The Status of Gloriosa Superba
KV Krishnamurthy

One of the very important exported medicinal plants of India that has become endangered within a very short span of the last 50 years is Gloriosa superba L., the codified systems of Indian medicine as well as in folk and tribal medicine. The root is used as a germicide, to cure ulcers, piles, hemorrhoids, inflammation, scrofula, leprosy, dyspepsia, worms infestation, flatulence, intermittent fevers, debility arthritis and against snake poison. The corm (or tuber according to some) which looks like a hoe. It has been the most used in indigenous medical systems of India as well as in Africa. The medicinial importance of the plant is due to the presence of alkaloids (nearly 24 of them) of which colchicine and colchicoside are the principal ones, as well as to the presence of 10 non-alkloidal medicinal compounds including B-sitosterol, chelidonic acid, luteolin, stigmasterol etc. Colchicine is used as a mitosis-arrest agent and in cancer therapy and diabetics, in addition to promote polyploidy in agriculturally important crop plants. Colchicoside is used against accute inflammation like gout and other forms of arthritis.

The plant is being exploited extensively by the local people for medicinal purposes. The flow of the raw drug from the local ad regional markets has increased due to the increased demand by the pharmaceutical companies both within and outside India. Recently, there has been an increased demand for the plant, as a source of colchicine and colchicoside, but the supplies from the conventional sources has not been sufficient. India is a major exporter of Gloriosa superba seeds.

The export of Gloriosa seeds started from 1984, although earlier only the tuberous corms were exported. Indiscriminate collection of tubers for commerce has resulted in the scarcity of the plant in the Indian scrub jungles. So the corms were prohibited from export. This has resulted in large scale exploitation of the plant from the wild, as well as promoted its extensive cultivation in several parts of Peninsular India. The former source even today accounts for 95% of the total marketed quantity of the plant and out of this 70% comes from destructive collections.

1984 onwards and seeds alone allowed by CITES. The amount of seeds required and exported from the year 1984 to 2000 is shown in Figure 2 and there is a drastic increase in the requirement. The international market rate of the seed is around $45 /kg now, although it was around $ 30/kg in 2000. In India the seeds are being officially exported through BASIC CHEMICALS, PHARMACEUTICALS AND COSMETICS PROMOTION COUNCIL, Mumbai, set up by the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. Out of the 17 wild species of medicinal value whose export was allowed by India during 1997 to 2002 as per the export policy notification No. 15/97-02 dated the 28th August, 1997, Gloriosa superba is one. During 1996-1997 itself the provisional export value of Gloriosa superba alone was Rs.53 million and it has increased by about 15% by 2005. The seeds are being exported through the above council by two major companies in India at Sivakasi and Delhi. There are few companies, who sell extracts like alkaloids, principally colchicine and colchicoside, and export the same.

But, as indicated by this author in an earlier article (Med plant Newsletter, Vol 1, issue 2 &3, pg.5), plants from large scale cultivation and tissue culture sources do not contain the required percentage of the alkaloids and hence the importers abroad often reject or price poorly the exported Gloriosa superba in recent years. The seeds from wild sources, depending on the provenance, on an average yield 0.9% (range 0.6 to 2.0%) colchicine and 0.82% colchicoside (range 0.5 to 1.8%) but on repeated cultivation or in tissue culture the yield has come down to nearly 0.2% (in cultivation) or even 0% (in tissue culture plants). Again, as suggested in the earlier article of this author, elicitation methodologies have been developed to enhance the alkaloid levels both under cultivation and under tissue culture conditions. It is for the exporters of Gloriosa superba to take advantage of this technology.

Visiting Professor, School of Life Science, Bharathidasan University & Consultant, FRLHT, INDIA

You can add to this article. Send your write up to