Though most plants have flowers with both male and female parts, some have either male or female flowers – like many gourd vegetables – and yet others have either only female or only male flowers – like the papaya.
There are more than 15,000 plants that have either male or female flowers. Indian systems of medicine contain 5-7% such ‘dioecious’ species. Modern science has established that some qualities of bark, leaf or flower differ, depend on the gender of the dioecious plants that bear either male or female flowers. But do Ayurveda practitioners and folk healers discriminate between gender in plants?
Gopalakrishnan Saroja Seethapathy, from the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Bengaluru, was concerned about this knowledge gap. He teamed up with scientists from Norway to document the traditional knowledge of Ayurveda and folk medical practitioners in Tamil Nadu.
They interviewed twenty Ayurveda doctors and noted no straightforward evidence of gender preferences in preparing medicines or treating illness. However, they found details about reproductive morphology and sexual differentiation in Ayurvedic literature.
The team also interviewed thirty male and seven female folk healers, aged 40 to 80 years. They showed the healers live specimens and photos of forty dioecious plant species. The informants identified thirty-one out of forty as having distinct gender. And they showed preferences for thirteen species for use as timber, food and medicine.
The respondents used plant and fruit size, as well as fruit visibility, to judge gender. In the betel plant, folklore distinguished gender by leaf venation and pungency.
Though science recognises that resource allocation for survival, growth and reproduction differs according to gender, folk perceptions need to be accounted for and explained in scientific terms.
The study shows that there is traditional knowledge about plant gender and preferences of use based on gender. The researchers note that there is not much difference in perceptions between female and male respondents. However, age had impact. This dwindling traditional knowledge is a call for more detailed investigations to bridge the gap between traditional and modern knowledge.
“Researchers should document traditional knowledge on plant sexual systems, test gender specific usage concepts and offer hypotheses. There are potential implications for conservation biology, chemical ecology, ethnoecology and drug discovery”, says Seethapathy, FRLHT, Bengaluru.
Ref: Ethnopharmacol., 221: 56-64 (2018); DOI: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.04.011
Reported by: Gita Madhu, Freelance Editor, Pune