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Vol. 9(6), pp. 8-12The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalJune 2008

Peer-Reviewed Article
Effective Publication Date : 1-Jun-2008

Ecological Features of an Endangered Medicinal Orchid -- Malaxis muscifera (Lindley) Kuntze in the Western Himalaya

R. S. Chauhan, M. C. Nautiyal, P. Prasad, and H. Purohit

High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre, HNB Garhwal University, Srinagar (Garhwal) 246 174, Uttarakhand, India
E-mail: rchauhanua@gmail.com
(note: figures are credited to the first author)


The Family Orchidaceae is distributed from tropical to alpine areas of the world with over 35,000 species belonging to 800 genera. 166 genera with 1141 species are represented in India (Bhanwra et al., 2006), of which 240 species are distributed in Uttarakhand state (Jalal 2007). Most of the orchid species are facing different degrees of threats to their survival due to habitat loss, the fragmentation of populations, genetic drift, and anthropogenic pressures. To protect these species in their natural habitats, the government of India has imposed a ban on the commercial exploitation of orchids.

Malaxis muscifera (Lindley) Kuntze, is a rare, terrestrial perennial, endangered medicinal orchid of Himalayan region. It is distributed in temperate to sub alpine areas between 2500-3700 m in the Himalayan region. The plant forms pseudobulbous stems as storage organs that fetch Rs. 100-120 per kg. The pseudobulbs of this plant are well known for its medicinal value in Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and traded with name Jeevak since time immemorial. The swollen stem is sweet, refrigerant, aphrodisiac, styptic, antidysenteric, febrifuge and tonic. It is used in conditions of sterility, vitiated conditions of pitta and vata, seminal weakness, internal and external hemorrhages, dysentery, fever, emaciation, burning sensation and general debility. Paste of pseudobulb is useful for as external application in insect bites, and when mixed with other plants is used in the treatment of rheumatism.

The regular harvesting of this species for medicinal purposes along with habitat degradation and other biotic interferences in its distribution ranges has decreased natural populations. This species has now been assessed as endangered based on perceptions of changes of species parameters, although quantitative data are lacking, and surveying is recommended to collect such information (Ved et al., 2003). The actual conservation of these magnificent plants in situ is essential before they vanish (Jalal 2007). Being an endangered and medicinally important species, basic information needed to initiate conservation strategy. Unfortunately such information is completely lacking for M. muscifera. This paper presents general information on phytosociology, the distribution pattern, and other characteristics of the species among different natural populations in the western Himalayan region.

Material and methods

Present investigations were undertaken in ten different natural populations of the western Himalaya (Uttarakhand), India (Latitudes 29°26'-31°28'N and longitude 77°49'-80°6'E). Frequent visits of selected areas were carried out during the active growth seasons of 2004-2006. A general survey was carried out to get a picture of entire study area and occurrence of species. For phytosociological analysis, areas of 100 m2 in the area of occurrence of species were identified and marked on each site. Vegetation sampling was conducted through vertical belt transacts method (Michel 1990). Ten quadrats of 1m2 were laid randomly in sampling area. Individuals of all species associated with M. muscifera were counted. Analytical features for population study such as percentage frequency (%F), density (D, plant m2) and total basal cover (TBC, cm2m2) was calculated (Mishra, 1968). Distribution pattern was analyzed on the basis of abundance (Kershaw 1973).

Results and discussion

Fig. 1. Plants of Malaxis mucifera in situ. Uttarakhand area, northern India.

During the present study, M. muscifera was found distributed in Dayara in Utterkashi, Panwali Kantha and Maggu in Tehri, Baniyakund, Chopta, Tungnath and Madhyamaheshwer in Rudrapryag, Rudranath, Kunwari Pass and Dronagiri in Chamoli district of Garhwal Himalaya. Phytosociological analysis revealed that moss-laden moist slopes are the preferred microhabitat for this species (Fig. 1). The determination of plant species niche is considered fundamental for their conservation (Spyros et al., 2008).

Fig. 2. Growth initiation through pseudobulbs in Malaxis muscifera.

Fig. 3. A mature plant of Malaxis muscifera.

The species start emerging after few days of snowmelt, when temperature increases slightly and complete one phenophase of lifecycle in a short period of six months (mid April to October) of the year. Plants start growth via seed germination or from dormant apical bud from underground parts (pseudobulb) (Fig. 2) just after snowmelt in the month of April when sufficient moisture of snowmelt becomes available. The species is perennial and remains in the vegetative phase during first two or more years of growth. The plant bears two sessile, orbicular-ovate to ovate-lanceolate leaves of unequal size. During the third or a later year of growth the plant produces its reproductive flower bearing axis. Inflorescences attain lengths to 10-15 cm (Fig. 3). Flowers are 3 mm in diameter and yellowish-green in colour. Bracts are lanceolate, shorter than the ovary, sepals sub-equal, oblong-lanceolate, sub-acute. Petals are linear and shorter than the sepals. With the end of flowering and fruiting, the white powdery seed mass develops within the capsule. With the onset of winter in September, senescence of aerial parts takes place and they turn yellowish. Seeds developed within the capsules are dispersed as a white powdery mass. The aerial parts dry up, are buried under the snow, and the underground parts enter into dormancy until the onset of favourable conditions in the next growing season. The underground buds produce shoots in next growing season and plants complete the next phenophase.

One to two pockets of plants were generally found in most sites whereas a maximum of four pockets were found in Baniyakund. The frequency of M. muscifera was lowest (20%) in Tungnath and highest (80%) in Dayara and Madhyamaheshwer region. Density of the species was minimum (0.6 plant m2) in Tungnath and chopta and maximum (10.0 plants m2) in Baniyakund. Low percentage frequency and plant density show that species is both rare in distribution and adapted for specific microhabitats. Low density among studied populations may be due to exploitation for medicinal purpose, poor regeneration, low seed germination and seedling establishment, habitat loss, grazing, forest fire, competition with other dominant species of community, or other factors. Orchids are subject to a high level of threat, through both natural and anthropogenic causes (Kull et al., 2006). Abundance of many orchid species is believed to have fallen to critical levels in recent years (Kull et al. 2006). Due to man-induced changes in the form of over- and illegal exploitation of plants in the area of high conservation value, centre of endemism and species diversity, the original habitat became fragmented into isolated patches leading to the fragmentation of populations as in case of the Himalayas (Tandon 1998). Relative dominance of the species was minimum (0.49) in Madhyamaheshwer and maximum (65.66) in Chopta. IVI of the species was minimum (7.78) in Tungnath and maximum (106.6) in Baniyakund. Demographic studies are essential for better understanding of the relationship between natural dependent plants and the community in which they are found (Zotz and Schmidt 2006). Distribution pattern of the species was contagious in all the studied populations. Details of phytosociological attributes are presented (Table 1).

Table 1. Phytosociological attributes of M. muscifera among studied populations.

PopulationPockets IdentifiedFrequency (%)A/FDensity (plant/m2)Relative DominanceIVITBC cm2/m2

Abbreviations: BK-Baniyakund; CH-Chopta; DR-Dayara; DRO-Dronagiri; KP-Kunwari Pass; MD-Madhyamaheshwer; MG-Maggu; PK-Panwali Kantha; RN-Rudranath; TN-Tungnath.

Although the species is listed as endangered but there is no management plan for conservation due to the lack of related information, and collection of this species continues from the wild through illegal means. The germplasm collected from all studied populations is currently under observation for phenotypic and genotypic variation in similar environmental regimes in Tungnath nurseries (3600 m). Domestication and cultivation of such medicinal orchids may be encouraged to fulfill market demand, which will increase the income of local people on one hand and reduce pressure on the natural habitat on the other. Such economically important orchids should be conserved with both in situ and ex situ methods of conservation. Further studies may be initiated to increase seed germination, seedling establishment and detail ecological adaptation of species to strengthen conservation program.


Authors are grateful to Prof. A. R. Nautiyal, Director, HAPPRC for providing facilities and encouragement. Authors are also thankful to Dr. B. P. Nautiyal, R. Bashistha and field staff for their help during this work. Financial support from Dept. of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, New Delhi is gratefully acknowledged.


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Copyright © 2008 R. S. Chauhan, M. C. Nautiyal, P. Prasad, and H. Purohit