Healing Herbs

By: Ravhan Mirza

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Enviable land and affable people

Despite odds, Kashmir and its inhabitants continue to attract attention and admiration. Visitors to this wonderland find its scenic beauty mesmerizing and its people gracious. From the beautiful houses in the urban spaces to the modest huts in the rural milieu, everything is enviable in the eyes of the onlookers. Among the things that the visitors find next to impossible to replicate in their places is the most beautiful pink rose with unique sweet fragrance-the Kashmiri Rose, known as ‘Kashur Gulab’ in the local parlance.

Roses all the way!

“The compound walls of our ancestral house in Shehr e Khas Srinagar were adorned by rose trees. The passersby would often stop to catch a refreshing scent”, Ata-Ullah, a retired government employee, recalls the scenes of a bygone era.

“There was a time in Kashmir when we used to make ‘Gulkand’ from the rose petals well in anticipation of the winter season. It was an effective medicine to cure cough and other chest ailments”, says a seasoned lady of the Shehr-e-Khas, the old city area of Srinagar.

Rose petals are traditionally used in Kashmir to make Arq-e-Gulab, the rose water. Rose water is generally sprinkled on the devotees during the religious congregations. To welcome the guests at a wedding and while paying tribute to the departed souls, rose petals are extensively used here.

Past perfect, present tense

The indigenous knowledge has been so great but alas it is being forgotten though it could be a strong basis for modern research. A researcher of the potential therapeutic effects of a particular plant extract needs to first see the traditional texts and ascertain if there has been any mention of such plants therein. The folklore can be a great source of modern research as well.  Our ancestors were close to nature, they had the answers to all our queries we find so perplexing and mind-blowing. It is high time to reconnect with the glorious past.

Valley of roses

From lavender to rose there is a world of great possibilities for the valley dwellers. We do have certain success stories, acknowledged in the international publications regarding the cultivation of medicinal plants and extraction of essential oils. Lavender and its role in aromatherapy are well-known now. The love Kashmir lavender is getting worldwide, due to its quality as it stands out as one of the best in its class, is encouraging. Another very important source of essential oils can be our very own “Kashur Gulab”. Thankfully, some local entrepreneurs are rising to the occasion and trying to set examples for many others to follow to turn unproductive tracts of land into rose farms which can bring great monetary benefits to the farmers. Pertinently, Kashmiri Rose stands alongside the best that is the one from Bulgaria, where the climatic conditions are as perfect for such products as in our valley. If the idea receives the attention of the concerned, Kashmir can become a valley of roses.

Kashur Gulab

Rosa damascene also known as Damask rose is a hybrid between R. gallica and R. Phoenicia is a member of the Rosaceae family which comprises of more than 200 species and about 18000 cultivars around the world. The flowers have a deep cultural as well as religious importance and are a popular medicinal agent across various cultures particularly close to home the Persian culture. The flowers are famous for their distinct fragrance and also for being the source of rose oil for which they are commercially harvested. Damask rose is a deciduous shrub growing to a maximum height of about 2.2 meters. The leaves are pinnate while as the stems are densely armed with curved prickles and stiff bristles.

Historical and Cultural Significance

In Iran damask rose is known as ‘Gole Mohammad’ (SAW) i.e. ‘The Flower of the Prophet’ (PBUH). Earlier it was believed that damask rose has its origins in the Middle East but recent genetic tests indicate it is a hybrid and a careful study of that leads us to the foothills of Central Asia as being the most probable place of its origin. It was introduced into Europe during the time of Crusades particularly the second crusade. Some accounts mention that a French crusader brought it with himself during the siege of Damascus in 1148 hence the name Damask rose.  Rose products are also used in the various ancient medicinal systems around the world particularly in Iran. The decoction of flowers is used to treat chest and abdominal pains, digestive ailments as well as menstrual bleeding. It has also been employed as a cardiotonic for the strengthening of the heart. Ibn Sina, who is regarded as one of the most significant physicians of the Islamic golden age belonged to Persia and is credited with the extraction of the rose oil in the 10th century and then subsequently using it to treat a number of ailments.

Liquid gold

Also termed as liquid gold, rose oil is an expensive pale yellow essential oil extracted by different methods ranging from steam distillation to solvent extraction. The largest global producer of the rose essential oil is Bulgaria followed by Turkey and Morocco. India also features in the world’s top producers with a lot of scope for improvement as well as investment in the particular sector. Rose oil is the most widely used essential oil in the industry.

The price of rose oil is about 2-4 lakh rupees per litre in the domestic market so it is a very lucrative business for the growers as well as everyone associated with the trade and also provides an opportunity to farmers and landowners to diversify and use their unused lands as it also requires very less amount of moisture. In about 8 kanals of land one easily gets about 700-800 kg of roses. And out of that amount about 0.025% of oil is extracted which gives us a figure of about 200gm. There is a little bit of hustle and patience required initially as there are almost negligible returns in the first year. Once that period passes it picks up the pace and gets going. Another advantage is that unlike other crops one doesn’t need to plant them every year.

Conducive conditions

The climatic conditions in the valley mimic the required conditions for growing such plants on a commercial level. Various organizations including Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM) have been instrumental to some extent in providing much needed technical support and expert advice to the growers and walk them through various extraction processes that can be applied for the extraction of the said oil as well as cultivation techniques that are employed for growing such plants. The rose oil produced in Kashmir gives good competition to the Bulgarian rose oil which is considered to be the best in the world. It is about time that farmers here start utilizing the resources at hand in a sensible manner so as to bring the state on the international map through the healing herbs.

 Therapeutic functions

Besides perfuming, a lot of pharmacological actions have been reported including antibacterial, anti-oxidant, anti-tussive, anti-HIV, and anticonvulsant, bronchodilatory, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, laxative, as well as hypnotic and analgesic actions. Chemicals that were isolated from R. Damascena include flavonoids, anthocyanins, terpenes, and glycosides. The plant also contains vitamin C, carboxylic acid, myrcene, kaempferol, quercetin. Flowers also contain fatty oil and organic acids. The therapeutic functions are mainly due to the presence of phenolic compounds in the plant.

From roses to riches

Recent reports about the possible presence of oil and gas reserves beneath the rocks in the Kashmir valley have become the talk of the town. If true, it would make J&K a land of black gold. Good to get a wealth of hydrocarbons but we need to revive the treasure in terms of flora and fauna and realize the potential of the one asset that is above the ground level and right in front of us! For this, neither any huge investment nor any drilling and any complex machinery are required to extract and process the oil. Rose oil requires only cultivation and extraction and that too by very simple procedures.  The state government, as well as concerned central government subsidiaries like IIIM, have a greater role to play in doing the needful to raise the awareness and provide incentives regarding the business of essential oils for a better tomorrow.

Famous American writer, Mark Twain says: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. That sounds right and relevant! Let the concerned take the cue and do the needful to enable many to say: “We moved from roses to riches”!

It will be worthwhile if we can transform unproductive or less productive tracts of land into profit-making rose farms. Experts in the floriculture need to come forward in this connection and play their role in skill development of the youth in the area.

There are some worth-emulating success stories in this sector, which have turned some educated and resourceful entrepreneurs into icons in their own right. However, to have more such success stories and to bring more appreciable prosperity to a larger number of people, more effective steps are to be taken.

Let a thousand roses bloom!

(A regular columnist, Mirza Ravhan writes on issues related to science and society.                                                Email: mirzaravhan@gmail.com

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