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Chapter 3

Contributions to rural households

In terms of farm household use and potential, wild plants can be considered under about 14 main headings (see Box 6). Many species are multipurpose and belong to more than one commodity grouping. For example, the five species of Uapaca (Euphorbiaceae) that occur in Malawi are used to provide food, wine, fuelwood and charcoal, building poles, timber and herbal medicine, and proposals have been made for their domestication, selection and improvement (Seyani, 1996).



  • Food plants, including beverages for humans (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, petioles, roots, tubers, etc.)
  • Food additives, including processing agents and additive ingredients used in food preparations
  • Animal food, including forage and fodder for vertebrates
  • Bee plants, including pollen or nectar sources for honey production
  • Invertebrate foods, including plants eaten by invertebrates useful to humans, e.g. silkworms
  • Materials, including woods, fibres, tannins, latex, resins, essential oils, waxes, oils
  • Fuels, including fuelwood, charcoal, fuel alcohol
  • Social uses, including masticatories, smoking materials, hallucinogens, psychoactive drugs, contraceptives, abortifacients, plants used for ritual or religious purposes
  • Vertebrate poisons, including both accidental or useful poisonous plants, e.g. those used in hunting, fishing
  • Non-vertebrate poisons, including accidental and useful poisons, e.g. molluscicides, herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fungicides
  • Medicines, including human and veterinary uses
  • Environmental uses, including ornamentals, barrier hedges, windbreaks, soil improvers, erosion control and indicators of heavy metals, pollution or underground water
  • Cosmetic and perfumery plants
  • Genetic resources, including wild relatives of crops

Source: Cook, 1995.

The contribution of wild plants to household economies will depend largely on individual circumstances. In terms of food, no household depends entirely on wild sources throughout the year, although in periods of famine wild gathered plants may tide the community over. Normally wild plants form part of a complex mixed economy with contributions from various sources including agriculture and wild gathered products such as food, medicinal plants, fibres, fuelwood, honey, beverages, oil, insects, bushmeat and fish. Wild plants may help to meet minimal subsistence needs or may be used as luxuries; if an excess is gathered it may be used for barter, for sale in local markets or for trading as small business. In Turkey, for example, widely diverse wild plant foods (including many wild mushrooms) are collected for personal and home consumption (see Box 7), and any surplus is sold on the street or in city markets, usually by women in what are known as "women's markets".



Eaten raw
The majority of wild food plants are eaten raw and mainly collected from young plants. Examples include stalks of Rheum spp. (rhubarb) and Rumex alpinus, Rumex acetosella and Rumex chalepensis (sorrel); peeled stems of several Compositae species such as Gundelia tournefortii, Scorzonera spp. and Tragopogon spp.; corms or bulbs of Crocus spp. and Allium spp.; leaves of Portulaca oleracea, Beta spp. and Eruca sativa.

Consumed after cooking
Such plants are either boiled in water or cooked with oil and eggs. Examples include Portulaca oleracea, Trachystemon orientalis, Borago officinalis, Atriplex nitens, Beta trigyna, Smilax excelsa, Smilax aspera, Chenopodium spp. and Sium sisarum.

Dried before use
Tea, spice and condiment plants are generally used after drying. Examples are species of Thymus, Origanum, Salvia, Sideritis, Satureja, Laurus, Coridothymus, Thymbra, Echinophora and Hippomarathrum.

Consumed after processing
Some plants require processing before being eaten, such as boiling to kill enzymes (e.g. in salep) or to destroy poisonous chemicals (e.g. in Lathyrus seeds, Arum leaves) or pickling (e.g. of buds of Capparis spinosa and Capparis ovata). Some aromatic and flavouring plants, such as Allium spp. and Ferula rigidula, are added to make a special type of cheese in the Van region. Some plants or plant latexes, e.g. latex of figs (Ficus carica) or Iris unguicularis, are added to goat milk to make yoghurt. Fresh petals of Rosa damascena and fruit pulp of Rosa canina are used in making jams. Seed-coats (arils) of Smilax aspera and Smilax excelsa are mixed with mastic gum (from Pistacia lentiscus var. chia) to soften it.

Source: Baser, 1997.

All kinds of wild plants may be used by local communities. An interesting example is lianas, which are frequent in tropical forests. An ethnobotanical survey of a 1-ha plot of tropical rain forest in the Cuyabeno Faunal Reserve in Amazonian Ecuador revealed the many ways in which the Siona-Secoya Indians use woody vines. Ninety-eight species belonging to 38 families were identified, and of these nearly half were used by the Indians: 67 percent were used as medicines, drugs and/or food, 17 percent had a ritual and cultural significance for the Indians and the remaining 17 percent were used to make ropes, baskets, toys and adornments.


The contributions made to the food supply of farm households by wild plants and predomesticates vary enormously from region to region. Although the principal role of these plants is to supplement the food obtained through home gardens and other forms of agriculture, many of the species grown or wild-harvested also provide vitamins, flavourings and so on of nutritional, gastronomic and social importance obtained from secondary products of metabolism such as alkaloids, essential oils and phenolics (see section on medicinal, veterinary and traditional uses, below).

In Mediterranean countries, leafy vegetables and salads are regularly collected from the wild to add variety as well as nutrition to the diet. On the Greek island of Crete, for example, about 200 wild species are eaten and "mountain greens" are a frequent item on menus both at home and in restaurants. They are collected in the wild by local peasants who not only consume them themselves but bring them to market for sale to supplement their income (see Box 8). On the Italian island of Sicily, 24 wild Brassicaceae from 16 genera are occasionally exploited as vegetables.



Allium roseum

Muscari comosum

Amaranthus spp.

Papaver rhoeas

Asparagus aphyllus

Petromarula pinnata

Capparis spinosa

Plantago coronopus

Capsella bursa-pastoris

  subsp. commutata

Chenopodium spp.

Plantago lagopus

Chrysanthemum segetum

Portulaca oleracea

Cichorium intybus

Prasium majus

Cichorium pusillum

Ranunculus ficaria

Cichorium spinosum

Reichardia picroides

  (known as stamnagathi)

Rumex spp.

Crepis spp.

Scandix pecten-veneris

Crithmum maritimum

Scolymus hispanicus

Cynara cardunculus

  (mainly the roots)

Cynara cornigera

Solanum nigrum

Daucus carota

Sonchus asper

Erodium cicutarium

Sonchus oleraceus

Eruca sativa

Stellaria media

Foeniculum vulgare

Tamus communis

Hirschfeldia incana

Taraxacum spp.

Lactuca serriola

Tordylium apulum

Leontodon tuberosus

Tragopogon sinuatus

Lotus edulis

Urospermum picroides

Malva sylvestris

Urtica dubia

Source: C. Fournaraki, personal communication.

In Kenya, wild plant food plays a major part in supplementing other foods, especially in rural communities. In agricultural communities wild food species are less important, although still significant, than in hunter-gatherer and pastoral communities. Some Kenyan tribes have a culture that is rich in the use of herbaceous plants; for example, the Giriama, the Luhya and the Pokot use many herbaceous plants as leafy vegetables. About 800 of Kenya's total flora of 7 000 species of vascular plants are used in some way as food in the wild - 400 (50 percent) as fruits, 200 (25 percent) as vegetables, 100 (12.5 percent) as tubers or roots, 30 (3.6 percent) as edible gums or resins and 30 (3.6 percent) as spices or flavourings, with the rest providing other kinds of food such as soup plants, flowers, bark, chewing sticks and tonics (Maundu, 1996).

Table 2 summarizes the results of a recent study on the use potential of 19 species of edible woody forest species in southeastern Nigeria (Okafor, Okolo and Ejiofor, 1996). It is notable that all can be used in agroforestry systems such as alley farming, intercropping, improved planted fallow and barrier and live hedges.


Edible woody species in southeastern Nigeria with development potential

Scientific name


Part eaten

Traditional food type


Chrysophyllum albidum


Fruit pulp


Dacryodes edulis


Fruit pulp


Dennettia tripetala



Spicy seeds

Garcinia kola



Seeds as kola

Irvingia gabonensis


Fruit, seeds

Fruit pulp, seed condiment

Monodora myristica




Pentaclethra macrophylla



Fermented product

Pterocarpus milbraedii



Leafy vegetable

Pterocarpus santalinoides



Leafy vegetable

Pterocarpus soyauxii



Leafy vegetable

Treculia africana



Main dish, roasted nuts

Xylopia aethiopica





Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii




Gnetum africanum



Leafy vegetable

Gnetum buchholzianum



Leafy vegetable

Gongronema latifolia



Leafy vegetable

Piper guineense




Plukenetia conophora





Vernonia amygdalina



Leafy vegetable

Source: Okafor, Okolo and Ejiofor, 1996.

A wide range of plant and animal species contribute to the food resources of the Mbuti in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but only a small number support their subsistence in quantitative terms. Their diet varies according to the season and according to whether they are staying near the village or at the hunting camp deep in the forest. The dominant tree is Gilbertiodendron dewevreii (Leguminosae); during its peak season a large number of seeds, weighing on average 17 to 18 g each, fall to the forest floor. Since 100 seeds provide 350 kcal, an area of 100 m2 provides 18 000 to 19 000 kcal, equivalent to the energy needed to support almost nine adult consumption days. During the peak season G. dewevreii seeds were used in more than 24 percent of household meals. Other important wild foods that are consumed in this season come from Canarium schweinfurthii, Irvingia spp. and the semi-wild oil-palm Elaeis guineensis. Of the 100 or so wild plants considered edible, only a small number are used in large quantities. The reasons are not entirely clear but probably include cultural and natural factors (Ichikawa, 1993).


The gathering of fuelwood is a common theme of many of the areas touched upon in this book. Three of every four people in developing countries use fuelwood or other traditional fuels to supply their daily domestic energy. About half of all the roundwood felled throughout the world in 1980 was burned as fuelwood to provide heat and power; the comparable figure for the late 1950s was 40 percent. In many areas, especially in arid zones of Asia and Africa, increasing population and decreasing fuelwood resources have led to a rise in the percentage of farm household labour and income spent on acquiring this resource. In West Africa, some rural people may have to walk over 25 km to locate sticks of wood to burn; and in Niamey, the Niger, one-quarter of the income of manual labourers is spent on wood. A summary of the amount of time spent gathering fuel is given in Table 3.


Time spent in gathering fuel


Average hours
per day


Southern India (six villages)


Women contribute 0.7 hours; children contribute 0.5 hours

Gujurat, India


In a family of five, one member often spends all his or her time in fuelwood collection



Often one adult and one or two children collect fuelwood

United Republic of Tanzania


Traditional women's work



Fuelwood is carried about 45 km



Women sometimes walk 25 km



Women do 75 percent of fuel gathering



One full day's search provides wood for three days



Women gather and cut wood

Source: World Resources Institute, 1994 (based on Lewenhak, 1989).

Households collect their fuelwood from privately owned land or from open-access forests and common-property village lands, although the latter are often disappearing as a result of social and economic pressures. The establishment of social-forestry wood lots may lead to the availability of fuelwood and other products for sale, although it will not aid the rural poor, who will still not have access to such areas.

The role of palms

Particular groups of species have a disproportionate role in human nutrition in certain rural households as well as providing other benefits. The palms are the most conspicuous example, providing a remarkable array of products (Box 9).



  • Beverages: arrak (distilled spirits), milk substitute, palm wine (toddy), soft drink flavourings, sweet sap
  • Building materials: fibre, parquet flooring, rattan, thatch, timber, weaving material, wood
  • Chemicals/industrial products: activated charcoal, dye/resin, fibre (coir), industrial oils, paper pulp, particle board, polishes, textile finishes, upholstery stuffing, vegetable ivory, wax
  • Cosmetics/hygiene: hair dressing, coal
  • Feeds: fodder, forage, press cake
  • Fertilizer: biofertilizer
  • Food: candy, edible oil, fruit, ice-cream/sherbert, inflorescence (pacaya), kernels, palm hearts, preserves, starch/sago, sugar/jaggery, syrup, vinegar
  • Fuel: charcoal, fuel oil, fuelwood
  • Handicrafts:
    • agricultural implements: nets, ropes
    • clothing: clothes, hats
    • furniture: hammocks, lamp shades, mats, rattan wickerware
    • games/toys: balls (rattan), chess pieces, palm leaflet balls
    • household items: bags, baskets, brooms, brushes, cigarette papers, coat
    • hangers, cups, fans, ladles, purses, twine, walking sticks
    • weapons/hunting tools: bows, spears
    • jewellery: beads, miniature carvings, bracelets, rings and earrings
  • Medicines/rituals: masticatory
  • Ornamental use: cut foliage, house-plants, ornamental tree, seeds, shade tree
  • Structure/shelter: bridges, fences, floors, nursery shade, pilings, posts, rafters, roofs, utility poles, walls

Source: FAO, 1997 (after Balick and Beck, 1990).

A recent review of tropical palms as non-wood forest products included a matrix of principal palm products, evaluated in terms of general product categories and processing categories (Table 4).


Matrix of principal palm products

Processing category

Primary products

Secondary products/by-products

Salvage products

Immediate use

Palm wine, sweet sap, fibre, thatch, fruit, kernels, bridges, nursery shade, pilings, posts, rafters, roofs, utility poles

Fodder, forage, press cake, biofertilizer, fuelwood, fences

Fibre, thatch, fuelwood, house-plants, shade trees, bridges, fences, pilings, posts, rafters, roofs, utility poles

Cottage-level processing

Milk substitute, fibre, rattan, weaving material, wood, upholstery stuffing, edible oil, fruit, kernels/copra, nets, ropes, hats, hammocks, lampshades, mats and rugs, rattan balls, chess pieces, bags, baskets, brooms, cups, fans, purses, twine, walking sticks, beads, miniature carvings, bows, spears, masticatory, cut foliage, seeds (ornamental), floors, walls

Sugar/jaggery, syrup, charcoal

Fibre, weaving materials, wood, floors, walls

Small-scale industrial processing

Soft-drink flavouring, industrial oils, upholstery stuffing, vegetable ivory, wax, hairdressings, soap, edible oil, inflorescence (pacaya), palm hearts, preserves, starch/sago, sugar/jaggery, syrup, hammocks, lampshades, rattan wickerware, brushes, cigarette papers, coat-hangers, bracelets, rings and earrings

Arrak, parquet flooring, activated charcoal, sugar/jaggery, syrup, charcoal, fibre (coir), candy, ice cream and sherbet, vinegar

Parquet flooring, timber, palm hearts

Large-scale industrial processing

Dye/resin, industrial oils, paper pulp, particle board, polishes, textile finishes, wax, soap, edible oil, starch/sago, fuel oil

Fibre (coir)

Parquet flooring, timber

Source: FAO, 1997.


Climbing palms known as rattans have been used for centuries at village level for binding, basketry, weaving, traps, dyes and medicines, and are now a major source of income. They are among the most important forest products of Southeast Asia (see Box 10); the total value of export trade in finished rattan products is estimated at US$2 700 million per year. The major producer is Indonesia and the main secondary producers are Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. These countries, together with China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, all have major rattan industries, providing employment for 0.5 million people.

BOX 10


Although attempts have been made to cultivate a number of rattan species, only two are extensively cultivated, and plantation cultivation accounts for only 10 to 12 percent of Indonesia's total rattan exports. Rattan gardens are well developed in parts of South and East Kalimantan. The bulk of rattan is harvested from natural forests and several species are at risk through overexploitation. Ecologically sustainable harvesting is possible if the clumps are not damaged and sufficient recovery time is given. For many people in remote areas, rattan collecting is the sole source of a cash income. In less remote areas it competes with other ways of earning a living and is normally a part-time occupation. The return from rattan collecting, approximately US$1.50 a day, is low in comparison with earnings from cash crops such as cinnamon and coffee, which can provide an income of US$1 000 per hectare per year on cleared forest land, but is higher than general agricultural labour at US$1.00 per day. To earn a living based solely on rattan collecting requires an area of some 144 ha. The economic feasibility of rattan collecting depends on transportation costs, and profitability depends not on income per hectare but on the basis of return on effort spent. It needs to be recognized, however, that rattan collecting makes an important contribution to employment and to the national economy.

Source: van Valkenburg, 1997.

Periodicity of the contribution of wild plants

The contribution made by wild plants to traditional farm households varies according to the season or time of year. Seasonality of the agricultural cycle and food availability is usually linked to rainfall: in tropical Africa, for example, the human inhabitants of rain forests suffer mild to severe hunger around nearly the same time every year, leading to weight loss which is a matter of serious public health concern. In the villages of Kwango-Kwile, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the local diet can be divided into four periods according to the seasonality of available food products (Box 11).

BOX 11


  • Harvest period (minor dry season, minor rainy season): An abundance of both cultivated and gathered food allows families to increase their income and eat two meals a day. Manioc dough is eaten every day accompanied by leaves of wild plants, mushrooms, caterpillars, bitter cucumber and game.
  • Dry period (major dry season): The diet is not a varied one. Food is produced for home consumption and sale. One meal a day is eaten. Foods include starches such as sweet potatoes and yams, bitter cucumber, millet, cowpeas, freshwater fish, wild leaves and forest game.
  • Transitional period: Smaller quantities of food are available, including imported food, wild leaves, yams, dried peanuts, fruits and insects, rather than game and fish.
  • Lean period of food shortage (major rainy season): Little food is available. This is the main season for gathering wild leaves, manioc leaves, mushrooms and caterpillars.

Source: Kukwikila et al., 1993.

Seasonality has an important effect on the nutritional status of young children (between 12 and 24 months) and may expose them to severe malnutrition in the lean period of food shortage. Seasonality of food production and availability also affects ovarian function and fertility, leading to birth seasonality in rural populations with agricultural economies.

BOX 13


The economies of Adiani and Gwaiyo in the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands, Nigeria, depend to a considerable degree on the wealth of wild resources harvested in the floodplain. Many of the activities based on wild plants provide important sources of income, in particular the following.

  • Harvesting doum palm fronds generates returns to labour that are two to three times the agricultural wage; this income is earned by both men and women. Harvesting the fronds and selling the dried bundles yields about US$2.50 per day, more than three time the agricultural wage. The fronds are used to make a variety of household products.
  • Fuelwood also generates significant revenues. In Gwaiyo, people collect it from the nearby forest, and there is an active village market for fuelwood. At least half the collection is sold to smaller traders who sell it in towns. Many women in Gwaiyo, especially older ones, carry wood on their head to the village for sale. Returns to labour are estimated at US$0.50 to $0.75 per day, about 80 percent of the agricultural wage.

Source: Based on Eaton and Sarch, 1997.

"Famine foods" is the term applied to wild foods that are an important component of local survival strategies at times of severe food shortage. Such food resources have had a critical role in major famines in the past, such as the Bihar famine in India in 1965/66 and the famine in Bangladesh in 1974/75. A wide range of species are used, including many wild green vegetable leaves, roots and grass seeds. Famine foods are still important in many areas today and in exceptional cases may be the only source of food available.

The use of natural resources by the Yanomami Indians on the upper Orinoco River, Venezuela, shows a remarkable adaptation to the natural environment. The Yanomami practise an intermittent form of nomadism (called wãyumi) which is mixed with cultivation, mainly of bananas. They exploit wild resources, particularly gathering fruits in the forest, following an annual cycle (Figure 3). This gathering is most frequent and effective during two periods: the rainy season from May to August and the dry season from December to February. The Yanomami regularly use about 20 wild plant species, and another 20 species that are often ignored at normal times become important when food is in short supply. Gathering provides 12.61 percent of net weight, 9.02 percent of energy and 11.43 percent of protein to the Yanomami diet.

The annual cycle of yanomami use of food resources

Source: Lizot, 1993.


Medicinal plants may be defined as those that are commonly used in treating and preventing specific ailments and diseases and that are generally considered to have a beneficial role in health care. It should be noted, however, that some recently introduced drugs have been obtained from wild plants for which there is no record of traditional use, such as taxol from the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia.

Aromatic plants can be simply defined as those that contain aromatic essential oils which are extracted for perfumery, cosmetics, flavouring, medicinal and other human uses. This having been said, aromatic plants are often interpreted loosely as including culinary herbs, whose definition also causes problems. There is, in fact, no standard definition of the term "herb" and the distinction between herbs and spices is an imprecise one. Often plants may be used both as medicinals and as aromatics.

Medicinal plants constitute one of the most important groups of wild plants in terms of their contribution to the economy and well-being of farm households. They are commonly grown in home gardens and harvested from common lands and their growth near habitations is often encouraged. Medicinal and aromatic plants are in fact obtained from a wide range of habitats: tropical forests, temperate forests, secondary forests, scrubland, meadows, swidden fallows, agricultural crop fields, home and house gardens, in fact any areas where human societies, both urban and rural, harvest, manage or grow useful plants.

It has been estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) that 80 percent of the developing world's population meets its primary health care needs through traditional medicines. In China, for example, about 1 000 million people, both urban and rural, depend largely on plant-based medicinals. About 800 million inhabitants of South Asia rely on herbal medicines. In India traditional health care systems, such as Ayurvedic, Unani, Siddha and Tibetan medicine, run in parallel with the modern health-care sector, while the Sri Lankan Government has a Ministry of Indigenous Medicine which has set up medicinal plant nurseries.

Despite the acknowledged importance of medicinal plants to both the global economy and local household economies, their use is generally poorly organized and poorly regulated, and most are still exploited with little or no regard to the future (Srivastava, Lambert and Vietmeyer, 1996). Many medicinal and aromatic plants are wild-collected, usually without any control or regulation. In West Africa, for example, the vast majority of drug plants grow only in the wild, rather than being cultivated (Cole, 1996), and in China more than 80 percent of the 700 000 tonnes of medicinal plants that are reportedly used each year for direct decoction in traditional medicine and as ingredients in officinal medicine comes from wild sources (Xiao, 1991; He and Cheng, 1991).

The nature of medicinal and aromatic plants as resources explains in some ways the difficulties experienced in dealing with them. While the role of the food crops on which most human nutrition is based depends on the primary products of photosynthesis - the carbohydrates, proteins and triglycerides (fats and oils) (and in the case of the wood and fibre crops, cellulose and lignin), most drugs, herbs, ethnomedicines, essential oils, perfumes and cosmetics derive from the secondary products of metabolism - such as the alkaloids, terpenoids and flavonoids - which have evolved as responses of plants to stress, predation and competition and constitute what has been called the vast chemical library of biological systems. Thus it is usually extracts, not the plants themselves (or parts of them such as seeds, grains, fruits or leaves), that are used for medicinals and aromatics. These plants therefore come after the food crops and the industrial crops in the pecking order of agriculture, trade and general appreciation.

Medicinal and aromatic plants are important components of the vegetation of Mediterranean and semi-arid zones of the world and correspondingly have a significant role in the life of farm households, both for home consumption and for trade. The use of medicinal and aromatic plants, herbs and spices in the Near East, for example, goes back thousands of years and forms an important part of various cultures. Although many of the species concerned have fallen into disuse, traditional medicines still play a major part in health care delivery systems. A considerable number of medicinal and aromatic plants are also native to arid zones of the world. As the Mediterranean region shows, plants rich in essential oils are much more abundant in arid than in humid habitats. Likewise, plants rich in gums and mucilage are frequent in arid zones. Perhaps the presence of these constituents has a role in the adaptation of these species to drought conditions.

A list of medicinal plants whose natural habitat is in arid zones, mainly in the Old World, based on a survey undertaken for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is given in Table 5. The most important medicinal and essential oil and perfume plants of the region are listed in Box 12. The most important plant families in this category are Boraginaceae, Caryophyllaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Compositae, Cruciferae, Gramineae, Labiatae, Leguminosae, Liliaceae and Rosaceae.


Medicinal plants adapted to arid-zone conditions of the Near East

Genus and species

Active constituents

Medicinal properties

Calotropis procera

Mudar bark, calotropine

Latex for skin diseases, cardiotonic


Odoriferous gum resin

Various, fixing agent for perfumes

Commiphora spp.

Gum resins, myrrh

Various, aromatic stimulant

Capparis spinosa


Diuretic, renal disinfectant, tonic, used for arteriosclerosis, chills

Spergularia marina

Triterpene, saponine


Gypsophila spp.


Tonic, diaphoretic alterative,for skin diseases

Salsola spp.



Artemisia cina



Artemisia herba-alba

Thujone, Santonine


Convolvulus scammonia



Citrullus colocynthis

Colocynthin, elaterin


Globularia alypum

Anthraquinone glucosides


Cymbopogon proximus

Geraniol, citral

Antiseptic, insect repellent, perfume

Hyssopus officinalis, Lavandula spp., Rosmarinus officinalis, Thymus spp.

Essential oils

Carminative, chloretic, perfume antiseptic,

Alhagi maurarum


Laxative, purgative

Cassia angustifolia,Cassia acutifolia, Cassia obovata

Anthraglucosides such as sennosides


Acacia seyal, Acacia nilotica

Gum arabic

Emollient, emulsifier

Astragalus spp.

Gum tragacanth


Trigonella foenum-graecum


Tonic, restorative, precursor of steroids

Androcymbium gramineum


Anti-mitotic properties

Urginea maritima

Scillarin A and other glycosides

Cardiac stimulant, diuretic

Fraxinus ornus

Manna: mannitol and galactoside-saccharose


Rhamnus alaternus


Purgative, laxative

Paliurus spp.



Ammi majus



Dorema ammoniacum, Dorema aucheri

Gum ammoniac

Antispasmodic, expectorant

Ferula asafoetida

Asafoetida gum resin





Tribulus terrestris

Hepatic toxin

Sheep poison

Peganum harmala

Alkaloids: harmaline, harmine

Hallucinogen, anthelmintic

Balanites aegyptiaca

Sapogenins, diosgenin

Precursor of steroids

Source: Palevitch, 1982.

Many medicinal plants are under threat as a result of human population growth, ecosystem loss and conversion through deforestation for pasture, cropland, urbanization and other use and habitat degradation and fragmentation with consequent loss of species diversity and gene pools. There is therefore considerable interest in bringing threatened medicinal and aromatic species into cultivation so as to reduce the pressure on wild populations (see Chapter 4).

BOX 12


Medicinal plants

Cynoglossum creticum

Rhamnus spp.

Achillea fragrantissima

Datura stramonium

Rhus tripartita

Achillea santolina

Digitalis spp.

Ricinus communis

Alhagi graecorum

Dracaena cinnabari

Ruta chalepensis

Alkanna strigosa

Ephedra alata

Salvia fruticosa

Aloe perryi

Eryngium campestre

Symphytum spp.

Aloe dhufarensis

Ferula asafoetida

Teucrium polium

Aloe inermis

Foeniculum vulgare

Thymelaea hirsuta

Ammi spp.

Glossostemon bruguieri

Thymus spp.

Anagyris foetida

Glycyrrhiza spp.

Tribulus terrestris

Anastatica hierochuntica

Gypsophila spp.

Urginea maritima

Artemisia herba-alba

Haplophyllum tuberculatum

Verbascum sinuatum

Artemisia judaica

Hyoscyamus spp.

Verbena officinalis

Boswellia sacra

Juniperus phoenicea

Ziziphus jujuba

Calamintha incana

Lavandula dentata


Calotropis procera

Leontice leontopetalum

Essential oils,

Cannabis sativa

Marrubium spp.


Cassia senna

Mentha pulegium

Achillea spp.

Catha edulis

Myrtus communis

Artemisia spp.

Citrullus colocynthis

Nerium oleander

Lavandula stoechas

Commiphora foliacea

Ocimum kilmandscharicum

Moringa peregrina

Commiphora gileadensis

Origanum syriacum

Origanum spp.

Commiphora parviflora

Otostegia fruticosa

Rosmarinus officinalis

Commiphora socotrana

Papaver somniferum

Satureja spp.

Crocus sativus

Peganum harmala

Sideritis spp.

Cymbopogon proximus

Retama raetam

Thymus spp. 

Source: Boulos, Miller and Mill, 1994.


The contribution of wild species to income generation by farm households varies almost as widely as the numerous types of system and the different species concerned. It is very difficult to obtain basic information such as the quantities harvested, processed or traded, and when the wild plants are used primarily for subsistence it may be difficult to estimate their value. Most of the data available, with all their shortcomings, have been obtained from case studies on individual local communities or community groups (see Box 13 for an example) and broader assessments are rarely available.

In many cases, as in the various types of home garden, most of the plants harvested are used for household consumption and little is left for barter or for sale. Much depends on the size of the household and the plot. Most substantial income is obtained from wild species that have a ready market such as palms, rubber, medicinals and aromatics, fruits and fuelwood. In Java, Indonesia, home gardens contribute about 25 percent of total household incomes, mainly from tree products such as fruits and spices, and in Sri Lanka, annual incomes of up to US$2 500 per hectare per year have been predicted from the twentieth year onwards for smallholder home gardens established on senescent tea plantations.

Even in montane habitats, wild species often contribute substantially to the economy of farm households. Most mountain people are relatively and absolutely poor and exploit plants from the distinctive montane ecosystems which often contain many species that are not found at lower elevations (Karmokolias, 1998).

Studies on the harvesting of forest foods by the Piaroa (Huottuja) people of southern Venezuela showed that their main source of cash income was the sale of agricultural and wild forest products. For example, on a Saturday morning 14 Piaroa were selling the fruit of the palm Jessenia bataua and 34 were selling those of Euterpe precatoria. Each vendor would gross about US$11.60; after subtracting $1.74 for transportation, net income was thus $9.86 for 14 hours' labour (nine hours to collect, five hours to sell). This is a substantially higher earning than a labourer's minimum wage of $4.35 for eight hours' work (Melnyk, 1994).

Medicinal plants

Information on the financial contribution made by the sale of medicinal plants in markets is difficult to obtain. Typically each area and community has its own particular array of species used and characteristic ways of using them. Some are traded in local markets in small quantities (Table 6) although larger quantities may be on sale in large cities.


Commercially collected traditional medicinal plants for sale at Batogota, near Bwindi Forest, Uganda



Life form

Part used

Croton macrostachys




Entandrophragma excelsum




Hallea rubrostipulata




Maesa lanceolata




Myrica salicifolia




Ocotea usambarensis




Phytolacca dodecandra




Polyscias fulva




Symphonia globulifera




a Collected in maize bag (50 kg size) lots.

Source: Cunningham, 1996.

The prices paid to local collectors are usually low. For example, in a study carried out under the Indonesian Tropical Forest Medicinal Plant Program (1995), it was found that in the Jember district the price paid by village wholesalers for wild-collected seed of the legume Parkia roxburghii was 600 rupiahs (Rp) per kilogram (about US$0.27), while the retailers sold it at the price of Rp5 000 (US$2.22) per kilogram; likewise the village price of Piper cubeba was Rp250 (US$0.11) per kilogram, while in Jember P. cubeba was retailed at Rp5 000 (US$2.22) per kilogram. For P. retrofractum, the figures were Rp100 (US$0.04) per kilogram in the village and Rp10 000 (US$4.45) per kilogram in the town (see Box 15 in Chapter 4).

On the other hand there is a substantial commercial demand for certain medicinal species from the pharmaceutical industry. However, this is a specialized area and subject to a series of restrictions, as discussed in Chapter 4.

A worker in an agroforestry cooperative in the
El Paraiso area, Honduras, extracts resin from a pine tree


The extraction of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) is an activity with a long history but it has attracted the attention of policy-makers and researchers in recent years after a number of analyses suggested that it could produce higher economic returns in some cases than timber extraction. It is considered by some as competitive with timber extraction, if all the costs and benefits are taken into account. The term "extractivism" used to describe these activities can also be applied to the extraction of indigenous knowledge about locally used plants.

In Brazil, the total value of plant extractive production is around US$1 768 million (Table 7). This production can be divided into two main types - timber products and non-timber products. The former generate 84 percent of the total value of extractive production. Within the non-timber products, food products are the next group of importance in a national context, with two products pre-eminent: maté tea (Ilex paraguariensis) and cashew nuts (Anacardium occidentale).


Aggregate value of the production of principal products of plant extraction in Brazil, 1980

Common name

Scientific name

Aggregate value (US$1 000)

Food products

Cabbage palm (fruit)

Euterpe oleracea

9 818

Brazil nut

Bertholettia excelsa

12 763

Cashew nut

Anacardium occidentale

14 408

Palm hearts

Euterpe spp.

8 381

Teas, dyes, medicines






Bixa orellana


Wood products



176 232



337 772



964 167

Maté tea

Ilex paraguariensis

74 594



Hevea brasiliensis

1 127

Hevea coagulated latex

H. brasiliensis

39 447

Hevea liquid latex

H. brasiliensis

2 949

Non-elastic gums


Manilkara bidentata



Manilkara elata



Couma utilis

1 258

Source: Allegretti, 1994.

In terms of household farm incomes, extractivism is usually treated as a source of complementary or seasonal income, with few relying on it as a full-time occupation. Those involved in extractivist activities are also agriculturists to some degree.

In the south of West Bengal, India, in regenerating Shorea robusta forests, a recent study of 109 tribes and 107 castes revealed that the mean annual income amounted to 2 523 and 2 738 rupees (Rs) respectively, excluding income from medicinal plants, several fruits and animals that could not be estimated. Income generated by NTFPs contributed 22 percent (tribes) and 16 percent (castes) of the total income, and of household NTFP income, that generated by fuel and fodder amounted to 73.6 percent (castes) and 78.5 percent (tribes).

A recent study of the economic importance and marketing of forest and fallow products in the Iquitos region of Peru (see Box 14) showed that a wide range of species are extracted from the forest and swidden fallows and marketed (Padoch, 1988). The contribution of these products to household incomes varied considerably among the various villages sampled and ranged from zero to relatively high figures. The largest contributions came from the marketing of fruits from swidden fallows, which brought in, for example, an average of US$1 200 per household for the Tamshiyaquenos and US$500 for the Bora of Brillo Nuevo.

BOX 14


  • Intensively managed crops: manioc (Manihot esculenta), plantain (Musa paradisiaca), rice (Oryza sativa), maize (Zea mays), pineapple (Ananas comosus)
  • Cultivated fruit trees: peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), caimito (Pouteria caimito), uvilla (Pourouma cecropiifolia), guaba (Inga edulis), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), pomarosa (Syzygium malaccensis), toronja (Citrus paradisi)
  • Forest fruits, leaves, palm hearts: aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), ungurahui (Jessenia bataua), huasi (Euterpe precatoria), bijao (Heliconia cannoidea)
  • Handicrafts: chambira hammocks, chambira bags (Astrocaryum chambira), Tamshi fibre baskets (Heteropsis jenmanii), Bombonaje fibre baskets (Carludovica palmata), paddle (Pithecellobium laetum), seed necklaces (many species)
  • Roofing and wall materials: wall panels (Mauritia flexuosa), thatch (Lepidocaryum sp., Phytelephas macrocarpa)
  • Charcoal: many species
  • Fuelwood and construction materials: many species
  • Medicinal plants: chuchuashi (Maytenus krukovii), clavohuasca (Mandevilla scabra)

    Source: Padoch, 1988

Examples of income derived from extractivism from individual species - the harvesting of piaçaba fibres (Leopoldinia piassaba) and of açai fruits (Euterpe spp.) from natural stands - are compared with the income from açai cultivated through agroforestry and with the income from manioc cultivation in Table 8.


A comparison of income obtained from cultivation and extractivism


Net income
















Note: See the source for details of the assumptions and calculations.

Source: Lescure, Pinton and Emperaire, 1994.

Women have a major role in many of the income-generating activities as well as performing the bulk of agricultural labour. In general, the contribution of women ranges from 40 percent in Latin America to between 60 and 70 percent in Africa and Asia. Women produce on average 70 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uttar Pradesh, India, 33 percent of women's income is derived from forest and common land, and these areas provide up to 45 percent of the income of poor women. In contrast, only 13 percent of men's income is derived from forest and common land (CGIAR, 1996).

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