A number of books on the medicinal plants of Bangladesh can be found. However, only two - one written by M Salar Khan and A M Huq (1975, Bangladesh National Herbarium) and the other by M. Yusuf et al (1994, BCSIR, Dhaka) expound on their medical uses. But they did not contain any information on the chemical or active constituents of these plants, thus limiting their utility as references for medicinal cum pharmaceutical purposes.
However, the book, "Medicinal plants of Bangladesh—Chemical Constituents and Uses'' (1998) by Dr Abdul Ghani (former Professor of Pharmacy at Jahangirnagar University and National Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh) provided an elaborate list of 449 medicinal plants of Bangladesh with their chemical constituents and medicinal uses along with other relevant information on their habits, habitats and pharmacological attributes. It has been serving as a guidebook for practitioners of modern, indigenous and traditional systems of medicine, as well as scientists involved in Phyto-chemical research for seeking new active chemical substances from plants to develop new drugs.
Definition and usage
Plants that have therapeutic properties and provide beneficial pharmacological effects to the animal body are categorised as "Medicinal Plants".
Application of medicinal plants for tackling diseases had its origin in humanity's primitive past. Our ancestors turned to natural substances found in plants around settlements to ward off disease and death. In fact, in his ceaseless struggle to attain mastery over the forces of nature, man has always turned to plants for help – not only for medicine, but also for food, nutrition, shelter and clothing.
Medicinal plants constitute an important natural wealth of a country. They play a significant role in providing primary healthcare services to rural people. It also serves as important therapeutic agents as well as critical raw materials for the manufacture of traditional and modern medicines.
Substantial amounts of foreign exchange can also be earned by exporting medicinal plants to other countries. Through all these contributions, local medicinal plants can play a significant role in the economy of a country like Bangladesh.
Historical records show that the Babylonians (about 3000 BC) were aware of a large number of medicinal plants and their properties. As evidenced from Papyrus Ebers (1500 BC), the ancient Egyptians possessed a sound knowledge of the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants.
The earliest known Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the 'Pen Tsao', appeared around 1122 BC. The earliest mention of the medicinal use of plants in the Indian subcontinent was found in the Rig Veda (4500-1600 BC).
The 'Materia Medica' of the great Greek Physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) included reference to some 300 to 400 medicinal plants. The far-reaching scientific works of Aristotle (384-322 BC) included an effort to catalogue the properties of various medicinal herbs known at that time.
The encyclopaedic work of Pedanius Dioscorides (1st Century AD)—'De Materia Medica'—was the forerunner of all modern Pharmacopoeias and an authoritative text on botanical medicine. Two of the 37 books written by Pliny the Elder (23-70 AD) dealt with medicinal botany.
The Muslim physicians like Al-Razi and Ibne Sina (9th to 12th century AD) brought about a revolution in the history of medicine by incorporating new drugs of plant and mineral origin for general use.
The uses of medicinal plants in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries were based on the doctrine of 'signatures and similars' developed by the Swiss Alchemist and Physician Paracelsus (1490-1541 AD). The medicinal plants used by South American countries and the Australian aborigines many centuries ago tremendously enriched the stock of medicinal plants around the world.
As a sub-tropical country, Bangladesh is quite rich in naturally available medicinal plants. Even during the early 1980s, the herbal medicine companies (Ayurvedic and Unani) of the country were meeting 80 percent of their needs from the natural forests inside the country, and the remaining 20 percent were met through imports.
Since then the situation has reversed. Currently, 80 percent of local demand is met through imports, while a mere 20 percent consists of locally produced medicinal plants.
According to Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), there are 722 species of medicinal plants in Bangladesh. As opposed to 4,000 in India, 700 plants are used in Bangladesh for medicinal purposes. Of them, 255 plants are utilised by the manufacturers of Ayurvedic and Unani medicines.
Planned and systematic cultivation of medicinal plants can make significant contributions to the Bangladesh economy. They have a simple production system, a low production cost and can be cultivated throughout the year.
But, a majority of Bangladeshi farmers and value chain actors are still unaware about the profitability and sustainability of medicinal plants. In fact, the commercial production of medicinal plants in Bangladesh only began in the 1990s, with the effort mainly concentrated in and around the Natore region.
Previously lacking any prescribed cultivation method, Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI) has since initiated commercial production in the hilly areas based on market demands by adopting good agricultural practices. If modern production methods and practices can be institutionalised alongside effective business linkages, then the golden past of medicinal plants can easily be revived in Bangladesh.
The government needs to play a proactive role to facilitate the rapid expansion of this lucrative sector through the adoption of institutional support policies for production, processing, storage, grading, packaging, transportation and selling of medicinal plants.
The Department of Agricultural Extension under the Ministry of Agriculture provides occasional advice to cultivators, but they need to widen their effort and emphasise focus on how specific producers and market segments can be catered to in a more productive and profitable manner. The relevant research institutes, non-government organisations and the private sector can also take up initiatives to implement projects that will benefit all stakeholders.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.