Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 1115–1126 | Cite as

High altitude biodiversity of the Alps and the Himalayas: ethnobotany, plant distribution and conservation perspective

Original Paper

Abstract

Historical evidences suggest that the Himalayas have some strong biogeographical links to the Alps. In view of this fact, the present study aims to understand the similarities in plant species distribution and their ethnobotanical uses in the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps. The plant species common in both the mountain systems and used by local inhabitants were compiled by extensive literature search and also by carrying out primary surveys. Ethnobotanical information was collected through personal interviews of villagers with the help of local assistants and also through direct and indirect observations made during the field surveys. A total of 59 ethnobotanical species representing 17 families common in both the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps were documented, of these 78% obtained medicinal properties and traditionally used by local people for curing diseases. Comparatively, people of the Indian Himalayas used plants for medicine in higher percentage (73%) than the people of Slovenia (42%). Of the total medicinal plants, only 7 plant species such as Acoruscalamus, Capsellabursa-partoris, Hypericumperforatum, Origanumvulgare, Prunellavulgaris, Solanumnigrum and Urticadioica had some common uses in both the Slovenian Alps and the Indian Himalayas. In the Slovenian Alps, the maximum ethnobotanical species (61%) had wide distribution range whereas maximum ethnobotanical species in the Indian Himalayas (62%) had localized distribution. Though, 27% of common ethnobotanical species belonged to different threat categories, only 2 species—Taxusbaccata and Hippophaerhamnoides—are placed under similar threat category in these two different mountain areas. The study unfolds relationship in plant species distribution and their ethnobotanical uses along with offering an opportunity to provide information on uses of plant species though available but unknown to community.

Keywords

Ethnobotany Plant distribution patterns Conservation Slovenian Alps Indian Himalayas Traditional knowledge Threatened species 

Introduction

The Himalayas and the Alps are two prominent mountain systems on the earth, which have many similarities despite their distinct history, evolution and distance from each other. The Earth has undergone a number of mountain building periods and the Himalayas began the formation of about 45 million years ago, which is still going on (Pidwirny 2006). There is a large gap between the origin of the Himalayas and the Alps. The geographical locality is also distinct as the Himalayas lie in Asia and the Alps in Europe. There is also vast altitudinal and latitudinal dissimilarities between Alps and the Himalayas. Despite many dissimilarities the mountainous features and structures put them together in a mountain ecosystem, which receive major precipitation in the form of snow hence the climatic conditions is cold in both the mountain systems. The continental collision model such as the Eurasian and the Indian continental belts that resulted in formation of the Himalayas is also applied on the formation of the Alps (Mattauer 1986).

The cool climatic conditions and geo-morphological identity provide a congenial environment for the establishment of the flora and fauna acclimatized to the mountain ecosystems. For a long period of time mountainous topography has served to isolate the Alps and the Himalayas from the outside world, this is no longer the case. The historical isolation from the outside world and availability of valuable biodiversity has compelled the inhabitants of mountains to develop knowledge relevant to their survival, especially on the use of available plant species (Kala 2002). Studies have been conducted on the indigenous uses and distribution of alpine plant species at regional levels (e.g., Guisan et al. 1998; Guisan and Zimmermann 2000; Kala and Mathur 2002; Kala 2005a, 2009, 2011; Casazza et al. 2008), however, comparative studies on plant distribution and indigenous uses are lacking on the Himalayas and the Alps. Besides, a very less attention has been paid to understand the relationship between the flora of the Alps to the floras of other areas (Kadereit et al. 2008). The present study aims to understand the similarities in plant species distribution and their ethnobotanical uses in two different mountain systems—the Himalayas and the Alps. Attempts were also made to understand the conservation and management of important ethnobotanical species common in both the mountains.

Methods

The Indian Himalayan region and the Slovenian Alps were selected to understand the distribution pattern, indigenous uses and conservation status of plant species in two different mountainous systems. Indian Himalayan region falls in the south eastern part of the Himalayan mountain range and the Slovenia falls in the Eastern Alps. Despite many similarities, there are some dissimilarity between the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps. In the Indian Himalayas, the alpine meadows chiefly dominated by herbaceous vegetation start above the natural tree line, 3,300 ± 200 m altitude in the west and 3,800 ± 200 m altitude in the east, whereas the altitude above 3,000 m in the Alps is called the névé zone that is permanently coated with compressed snow resulting in scarcity of vegetation. The natural tree line in the Slovenian Alps lies between 1,700 and 1,900 m, and there is no névé zone in the Slovenian Alps since snow disappears from the highest peak of Slovenian Alps-Triglav (2,864 m)—during the summer. The alpine region covers approximately 42% of the Slovenian territory.

Systematic surveys of plant species were conducted in the Indian Himalayan region and the Slovenian Alps covering various microhabitats, altitudes, aspects and terrain types. Field identification of plants was made with the help of relevant floras. Standard field guides were used to aid in the identification and gathering information of the floral diversity. Specimens of doubtful species were collected for further validation and verification. The detailed analysis of flora was attempted based on literature consultation on the rare and threatened plants of the region.

An ethnobotanical survey was conducted eliciting information through personal interviews of villagers with the help of local assistants and also through direct and indirect observations made during the field surveys. Locals who practice traditional medical practices and local elder and knowledgeable people were interviewed for information on medicinal plants, uses and availability of various medicinal plants within both the study areas. The area was searched for the presence absence of rare and threatened plants apart from general inventory search.

Species common in both the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps were recorded and tabulated based on their ethnobotanical uses, plant parts used and indigenous uses. The distribution pattern of plant species was classified into localized and wide distribution based on the presence of species, extent of area covered and area of occupancy following existing flora and other literature (e.g., Polunin and Stainton 1984; Jogan 2001; Kala 2002, 2005a; Godet 2002; Eisenreich et al. 2005; Cušin et al. 2004; Skoberne 2007). On the basis of availability of species, the species was placed under rare and frequent distribution within localized and wide distribution ranges.

The threatened species have been classified as per the policy guidelines of respective country (India and Slovenia) and IUCN Red List Categories. Species common to the Indian Himalayan region and the Slovenian Alps that fall in these classifications were analyzed and tabulated to understand their conservation concerns. According to the Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia (Ur.l.RS) 103/2008), the medicinal plant species are placed under 4 major categories such as H (species can also be used for food), Z (species can be used as medicine without prescription), ZR (species cannot be used without prescription), and ND (species cannot be collected and used). Species which fall in these categories and are common in both the mountain systems were studied to understand their conservation status.

Results

Availability and uses of alpine plants

The present course of investigations have listed a total of 59 plant species representing 17 families common in both the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps (Table S1; Available Online). Asteraceae was the most dominant family in terms of number of common species (n = 7), followed by Lamiaceae, Poaceae and Polygonaceae. Most of the families (70%) were represented by a single species. Of the total common plant species, 78% obtained medicinal properties and traditionally used by local people for curing diseases combinedly in the Slovenian Alps and the Indian Himalayas. Of the total common plant species, 26 were used by the Slovenian people and 46 were used by the local people of the Indian Himalayas for food, medicine and fodder. The use of plants as medicine was prominent in both the mountain systems. However, the higher number of plant species was used for curing diseases by the people of the Indian Himalayas (73%) in comparison to the people of Slovenia (42%).

Different plant parts were used for curing diseases in both Slovenian Alps and the Indian Himalayas. The use of aboveground plant parts such as leaf, flower, fruit, stem and bark of recorded species was much higher (21 species in Slovenia and 32 species in the Indian Himalayas) than the belowground plant parts (4 species in Slovenia and 8 in the Indian Himalayas). Of the aboveground plant parts, flowers were used in majority of cases, followed by leaves, shoot and fruits whereas only roots and rhizome of 4 species such as Convolvulusarvensis, Aconitumnapellus, Acoruscalamus, and Arctiumlappa were used to cure diseases in Slovenia. The whole plant species were used in highest number of cases (n = 14 species), followed by leaf (13 species), fruit (7 species), flower (6 species) and shoot (5 species) in the Indian Himalayas. There was poor similarity in the uses of plants as medicine in both Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps. Only 7 plant species (which constitutes 12% of the common species) such as Acoruscalamus, Capsellabursa-partoris, Hypericum perforatum, Origanum vulgare, Prunella vulgaris, Solanumnigrum and Urticadioica had some common uses in both Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps.

Plant distribution pattern

There were variations in the distribution of species. There were species though distributed widely, their occurrence was quite low. Others had localized distribution with low occurrence (Table 1). In the Slovenian Alps, maximum species (78%) had wide distribution range whereas in the Indian Himalayas, the majority of species (63%) had localized distribution. Nineteen species of localized distribution, which formed 32% of the recorded species, had low occurrence in the Indian Himalayas. In Slovenian Alps, 7 species, which contribute about 12% of the species recorded, had localized distribution with low frequency and about 5% species, though had wide distribution range, their occurrence was rare (Fig. 1). Most of the species (73%) had distinct distribution pattern in the Slovenian Alps and the Indian Himalayas however some species had similar distribution pattern. For instance, in both Indian Himalayas and Slovenian Alps, 16 species including Hyoscyamusniger, Artemisiaabsinthium, Hippophaerhamnoides, Oxyriadigyna, Taraxacumofficinale, and Urtica dioica had similar distribution pattern. Of the species having similar distribution pattern, maximum species (n = 10) had commonalties in terms of their wide distribution pattern with frequent occurrences in the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps (Table 1).
Table 1

Distribution pattern in plant species common to the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps

Sl. no.

Common plant species

Distribution pattern

Slovenian Alps

Indian Himalayas

Localised

Wide

Localised

Wide

R

F

R

F

R

F

R

F

1

Achillea millefolium

   

  

 

2

Aconitum napellus

   

   

3

Acorus calamus

   

  

 

4

Arabis alpina

   

  

 

5

Arctium lappa

   

   

6

Artemisia absinthium

  

   

 

7

Atropa belladonna

   

   

8

Caltha palustris

    

  

9

Campanula latifolia

   

   

10

Campanula rotundifolia

   

   

11

Cannabis sativaa

       

12

Capsella bursa-pastoris

   

   

13

Chaerophyllum hirsutum

   

   

14

Convolvulus arvensis

   

   

15

Cynodon dactylon

   

   

16

Dactylis glomerata

   

 

  

17

Fagopyrum tataricuma

     

  

18

Gagea lutea

   

   

19

Galium odoratum

   

 

  

20

Geranium pratense

   

 

  

21

Hippophae rhamnoides

   

   

22

Humulus lupulus

   

   

23

Hyoscyamus niger

   

   

24

Hypericum perforatum

   

   

25

Hyssopus officinalisa

     

  

26

Juglans regia

   

   

27

Juniperus communis

   

 

  

28

Leontopodium alpinum

   

   

29

Mentha longifolia

   

  

 

30

Morus albaa

      

 

31

Origanum vulgare

   

 

  

32

Orobanche purpurea

   

   

33

Oxyria digyna

 

   

  

34

Pedicularis palustris

 

    

 

35

Phleum alpinum

   

   

36

Pinus sylvestris

   

 

  

37

Plantago major

   

   

38

Poa alpina

   

 

  

39

Poa annua

   

 

  

40

Polygonatum multiflorum

   

   

41

Polygonatum verticillatum

   

   

42

Polygonum aviculare

   

 

  

43

Polygonum viviparum

   

 

  

44

Prunella vulgaris

   

   

45

Rhodiola rosea

   

  

 

46

Sagina saginoides

      

47

Salix alba

  

  

  

48

Silene alpestris

   

   

49

Solanum nigrum

  

   

 

50

Solidago virgaurea

   

   

51

Sonchus arvensis

   

  

 

52

Stellaria media

   

   

53

Taraxacum officinale

   

   

54

Taxus baccata

   

   

55

Thalictrum minus

   

   

56

Thymus serpyllum

   

 

  

57

Trifolium repense

   

 

  

58

Urtica dioica

   

   

59

Viola biflora

   

 

  

F frequent, R rare

aIn Slovenia species available in cultivated forms and not found in the wild

Fig. 1

Pattern in distribution of plant species common to the Indian Himalayas and the Slovenian Alps

Species of conservation concerns

A total 42 species were assessed and placed under some specific categories of rarity and uses, of these 16 species were exclusively placed under the categories of conservation concerns such as IUCN Red List, protected, endangered, restrictions on use, and poisonous (Table 2). Seven species belonged to 3 different threat categories—vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered—as per the IUCN Red List Criteria for the Indian Himalayan region. Of these, 5 species such as Acoruscalamus, Hippophaerhamnoides, Hyoscymusniger, Polygonatummultiflorum and Polygonatum verticillatum belonged to vulnerable categories and one each to endangered (Taxusbaccata) and critically endangered (Thymusserpyllum) categories. In the Slovenian Alps, 12 species were placed under different threat categories, of these 5 species were endangered, 2 species were protected, and 5 species were placed under poisonous categories. Interestingly, except Hippophae rhamnoides, most of the species endangered to the Slovenian Alps such as Hyssopusofficinalis, Orobanchepurpurea, Pedicularispalustris and Phleum alpinum were common to the Indian Himalayan region. Two species—Hippophae rhamnoides and Taxus baccata—had almost similar conservation concern in these two different mountain areas. Hippophae rhamnoides was vulnerable to the Indian Himalayas and endangered to the Slovenian Alps. Similarly, Taxusbaccata was endangered to the Indian Himalayas and also placed under protected categories in the Slovenian Alps.
Table 2

Conservation status of plant species in the Slovenian Alps and the Indian Himalayas

Sl no.

Species

Indian Himalaya

Slovenian Alps

IUCN status

Status: endangered, protected; poisonous

Rules on the classification of medicinal plantsa (Anon 2008)

1

Achillea millefolium

  

H

2

Aconitum napellus

 

Poisonous

ND

3

Acorus calamus

Vulnerable

 

H

4

Arctium lappa

  

H

5

Artemisia absinthium

  

Z

6

Atropa belladonna

 

Poisonous

ZR

7

Caltha palustris

 

Poisonous

 

8

Cannabis sativa

  

ND

9

Capsella bursa-pastoris

  

H

10

Convolvulus arvensis

  

ZR

11

Fagopyrum tataricum

  

H

12

Galium odoratum

  

H

13

Geranium pratense

  

H

14

Hippophae rhamnoides

Vulnerable

Endangered

H

15

Humulus lupulus

  

H

16

Hyoscyamus niger

Vulnerable

Poisonous

ZR

17

Hypericum perforatum

  

Z

18

Hyssopus officinalis

 

Endangered

H

19

Juglans regia

  

H

20

Juniperus communis

  

Z

21

Leontopodium alpinum

 

Protected

 

22

Mentha longifolia

  

H

23

Morus alba

  

H

24

Origanum vulgare

  

H

25

Orobanche purpurea

 

Endangered

 

26

Pedicularis palustris

 

Endangered

 

27

Phleum alpinum

 

Endangered

 

28

Pinus sylvestris

  

H

29

Plantago major

  

H

30

Polygonatum multiflorum

Vulnerable

 

ZR

31

Polygonatum verticillatum

Vulnerable

 

ZR

32

Polygonum aviculare

  

H

33

Polygonum viviparum

  

H

34

Rhodiola rosea

  

H

35

Salix alba

  

Z

36

Solanum nigrum

 

Poisonous

ZR

37

Solidago virgaurea

  

H

38

Stellaria media

  

H

39

Taraxacum officinale

  

H

40

Taxus baccata

Endangered

Protected

ND

41

Thymus serpyllum

Critically Endangered

 

H

42

Urtica dioica

  

H

H plants that can be used (also) as a food, Z medicine, that is used without prescription, ZR medicine, that is available only on prescription, ND use is not allowed

aRules on the classification of medicinal plants

Of the total 59 common species, 37 species (which contribute 62%) fall under 4 major categories of medicinal plants as per the Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia such as H, Z, ZR and ND (Table 2). Of these 37 species of medicinal plants, 24 can be used as food apart from medicinal purpose and 4 species can be used without prescriptions. Five species, such as, Solanum nigrum, Atropabelladonna, Convolvulusarvensis, Hyoscyamusniger, Polygonatummultiflorum and Polygonatumveticillatum are not allowed to use without prescriptions. There are 3 important species such as Aconitumnapellus, Cannabissativa and Taxus baccata, which are not allowed to collect and use as per the Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia.

Discussion

The Himalayan and the Alps mountain systems are two complex ecosystems with many similarities. The availability of many plant species common to the Himalayas and the Alps is due to the historical connectivity of these two mountain systems by some fragmented but continuous system of mountain ranges, including, from west to east, the Taurus, Caucasus, Elburz, Kopet Dagh, Hindukush, Pamir, Karakorum and Tien Shan (Kadereit et al. 2008). The stressful and ecologically marginal conditions have shaped the structure, composition and unique medicinal quality of alpine plants in the Alps and the Himalayas. Over the years of experiments, a rich wealth of knowledge on the use of these plant species has been developed and accumulated by the mountain communities. The most commonly used plants in the Slovenia are Hypericumperforatum, Achilleamillefolium, and Mentha sp., however in the Indian Himalayas, the number of plants used by local people are much higher than the Slovenia. The use of higher number of plants by the people of Indian Himalayas than the Slovenian people attributes to the rich and strong traditional systems of plant use in the Himalayas. In one of the Indian Medical Systems prevalent in the Himalayan region—the Tibetan Medical System—taste of required plant parts is considered as one of the important factors to determine its medicinal efficacy (Kala 2005b). The taste of plant is directly associated with its strength and hence weak taste is considered to have weak strength. Many plant species of the Himalayan region, though were small in size in comparison to the Alps, they had strong taste and hence more powerful than the European Alps (Arya 2010). This could be one of the reasons to exploit the higher number of plant species for curing diseases by the people of the Indian Himalayas in comparison to the people of the Slovenian Alps.

At present, there is a continuous decline in traditional knowledge systems and fortunately some of the traditional medicinal practices are still in use. However, the changing climatic conditions may lead to the extinction of some important alpine plants, at least locally. About 27% of ethnobotanical species common in both the mountains were of conservation concerns due to declining population size. This may exert a severe pressure on the traditional system of therapy, which depends on the availability of such important species. At present, in Slovenia some people believe that herbs may be banned in days to come for routine use, because according to the European Union Directives, herbalists are not allowed to sell herbs from any other group except ‘H’ category-species placed in the category for food (EU 2001, 2004). This directive is expected to bring some changes, but it is hard to predict what would mainly affect the traditional knowledge and use of plants. Apart from medicine, the alpine plants are important for ornamental point of view and people in Alps have high interest in such ornamental plants (Grabherr 2009).

For past couple of decades, changes in land use systems and cultures are visible in both the mountain systems (Grabherr 2009). The Himalayas is known to warm by approximately 0.68°C since the middle of the 19th century (Oerlemans 2005). Some of the alpine species use to grow at quite high altitudinal range and any shift in climate may impose the direct threats to their survival. The increase in temperature directly affects the production of secondary metabolites in plants, which is an important agent in medicinal plant species to cure diseases (Jochum et al. 2007; Gairola et al. 2010). Some popular ornamental species in the Alps such as, Leontopodium, Rhododendron, Gentiana, Anemone spp. may disappear locally from mountains that have low altitudinal range. People in the Alps seem to be highly interested in Edelweiss (Leontopodiumalpinum), which grows at high altitude areas, but unfortunately, at present, under severe pressure due to climate change (Grabherr 2009). This species has been placed in protected category in Slovenian Alps because of its habitat loss (Skoberne 2007). Though, in recent years people are more interested in protection and conservation of plants, merely creating fences and imposing restriction on use of plants may not protect the species adequately from changing climatic conditions. Besides, the livestock grazing is a common factor that influences the vegetation distribution and composition in both the Alps and the Himalayas. Decline and loss of medicinally important plant species due to climate change or any other anthropogenic activity may affect the traditional medicinal system.

There were plants though common in both the mountains but were not used unanimously by their inhabitants. Some of these species either had different uses or not used at all in one mountain areas but the similar species used frequently in other mountain areas by its inhabitants. Since the medicinal plant is an important health care commodity, the information, as gathered in this study may help to exchange knowledge on plant uses and their importance. Efforts should be taken up to make the local inhabitants aware on the uses of the concerned plant species, if the community lacks such information due to gaps in our understanding, even though the availability of such ethnobotanically useful species. Besides, the species though available frequently and was not in practice of use due to lack of knowledge but used in other mountain areas, can be brought under laboratory analysis for their efficacy. The present study concept also offers an opportunity to explore further possibilities in plant species for human welfare.

Notes

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the Indian Institute of Forest Management, India and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia for providing support.

Supplementary material

10531_2012_246_MOESM1_ESM.doc (118 kb)
Online Resource 1 (Doc 119 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ecosystem & Environment Management, Indian Institute of Forest ManagementBhopalIndia
  2. 2.Biotechnical Faculty, University of LjubljanaLjubljanaSlovenia

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