A plant called Paris

 

Way back in April 2004, on a walk to Motijheel and Gibbons’ Land in Namdapha, we came across a beautiful plant. It was a herb and had two tiers of leaves in whorls and the flowers seemed to have spidery tendrils. Quite a beauty and unusual.

floweringshrub

Photo: Saravana Kumar

Sara, the ace photographer with an eye for beauty was with me and photographed it. In those days, we had slides. Later, he scanned and sent me all the photos from that trip. And it lay in a folder in my computer.  And I forgot all about it. It remained unnamed.

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Photo: Saravana Kumar

Several years later when I was in Yunnan, China for a workshop, I met the remarkable Professor Li Heng who was a formidable botanist and plant taxonomist. She was well past 80 and still feisty. She is said to have identified and documented over 3000 plant species from the fabulous Gaoligongshan mountains which is known for its unique floral wealth. I sat with her one evening to show her the pictures I had of many unidentified plants from Namdapha.

And she finally gave that mysterious plant a name – Paris polyphylla.  Paris, being a special and beautiful city for me, I was delighted to know its name. And as it often happens, by coincidence, in the next few days I suddenly learnt more about this plant. We were taken to some medicinal plant nurseries in Yunnan, where we saw and learnt that Paris was being cultivated big-time. I came to know that it was a very valued and important plant. That its rhizome had many medicinal values. Paris belongs to the Melanthiaceae which is a monocot family of perennial herbs. Earlier this genus was considered to belong to the Liliaceae (Lily family).

And I came to learn that the locally used common name was ‘Do-tala’  which seemed obvious because of its beautiful two-tiered whorl of leaves. I was told that the Nyishi name was Myodi angney. According to a news article, while it is known by different names by different tribes, it is also simply called Kala Katchu or Jungli Katchu.

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The distinctive spidery tendrils are the tepals. The leaves occur in a whorl of 4 to 9.

Photo: Saravana Kumar

It has been harvested for long in Nepal where it is called Satuwa and was used primarily for fevers and headaches, burns, wounds, and treating livestock diseases (Madhu et al. 2010). Paris is known to cure a number of diseases from diarrhoea to cancer (Shah et al. 2012) and see further references in Paul et al. (2015). Apparently it is called the Love Apple in English.

Meanwhile, I came across this plant again in March 2015 when I visited Pakke Kessang near the northern boundary of Pakke Tiger Reserve. A Nyishi village headman showed me a plant and when he started explaining its value, I realised he was talking about Paris. He told me it was so valuable that people were collecting it in the area and were selling it to traders for Rs. 5000 a kg. Due to over-collection, it was becoming rare. He had started trying to cultivate it in his fields/home garden. The plant he showed me was from his fields.

P1040048.JPGI was flabbergasted to realize that collection and trade was happening all over Arunachal. On a recent trip to remote areas in Upper Siang district, I learnt that Adi villagers were also collecting this in large quantities. The fresh rhizome fetches prices of around Rs. 200 per kilo but the dried rhizome gets them Rs. 5000-6000 a kilo. Having seen it being cultivated and grown successfully in large scale in the nurseries in Yunnan, I wondered why people could not try growing this in their home gardens and fields. But the locals told me that it was slow-growing and that it took several years for the plant to attain a certain height and acquire a sizeable rhizome that is worthwhile for harvest. However, it was heartening to hear that despite this, some people were trying to grow it in their fields. According to the Adi villager I spoke to, it can reach up to 3-4 feet in height.

The species mainly regenerates from the rhizome although it can also establish from its seeds. Paris produces oval or round multi-seeded fruits. The fruits are purplish later turning orange-yellow, and contain six or eight seeds. The seeds are covered by a red succulent aril (Paul et al. 2015). The fact that the seeds are covered by fleshy red arils is also fascinating and I wonder who its seed dispersers are in the wild. Paul et al. (2015) make an intriguing remark that its fruits are preferred by deer. It would be wonderful to study in more detail the natural history and reproductive ecology of this species.

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Given the lack of livelihood and income sources for rural people in Arunachal Pradesh, and given that this does not require large areas to be cleared as in the case of many other cash crops like oil palm that are being promoted with huge subsidies, this would be an ideal choice for cultivation and sale.

I did a literature search on the Internet and came across much news and information about this plant. It was heartening to know that the Arunachal Pradesh Horticulture Research and Development Mission (APHRDM) is trying to develop cultivation technology for the species so that farmers can cultivate the plant and can legally trade rather than extract from the wild which is banned and a punishable offence. It was alarming  that the APHRDM and several other papers that I read indicated that at the present rate of extraction, the species would be locally extirpated.

Paris grows in a wide elevational range from 100-3500 m. In Namdapha, we had recorded it at around 600-800 m, while the Pakke Kessang area is at around 1500 m. The species occurs all across Arunachal. The degree of threat was high and populations of this species was assessed to be very low. It was found to occur in specific localities with limited populations and subjected to high degree of threats (Paul et al 2015, Gajurel et al 2015).

According to some sources, this species has been classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. However, a search on the IUCN Redlist, did not yield any record of listing for this species, though I did find a reference to this species under the description for Coptis teeta which is another highly traded and endangered medicinal plant found in the Mishmi Hills. It is also listed under CITES.

What is worrying is that in the last 1-2 years, there are several news reports in the local Arunachali newspapers of various seizures of large quantities of dried rhizomes of the species. In November 2015 of 260 kg at Banderdewa, 50 kgs were seized at Seppa in May 2016, 170 kgs confiscated in June 2016 in  Roing and again near Ziro in September 2016.

The Arunachal Pradesh State Medicinal Plants Board (APSMPB) had called for banning the collection and trading of Paris polyphylla in 2012 and 2013. The district administration in most districts had issued orders prohibiting collection and trade but this has not stopped illegal harvest. It appears permits were issued to individuals for trading in 2015 but was stopped in 2016 due to misuse. The permits had been issued to encourage cultivation and trade of medicinal plants, however it had to be stopped due to large-scale illegal trade.

In   Bhutan, the collection of Paris has been regularised. People are allowed to collect the rhizome with permits during a certain period and there are fixed provisions and fines imposed as penalties for violations.

While a few farmers in Arunachal are trying to cultivate the species and efforts are being made to develop scientific cultivation techniques, it appears that progress is slow on this front and in the meantime, the species is becoming rare and more threatened in the wild as collection continues.

However, what is surprising is that Chinese scientists and farmers have already developed cultivation techniques successfully and appeared to be cultivating on a large-scale in China. I wonder why the existing know-how and methods are not being applied here in Arunachal. Developing better methods for cultivation of this species and encouraging/helping farmers to grow this species and trade in the cultivated plants would be a win-win solution for saving the species from extinction in the wild while providing a lucrative income source for people.

Paris is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. I have only seen it once many years ago. I yearn to see it again, especially its fruits.

Some reading/references:

Gajurel, P.R., Ronald, Kh., Buragohain, R., Rethy, P., Singh, B. and Potsangbam, S.2015. On the present status of distribution and threats of high value medicinal plants in the higher altitude forests of the Indian Eastern Himalaya. JoTT Vol 7, No. 6

http://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/article/view/2021http://dx.doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o4041.7243-52

Madhu, K.C., Phoboo, S. and Jha, P.K. 2010. “Ecological Study of Paris polyphylla Sm.”. Ecological Society (ECOS), Nepal. 17: 87–93.

Paul, A., Gajurel, P.R. and Das, A.K.  2015. Threats and conservation of Paris polyphylla, an endangered highly exploited medicinal plant in the Indian Himalayan Region. 16(2): 295-302.

Pertin, A. 2016. Legalize collection of Paris polyphylla. The Arunachal Times, Oct 17, 2016.

Shah et al. 2012. Medicinal properties of Paris polyphylla – A Review. Journal of Herbal Medicine and Toxicology 6 (1): 27-33.

Wang, Y., Y.J. Zhang, W.Y. Gao, S.L. Man & Y. Wang 2007. Anti-tumor constituents from Paris polyphylla var. yunnanensis. Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs 32 (14): 1425–1428.

6 thoughts on “A plant called Paris

  1. Pretty plant, Aparajita, and such a nice story you wrote around it. I had a photo too of a small plant – shining in the dark (by torchlight) in Jeypore; and when I eventually found out what it was (Sonerila), I realised there is a whole branch of ecology devoted to studying them and their blue iridesence!

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    • Hi thanks Kashmira – yes, have seen Sonerilla too and did not know about its blue iridescence till you had mentioned it when I visited your place and you were showing me those pictures:) What’s the progress with that book of yours?

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  2. A fascinating article about a beautiful plant. A pity that we do not want to invest any energy on these until they become really scarce. But even then, people might just move on to harvesting something else from the wild. Hope to see this beauty some day.

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    • Thanks Divya. But I think there are efforts on to cultivate them, just that it is slow. And only a few local farmers are doing it by themselves. And like I said, the cultivation techniques are quite well-developed in China, so it is surprising that it’s not being applied here. I need to find out more in detail about the progress with efforts here.

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