Vaneet Jishtu: bringing Ashtavarga back to the hills

Old Cottonian Dr. Vaneet Jishtu [Ibbetson 1972-81] is a Scientist at The Himalayan Forest Research Institute with a M. Sc. and Ph.D. in Botany with specialization in Taxonomy and Cold Deserts .

Here is the article recently published by Meena Menon in The Hindu:

Dr. Vaneet Jishtu is on a mission in Himachal, where invasive species are edging out native plants

As you drive up the Kufri-Chail Road from Shimla near Munda Ghat at a height of 1,700 metres, the untrained eye will only see the slopes dominated by blue pine.

But taxonomist Dr. Vaneet Jishtu is quick to spot the odd white oak among them. “Blue pine is an invasive exotic species which is edging out the local oak,” he points out.

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[Photo: Meena Menon]

It is not only indigenous species like the oak that are being edged out but also the rich treasure of medicinal plants, notably the eight plants or ‘Ashtavarga’ that is part of the Ayurvedic formulation Chyavanprash.

Dr. Jishtu says that in Himachal Pradesh, all the eight constituents of ‘Ashtavarga’— Jeevaka, Rishbhaka, Meda, Mahameda, Kakoli, Kshirakakoli, Riddhi and Vriddhi — were fairly common till the turn of the 19th century.

Henry Collect records in his Flora Simlensis, published in 1902, that ‘kshirakakoli’ or Lilium polyphyllum, one of the Ashtavarga constituents was a common undergrowth of the deodar forests. Similarly, the seven other species were commonly found in open grasslands, shrubberies and in the forest undergrowth. It is surprising that in a matter of just about 110 years, wild populations of Lilium polyphyllum have almost vanished from the State, he said.

“It was after investing in large-scale surveys that I was able to locate a few areas where these herbs occur. I am also trying to grow them in ex situ conservation plots near Shimla. Since, the population of these ashtavarga species has dwindled and very few people recognise them, the companies manufacturing Chyavanprash or other formulations must be using their substitutes,” he pointed out.

Revival project

Dr. Jishtu has an ‘Ashtavarga project’ which aims at reviving these eight herbs. A scientist at the Himalayan Forest Research Institute, Dr. Jishtu’s arboretum at Potter’s Hill grows local species like the Indian maple and medicinal plants. His aim is to have at least 150 species which reflect the rich biodiversity of the Himalayas, where he has been trekking for the last 20 years.

In Himachal Pradesh, 47 medicinal plant species are on the Red list and 11 species are critically endangered.

While blue pine or Pinus wallichiana is an invasive species, it is very much native to the region, Dr. Jishtu said. It tends to be invasive under favourable conditions, like openings in the forests, where it replaces the original forest species.

The pretty yellow and white flowers which have covered much of the hillsides and roadsides in Shimla are also an invasive plant from South America (Solanum chacoense, a species of wild potato).

Such non-native species highly reduce the plant diversity of the region and as a result, indigenous plants are in danger of being wiped out, he said.

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