Tibetan Medicinal Plants

A Brief Description of the Klinge-I Expedition and Its Results

Michael K. Denk

 


The purpose of the webpage is to give a brief outline of the Himalaya Expedition Klinge-I. The expedition was initiated and sponsored by Senator Günther Klinge, whose company Klinge Pharma has been active in the medicinal exploration of natural products since 1940.

Currently marketed products include chestnut extracts and kavain, the active component of the Hawaiian drug kava (piper methysticum).

The expedition started from Dharamsala took place in Summer 1992 under the auspices of his holiness the Dalai Lama and under the linguistic guidance of Dr. Panglung Rimpoche who is lexicographer at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich.

The expedition was planned and conducted by Dr. Herbert Riepl (currently at Klinge Pharma) and Dr. Michael K. Denk (currently Professor at the University of Guelph, Department of Chemistry).


Ethnobotany - Ethnomedicine And The Search For New Cures

  • Basic research in biochemistry, genetics, molecular modeling etc. has been seen as the most "rational" approach for the development of new medical drugs.
  • The traditional approach to extract natural products and run extensive in vitro and in vivo test seemed to be dead.
  • The reality drug discovery has taught us otherwise. The majority of new drugs are still designed by the variation of structural motifs obtained from natural products.
  • As a consequence, the systematic exploration of natural products is undergoing renaissance and is increasingly supported by pharmaceutical companies.
  • The need to explore natural products has become a valuable economic argument against habitat destruction.


Approaches of Ethnomedicine

The exploration of medicinal plants used in traditional medicine is a task that requires expertise from a

number of different disciplines. The Terms "Ethnomedicine" or "Ethnobotany" are dangerous because they negate the equally important contributions of natural product analysis, total synthesis and linguistics.

For any given cultural context, research can be structured along ethnobotanical or medical guidelines:

 


The Special Role Of Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan Medicine profited from the age-old long distance trade with adjacent Persian, Indian, Chinese and Mongolian empires. Medical knowledge traveled along the yak caravan routes and was codified together with religious texts in the canon of Tibetan Holy Scriptures (Kanjur & Tanjur).

The Tibetan Medical Tantras contain information about surgery, urine diagnosis, treatment of mental disorders and medicinal plants.


Tibetan Medicine in The West

Tibetan medicine came to the west through Imperial Russian expeditions in the last century (Przewalski and others). This led to the establishment of a flourishing practice of Tibetan Medicine in St. Petersburg and in Warsaw.

Unfortunately, these promising and very professional early investigations were interrupted by the Russian Revolution and the turmoil following it.

In this century, the evaluation of Tibetan Medicinal Plants was often undertaken by specialist for traditional Indian Medicine (Ayurveda). An important highlight of these studies are the books about Tibetan Medicine by the Ayurvedic researcher Bhagwan Das.

An unsolved problem of all previous investigations is the largely unconfirmed identity of the medicinal plants.

The goal of our expedition was the collection and systematic identification of Tibetan medicinal plants that are currently in use.


Chinese and Tibetan Medicinal Plants

Exchange of medical knowledge is not a recent cultural development.
One of the goals of the expedition was to establish which medicinal plants have migrated from the Chinese tradition into Tibetan usage or vice versa.
All identified Tibetan medicinal plants were compared to those listed in the Ben Cao Gang Mu (left), the most comprehensive Chinese Herbal. Only ca. 10 % of the currently used Tibetan Plants are also used in traditional Chinese Medicine.
This refutes earlier (presumably politically motivated) claims that Tibetan Medicine is simply an extension of traditional Chinese Medicine.
Not surprising to tibetan scholars, Tibetan Medicine is much closer related to Ayurvedic teachings than to traditional Chinese Medicine.


The Tibetan Language

 

An investigation of Tibetan medicinal plants will inevitably face problems that are rooted in the nature of the Tibetan language. The Tibetan language is not the homogenesous "sino-tibetan language" of most western textbooks but contains Mon-Khmer substrates that can be linked to the old pre-buddhist chang shong culture.
The vocabulary is further diversified by the great geographical extension of Tibet. Four different geographical areas are identified by the dialects spoken in them: Tsang (the central province with the capital Lhasa), Amdo with the cultural center of Kum Bum, Khams with its wealth of burmese and tribes and western Tibet with the independent kingdoms of Ladakh and the now deserted kingdom of Guge.
The tibetan language poses great difficulties for scientific documentation. The transcriptions system is cumbersome and errors are common. The expedition results were therefore always documented in transliteration + Tibetan script.

 


Plant Names & Geography

A fundamental motivation for the expedition was to establish a reliable estimate how many plants are actually used in Tibetan Medicine. Published figures fluctuate wildly between ca. 100 and 2800, but the figures are usually guesses.

One source of confusion was readily identified. The vastness of the tibetan territory and the prevalence of different dialects and cultural traditions in the main provinces Amdo, Khams, Ü and Tsang has led to a bewildering number of synonymous names for the same plant. A fruitful subject for tibetan linguistics.

 


Transport

The collection of plants in the Himalayas requires the arrangement for local transport.


Plant Names & Medical Use

The day-to-day work of a medical Lama is to heal, not to elaborate on systematic botany. A tibetan plant name can therfore comprise different plants that can substitute each other because f their similar medical effects.


Plant Collection and Identification

We have decided not to release the places where we studied Tibetan Medicinal Plants to avoid possible habitat destruction through uncontrolled "harvesting".

Plants were collected and identified by joining Tibetan doctors during their annual plant gathering expeditions. Two herbarium specimens were collected for each plant, the plant names were documented in writing (Tibetan script) and the doctors were interviewed about use and collection of the plants.

The highest geographical point of the expedition was a pass in the proximity of Dabo Monastery (Spiti Valley) at 5900 m (see picture below). The lowest point was the town of Manali (2500 m).

A total of 400 plants were collected and identified with the help of existing literature (Polunin, Stainton) in the field or in the Kew Gardens Herbarium (London, UK).

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the botanists at Kew Garden for their support and to acknowledge the great value of the Kew Gardens library for our work.


Last updated: December 2001.