Introduction | Medicinal Plants in India | R & D | Export Performance


Herbs is the third most important panel of SHEFEXIL, accounting for 18% of the Council's total export value. The panel deals primarily in Plants and Plant Portions, including leaves, barks, husks, flowers and pods, in fresh, dried, cut, crushed or powdered forms.

Indian herbs are renowned all over the world for their medicinal properties. India is the second highest producer of medicinal herbs in the world, after China. Himalayas, Aravalis, and Nilgiri mountains are the greatest reserves of medicinal herbs in India. Ayurveda, the traditional Indian form of medicine, has been using herbs for thousand of years.

Besides their medicinal use, herbs like basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, etc. are used worldwide for culinery purposes. High on aroma and full of flavour, herbs are truly a chef's delight in preparing meals to please all kinds of palates.

Herbs are also used in perfumery and cosmetics, besides for wellness and spiritual uses.

The single most important herb that India exports today is Psyllium Husk (Isabgol Husk), which singularly accounts for nearly 70% of the export value of the Herbs panel.


In India, medicinal plants are widely used by all sections of the population and it has been estimated that, in total over 7500 species of plants are used by several ethnic communities (AICEP 1994; Anthropological survey of India 1994).

Presently, medicinal plants play a very important role in the modern economy. NTFPs account for 70% of India's forest product exports and the demand for phytochemicals is expected to increase in future as a new frontier for trade. India has probably the oldest, richest and most diverse cultural traditions in the use of medicinal plants.

Exploration for forest-based plant products for new pharmaceuticals and the demand for medicinal plants are increasing in both developing and developed countries especially among the youth (Farnsworth and Soejarto 1991).

Surprisingly, the bulk of the traded material is still from the wild and a very small number of species are cultivated. According to the data compiled by the International Trade Centre, Geneva, India is ranked second amongst the exporting countries, after China, with an annual export of 326 000 tonnes with a value of Rs 45.95 million (about US$ 1.4 million) during 1992-95.

Recent trends have indicated further increase in this trade with the herbal cosmetic industry playing a major role in fuelling the demand for herbals worldwide. In addition to the international trade, there is a substantial volume of internal trade in medicinal plants in India. One estimate (Ved 1997; Ved et al. 2001) has projected the turnover of the herbal industry in India to be Rs 4000 million (about US$ 88 million) for the year 2000. The expanding trade in medicinal plants has serious implications on the survival of several plant species, many of which are under threat of becoming extinct. Today this rich biodiversity of medicinal plants is facing a serious threat because of the rapid loss of natural habitats and overexploitation of plants from the wild. To meet the demands of the Indian herbal industry, which has an annual turnover of about US$ 300 million medicinal plants are being harvested every year from some of 165 000 ha of forests (FRLHT 1997).

The following species of medicinal plants from India have been considered to be endangered and threatened for over a decade (Ayensu 1986): Acorus calamus, Alpinia galanga, Commiphora wightii, Dendrobium nobile, Dendrobium pauciflorum, Dioscorea deltoidea, Diplomeris hirsuta, Gentiana kurroo, Nelumbo nucifera, Paphiopedilum druryi, Podophyllum hexandrum, Rauvolfia serpentina, Santalum album and Saussurea lappa. A very large number of other species of medicinal plants can be added to this list, for example Saraca asoca, Picrorrhiza kurroa, Costus speciosus, Berberis aristata, Gloriosa superba, etc.

Millions of rural households use medicinal plants in a self-help mode. Over one and a half million practitioners of the Indian System of Medicine in the oral and codified streams use medicinal plants in preventive, promotive and curative applications.

There are estimated to be over 7800 manufacturing units in India. In recent years, the growing demand for herbal product has led to a quantum jump in volume of plant materials traded within and across the countries.

While the demand for medicinal plants is growing, some of them are increasingly being threatened in their natural habitat. For meeting the future needs cultivation of medicinal plant has to be encouraged.

The Indian systems of medicines popularly known as Ayurveda, Unani and Sidha have again emerged as popular medical systems. Majority of the medicinal plants are higher flowering plants, out of which 33% are trees, 32% herbs, 20% shrubs, 12 climbers and 3% others. Due to the spurt in the demand of plant based drugs, lately, many native species of medicinal values are being brought under systematic cultivation.

Click here to view the list of Herbs covered by Shefexil


Much of the research progress to date has resulted from the decision of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) to establish an All-India Coordinated Research Project on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants(AICRPMAP), in 1972, under the auspices of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR). Efforts have mainly focused on the development of agro-technology techniques, including propagation methods for medicinal and aromatic plants. Aromatic plants have however tended to receive more attention, perhaps because their market values are in general more widely known.

ICAR works through a network of research stations, including the National Research Centre for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants located in Anand, Gujarat, which specializes in domestication, and has created structural links between the NBPGR and its Plant Breeding Division in order to develop improved varieties of some of the medicinal plant species used in allopathic preparations.

Another major national public research organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has also played asignificant role with regard to cultivation of medicinal plants, through its creation of (CIMAP), the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, in Lucknow. CIMAP is now an eminent institution in India focusing on agro-technology as well as basic studies; improvement and enhancement of the resource base, and chemistry and related research regarding product development from plants.

In connection with the two major research efforts described above, the Central Government initiated a five year program (1992-1997) implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture to accelerate research and development of medicinal plants. With the support of 16 state agricultural universities, state horticulture and agriculture departments, regional research laboratories and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the GOI is establishing herbal gardens, nursery centres and demonstration seed production centres nation-wide.

Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (Department of ISM & H) started a "central scheme for development and cultivation of medicinal plants" in the year 1990-91 to encourage development of agrotechnique for important species through Govt/semi-government organisations having expertise and infrastructure for this work. The scheme is expected to initiate studies on harvesting, drying, and storage of Medicinal plants.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 80% of the population of developing countries rely on traditional medicines, mostly plant drugs, for their primary health care needs. Modern pharmacopoeia still contain at least 25% drugs derived from plants and many others which are synthetic analogues built on prototype compounds isolated from plants.

Demand for medicinal plant is increasing in both developing and developed countries due to growing recognition of natural products, being non-narcotic, having no side-effects, easily available at affordable prices and sometime the only source of health care available to the poor.

Medicinal plant sector has traditionally occupied an important position in the socio-cultural, spiritual and medicinal arena of rural and tribal lives of India. Medicinal plants as a group comprise approximately 8000 species and account for around 50% of all the higher flowering plant species of India.

An estimate of the EXIM Bank puts the international market of medicinal plants related trade at US$ 60 billion per year growing at the rate of 7% only. Though India has a rich biodiversity, the growing demand is putting a heavy strain on the existing resources. In case of medicinal plants, China and India are the two major production centres having more than 40% of global biodiversity.

International market for medicinal plants is over US$ 60 billion per year, which is growing at the rate of 7% annually. China, besides meeting its domestic requirement, is earning US$ 5 billion per year from herbal trade. According to the recent estimates, India, at present, exports herbal material and medicines to the tune of over Rs. 300 crore.