Glimpses of Nature and Culture

Coconut shell: the death bell for sharks

The coconut tree is synonymous with sea beach and island nations. The tree isCoco Rattle present across the tropics and it has diverse economic, environmental, and social relations with the communities. One such interesting use is in “Shell Rattling” where a bunch of coconut shells loosely attached through a string is used for luring sharks for hunting. In the islands of Papua-new Guinea, local fishermen use “Larung”/”Tui-ipu” made of coconut shells, to make sounds similar to cries of sea-birds around small fishes or traveling horse mackerel fishes. This rattling sound in the water attracts shark towards the spot and fishermen catch them with a noose attached to a curved stick.

Photo: Eric Lafforgue

Collector: Rajasri Ray 

 

Rajo Parbo – Monsoon celebration through menstruation

From the end of May, India is looking hungrily towards the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal for its eternal ecosystem manipulator – the monsoon. The advent of monsoon is celebrated across the country through various festivals to express human gratitude towards nature for supporting their survival. Rajo Parbo – Monsoon celebration through menstruationThis transition from scorching summer to rejuvenating rainy season has a pivotal role in agriculture as the soil gets its required moisture, micro-organisms stimulate normal nutrient cycling and there is a boost for young members to grow. In Odisha, this natural phenomenon is linked with one of the vital events of the human life, i.e., menstruation and is celebrated through Rajo Parbo or Raja Festival. As menstruation indicates shedding of the unused eggs and associated tissues from the woman body to render it ready for fresh egg formation cycle; the analogy is drawn with mother earth’s rejuvenation during this seasonal transition. This three-day long festival is dedicated to ‘Vasumati’, the Earth goddess. It is believed that during the first 3 days of the festival mother earth goes through menstruation shedding past scorching experiences of summer and prepare herself for coming period of reproduction, i.e., cultivation and harvesting. At the 4th or last day, a ritualistic bath has been conducted (Vasumati Gadhu or the ritual bath of Bhu Devi) to indicate the end of natural menstruation for mother earth.

The festival emphasizes on unmarried young girls (who have attained puberty) to celebrate their time freeing from daily household jobs. They can enjoy song, dance, games, various foods and other joyous activities which otherwise is not possible in the day to day work. Synonymous with that, all agricultural activities are banned at this time period to put the earth at rest. After the 4th day, the normal agricultural schedule starts as usual. In the present time, it is one of the most popular and commercially attractive festivals to the retail, entertainment and food industry.

Photo: www.orissacards.com

Collector: Rakesh Mitra

 

Development: a challenge for food security?

We often use the term development as a panacea for our materialistic achievement. However, the idea is not as pleasant as it sounds especially for indigenous people. Apart from social, political and economic aspects, it is deep rooted in the food security especially for marginalized peoples. Development is synonymous with displacement for them which actually implies dissociating them from their land, on which they not only grow food or procure resources, it is their lifeline of very existence. It affects their choice of foods, connection with the indigenous food system and traditional knowledge linked to food etc.. They are excluded from the rights of accessing the local foods in one hand. On the other hand, the inept rehabilitation programmes rob off the sense of self-reliance – the cornerstone of food sovereignty from the lives of the displaced people.  This traumatic experience around the world ultimately contributes towards homogenization of food cultures, loss of traditional wisdom and diversity and hegemony of corporate-centric food production system.

Collector: Sudeshna Dutta

 

Ancient garden growing clam trees

Humans, the great ecosystem engineer, have been altering, exploiting, and managing marine and terrestrial ecosystems for millennia. Ancient garden growing clam treesOn one hand, fishing in coastal ecosystems has caused declines in key species; on the other, many demonstrate sustained yields. Recent records from archaeology and oral history tell us fascinating accounts of the First People around the world – who enhanced nearshore ecosystems maintaining and increasing productivity. No wonder, ancient people of Canada and Alaska used to construct and manage natural aquatic gardens, such as intertidal rock-walled terraces to grow their aquaculture business. A long list of the menu included a range of succulent bivalves, native littleneck, butter clams, horse clams, heart cockles. The study demonstrates their choice of artificial aquatic gardens had significantly shallower slopes than non-walled beaches and it enhanced clam food procurement more efficiently than any other nearby place. So, we  learn a lesson on how ancient shellfish aquaculture practices may have supported food security strategies in the past; and also how it can offer clues to conservation, management, and governance of intertidal seascapes today.

Source: Groesbeck et. al (2014) PLoS ONE 9(3): e91235. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091235

Collector: Avik Ray

 

Conflict zone and biodiversity

Conflict zones are areas between two countries/within the country, where sovereignty issue has a great dispute and often are guarded by armed forces of respective nations. These are no-man’s land where ordinary citizens are barred from entry and activities. Despite this negative notion, no-man’s land has some positive impact on the promotion of regional biodiversity. Conflict zone and biodiversity A good example is the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). It is a 4 km wide 250 km long natural land area running through the border of North and South Korea. Knowing as one of the tense borders of the world, this area has lowest human presence hence lowest disturbance from modern civilization. This humanized isolation to the region has prompted an involuntary national park like scenario in the area. Added the benefit of natural topography rivers, mountain, swamp, lake and tidal marshes the region supports a good number of life forms. The reported species diversity equates 67% of the diversity in the Korean peninsula and the region is home to some of the rare animals like the red-crowned crane, white-naped crane, Siberian tiger, Amur leopard, and Asiatic black bear. Moreover, the region acts as an important resting area for north-south migration route of the crane populations.

Photo: Wikipedia

Collector: Rajasri Ray     

The winged Guardians of rice fields: stories of Dragonflies and Damselflies

Of all the insects which have charmed us with their beautiful colors, odonates (nameScarletSkimmerDragonflyCropped of scientific group of dragonflies and damselflies) have very few competitors. Their very large eyes in comparison to the head, brightly colored body; long and thin or narrowly tapering abdomen; sharp movement – the sheer beauty in motion – has mesmerized their watchers for long. Odonates are one of the most successful insects on earth, they ruled from Upper Permian so say their fossil records (earliest fossils date to ~268 Mya, Upper Permian). The two most prominent members of phylum Arthropoda order Odonata are dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera). About 5,000 species of these ancient insects are reportedAgriocnemis femina throughout the planet!! 503 species of odonates are reported from India, of which about 186 are endemic (Joshi et al. 2018). Many species show sexual dimorphism, i.e., male and female members differ in color and size. Though dragonflies and damselflies share several similarities the two easily distinguishing features are their flight and perching style. Dragonfly flight is direct and power packed while that of a damselfly is fluttery. While perching, damselfly wings are folded together above their body while dragonflies usually outstretch their wings.

Life of damselflies and dragonflies are hitched with riparian ecosystems. They can colonize both stagnant and running water bodies. Male dragonflies are oftenOdonata Mating territorial, occupying zones of ponds, rivers and streams (Bried and Ervin 2006). Female visits and mate with best fighters. Whereas damselfly females choose best fliers and searchers. Both dragonfly and damselfly sex is spotted by the heart-shaped “wheel” position of mating pairs. After copulation, female lays egg in water. Odonate larvae (nymphs or naiad) are carnivorous, highly effective predators in aquatic ecosystems. They are ideal candidates for forecasting diversity and structure of aquatic macro-invertebrate and vegetation assemblages. Odonates can act as both dominant predators and significant prey for many wetland faunas. Their trophic position and sensitivity to degraded environment qualify them as bio-indicators of wetland health. A bioindicator is any species whose function, presence, absence or abundance reflects the specific environmental status of its habitat. Dragonflies and damselflies are also considered as flagship (due to their iconic presence in riparian ecosystem) as well as umbrella species (as their protection directly/indirectly saves several other species) in their ecosystem. They provide a buffer for strict wetland obligates and are useful in wetland conservation and management efforts (Hornung and Rice 2003). The distribution pattern of larval and adult odonates can be used to determine water quality in wetland system (for further details read Junior et al. 2015). Wetland health is highly vulnerable to development, degradation due to organic pollution, and different forms of human interference in adjacent upland habitat which  affect its odonate diversity. common OdonatesHigh nutrient loads from agricultural field and toxic metals from industrial run-offs are directly associated with dragonfly breeding patterns – reducing the number of eggs (Junior et al. 2015 and references therein). We have very little understanding of the scenarios in Indian wetlands owing to lack of detail studies (Jacob et al. 2017).

Paddy rice agro-ecosystems serve as temporary wetlands. Despite regular human interventions they are home to many water-loving floral and faunal species. This agro-ecosystem harbors an enriched web of generalist predators like spiders, water striders, odonate nymphs and adults, and ground beetles (Heong et al. 1991). Different odonate communities are found to colonize rice crop at its different growth stages. Some common odonate species are coromandel marsh dart (Ceriagrion coromandelianum), golden dartlet (Ischnura aurora), pygmy dartlet (Agriocnemis pygmaea), green marsh hawk (Orthetrum sabina), ditch jewel (Brachythemis contaminata), scarlet skimmer (Crocothemis servilia), ground skimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) and globe skimmer (Pantala flavescens) (Satpathi 2010).

Odonate nymphs prey on insect pests of rice like rice hoppers falling on the water. As the odonate babies grow up and mature their food preference tends to change (Satpathi 2010). Now, they can climb up the rice stems and look out for pests like rice leaf folder/roller, stem borer. RicepestFinally, in last instar, nymphs metamorphose, skin splits at head (cast skin is named exuvia) to release the adults which looks radically different from larvae (Satpathi 2010). After emergence, the adults rest on sticks or perches of paddy field or bushes close to the fields (Satpathi 2010).

Adult odonates feed on aerial prey at ground level. Their diet includes major rice pests like moths of stem borer (Scirpophaga incertulas), leaf roller (Cnaphalocrocis medinalis), caseworm (Nymphula depunctalis), the adults of brown plant hopper (Nilaparvata lugens), white backed plant hopper (Sogatella furcifera), green leafhopper (Nephotettix virescens) and others (Satpathi 2010). These insect pests affect rice production at different growth stages by tissue boring, sap sucking, defoliation and leaf scrapping. Hence their control measures are of high importance. The efficiency of odonates to keep pest population at check can be successfully utilized for biological control of rice insect pests (Thorburn 2015). Therefore, this natural approach has great potential in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs.

However, with the intensification of Green Revolution emphasis was given towards adoption of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), chemical fertilizers, insecticides, improved irrigation and agricultural extension since 1960 throughout South and SouthEast Asian countries, Latin America, the Near East and Africa (Fox 1993). Sadly, these increased trend of agricultural modernisation along with negligence towards traditional agrarian knowledge of pest control wiped out many of the general predators and damaged the rich paddy rice agro-ecosystems. In reality, in a hurry for higher yield and better economic security farmers actually losing their real friends and getting succumbed to plagues of insecticide-induced resurgent pests. The case of rice brown plant hopper (BPH) outbreak after heightening of Green Revolution serves as an typical example (Thorburn 2015). Outbreak of BPH, wreaked havoc in Indonesia, southern India and Sri Lankan crop fields in mid-1970’s. The resistant varieties – IR26 and IR30 (1975), and IR24, IR28, IR32 and IR34 (1976), released by IRRI in response to BPH attack failed only after one or two seasons of their introduction due to appearance of a new biotype of BPH. In response to that IR64 (a new resistant variety) and many others was introduced which persisted upto 1984 (Thorburn 2015 and references therein). However, with ever increasing use of insecticides, in 1985–1986, Indonesians witnessed a drastic BPH resistance breakdown in all areas of the IR64, destroying 275,000 hectares of rice (Settle et al. 1996). By then, evidence accumulated that usage of insecticide can actually enhance adaptation of pests to the introduced pest-resistant varieties (Gould et al. 1991). Increased use of pesticides produced resistant pest on one hand and killed their natural enemies like dragonflies and damselflies on the other.

         Interestingly, a completely different scenario was observed in Indonesia in mid-1980’s where government support for IPM as a national policy (from 1989–1999) resulted in spectacularly successful pest management scenario (Thorburn 2015). This approach enabled the farmers to gain knowledge about natural enemies of rice insect pests like spiders, dragonflies and damselflies and sustain their population with zero pesticide usage. However, lack of such initiatives towards promoting IPM in a worldwide-scale, ever increasing dependency on a few HYVs of rice, prophylactic application of chemical pesticides and nutritional supplements are the rice agricultural practices which is observed today throughout many agricultural farms. So, it is now probably the best time to learn lessons from history and invest more time and energy to recognise the IPM ability of these winged guardians.

Photo: Abhik Sarkar, Wikimedia commons

 References

Fox J. Ecological policies for sustaining high production in rice: Observations on rice intensification in Indonesia. In: Brookfield H, Byron Y (Ed.). South-East Asia’s Environmental Future. Oxford University Press; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: 1993. pp. 211–224.

Gould F, Kennedy GG, Johnson MT. 1991. Effects of natural enemies on the rate of herbivore adaptation to resistant host plants. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. 58: 1–4.
Heong KL, Aquino GB, Barrion AT. 1991. Arthropod community structures of rice ecosystems in the Philippines. Bulletin of Entomological Research. 81: 407–416.

Hornung, JP, Rice CL. 2003. Odonata and wetland quality in southern Alberta, Canada: a preliminary study. Odonatologica 32: 119–129.

Jacob S, Thomas AP, Manju EK. Odonata (Dragonflies and Damselflies) as Bio Indicators of Water Quality. International Journal of Innovative Research in Science, Engineering and Technology 19464-19474.

Joshi S, Koparde P, Dawn P, Roy P, Kunte K. (Ed.) 2018. Odonata of India, v. 1.10. Indian Foundation for Butterflies.

Junior CD, Juen L, Hamada N. 2015. Analysis of urban impacts on aquatic habitats in the central Amazon basin: adult odonates as bioindicators of environmental quality. Ecological Indicators. 48:303-11.

Satpathi CR. 2010. Some observation on Dragonfly and Damselfly in rice field. Insect Environ 16 (2): 68.

Settle WH, Ariawan A, Astuti ET, Cahyana W, Hakim AL, Hindayana D, Lestari AS, Pajarningsih. 1996. Managing tropical rice pests through conservation of generalist natural enemies and alternative prey. Ecology 77: 1975–1988.

Thorburn C. 2015. The rise and demise of integrated pest management in rice in Indonesia. Insects. 6(2):381-408.

The evolution of human-animal interface

Human-animal interface manifests itself in several different ways, which may span anywhere in a gradient from conflict to cooperation. The interaction of humans with their nonhuman animal counterparts is as old as the emergence of Homo at the heart of Africa. Early humans needed to protect themselves, especially the vulnerable among them, from attacks by ferocious animals like lions or sabre-tooth tigers which roamed alongside humans in the vast savannas of Africa or the temperate meadows of Europe. The earlier human species, therefore devised various tools (especially spears) for such fights with large animals [1]. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of early humans also required hunting a large number of different animals [2] ranging from small rodents to mammals as big as the wooly mammoth. Therefore, the influence of animals on early humans as predators (e.g. lions) or prey (e.g. aurochs) was arguably the greatest force behind necessitating humans to form groups or band together in a cooperative manner [3], which gradually evolved into what we call as “tribes”.

Animals occupied a great part of imagination in the prehistoric human societies, which often got expressed through totemism or art. The artifacts and signs left by early humans in the old stone-age period led us discover the earliest known form of art in the African as well as European archaeological sites. The middle to upper Paleolithic cave paintings and rock carvings by the earliest dispersed humans in Europe (e.g. France, Spain) have a recurring depiction of animals, which usually dominated their artistic creations. Drawings of predatory animals, description of a group hunting expedition, or a general portrayal of an interesting animal got done with great detail and accuracy, often using natural dyes like ochre or by simply using tools like axes or spears as etching instruments. As we can reasonably construe from archaeological evidence discovered so far, the occupation of animals on human imagination might have been the utmost influence in the beginning and development of human arts [4].

Rock Art

 

The prehistoric hunter-gatherers of central Asia found an unusual associate among wolves, some of which accompanied humans in their hunting expeditions as scavengers of left-over food from hunted animals. These wolves benefitted from human association as humans tolerated them because they possibly helped humans in hunts as well as guarded humans or acted as early warning system from potential dangers. The mutualism between wolves and early human hunter-gatherers later evolved into the first domesticated wolves, or dogs, in central Asia [5] during the last part of the Paleolithic period (although strong arguments exist in support of an European origin of domestic dogs [6]). Later on, sheep and goats were domesticated for meat production as well as valuable sources for milk and wool. Cattle were domesticated in the later period in two separate regions, the modern day Turkey (from aurochs) and Pakistan (from wild cattle, possibly Gaur or Indian bison), first for meat and later as an important source of milk. These early domestications of wild animals for human utilization heralded a new period in human history, the Neolithic period or the New Stone Age. The early Neolithic humans also domesticated certain wild plants from which they gathered food regularly, which led to the origin of early agriculture. The increased dependence of Neolithic humans on domesticated animals and plants for food and other commodities required them to make semi-permanent settlements which later became permanent villages and led to the final stages of cultural evolution among prehistoric humans, including the making of advanced stone tools, pottery, weaving and agricultural revolution [7] (with the use of draught animals and agricultural tools). By the onset of the Bronze Age, humans had practically become dependent on domestic animals for food, commodities (wool, hide, horns etc.), agriculture, transportation or other draught-works. 

The importance of domestic animals in Neolithic, Bronze Age and the later Iron AgeThe Pashupati Seal of Indus Valley Civilization period led to an increased depiction of animals in totemism and greatly influenced the development of organized religion. Thus a new aspect of human-animal interface began to develop, i.e., spiritual reverence of animals. Early human civilizations from every corner of the world, be it the old world or the new world, had animals at the centre of their religious beliefs. For example, the Egyptians revered various holy animals like the baboon, the jackal, the cat etc., and the Indus Valley people depicted a godly figure who was the lord of the animals (the Pashupati seal of Mohenjo-daro having various animals including a rhinoceros, a water buffalo, an elephant, and a tiger) [8].

The development of religious importance of animals also possibly led to the earliest form of protection to certain wild animals as well as their habitats. The significance of animals may also have greatly influenced the aesthetic appreciation and the representation of animals in arts, literature, and scientific investigation.

In the modern human society, animals occupy a much greater space than ever before. The industrial revolution and the subsequent invent of technology in every aspect of human life have made the human species to rapidly expand in numbers as well as made them to occupy newer territories. These, combined with a rampant exploitation of natural resources,A traditional wooden doorway of a house have inevitably decreased the space for wild animals leading to the extinction of a number of species and the endangering of the much of the rest. Human development in the current age mostly requires encroachment upon wild lands, which leads to human-wildlife conflicts. Some of these encroachment related conflicts can be deadly to animals, like the deaths of elephants crossing railway lines. These conflicts can also lead to economic loss, like the crop-depredation by wild herbivores due to agricultural expansion and the destruction of wild habitats of animals causing a shortage of food for them. Conflicts give rise to animosities. The negative attitude of humans towards conflict animals combined with an ever increasing alienation of the modern society from nature and wildlife give rise to situations where animals are actively injured or killed by people. One recent example of this animosity leading to the death of the animal can be the case of Lalgarh Tiger. The unusual tiger in a human dominated secondary natural habitat made the local people as well as the outsiders afraid, angry and repelled by the animal. The collective negative attitude towards the tiger ultimately led to its death [9]. This happened in the guise of an obscure and vastly condemnable practice of so-called tribal cultural hunting festival [10], which should not have any existence in the modern times. The practice causes the death of thousands of animals every year, rare and common alike, in the name of preserving the tradition of local tribes.

Although the situation is indeed worrisome and the future of wild animals in the modern world is bleak, all is not bad news. The interface of humans and animals is as old as the humanity itself, and a vast majority of people still positively associate with animals. Various initiatives by the government, the NGOs, the scientists as well as the common people have been actively implemented towards conservation of wildlife and natural habitats. Most of us have understood the simple fact that human species is not different from the rest of the lives on earth and we cannot survive outside the natural world. Thus, the preservation of the delicate balance of nature, on which humans and animals are equally dependent through unbreakable associations, could be the only way towards a sustainable world.

Reference

1. Gaudzinski-Windheuser, S., Noack, E. S., Pop, E., Herbst, C., Pfleging, J., Buchli, J., … Roebroeks, W. (2018). Evidence for close-range hunting by last interglacial Neanderthals. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2018, 1. https://doi.org/10.1038/S41559-018-0596-1

2. Domı́nguez-Rodrigo, M. (2002). Hunting and scavenging by early humans: the state of the debate. Journal of World Prehistory, 16(1), 1–54.

3. Robin McKie. (2012). Humans hunted for meat 2 million years ago. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/sep/23/human-hunting-evolution-2million-years

4. Morriss-Kay, G. M. (2010). The evolution of human artistic creativity. Journal of Anatomy, 216(2), 158–76. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01160.x

5. MacHugh, D. E., Larson, G., & Orlando, L. (2017). Taming the Past: Ancient DNA and the Study of Animal Domestication. Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, 5(1), 329–351. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-animal-022516-022747

6. Botigué, L. R., Song, S., Scheu, A., Gopalan, S., Pendleton, A. L., Oetjens, M., … Veeramah, K. R. (2017). Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithic. Nature Communications, 8, 16082. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms16082

7. Martin, K., & Sauerborn, J. (2013). Origin and Development of Agriculture. In Agroecology (pp. 9–48). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-5917-6_2

8. Marshall, J. (1931). Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus civilization: being an official account of archaeological excavations at Mohenjo-Daro carried out by the Government of India between the years 1922 and 1927. Asian Educational Services.

9. Raza Kazmi. (2018). We know how the “Lalgarh tiger” died. But where did it live? Retrieved July 1, 2018, from https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/we-know-how-the-lalgarh-tiger-died-but-where-did-it-live/article23773313.ece

10. Phadikar, A., & Mitra, D. (2018). Hunters kill Lalgarh tiger. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from https://www.telegraphindia.com/calcutta/hunters-kill-lalgarh-tigergroup-throws-arrows-spears-223350

 

 

Gender in Plants: do you know male and female plants, and what is your choice while using it for medicine or timber?

Flowers are the reproductive organs of the flowering plants, they are flashy, can be extremely extravagant and roughly 352,000 flowering plant species (Angiosperms) make up about 90% of all living land plants. The morphological variation in the flowers has been a defining feature of the angiosperms from very early on in their evolution. Carl Linnaeus is often called the Father of Taxonomy used the variation in the sexual structure of flowers as the basis for the classification of plants. Unlike animals, the majority of sexually reproducing flowering plants (~352,000) are hermaphrodite (~90%), meaning both the reproductive structures present in the same flower of a plant (example, Tomato)1, and ~5% of plants have separate male and female flowers on the same individual plants are monoecious (example, Coconut tree)1. A minority of plant species is dioecious (i.e., having distinct male and female individual plants. For example papaya, bhang, and jathipathri). More than 15,000 dioecious species in angiosperm occurs in 987 genera (6%) and 175 families (38%)1. One of the key questions about the dioecious plants is its evolution, and animals eating the plants (herbivory) have been suggested as a pressure that resulted in the origin of separate male and female plants (dioecy)2. A number of ecological studies using a principle called ‘resource allocation’ has proven that there is a variation in distributing the available resource to defense, growth, and reproduction between male and female plants3. In general, a number of plant-herbivore interaction studies suggested a pattern of sex-biased herbivory in dioecious plants, i.e., herbivores prefer to graze male plants than female plants due to a significant variation in the composition of phytochemicals between the male and female plants. For example, a study on three palm trees (Chamaedorea Palms) reported that female plants leaves are tougher than male plants, and also the concentration of phenolic compounds are higher in female plants than male. As a result male plants were more susceptible to herbivory than female plants4. And also this study supports the general pattern that male plants grow taller than female plants, and invest less in defense whereas female plants spend its resource to defense and reproduction than vegetative growth4.

Applied aspects of dioecious plants in Ethnobotany

While ecological and phytochemical studies have showcased the variation in male and female plants, there are not that many studies to understand the medicinal properties of dioecious plants. India is one among the mega biodiversity countries, and rich in traditional knowledge on plants (i.e., Folk medicine, Ayurveda, Siddha), we planned a study to understand whether folk healers in India are aware of the existence of male and female plants? if they aware of different sexes of the plant do they have a preference to use any one gender to use for the purpose of medicine and/or food and timber?5 Also, does Ayurveda have any description about plant genders? If so, does Ayurveda prescribes a particular gender of the plant to be used medicinally?5. It was found that fruits being informed and considered as the main identity to distinguish male and female plants to the folk healers. It was observed that the visibility of fruit size, plant size, and few other characters determines the perception of a plant is male or female. For example, folk healers are unaware of the dioecy in shrubs where they use leaves for medicinal purpose, on the contrary healers have knowledge about the plants that do not produce seeds are considered to be male (Jyotishmati (Celastrus paniculatus), and Vai-vidanga (Emebelia tsjeriam-cottam)). Similarly, toddy prepared out of male palm trees is considered to be more potent than female plants. Likewise, the people have observed that the male trees produce less resin than female plants of Canarium stictum (Dhoop). Interestingly, folk healers have reported a gender preference for Piper betle (paan leaf) which are rather complex and dependent on spiritual believes and medication. When it comes to timber, people have a better understanding and preferring the plants that are taller, stronger and more durable, in such case, it was obviously male plants (example, Paanaai (Borassus flabellifer)). People preference on one gender in timber could be explained with plant resource allocation theory that the male plants comparatively allocate more resource to vegetative growth than the female plants. Apart from usages, the male plants are not considered as beneficial for other purposes. An example can be drawn from Papaya (Carica papaya) plant, where male members are very rare in the garden due to their inability to produce fruits5. Such selective logging and other anthropogenic activities that modify the male-female distance, sex ratio, plant size and pollinator abundance or behavior could affect the long-term viability of dioecious plants and leads to the risk of extinction of that particular member6.

Apart from dioecious plants, people have their own cultural perceptions of naming a plant as male and female and use those plants with preference in different occasions. Classification and naming the plants according to the traditions broadly called Vernacular taxonomy. In such cases, folk healers also have a preference for choosing some plants as male and others as female which have apparently no biological basis. For examples, Clitoria ternatea (Shankapusphi) is attributed to gender in Kolli hills, Tamil Nadu. They consider white flower phenotype as female (resembles Indian female god Lakshmi) and blue flower phenotype as male (resembles Indian male god Krishna), and they prefer either one phenotype during the rituals and the choice of phenotype is based on the ritual process and whether the spiritual god is male or female. In this case, they just go by some characters of the plant to name the plants.

Our preliminary understanding on Ayurveda also suggests that Ayurveda has no indication on preferential usages towards genders of a plant but rather it has a description of the concept of reproductive morphology and sexual differentiation of plants (e.g. Kutaja: male plant (Pum-Kutaja- Holarrhena antidysenterica) and female plant (Stri-Kutaja- Wrightia tinctoria)). Ayurveda describes these two plants as male and female, but these two plants are not biologically male and female plants. Therefore, it appears that Ayurveda describes the plant genders on the basis of the appearance of fruits morphology of these two plants.

 

dioeceous Plants

Unlike, Ayurveda and Siddha traditional knowledge, India also home to a vast diversity of ethnic people (Tribal people) and they have their own knowledge about medicinal plants and how to use it. This ethnomedicinal knowledge base is mostly verbal in nature and is orally transmitted through generations. Therefore, documentation of these practices and experiences is important to avoid complete loss of this knowledge base, and also there is a need to validate the claims or findings using the available scientific tools. For example, there is a popular belief although undocumented, that in Varanasi, leaves of the female cannabis plant are used to prepare ‘Bhang’, and they do not prefer to use male plant leaves7. Hence the question comes why only female leaves are preferred. So, we have to document this traditional practice first before it is lost, and then validate this practice via scientific tools, like analysis of chemical composition and variation in male and female plant leaves.

Many plant families such as Menispermaceae, Moraceae, Myristicaceae, and Putranjivaceae are entirely dioecious, and 5–7% of medicinal plants in Indian traditional medicines are dioecious plants5. However, there is a significant knowledge gap in the ethnobotanical literature on traditional knowledge of dioecious plants, particularly towards preferential gender usage. Therefore, based on our study we propose that researchers conducting ethnobotanical studies should consider documenting the traditional knowledge related to male and female plants. Documenting such knowledge could provide new ideas and strategies which can be applied in conservation biology, chemical ecology, ethnoecology and drug discovery.

References

  1. Renner, S. S. (2014). “The relative and absolute frequencies of angiosperm sexual systems: dioecy, monoecy, gynodioecy, and an updated online database.” American Journal of Botany 101(10): 1588-1596.
  1. Bawa, K. S. (1980). “Evolution of dioecy in flowering plants.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 11(1): 15-39.
  1. Obeso, J. R. (2002). “The costs of reproduction in plants.” New Phytologist 155(3): 321-348.
  1. Cepeda-Cornejo, V. and R. Dirzo (2010). “Sex-Related Differences in Reproductive Allocation, Growth, Defense and Herbivory in Three Dioecious Neotropical Palms.” PLoS ONE 5(3): e9824.
  1. Seethapathy, G. S., et al. (2018). “Ethnobotany of dioecious species: Traditional knowledge on dioecious plants in India.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 221: 56-64.
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  1. Charukesi Ramadurai (2017). The cannabis plant’s role in Hindu mythology has authorities turning a blind eye to India’s drug shops. BBC. London, BBC.

*Author: Seethapathy G.S.

Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, School of Pharmacy, University of Oslo 0316 Oslo – Norway.  

E-mail: g.s.seethapathy@farmasio.uio.no; seethapathygs@gmail.com