A sale and exhibition of medicinal plants held last month was part of a larger conservation effort held by the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine
Herb fair
By Priyanwada Ranawaka
The crowd at the Vihara Maha Devi Park last month was enthusiastic: They were at the very first medicinal plant sale and exhibition held by the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine.

"This exhibition is the last part of a six-year project," explained Dr. Danister L. Perera of the Ministry of Indigenous Medicine. Concurrently, a two-day seminar was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute discussing threatened species and the global commercial demand for medicinal plants which has seen most species threatened with extinction.

"At the exhibition we have plants representing all the environmental zones of the country," said Dr. Perera adding that some very rare plants too were on display. Of the 1500 medicinal plants found in Sri Lanka around 600 varieties were on sale at the exhibition. There were also various kinds of budded fruit trees, much sought after by plant enthusiasts. Interestingly, it was the Veddah stall that was the main attraction.

"It was a good opportunity for us to see the plants that we learn about in school," said a Grade 10 student, Mihiri Ekanayake. She and her friend had come to see the exhibition soon after school while on their way to a tuition class.

"These are not plants that will bear beautiful flowers," said Mrs. Chithra Fernando coming out of a stall with a bag full of herbal plants. She said that although she has a fairly good knowledge of home remedies, she could never make use of them as some of the ingredients were not available in her garden.

Nearly 75% of the plants in Sri Lanka are indigenous, of which 27.3% are endemic. Sadly, though, around 180 are faced with danger of extinction due to deforestation and the commercial demand for herbal plants, explains Dr. Perera.

The limited supply of known wild herbs is being threatened by over harvesting and habitat loss. The potential for producing beneficial drugs from plants has prompted pharmaceutical companies to manufacture large quantities of drugs using herbal ingredients. Dr. Perera said that careful study should be done of medicinal plants, especially regarding their capacity for sustainable harvesting and the effects of cultivation on their efficacy as medicaments.

Dr. Perera also revealed that 60% of herbal plant ingredients are imported from India and China. "Of the 200 common medicinal plants in the country, about 50 are heavily used," he said, adding that over 120 well-known western medicines (including aspirin) are also made with extracts of local medicinal plants. "It is this commercial viability that causes a danger of extinction."

Available at the exhibition were Kamarangka, Bakuwi, Kela, Aththana and Ruk Anguna which could be used for home remedies while others like Aloe Vera, Sudhu Handun and Duhundu could be grown in homes as ornamental plants. Other plants like Mas Bedda, Bim Komarika and Rath Handun are collectors' items because of their rarity.

"I've been looking for a Rath Handun sapling for quite some time now," said Mr. J. Akirigala who had come to Colombo from Badulla. He felt that there should be more exhibitions of this nature. "Many people while going on trips destroy trees in their natural habitat by breaking off branches and trying to pull them up by the roots. But if these plants can be bought at sales like this nobody would do that."

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