Every year thousands of people including children make the perilous journey to the Himalayan meadows of Nepal in search of yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), as it is an important source of income for many impoverished families in places like Rukum, Darchula, and Dolpa – just to name a few. They often traverse snow covered roads without proper gear or equipment to reach an altitude of more than 3,500 meters facing scarcity of water, good food, and warm shelter throughout the journey even when the temperature falls as low as -6° Celsius.
Yarsagumba harvesting starts from mid-May and ends at mid-July and each piece of harvested yarsagumba can fetch a price up to रू900 making yarsagumba one of the most expensive biological resources in the world and a lucrative source of income for these people. However, even after reaching the Himalayan grasslands where yarsagumbas are found, the harvest itself is a tough job.
Yarsagumba is only about a couple of centimeters long and more than half of it is submerged in the ground amid the grasses that makes it difficult to spot. This half caterpillar and half fungus owes it high price to its medicinal properties as it is used as remedy for number of diseases from regulation of blood pressure to infertility to cancer.
Yarsagumba is one of thousands of medicinal herbs found in Nepal. Statistics show that, around 1,600 species of aromatic and herbal plants are found in Nepal and the floral diversity of Nepal accounts to around 2.5% of the world’s flora, which is surprising considering Nepal only covers 0.1% of the total land area of the earth.
Another medicinal herb, Chiraito (Swertia chirata) grows at an altitude of 1,500 meters to 3,000 meters from sea level. It is used as a household remedy for flu and stomach ailments and is a popular ingredient in Chinese and Tibetan medicine.
Panchaule (Dactylorhiza hatagirea), a rare herb endemic to the Himalayas, is found along the Hindu-Kush region. It is named so for its roots that are shaped like fingers on the hand. Another herb which is valued for its root, rhizome to be exact is spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), a fragrant plant whose rhizome produces oil used as medicine for different diseases like epilepsy, insomnia, cholera, heart diseases, and also for aromatic purposes.
The wonder-herb Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana) that is only found in Nepal is used in the preparation of cancer medicine and is found at an altitude of 1,700 to 3,400 meters. Apart from medicine, oil of plants like sea buckthorn and apricot which grow naturally in Nepal are exported abroad to be used in the production of cosmetics.
Although the Himalayan belt is an oasis for these medicinal herbs, the southern Terai region of Nepal also boasts of some of the rarest herbs found in Nepal like serpentina (Rauvolfia serpentina), a herb with red and white flowers found at an altitude of 1,200 meters whose roots are used as medicine for insomnia and blood pressure among others.
Golden michelia (Magnolia champaca), a tree with heavily scented golden flowers is found in the Terai and mid hilly region of Nepal from the altitude of 600 to 1,500 meters. Different parts of the tree have medicinal values and its flowers are often used in fragrances.
Many herbs are also part of everyday lifestyle of Nepali people – mostly in the form of spices in food. Turmeric powder, an ingredient common in almost all Nepali kitchens, is also an effective medicine against inflammation. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), though bitter in taste, is used in many Nepali dishes and in traditional medicine, it is used to aid digestion and for treatment of diabetes.
Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum armatum), known for its one of a kind tingly taste is used as traditional medicine to treat a number of dental ailments, digestion problems, and scabies. Big cardamom (Amomum subulatum), with its camphor like taste is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat digestion problems and malaria.
Owing to Nepal’s rich history of Ayurveda, these herbs and medicinal plants have been popular since the Vedic period (1500 – 500 BCE). It is an incredible feat that Nepal is amongst the richest lands in the world of medicinal herbs and plants – and a major exporter of herbs around the world. No doubt, curiosity and popularity is high and various organizations, scholars, and institutes continue to research on the medicinal properties of these herbs and plants.