Glacier Melt Threatens Medicinal Plants in Pakistan

Lack of access to health facilities is a massive problem facing developing countries. Zaheer Abbas et al. recently published a paper on the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan in which the communities have been relying on traditional methods for treating common physical ailments. Like many remote communities without access to modern health care, the Balti community have honed their traditional knowledge of local plants over the centuries using herbal treatments readily available to them in the Karakoram range. However, traditional knowledge is not well recorded in the region because medicinal plant concoctions are only passed down orally. This knowledge, if documented and shared, could inform other non-traditional medicine, according to Abbas et al. However, as R. Jilani et al. describe in another paper, if glaciers in Northern Pakistan start to melt, the reduction in the water resources could greatly affect the plants grown in the region, threatening the future use of Balti knowledge.

A map of the Karakoram Range (Source: Creative Commons).

The Karakoram Range, a large mountain range that spans across Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, and Tajikistan, is one of the most glaciated areas outside of the polar regions and also one of the most botanically diverse. The range is home to the Biafo Glacier, which is the third largest glacier in the Karakoram and the fourth largest in Asia. For now, as Abbas et al. explain, the glaciers in the Karakoram Range are stable and not experiencing glacier melt like other regions. This is due to the very high altitude of the glaciers and the fact that temperatures remain cold throughout the year. However, a paper by Rajiv Chaturvedi et al. explains that in climate scenarios where carbon emissions continue to increase, we can expect melting of the Karakoram glaciers to occur at a rapid rate. The region and its glaciers have not previously been studied in depth due to the area’s remoteness, high altitude and harsh climate. Adding additional complications to future research is the fact that there is no weather station in the region, so temperature readings typically come from Skardu, 55 km away. This raises questions about the future impact of climate on the use of medicinal plants and traditional Balti knowledge.

A picture of Thymus Linearis (Source: Dinesh Valke/Creative Commons).

For their Karakoram study, Abbas et al. interviewed 69 inhabitants of the region, including five herbalists, in order to understand how regional plants are used by the local communities for medicinal purposes. As Abbas et al. explain, many modern drug discoveries have been based on medicinal plants used by indigenous people. For this study, the team explored a total of 63 plant species, and with the help of the Balti people, categorized the plants into uses for 11 common diseases and disorders. They also looked at  how effective the plants were at resolving those particular health issues based on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being most effective). The common health issues ranged from anything from a common toothache to kidney stones. The study also showed the diversity of the plant parts used in the remedy, including flowers, seeds, leaves, and in some cases, the entire plant. The majority of the species studied were indigenous to the Tormik Valley due to its microclimate. The Tormik Valley is lush and fed by freshwater streams and springs.

A photo of Hippophae Rhamnoides (Source: Jean Tosti/Creative Commons).

Of the 63 species examined, three of them were particularly valuable due to their effectiveness, and each scored a 4 or 5 on the scale. Thymus linearis (a shrub with small dark purple blooms), commonly known as Himalayan thyme or common thyme and belonging to the Mint family, is used by the Balti people to treat abdominal pain and vomiting. Hippophae rhamnoides, commonly known as sea-buckthorn (a tree with bright orange seeds) is used to treat a multitude of disorders, including arthritis pain, eczema and urinary disorders. Convolvulus arvensis, a winding weed and relative of the morning glory, when ingested as a whole plant, is used to treat constipation.

A photo of Convolvulus Arvensis (Source: Farbenfreude/Creative Commons).

Interestingly, Abbas et al. share that the upper and lower parts of Northern Pakistan have unique ethnobotanical traditional knowledge. The communities in the neighboring Skardu valley, located at the junction of the Indus and Shigar Rivers, for example, use the same Thymus linearis plant to treat colds and pneumonia. While they may use similar plants depending on the availability, communities sometimes use the plants in different ways. In some cases, they may use plants for activities beyond food and medicine, such as for building huts and fences.

Ethnobotany, the study of interactions between humans and plants, is especially important now as the documentation of traditional knowledge decreases with time. The Balti community demonstrates how important traditional knowledge of plants can be. The traditional knowledge cultivated within these communities can provide important data to help inform health care policy. However, if melting begins to affect the glaciers in the Karakoram Range, these plants may be entirely destroyed.

Aromatic, Medicinal Plants Flourish in the Himalayas

In the region of the Himalayas from Bhutan, Nepal, and India, many aromatic plants grow and comprise a part of local people’s lives as medicine and food. In their review paper “Himalayan Aromatic Medicinal Plants: A Review of their Ethnopharmacology, Volatile Phytochemistry, and Biological Activities” in the journal Medicines, Rakesh K. Joshi, Prabodh Satyal, and William N. Setzer analyze in detail the nutritional and medicinal value of 116 aromatic plant species.

Cymbopogon martinis (source: Wikipedia)

The Himalayas are well-known as the world’s highest mountain range. The authors’ research area, located in the southern margin of the Himalaya range, is actually a narrow band of biodiversity. It is called by some researchers the center of plant diversity in the Himalayas. The monsoon brings rains concentrated in the summer and contributes a great deal to the rich biodiversity. The authors report, citing prior research, that “The Indian Himalaya is home to more than 8000 species of vascular plants of which 1748 are known for their medicinal properties.”

Artemisia marítima (source: Wikimedia)

The authors of the review paper indicated that the plants growing in high elevation are important for local people. Those plants provide both nutrition and medicinal functions. Some of those wild plants have been eaten by people since ancient times, while the medicinal effects have been noticed just recently. In the article, the authors list the ethnopharmacology, biological activities, and essential oil compositions of Himalayan aromatic plants. Some of them not only are useful but have some special characteristics.

For example, there are around 400 species in the genus Artemisia, like mugwort and wormwood, growing in the temperate regions, and 19 species of this genus in Himalayan regions have been recognized as medicinal herbs. The plants of this genus are traditional medicines discovered a long time ago by indigenous cultures. Most species have strong aromas, and can be smelled from a long distance. Due to their strong aromas, some of the plants in this genus are used as incense and insecticide. For example, the leaf extract of Artemisia japonica is used to treat malaria, while a paste of the leaves is applied externally to treat skin diseases in northern Pakistan. Another species, Artemisia maritima, is used by several Himalayan peoples to treat stomach problems and intestinal worms.

Artemisia michauxiana (source: PFAF)

When it comes to the Cinnamomum genus, which is in the laurel family, many people are quite familiar with the common spice, cinnamon. Chefs treat it as one important flavor and some people like cinnamon flavored coffee or tea. The Cinnamomum genus is another typical aromatic plant that are green from spring to winter. Their aromatic oils are preserved in the leaves and bark. In the Himalayan areas, eight out of 250 total species have been found. There are still many other genus of aromatic plants providing food and medicine for local people in the Himalayan places, such as the genus Cymbopogon, which is also known as lemongrass.

With its distinct environment of glacial and river valleys, the Himalayas nurture a rich biodiversity. Traditional herbs still play an important role in people’s health. More species are joining in the group of medicinal herbs. As a result, it should be highlighted that plants in Himalayas demand protection considering the challenge of climate change, environmental degradation, and other threats.