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Braving militants to discover Assam’s herbs

Botanists across the globe never dared to go herb spotting in troubled Karbi Anglong district of Assam, reports Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2007 05:06 IST

Did you know that a vine locally known in Assam’s hills as lota kopal phota is used to treat HIV/AIDS? Or that six varieties of potato found in the hills go into preparing indigenous oral contraceptives?

Gun-toting militants lording over one of the world’s largest natural medicinal plant gardens did not. And even if botanists across the globe did, they dared not go herb spotting in troubled Karbi Anglong district.

But divisional forest officer Jatindra Sarma knew about the plants and had the courage to explore the region for them. The fruit of his efforts is a 186-page dossier on the ‘Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Assam with Special Reference to Karbi Anglong’.

When Sarma got a posting at the district headquarters Diphu in March 2003 as plan officer (hills), he decided to make the most of it and indulge in his passion for plants. The opportunity to roam the forests came two years later when he was told to handle the silviculture division too.

Sarma began work on an abandoned 200-acre botanical garden 6 km from Diphu, to identify and document the medicinal plants and herbs in the district. He subsequently traveled to remote areas, often running into militants. “Many of them began ignoring me after realising I was no threat to them,” he said.

“This is just the beginning,” said Sarma, who took 18 months to complete the fieldwork along with forest ranger Ranjan Kumar Baruah.

“We found exotic plants that are yet to be classified. I want to document the medicinal and aromatic plants found in the remaining districts of Assam.”

While German scientists have sought Sarma's expertise to experiment on some of the 434 plants he documented, botanists in Assam said the book will help in knowing about the floral wealth in the Northeast, which has 40 per cent of plants found in India. “This is undoubtedly a pioneering attempt,” said the head of Gauhati University’s botany department, S.K. Borthakur.

The plants documented by Sarma include arnam hanserong (Devil’s cotton) used as a flavouring agent, engthum abap ke-er (swallow wart) used to cure asthma and nari kolom (king of bitters) used to cure liver ailments.