unsustainable harvesting in the wild is one of the biggest causes of loss of species, Prof Vij added.'' Ruthless extraction and illegal trade not only endangered but also posed a very high risk of extintion of rare orchids in near future'', he said.

India has also been a favourite orchid-hunting ground for the past two centuries, ship-loads of rare and beautiful orchids were regularly exported to England and other countries in the pre-independence era, he added.

According to a list prepared by the Orchid Society of India , 91 per cent plant species are threatened due to habitat loss and degradation. India is sixth in the list of countries having the largest number of threatened plant species that are most prone to extinction. With the increasing demand of herbal products, Prof Vij said that majority of the pharmaceutical companies are procuring raw material illegally from the wild habitats, causing great threat to several high value orchid species. With the limited wild stock and continuing exhaustion would lead to extinction of orchids, he observed.

Calling for steps to be taken for the conservation of orchids, he suggested protected ecosystem, natural habitats and maintenance of viable populations of endangered species. Establishment of buffer zones in order to rehabilitate and reinstate fragmented habitats and promote growth through scientific methods and plannings needed to be undertaken, Prof Vij added.

Better coordination between scientists and natural area management organisations for sensible and effective conservation are also the need of the hour, he note, adding that a notification of orchid-rich areas as Orchid Conservation Areas was an immediate step that the government should intiate.

Steps have been taken to conserve Indian native species by establishing orchidaria, sancturies and germplasm conservation centres. Botanical Survey of India has established two orchidaria one at Shillong and other at Yercaud to conserve the rare and endangered species.

Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR), research complex at Shillong, Indian Institute of Horticultural Research at Hessaraghtta and Indian Botanical Gardens at Kolkata maintain collections of orchids in their orchidaria as orchids are inherently slow growers and due to their nutritional complexities, they germinate poorly in nature.

Refering to the flower's therapeutic significance Prof Vij said that orchids have been attributed to their huge reservoir of phytochemicals (alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, carbohydrates). Orchids are considered as astringent, anti-cancer, demulcine, expectorant and for their nutritive value. In Ayurveda medicine, these plants have been used for over 3000 years and some of the common drugs obtained from orchids are Ridhi, Vridhi, Jeevak, Rishbhak, Jeewanti, Munjattak, Amarkand, Rasna and Salampanja etc. Four out of eight ingredients in Chawanprash are derived from orchids.

A few species of orchids have been considered to induce sterility among women while native inhabitants in some areas use seeds of cymbidium madidum and pseudobulbs of dendrobium tokai as oral contraceptives. Some species have religious significance in certain parts of the world.

The orchids find a frequent mention in the ancient literature for their curative and aphrodisiac properties and as symbol of sanctity. The flower of Aerides and Rhynchostylis continue to be adorned by ladies, as symbols of sanctity and womanhood in Noth-Eastern region.

The anti-viral and anti-cancerous properties of vanda parviflora have been positively tested and the leaves of cymbidium giganteum are known to help blood clotting. Cymbidium hybrid, epipactis helleborine and liparis ovata have been positively tested against AIDS while salep misri is a powerful aphrodisiac and a nervine retroactive and tonic.

Vanilla, the most commonly used ingredient in ice-creams and pudding and second most costly spice after saffron is also derived from vanilla planifolia orchids that are found in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Orchids are also fed to the milch cattle in the north-eastern India with the belief that a few of the species enhance milk production.

Prof Vij said orchids possessed medicinal properties for diseases like rheumatism, to enhance longevity, nervous disorders, scorpion stings, use as tonics, expectorants, rejuvinating drug, aphrodisiacs and natural cures for pulmonary and cardiac problems. A few species are also used to cure chest, heart, lung, eye, ear and mental problems and even act as appetisers and blood purifiers besides curing skin related diseases.


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