Wild Plant Food Resources In Agricultural Systems Of Uttarakhand Hills In India And Its Potential Role In Combating Malnutrition And Enhancing Human Health

IS Bisht1*, PS Mehta1, KS Negi1, Rajni Rawat1, Ranjana Singh1and SC Garkoti2

1ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Regional Station, Bhowali (Nainital)-263132, Uttarakhand, India

2School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Mehrauli Road, New Delhi-110067, India

*Corresponding Author:
IS Bisht
ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources
Regional Station, Bhowali (Nainital)-263132
Uttarakhand, India.
Tel: +91-9873425491
[email protected]

Received date: October 27, 2017; Accepted date: January 31, 2018; Published date: February 07, 2018

Citation: Bisht IS, Mehta PS, Negi KS, Rawat R, Singh R, et al. (2017) Wild Plant Food Resources in Agricultural Systems of Uttarakhand Hills in India and Its Potential Role in Combating Malnutrition and Enhancing Human Health. J Food Sci Toxicol Vol.2 No.1:3

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Food security today depends on a handful of widely cultivated species. On the other hand, wild food resources, world over, provide a greater dietary diversity to many native communities who depend on them. In Uttarakhand hills of India, the rural communities under different farming agro-ecologies still gather and consume many edible wild harvested plant resources. Consumption of these plants is often essential when there is food shortage during lean period. The wild plant resources are helpful in enhancing livelihoods and supporting household economies of rural farming communities. The wild plant resources are considered especially rich source of vitamins and minerals. The present case study documents a total of about 335 plant species, wild harvested as leaves, fruits, flowers, tubers, seeds, twigs, etc. under different farming agro-ecologies that form minor but important food components of the rural communities. The access to and availability of these food resources are now declining due to degradation of their natural habitats from various developmental activities, poor management of CPRs, the changing climate and recurrent droughts, nutrition transition and inflow of purchased foods, forces of globalization, loss of LEK, etc. The present case study revealed that the contribution of wild harvested foods to total food and nutritional security of native communities has been undervalued. It has now been well recognized that wild food resources are vital for nutrition and health of hill communities beside just source of food and income. The sustainable harvesting of wild economic species therefore requires a strong policy support by ensuring its continued availability to local communities. As substantial nutrition transition has been observed in traditional hill communities during recent years, traditional food revitalization projects including enhanced consumption of wild foods is considered a necessity for better health and cultural benefits. The study clearly demonstrated that we need to combine and enhance the efforts to conserving biodiversity and preserving traditional food systems and farming practices


Wild plant resources in agricultural systems; Native food culture; Community nutrition and health; Traditional farming practices; Local ecological knowledge


Global food security now depends on a few widely cultivated species, the three crops, wheat, maize and rice providing over 50 percent of the world's daily requirement of proteins and calories [1] and 12 species contributing about 80 percent of total dietary intake. By contrast, wild foods provide a greater dietary diversity to those who rely on them. More than 7000 species have been reported to be used at some stage in human history, in past, based on ethnobotanical surveys of wild plants [2]. In India, 600 plant species are known to have food value [3]. Many agricultural communities have been reported to rely on wild plants and animals even today.

It has been reported that the agricultural and forager communities at 36 locations in 22 countries of Asia and Africa use an average of 90-100 wild species [4]. The access and availability of wild food resources is now declining due to habitat degradation, developmental activities, agricultural expansion, and other social and ecological drivers reducing wild food use. However, with increasing pressure on enhanced agricultural productivity, the importance of wild food use has been reported to be set to grow [4].

Wild plants in particular are reported to have diverse uses [5-7]. Wild plant foods have been an integral part of human diet since ancient times and nearly 75,000 species of plants believed to be edible [8-11]. About 200 plant species have been domesticated as food crops of which only about 30% are reported to contribute 95% of the world’s plant food intake [12,13]. However, despite the reliance of agricultural communities on conventional crop plants, the rural communities world over still consume wild plant foods [13-17], in its state of food insecurity in the world report, estimated that around one billion people use wild plants in their diet.

Wild vegetables play an important role in the diet of inhabitants of different parts of the world. Afolayan and Jimoh [18] reported that the nutrients available in wild vegetables of South Africa, Chenopodium album, Sonchus asper, Solanum nigrum and Urtica urens are comparable with or higher than those of commonly used vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and cabbage. In terms of antinutritional principles, all the vegetables had comparatively lower concentrations of phytate, alkaloids and saponins. Misra et al. [19] documented 21 wild harvested leafy vegetables from six villages of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve buffer zone in Uttarakhand state, India. Irrespective of social or economic status in the study villages, the farmer households had enough knowledge about availability and use of these wild leafy vegetables. The traditional knowledge, however, is eroding fast due to changing social values and non-participation of younger generation in collection and processing of such wild food resources. In an ethnobotanical investigation carried out in Kendrapara district, Odisha, India, Panda [20] reported that within the edible plant parts, leaves and fruits contributed maximum (about 75%), the remainders being edible tubers, flowers and seeds. The utilization of wild vegetables in the dietary intake of the households was emphasized.

In Uttarakhand hills, rural farming communities still gather and consume many edible wild plant resources [21]. Rural communities use these food plants to supplement their diets. Consumption of these plants is particularly vital when there is food shortage besides contributing to livelihood security and household economies of native communities. Their importance is exemplified by free and easy accessibility and nutritional richness especially vitamins and micronutrients. Therefore, they play a significant role in the livelihoods of rural communities in Uttarakhand hills.

Research on wild harvested foods in traditional agro-ecologies from forestry/agroforestry systems has so far received limited attention but it is a matter of great concern from various researchers now. Inventorying, in situ conservation and their promotion and commercialization are some important actions required for conservation and sustainable utilization of wild and neglected food plants. As most of the wild plant resources are used locally, their many values remain undocumented without being reflected in local, national or international markets. Systematic documentation of indigenous knowledge regarding the identity and use of wild harvested foods by rural communities is therefore a necessity as a growing disinterest among the younger generation in the community is often observed.

The proposed study titled “Indigenous land and food systems in Uttarakhand: A case study on traditional knowledge and use of wild foods in agricultural systems” therefore sought to:

Inventorying wild edible food plants from traditional farming areas of Uttarakhand hills with particular emphasis on indigenous community knowledge regarding their identity and use, an integral component of subsistence hill farming.

Determining the food preparations, marketability and conservation of wild harvested foods.

Determining impact of the loss of traditional knowledge and lack of use of wild food resources on community health and nutrition.

Prioritizing wild food plants for research and marketing interventions in specific agro-ecologies of Uttarakhand hills.

Farmers’ work in the food system is based on their knowledge and skills. Documenting complex farmers’ knowledge for food; documenting experiential knowledge based on community culture; bio-diversity knowledge based on nature; gender division of labour, etc. with major emphasis on wild harvested food resources will also be addressed in the present case study using participatory approaches.

Description about the Study Area

Of the total geographical area of Uttarakhand state about 13.5% (766730 ha) is the net sown cropped area. About 86% geographical area of Uttarakhand is hills but the crop lands are mainly in plains, popularly known as the Terai and Bhabar region, where modern farming is practiced under assured irrigation. On the other hand, in hills, traditional mix cropping practices are normally practiced, and farming is mainly rainfed. In Uttarakhand more than 75 percent of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The three important representative agroecologies/ farming situations in Uttarakhand hills: i) small-scale crop-livestock mixed-farming systems representing about 70% of the net sown rainfed farming area; ii) high elevation mountainous valleys adjoining Tibet mainly inhabited by nomadic pastoralists, the Bhotia or Shoka tribes and comprising about 10% of the net sown area, and iii) a few interspersed river valleys with improved agriculture under assured irrigation, comprising about 10% of the cropped area of the Uttarakhand hills.

In an exploratory survey more, household production and dietary diversity was revealed for traditional rainfed small-scale crop-livestock mixed-farming systems followed by mountainous valleys with nomadic pastoralists, and least in river valleys with improved agriculture. In hill agriculture, only farmer-led traditional innovations are predominantly practiced except in river valleys where use of improved varieties, inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, is now commonly seen. However, in the mixed croplivestock farming system of the hills, a dynamic relationship among CPRs, native crops and livestock, still exist to a greater extent. The livestock predominantly contributes to the household cash income whereas the surplus crop produce, if any, is sold locally and contributes very little to the household agriculture economy. The nomadic pastoralists of high mountainous valleys all have some arable land beside foraging and trading of medicinal herbs. Sheep and goat are the herded livestock. Tending of livestock and foraging of medicinal herb for export purposes is common. Livestock grazing is practiced throughout the mountain valleys, although at rates significantly lower since the Indo-China conflict of 1962. Largely because the loss of trade with Tibet, the demand for livestock and agriculture products has dropped considerably.

A nutrition transition is clearly evident in farming situations particularly of river valleys with the emergence of cash crop economies and impact of globalization in recent years. Even in traditional farming areas nutrition transition in evident in a limited way. With the nutrition transition resulting from increasing socio-economic change, the problems of underweight and overweight is frequently co-existing. Besides, undernutrition, the socio-economic disparities and increased access to energydense foods are also creating an "obesogenic" environment in some sections, more particularly in river valley areas.

The niche target sites (20 nos.) for documenting information on wild harvested plant resources in different agroecologies are presented in

Research Methodology

Data on wild harvested plant food resources were documented from all 20 representative niche sites (Figure 1 and Table 1) of three main farming agro-ecologies of Uttarakhand hills during January to May 2017. Data were mainly documented for local ecological knowledge/indigenous knowledge (LEK/IK) on identity and use of wild plant food resources using semi-structured questionnaires. For interviewing the farmer households, a checklist of open ended questions was used. Free listing technique was used for gathering data on indigenous knowledge pertaining to wild edible plants. Each respondent was asked to mention any plant that comes to their mind until they could not mention any more species. It was presumed that people in any community do remember plants which are important to them. Respondents were also requested for field guided walks to all nearby areas in the community including nearby forestry areas to identify/ collect the plants listed during the interview. One Focus Group Discussion (FGD) meeting each was held in all agrobiodiversity rich niche target sites to authenticate the data in questionnaires and capture additional responses on value of wild plant foods for household food and nutrition, contribution to household economy, drivers of change in availability and use of wild plant food resources, unsustainable harvesting and changing dynamics, loss of LEK, socio-economic change, etc. Potential of a few prioritized wild plant food resources for marketing interventions was also explored.

Figure 1: Map of the study area.

Representative agro-ecology/farming situations No. of sites Niche locations (districts in parenthesis)
Traditional rain-fed farming areas (crop-livestock mix-farming) 10 Berinag (Pithoragarh), Lohaghat (Champawat), Devidhura (Champawat), Tarikhet (Almora), Sama (Bageshwar), Ramgarh (Nainital), Okhalkanda (Nainital), Ranichauri (Tehri), Gwaldam (Chamoli), Bharsar (Pauri)
Mountainous regions-alpine meadows/bugyals (nomadic pastoralists) 5 Johar (Pithoragarh) and Darma (Pithoragarh) valley in Kumaon region; Niti and Mana (Chamoli district) and Har-ki-doon (Uttarkashi), in Garhwal region
River valleys (improved farming) 5 Bhilangana (Tehri), Someshwar (Almora), Garur (Bageshwar), Ramganga (Almora) and Saryu (Pithoragarh)

Table 1 Niche sites in different agro-ecologies of Uttarakhand hills for documenting wild harvested food resources.

The participatory interviews were done separately for men and women farmers of different age groups for LEK on wild harvested foods. Children (<15 years) were also interviewed for LEK. Average 10-15 farmer households were interviewed per niche site.

The nutritional value of a few wild plant food resources was also compiled from secondary sources.


Documenting wild plant food resources of Uttarakhand hills

A complete list of wild plant food resources from different representative niche sites of three distinct agro-ecologies was documented. A total of 335 plant species was recorded in different plant families of Angiosperms, Gymnosperms and Pteridophytes. A total of 97 families of dicotyledons and 12 families of monocotyledons, in Angiosperms; three families of Gymnosperms and one family of Pteridophytes (Ferns) were represented (Table 2). Rosaceae (25), Polygonaceae (15), Fabaceae (12), Asteraceae (11), Lamiaceae (10), Liliaceae (10), Urticaceae (10), Amaryllidaceae (Alliaceae 8), Amaranthaceae (8), Caesalpinaceae (7), Rutaceae (7), etc. were the plant families with greater species representation among angiosperms. Important plant species in different agroecologies and farming situations are listed in Table 3.

Plant taxa groups No. of species Plant families with major species representations
Dicotyledons 286 Rosaceae (25), Polygonaceae (15), Fabaceae (12), Asteraceae (11), Lamiaceae (10), Urticaceae (10), Amaramthaceae (8)
Monocotyledons 44 Liliaceae (10), Amaryllidaceae (8), Araceae (5), Dioscoreaceae (5)
Gymnosperms 4 Pinaceae (2), Ephedraceae (1), Taxaceae (1)
Pteridophytes 1 Dryopteridaceae (1)

Table 2 Plant species used as wild harvested foods in Uttarakhand hills.

 S. No. Plant species Frequency
of occurrence
Food and medicinal uses
Plant species used in communities of lower and mid hills
1 Aegel marmelos
(Bael, Bengal quince, golden apple)
Rare (wild populations) Bael fruits are used in traditional medicine and as a food throughout its range. The fruit pulp is used to prepare delicacies and is also used in the treatment of chronic diarrhoea, dysentery, and peptic ulcers, as a laxative and to recuperate from respiratory infections in various folk medicines.
2 Asparagus adscendens
(Satavar, shatavari, or safed musli)
Common A. adscendens is used as a rejuvenative herb and is also very powerful aphrodisiac. Safed musli is also used as effective anti-diabetic agent, besides several other medicinal uses.
3 Bauhinia variegata
(Mountain Ebony; Kuiral)
Common The buds and flowers are cooked as a delicious vegetable or made into pickles. Leaves provide good quality fodder. Ash of dried leaves taken in cough.
4 Cleome viscosa
(Jakhia; Asian spiderflower, Tickweed)
Common Leaves and young shoots - cooked as a vegetable. The pungent seed can be pickled or used as a mustard or cumin substitute in curries, pickling spices, vegetables and pulses. The leaves are diaphoretic, rubefacient and vesicant. The seeds are anthelmintic, carminative, rubefacient, stimulant and vesicant. A decoction is used to treat rheumatism, gonorrhoea, diarrhoea and dysentery.
5 Dioscorea bulbifera
(air yam, potato yam)
Common Used as vegetable. Air potato has been used as a folk remedy to treat conjunctivitis, diarrhoea, and dysentery, among other ailments.
6 D. deltoidea
Common Tubers cooked and eaten. The roots widely used in modern medicine in order to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. These are used as contraceptives and in the treatment of various disorders of the genitory organs as well as other diseases such as asthma and arthritis.
7 Diplazium esculentum
(a vegetable fern, Lingura or Lungru)
Common The young fronds are the stars on this plant, as the tender young growth is a delicious addition to stir fries and other veggie rich dishes. It is familiar food available in local markets of Uttarakhand hills. The fern is high in beta carotene and contains a percentage of Vitamin E and riboflavin.
8 Ficus palmata
(Bedu, Punjab fig)
Common F. palmata is one of the tastiest fruits found growing wild in the mid-Himalayan region. The raw fruits are used as a vegetable. They are principally used as an item of diet in cases of constipation and in the diseases of the lungs and the bladder. They are also used as a poultice.
9 Ficus racemosa (Syn. F. glomerata; Indian fig tree or gular fig, Timil) Common The fruits are a favourite staple of the common Indian macaque. In ancient times both Hindu and Buddhist ascetics on their way to Taxila (Taxsila), travelling through vast areas of Indian forests used to consume the fruit during their travels.
10 Myrica esculenta
Common M. esculenta commonly is amongst highly valued wild edible fruits of Uttarakhand hills. The fruits are an important source of natural antioxidants which can play vital role in reducing the oxidative stress and preventing from certain degenerative diseases.
11 Perilla frutescens
Common Perilla is a minor oilseed crop, also widely used in Uttarakhand cuisines as flavouring substance. It is indicated to ease the symptoms of the common cold, also shown to stimulate interferon activity and thus, the body's immune system.
12 Rubus ellipticus
(Golden Himalayan raspberry, Hisalu)
Common R. ellipticus fruits are sweet in taste. The bark is used for medicinal purposes, mainly as a renal tonic and an antidiuretic. Its juice can also be used to treat cough, fever, colic and sore throat.
13 Syzizium cumini
(Black plum, Jamun)
Common The seed of the fruit is used in various alternative healing systems like Ayurveda, Unani and Chinese medicine for digestive ailments. Wine and vinegar are also made from the fruit. It is a high source of vitamin A and vitamin C.
14 Ziziphus mauritiana
(Chinese date, ber, jujube, Indian plum)
Common The fruit is eaten raw, pickled or used in beverages. It is quite nutritious and rich in vitamin C. The flowers are rated as a minor source of nectar for honeybees. The honey is light and of fair flavour. Fruits, leaves and bark have several medicinal uses.

Plant species used by nomadic pastoralists during March to November (for 6-8 months) from alpine meadows/bugyals
15 Allium humile
(High altitude alpine onion)
Common Dried leaves of A. humile are used as Jambu or Faran for flavouring. It is also used for Asthma, stomach diseases, jaundice, cold and cough.
16 A. stracheyi
(Jambu or Faran)
Common Flowers are picked and dried to be used as a spice known as Jambu or Faran. Leaves contain sulphur compounds and when added to the diet on a regular basis they help reduce blood cholesterol levels, act as a tonic to the digestive system and also tonify the circulatory system.
17 A. tuberosum
(Garlic chives, Chinese chives)
Rare Uses have included it as ornamental plants, including cut and dried flowers, culinary herb and traditional medicine.
18 A. victorialis
(Alpine Leek)
Rare Flowers are eaten raw or cooked. The juice of the plant is used as a moth repellent. The whole plant is said to repel insects and moles. The root is antiscorbutic, carminative, diuretic and vermifuge. Used in the treatment of profuse menstruation.
19 A. wallichii
(Himalayan onion, Jambu)
Common Young leaves - cooked as a vegetable. The dried leaves are used as a condiment in curries and pickles. The bulbs are eaten in the treatment of cholera and dysentery. The raw bulb is chewed to treat coughs and colds, eating the bulbs can ease the symptoms of altitude sickness.
20 Carun carvi
(Kala jeera or Bhotia jeera)
Common Fruits used as flavouring or aromatic agent; fruit powder given in dysuria and hematuria; young plants cooked as vegetables. Seeds are rich sources of diverse group of phytochemicals. It has a broad spectrum pharmacological effect in treatment of traditional healing systems in different parts of the world.
21 Hippophae rhamnoides ssp. salicifolia
(Sea-buck-thorn, Chuk)
Common Fruits eaten raw or made into several preparations, also used in local beverages; syrup of immature fruits used to remove dandruff; flowers useful source of bee-forage.

Table 3: A few important wild plant species commonly used by farming communities of Uttarakhand hills.

Domestication programmes are also being initiated by Uttarakhand state to bring many wild species, mainly the local herbs in farming systems. Examples of important plant species for domestication interventions include, Allium stracheyi, A. humile, A. wallichi, Asendra butyracea, Malus baccata var. himalaica, Sorbus lanata, S. cuspidata, Fragaria nubicola, Rubus macilentus, R. ellipticus/R. biflorus, R. nutans, Hippophae rhamnoides spp. salicifolia, Rosa sericea/R. macrophylla, Cleome viscosa and a few others (Table 4). These species can help provide livelihood support, health and nutritional benefits to local communities.

Farm household respondents from niche sites of different farming situations Decline in dietary diversity of cultivated plant species during past 2-3 decades (%) Average wild plant species contributing to household dietary diversity Contribution of wild harvested food resources to household cash income (%)* A few important wild plant resources for household cash income from their market sale
Crop-livestock small scale mix-farming systems (10 niche sites; 150 households) 40 78 14 Myrica esculenta (Kaphal), Diplazium esculentum (Lingura, a vegetable fern), Bauhinia variegata (Kuiral, Mountain Ebony), Dioscorea spp. (Yams)
Mountain valleys, alpine meadows/bugyals (5 niche sites; 70 households) 35 35 34** Allium spp. (Jambu or Faran), Angelica glauca (Gandhrain), Carum carvi (Kala Jeera)
River valleys (5 niche sites; 50 households) 70 14 2 Diplazium esculentum (Lingura, a vegetable fern)

Table 5 Direct use values of wild plant foods for household consumption or income from sale in niche target areas of three representative farming situations.

The economic and nutritional value of wild foods

Table 5 summarizes the findings from economic valuations of direct use values for wild foods in selected farming agro-ecologies of Uttarakhand hills. The exploratory surveys for some important species reveal that wild plants can provide INR 5000-500000 per households in specific agro-ecologies/niche areas of Uttarakhand hills.

It was found that poorer households are normally involved in wild harvesting and marketing of wild plant food resources. Table 6 presents information on trends in market sale of some wild harvested foods, mainly as vegetables and fruits in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. A substantial income has been reported by farmer households, those engaged in wild harvesting and their trade in local markets.

S. No. Plant species and market availability Local Market (s) Increase in market sale during past one decade Average cash income per household per annum for those involved in market sale (in INR)
1. Asparagus adscendens (July-August) Garampani, Nainital, 266.7 1950

Bauhinia variegata (April-May) Bhimtal, Bhowali, Garampani, Nainital 200.0 3500
3. Berbaris asiatica (April-June) Nainital 300.0 600
4. Chenopodium album (March-November) Bhowali, Garampani 471.4 1750
5. Cleome viscosa (October) Garampani 133.3 500
6. Dioscorea glabra (February-March) Bhimtal, Garampani, Nainital 222.2 260
7. Diplazium esculentum (March-October) Bhimtal, Bhowali, Garampani, Nainital 560.0 9000

Ficus glomerata (May-June) Nainital 200.0 750
9. Ficus palmata (April-June) Nainital 250.0 400

Girardinia diversifolia (September-January) Bhimtal 171.4 1500
11. Indigofera heterantha (March-April) Nainital 300.0 600
12. Myrica esculenta (April-June) Bhimtal, Bhowali, Garampani, Nainital 371.1 2725
13. Phyllanthus emblica (September-November) Bhimtal, Garampani, Nainital 185.7 650
14. Punica granatum (September-October) Nainital 150.0 300
15. Rubus ellipticus (April-June) Bhimtal, Nainital 250.0 1300

Table 6 Sale of a few important wild harvested plant food resources in local markets of district Nainital.

Nutritional profile of some wild food plant resources compiled from secondary sources is presented in Table 7 [22]. It is clear from Table 7 that many of the wild harvested food resources are often considered superior in energy and micronutrient content compared with those from many cultivated species.

Name of the plant Nutritional constituents
g/100 g g/100 g
Moisture in fresh parts Moisture Ash Crude protein Crude fat Crude fibre Water soluble carbohy-drates Starch Na K Ca P Fe
Nutritive composition of some wild edible leaves    
Allium spp. 86.4 7.8 11.4 15.8 4.8 17.8 - 14.9 100 - 800 184 272
A. victorialis - 9.3 13.8 10.1 5.3 18.3 18.1 10.9 120 4700 800 116 -
Chenopodium album 77.2 7.8 16 25.4 4.1 6.8 - 10.6 219   1800 377 94
Cleome viscosa 80.4 - 37.5 5.6 1.9 4.1 - - - - 0.88 0.07 24.4
Epilobium roylianum - 9.8 9.3 13.1 2.7 10.9 12.5 - 65 1250 800 100 97
Impatiens glandulifera (stem) - 7.6 14 10.9 2.3 12.8 5.6 - 85 4200 950 366 116
Origanum vulgare 71.4 7.4 13.7 22.8 4.5 11 - 15.1 40   650 531 77
Phytolacca acinosa - 7 16.1 22.4 3.6 11.3 15.2 8.2 130 6100 850 250 8
Rumex acetosa - 6.2 17.7 23.9 2.2 10.2 2.1 10.5 155 4500 700 233 250
Stellaria media - 4.8 20.8 18.4 2.5 14.6 - 11.09 58 2250 1780 271 10
Bauhinia variegata - 6.4 7.3 20.4 2.8 13.9 7.9 - 73 1280 376 284 22
Bombax ceiba - 7 8.4 7.6 2.3 25.9 - - 1330 1610 2520 271 12
Rosa brunonii - 8 8.7 10.6 7.3 15.7 14 - 65 1500 400 183 16
Berberis chitria - 5.1 5 7.7 6.1 10.9 17.3 - 40 800 200 83 66
Ephedera gerardiana - - - 8.3 3 17.5 40.4 - 219 - 1800 377 94
Hipophae rhamnoides ssp. salicifolia - 5 4.2 12.1 12.3 5.5 9.4 - 45 500 150 50 116
Rosa brunonii - 8.1 2.7 4.4 5.3 38.1 15.9 - 25 600 600 82 80
Allium rubellum - 6.2 5.2 7.18 1.96 35.91 12.6 - 105 1350 600 133 383
Codonopsis ovata - 7.7 9.6 7.43 4.18 18.6 9.5 17.29 165 900 542 16 30
Dioscorea bellophylla - 5.4 2.55 7.85 0.84 4.02 3.52 61.74 31 - 63 165 565
D. bulbifera - 5.6 3.05 3.75 0.54 2.52 7.93 61.47 25 - 187 17 31
Polygonatum verticillatum - 8.9 2.3 4.75 0.56 10 57.6 8.13 30 440 150 130 38

Table 7 Nutritive composition of some wild edible plant resources.

Leading factors for change in wild food availability and use

The leading factors affecting wild food availability and use are listed in Table 8. Table 8 reveals that resilience to climate change is more by wild species compared to crop species under cultivation and cultivated species of exotic origin that have been naturalized in local farming situations. Land use change and degradation including poor management of CPRs; unsustainable harvesting and changing dynamics; loss of LEK; socio-economic change and the market expansion due to globalization, etc., have been other drivers impacting availability and use of wild plant food resources.

  Drivers of change Impact on wild food availability and use
A Climate change Wild food species offer a potentially critical role for buffering against food stress caused by a changing climate. The innate resilience of wild species to rapid climate change could, however, play an increasingly important role during periods of low agricultural productivity associated with climate events which often is lacking in exotic species. 
B Land use change and degradation including poor management of CPRs Changes in land use and agriculture expansion/urbanization have significant implications for the availability of wild foods. Poor management of CPRs and deforestation has led to a decline in wild food species. Efforts by the local communities to stem this loss by domesticating important species were often unsuccessful, as many species do not survive outside their natural forested habitat.
C Unsustainable harvesting and changing dynamics/priorities  In certain niche habitats of Uttarakhand hills, unsustainable harvests have led to declines in wild food species. Unsustainable harvesting is a concern in the case of wild food resources of high elevation areas in Uttarakhand hills, more particularly “Jambu or Faran” (Allium spp.) and “Gandhrain” (Angelica glauca), the two-important wild harvested commodities from alpine meadows/bugyals of Uttarakhand hills.
D Loss of indigenous or local ecological knowledge (LEK) A significant decline was recorded in LEK where communities rely increasingly on market-bought foods and move away from land-based livelihoods. In low income communities from all agro-ecologies of Uttarakhand hills, LEK was found to be higher, and rate of knowledge acquisition rapid from a young age. This suggests that as communities become wealthier, knowledge becomes concentrated in fewer people with a sustained personal interest.
E  Socio-economic change including the expansion of markets due to globalization The nutrition transition associated with modernization of diets poses challenges to public health in hill communities. The replacement of wild foods by market-bought products is linked to reduced dietary diversity, rising rates of chronic lifestyle-related conditions. Niche habitats where children use wild plant resources, level of malnutrition was low.

Table 8 Drivers of change in wild food availability and use.


Wild foods have long been used by farmers, as ‘hidden harvests’, and have supplemented their dietary diversity and household income [2,23,24]. In traditional farming systems of Uttarakhand hills, the agroforestry and forestry based wild plant resources supplement household food choices and ensures dietary diversity and better nutrition. Wild gathered tubers, fruits, seeds, twigs, leaves and flowers of several plants still form minor but important food components of the rural communities (Table 3). However, availability and access to these foods is declining as natural habitats are under constant pressure from developmental activities, poor management and conservation-exclusions. The climate change and recurrent droughts are adversely affecting availability of the wild food resources. Further, the ‘nutrition transition’ and inflow of purchased foods are also negatively impacting the value of wild harvested foods.

It has been observed that most wild harvested plant products are consumed directly within the farmer households, hence it is often difficult to capture the quantity and diversity of the harvest at local or national level [24]. Tables 5 and 6 confirms that some wild edible plant foods contribute substantially to the household dietary diversity and economy as well, whereas they have the potential to enhance household incomes once fully tapped (Table 6).

It may be emphasized that ‘malnutrition is a major health burden in developing countries and use of wild plant foods can be enlisted as policy support to secure wild food use and preserve habitats for wild edible species’ [4]. Comprehensive food composition is therefore critical especially for communities most vulnerable to malnutrition [18,19]. We, however, have limited understanding of micro- and macro-nutritional properties of wild foods as compared to cultivated species.

Several wild edible plants are sources of important micronutrients, Fe, Ca, P, Na, K, Zn, etc. Table 7 lists that many wild food resources of Uttarakhand hills are rich in micronutrients [22]. Many wild backyard plants and plants in agroforestry systems (CPRs) have edible parts that are commonly consumed and are critical suppliers of vitamins A, B2, C, antioxidants, especially during seasonal lean periods. Many are important as famine foods, ensuring year-round nutritional security in the face of possible food shortages.

The food and medicinal uses of wild plant food resources as fruits and vegetables is known to lower risk of several oxidative stresses, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer and stroke and such health benefits are mainly ascribed to phytochemicals such as polyphenols, carotenoids and vitamins. Of these phytochemicals, polyphenols are largely recognized as antiinflammatory, antiviral, antimicrobial and antioxidant agents.

The wild fruits are gaining increased attention now as potential food supplement or cheaper alternative of commercial fruits across the world. Evidences of the health benefits of wild edible fruits, in addition to established role in nutrition are available. In general, enough information is available on the antioxidant potential of fruits of different species. Some examples include: Actinidia eriantha, A. deliciosa, Ficus carica, F. microcarpa, F. racemosa, Juglans regia, Kadsura coccinea, Myrciaria dubia, Phyllanthus emblica, Punica granatum, Randia echinocarpa, Ziziphus mauritiana and so forth. Beside the fruits, antioxidant properties are also known for other plant parts.

There is no comprehensive estimate of the economic value of wild foods [4]. Quantitative analyses face methodological difficulties. Further, the trade of wild foods is often informal or occurs at local markets and is, therefore, missed by conventional accounting mechanisms [25].

A few prioritized species of potential importance in Uttarakhand hills contributing to livelihood and nutritional security of local communities require science and marketing related policy interventions. Myrica esculenta, Diplazium esculentum (a vegetable fern), Phyllanthus emblica, Oreganum vulgare, Cleome viscosa, etc. in mid-hill areas under rainfed farming landscapes and Allium spp., Carum carvi, Angelica glauca, etc. from mountainous meadows can be discussed here in greater details (Table 9).

  Wild plant species Discussions on marketing potential
1 Myrica esculenta (Kaphal) Myrica esculenta is amongst highly valued wild edible fruits of Uttarakhand hills. Wild populations of Myrica esculenta are fairly widespread in Uttarakhand hills particularly Kumaon region between 900 and 2100 masl and contributing substantially to livelihood and nutritional security of local communities.
2 Diplazium esculentum (Lingura) Diplazium esculentum, a vegetable fern, is pantropical in distribution and occurs widely and commonly throughout India, China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Malesia, with no threats and hence categorized as Least Concern. Globally, it is used as a leafy vegetable. It is familiar food available in local markets of Uttarakhand hills. D. esculentum can be used as a natural antioxidant, antimicrobial and cytotoxic agent [31].
3 Phyllanthus emblica (Aonla) Phyllanthus emblica, fruits eaten raw or pickled are rich source of Vitamin C; one of the ingredients of ‘Trifala’, most widely used for several disorders. There are many habitats in Uttarakhand hills, the warmer valleys, where aonla wild stands are contributing to livelihood security of local communities. The therapeutic potential of P. emblica has been described in greater details by Herring [32]. 
4 Bauhinia variegata (Kuiral) Bauhinia variegata is occurring throughout the Himalayas in low- to mid-elevation areas. The buds and flowers are cooked as a delicious vegetable or also made into pickles, but they must be boiled before preparing. Leaves provide good quality fodder; fibre from bark variously used; ash of dried leaves taken in cough, which make it an important tree of social forestry.
5 Oreganum vulgare (Bantulsi) Oreganum vulgare has been used as a culinary and medicinal herb for thousands of years. Phyto-chemical 'Quercetin' present in oregano restricts growth of malignant cells in the body and acts like a drug against cancer-centric diseases. O. vulgare extracts and essential oil are strong candidates to replace synthetic chemicals used by the industry [33].
6 Cleome viscosa (‘Jakhia’, Asian spiderflower, Tickweed) Cleome viscosa is gathered from the wild and is occasionally cultivated in Uttarakhand, where it is gaining in popularity as a low-cost substitute for cumin. Besides, there are several medicinal uses of C. viscosa. The seeds are anthelmintic, carminative, rubefacient, stimulant and vesicant. In excess the seeds can cause flatulence and distension of the stomach. A decoction of the seeds is used as a wash to treat piles. The seed contains 0.1% viscosic acid and 0.04% viscosin. A paste of the root is applied externally in the treatment of earaches [34]. The juice of the leaves has been used to relieve earache.
7 Allium spp. (‘Jambu’ or ‘Faran’) ‘Jambu’ or ‘Faran’ (Allium stracheyi, A. wallichii and A. humile) is a cultural and traditional seasoning commodity of the people of Uttarakhand hills. Almost all families in Tolma, a village in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, practise Faran farming. Likewise, many villages in Malari valley of Chamoli in Garhwal and Johar and Darma valley of Pithorgarh district in Kumaon region cultivate Jambu. Marketing of Jambu or Faran is not a problem; it is always in high demand.
8 Angelica glauca (Gandhrain) Angelica glauca is harvested for its roots. During collection, the whole plant is uprooted and individuals are disturbed by this unsustainable collection practice. This collection practice has resulted in decline of its area of occupancy, extent of occurrence and habitat quality based on observations, as well as circumstantial evidence. The wild population has declined by c. 70% over the last 10 years. The species is therefore assessed as Endangered (EN).
9 Carum carvi (Kala jeera or Bhotia jeera) Carum carvi seeds are used as flavouring or aromatic agent. Major phytochemicals reported in C. carvi seeds are limonene, carvacrol, carvone, carvenone, γ-terpinene, α-pinene, linalool and p-cymene. New researches on caraway proved it as a source of new entities to perform different pharmacodynamic properties, responsible for their pharmacological effects. It has also been recommended that aromatherapy could be applied as a complementary therapy for people with anxiety symptoms using essential oil of C. carvi.

Table 9 Discussions on prioritized plant food resources with proven marketing potential in Uttarakhand hills.

A number of important drivers of change for wild food a vailability and use have been reported [4]. Food insecurity, for instance, is a particular problem among local communities with croplivestock small-scale mix farming situations followed by nomadic pastoralists and least in households of river valleys in Uttarakhand hills. Cultural identity and agrobiodiversity are strongly associated, culture and ecosystems are known to co-evolve. Thus, a biophysical driver (e.g. climate change) could have knockon effects on a cultural parameter (e.g. local knowledge), and the effect of the two combined could lead to either an increase or decrease in wild food use [4].

A comparison of farming communities of three distinct agroecologies of Uttarakhand hills revealed insufficient evidence to predict the impacts that climate change on both human foraging and the interlinked processes of LEK transmission, cultural continuity and land-based subsistence livelihood. Forecasting the precise impacts of the changing climate on the availability of wild foods is difficult but the supposedly inherent resilience of wild species to rapid climate change as compared to cultivated or exotic species means that they could play an increasingly important role during periods of low agricultural productivity associated with climate events [4].

Decline in management of CPRs including expansion of intensive agriculture and urbanization have significant implications for the availability of wild foods, the commercialization of agriculture— an important driver of land use change-potentially implies decreased reliance on wild foods [26]. Agricultural and land use policy, infrastructure development and widened access to markets all drive land use change and are implicated in declines of wild species [27-29].

Most of the wild food species used by local communities come from well managed CPRs and agroforestry systems rather than mature forests. The 20 niche habitats surveyed in the present exploratory study, poor management of CPRs and deforestation had led to a decline in wild food species. Lack of sustainable intensification calls for a biodiversity-focused strategy in food, public health and poverty-alleviation policies [4].

The Indian Himalayas including the Uttarakhand hills is one of the global hot-spots of biodiversity with areas of greater malnutrition and hunger, also placing pressure on biodiversity for food provision. In certain niche habitats, unsustainable harvests have led to declines in wild food species. Unsustainable harvesting is a concern in the case of wild food resources of high elevation areas in Uttarakhand hills, more particularly “Jambu or Faran” (Allium stracheyi and A. wallichii) and “Gandhrain” (Angelica glauca), two important wild harvested commodities from alpine meadows/bugyals of Uttarakhand hills. The treasure nature has given us for medical purposes, but that does not justify the use of uneven means for any selfish motives.

Loss of LEK has been observed in Uttarakhand hills. A strong inverse correlation has been reported by Pilgrim et al. [30] between ecological knowledge and income levels. Understanding ecological knowledge loss is important to understanding the declining capacities of communities undergoing economic development to manage their natural resources and the future of ecosystem diversity in the light of current patterns of economic growth [30]. It was interesting to note that in low income communities of small-holder crop livestock farming systems and that of resource-dependent low-income communities of higher Himalayan mountainous regions, LEK was found to be higher and rate of knowledge acquisition rapid from a young age. This suggests that as communities become wealthier, knowledge becomes concentrated in fewer people with a sustained personal interest.

The distribution of LEK between individuals in a community has been reported to be differentiated by gender, age or social role [4]. Data from the 20 niche sites, women above 40 years of age were able to describe the uses of about 70 per cent of all edible species, while young men could only describe 15-20 per cent. Similar findings have been reported from a study from Nepal [5]. Men and women might also hold specialized LEK. LEK is also differentiated by age [5].

A significant decline was recorded in LEK where communities rely increasingly on market-bought foods and move away from land-based livelihoods [30]. In certain farming landscapes, it was observed that the grown-ups usually succumb to the culture of the society where consumption of wild fruits is regarded as an inferior act. Further, the LEK decline (in terms of species names and uses) is associated with increasing disconnection and livelihood independence from agricultural and wild systems as a consequence of modern economic growth.

LEK is likely to be substituted by modern environmental knowledge about global warming, energy saving techniques and organic foods for example. This global knowledge is, of course, essential but should not replace that of our local ecosystems [4].

The nutrition transition associated with modernization of diets poses challenges to public health in hill communities. The replacement of wild foods by market-bought products is linked to reduced dietary diversity, rising rates of chronic lifestyle-related conditions such as obesity and type II diabetes, poor intake of micronutrients and malnutrition. Traditional species become undervalued and underused as exotic ones become available. Yet, the importance of wild foods to nutritional security means that they are not necessarily replaced by market-bought foods providing the same amount of calories. When more people depend solely on market-bought (cultivated foods), consuming wild foods will be marginalized [4].

As Uttarakhand hills have a strong food culture, traditional food systems can persist, and wild foods are still prevalent enough to be considered an important part of local diets particularly in crop-livestock mix farming systems and pastoralist communities of higher Himalayan ranges.

The nutrition transition is driven by a changing climate as well as large-scale cultural changes and is expected to produce significant negative effects to physical and mental health at community level. Niche habitats where children use wild edible fruits and vegetables, level of malnutrition was low and the benefits of consuming traditional wild foods were clearly evident. Though wild foods have played a critical role several traditional farming area across the globe including circumpolar communities, public health policy generally operate within a model of food security that discounts the traditional food practices of native communities [4,31,32].


Wild plant food resources form a significant portion of the dietary diversity of the farmer households of Uttarakhand hills. However, the contribution of wild harvested foods to total food and nutritional security is under-researched. Constant efforts to increase agricultural production and enhance economic development have threatened the continued contribution of wild species to food and nutritional security. Further, the sustainable harvesting of wild economic species requires a strong policy support by ensuring its continued availability for livelihood and nutritional security of local communities.

Use of wild food resources is part of culture and traditions of hill communities of Uttarakhand and is part of their living link with the land. Decline in traditional ways of life is interlinked with decreased wild food use. Wild food species, therefore, provide more than just food and income to hill communities. Polices on conservation, food-security and agriculture, therefore, need to be integrated to recognize and preserve the importance of wild foods.

Traditional food revitalization projects aimed at increasing the consumption of wild foods, in order to provide health and cultural benefits to traditional communities otherwise subject to the nutrition transition is considered a necessity. It is a well-recognized fact now that wild species and intra-species biodiversity have key roles in global nutrition security. The wild foods still provide substantial health and economic benefits to those who depend on them globally. The efforts to conserve biodiversity and preserve traditional food systems and farming practices, therefore, need to be combined and enhanced.


The authors thank the Director, ICAR-NBPGR, New Delhi for providing facilities for the exploratory surveys in parts of Uttarakhand hills. The farmer households from different niche habitats of Uttarakhand state deserve our thanks for interacting with the research team and sharing the valuable information they possess on traditional agricultural innovations, native resources and food systems.


Financial support received from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for a case study titled “Indigenous land and food systems in Uttarakhand: A case study on traditional knowledge and use of wild foods in agricultural systems” under DST Network Programme on Traditional Knowledge Systems in the Indian Himalayan region is duly acknowledged.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


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