The status of medicinal and aromatic plants in Iran and strategies for sustainable utilization


A.Koocheki and F.Nadjafi

 Ferdowsi University of Mashhad-Faculty of Agriculture-Department of Agronomy.Mashhad-Iran.

 Key words:  Medicinal plants. Sustainable utilization. Economic. Diversity.


Iran converse a vast area of diverse environment and hence an extensive biological diversity. Flora of the country consists nearly 8000 species and has been considered as the most diverse area in the Near East and South West Asia associated with natural plants. This country has an old tradition of plant utilization with use of indigenous knowledge, and medicinal plants have played an enormous role in the economic life of Iranian society .At the present time, despite a wide spread of modern medicinal compounds, still a good proportion of the rural people, use the traditional medicine for health purposes. Iran , is the main exporter of Saffron in the world earning $ 23.7 million from export of this product annually. Total export of the country related to medicinal plants has been estimated to be $60 million (excluding plant essences), which is less than 0.5 percent of world trade. Proportion of medicinal plants in the whole natural flora of the country is nearly %13 and some of those plants are also grown in agro Ecosystems. Cumin is the most common herb grown with an acreage of 50000 hectares, mainly in the North east parts of the country (Khorasan province), others with less acreage are Borage, Thyme, Fennel, Hyssop and Mint.


Now days, use of medicinal plants has increased because of undesirable effects of chemical drugs. World wide more than 10000 plant species (of both forest and non forest origins) are used for medicinal purposes, mainly as traditional medicines. WHO, has estimated that 80 percent of people in developing countries rely on traditional medicines, which are mostly of plant origin, for primary health care (1,5). Use of medicinal plants is by no means restricted to developing countries; at least 25 percent of drugs in the modern pharmacopoeia are derived from plants (5,6). Export of medicinal plants has contributed a great deal in world trade. Global trade of medicinal plants in 1993 (excluding the markets of Africa, South America and Asia), reached to $ 12400 million

(۱,۶). Iran is located in the Northern hemisphere with an area of 1648195 square kilometers, and consists of regions with different climate conditions such as mountains, deserts, forests and rang lands. Flora of the country is rich with nearly 8000 plant species and together with Turkey have the most plant diversity and the highest percentage of Endemic plants across the Near east and South West Asia (5), and medicinal plants consist nearly 13 percent of this plant flora (850-1100 species) (1). The use of medicinal, culinary and aromatic plants, herbs and spices in the country goes back thousands of years and forms an important part of various cultures. Although many of the species concerned have fallen in to disuse, traditional medicine still play a major role in health care systems in the country.


Iran is a country with different climate conditions and in result rich plant flora and besides a long history in use and production of medicinal plants, but the total export of medicinal plants in 1993 was only $ 60 million (2), that was less than 0.5 percent of the global trade. In 1960,export of medicinal plants, consisted a high proportion of national export but in 1970,for some reasons, export of these plants decreased .In 1985,a relative improvement was observed and in 1986 about 3.7 percent of export of agricultural products were medicinal plants (9). The most important plant material that is exported from Iran are dying (Crocin extracts, Henna), medicinal and aromatic plants (saffron, Cumin) and exudates (gum Tragacanth) (5,8).

Medicinal and Aromatic Plants

Iran is one of the main centers of Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) production in the world with acreage of 50000 hectares and an annual production of 50000 tons. Cumin is cultivated mainly in the eastern (Khorasan province) and central part (kerman province) of the country (2,10,11). In 1994, total of 23000 tons Cumin seeds as exported with an value of $30 million (2,11). Also Iran is the leading exporter of Saffron (Crocus sativus) in the world, with an annual income of $ 23.7 million in 1993.The main area of Saffron production is Khorasan province with acreage of 18000 hectares and average production of 107 tons per year (2). Besides these plants, some plants such as Borage (Borago officinalis), Isabgol (Plantago ovata), Thyme (Thymus sp), and Fennel(Foeniculum vulgare), Mint (Mentha sp), etc are cultivated in limited area in different parts of the country. However still main sources of medicinal plants are from the wild collection. Table (1) indicates the export of Iranian medicinal plants in 1993.

Table(1):Export figures of  medicinal herbs and spices from Iran in(March 22,1993 to March 21,1994)




Quantity (tons)  Value

Million IRR Value Thousand DollarsMajor Importer Countries۹۰۹

(c)Cumin seed28438188126877U.A.E.,Pakistan,


(b)Fennel,Anise,Oregano,Coriander,Juniper seeds1059673310477.8U.A.E.,Pakistan


(b)Other spices not mentioned648.3119.7Kuwait,U.A.E.,


(b)Licorice root49021201713France,Germany,


(b2)Borage leaves,flowers,shoots,

Violet,Quince seeds,Santonica34321.4449Pakistan,U.A.E,


(b3)Other 1207 except 1 & 210241802576U.A.E.,Germany


(a)Peach and Apricot stones912.840Germany,Pakistan1208

(b)Peach and Apricot kernels30015.5221.5Germany,Pakistan


(c )Other stones and kernels except Peaches and Apricots2413711020Germany,Bahrain,


(a1)Various kinds of gum Tragacanth88.61241772Germany,U.K.,


(a2)Other Tragacanth1871391994Frace,Germany,


(b)Gum of wild Almonds10201291848France,Germany,


(d)Lupus cerviarus6254.6780.5France,Germany




(k1)Bitter Angora8636515.5U.A.E,Germany,


(k2)Sweet Angora4522313.7U.A.E.,Germany



(m)Other goods

۳۱۸۱۱۵.۶France,Germany, Libya1303

(c3)Juice,Sauce,sweet Extracts1866258.73696.5France,U.A.E1303

(c6)Other goods, 1303 c not mentioned28739557U.A.E.,France




(b)Other products of plant origin except Henna817721033U.A.E.,Turky

Turkemensitan Total54003.64104.958835.8

Source: Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration, Bureau of Statistics and Machine Services, Foreign Trade Statistics of Iran, 1993,Volume 1 Exports, and PP.37-41

Cosmetics and Perfumes

 Certain aromatic plants have been used traditionally as medicine, while others special Roses have been used as perfumes and flavoring agent. Production of rose water and water extracts (Araghiat) in central Iran, mainly Kashan and Shiraz has lead to the growth of a flourishing cottage industry as well as establishing the first industrial level rose water production unit (3).

Dying Agents

Henna is a product derived from the dried leaf of Lawsonia inermis L. There has been an increase in it’s usage as a hair dye in Western Europe and North America. Price of black Henna in Persian Gulf market, in 1992 based on it’s quality, ranged from $ 250 _ 700 per ton (4 ) .Iran follows India and Pakistan as main supplier of Henna to Middle east market(4). Madder (Rubia tinctorium) is another important dying plant, which is used in Iran as a natural dye in carpet industry.


 Iran is the main producer of gum Tragacanth (Astragalus gummiferus) within the Asia-Pacific region (2,8). Small quantities are also produced in Afghanistan, but about 70 percent of export supply originates from Iran. According to Agricultural products statistics, November 1991, annual average production has been estimated at 400 tons (Iqbal 1995)  (۸). Table (2) shows Iran’s export of Tragacanth during 1987-1990. Tragacanth finds markets in different countries, but EEC, USA, Japan and the former Soviet Union are the major importing regions (Iqbal 1995)(8). Gums of other plants such as, Ferula gumosa, Dorema ammoniacum and Ferula assa-foetide are also exported in large quantities to other countries, especially Germany and France. During 1980-1990 exports of plant materials and extracts, was increased from 4000 to 8000 tons (nearly 50 percent) (9). Table (3), shows the quantities and values of non-wood forest products during 1990-1994.


Table (2):Iran’s export of Tragacanth during 1987-1990



Export Value



Source:Iqbal (1995)

Table (3): Quantities and values of range land products in Iran during 1990-1994

Plant (gums)Production quantity


(Each Kg)

(۱۰۰۰ IRR)Total value

(Each kg)

۱۰۰۰ IRRTotal Value


(۱۰۰۰ $)Astragalus

gummiferum1459.2735.58025996114657.08Pistacia trebenthns1566.4693469948867135.54Ferula gumosa200.06512240078034296.85Ferula assa-foetide650.8657455479565068.5Dorema ammoniacum377.9636226777832396.82Tamarix gallica31.596206319209027.42Others8418.923-32686883.5466955.47Total12705-55267660.5789538

 $=۷۰ IRR


Potential of medicinal and aromatic plants have not been utilized properly in this country and present states by which most of these plants are collected of wild is not sustainable. Therefore the following strategies seems to be appropriate:

Domestication and Utilization of Medicinal Plants

Due to over utilization of these plants in natural environments, collection from these habitats is no longer sustainable. Therefore proper plans for bringing these plants and cultivated them are required. However this should not be simulated from what is going on for field crops. These plants are mainly used for active ingredients, and therefore any steps towards domestication, should regard this point. Because experiences have shown that cultivation of these plants causes reduction of useful compounds .On the other hand for sustainable production of medicinal plants in agro ecosystems a low input strategies should be employed. In other words use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides should be based on careful management and attempts should be maid to stimulate the internal input for sustainable production. By this mean, job generation for rural areas and decreasing pressure on natural ecosystems, should be achieved.

Protection and Rehabilitation of Present Sites

First of all , harvesting should be based on production capacity of plants . Sites with proper plant population and coverage should be protected from encroachment of grazing lands and other activities and meanwhile increasing the density of these plants by seeding or other way of propagation

Train and Economical Support of Rural People

Now days, despite of the consideration to cultivate medicinal plants in agronomic systems, still the major source of these plants is nature and wild harvesting. It was estimated that nearly 70-90 percent of plant materials that are imported in Germany are collected from nature and only 50-100 species are cultivated in vast area (Lang 1996) (7). Unfortunately, programs and strategies that have arranged in Iran and other developing countries to utilize natural resources didn’t consider the role of rural communities and indigenous knowledge of them about nature and so they were often unsuccessful .So it’s necessary pay attend to some activities as followings: ۱-Training The Rural People And Local Gathers It’s necessary to train rural people about suitable harvesting manners, on time harvesting and also suitable manners of transporting, packaging and storing of medicinal plants that these activities caused to avoid of quality and quantity decreasing of active substances, no mixing and infection of plant materials and avoidance of destruction natural resources, because of incorrect harvesting manners. ۲- Economical Supporting Of Rural People And Local Gathers A disadvantage in Iran and other developing countries, which caused to more harvesting of the natural resources, is the low income of medicinal plants collecting by local gathers. Usually the local buyers bye these products from local gathers in cheap prices, so this case push them to make more pressure on natural resources. Therefore some approaches as below should be mentioned:

– Decreasing the trade chain of medicinal plant’s products between local gathers and consumers by making rural cooperative societies

– Sharing rural people and local gathers in decisions, programs and executions about utilization and conservation natural resources in each region

– Giving the primary processing activities of medicinal plants, such as drying, packaging, to rural people, to increase their income

– Supply a stable market and no seasonal, for local gather’s harvested material

– Forcing the private pharmaceutical companies and food industries to make agreements with rural people to buy their collected products and supervising these agreements.

Training and Education

Medicinal plants should be included in the syllabus of colleges of Agriculture more extensively and degrees should be given at the levels of technical colleges and also Bsc degree. Meanwhile training courses for producers and other people involved should be carried out.


Present scattered research should be directed towards a comprehensive program in universities, research institutes, and research centers. Private sectors should be encouraged to take part in research on medicinal plants. Also decisions making system should be centralized on all aspects of medicinal plants in our country.

Laws and Regulations

Proper regulations for harvesting, use, processing and marketing of these plants should be made. This should be forced in particular for endangered species, and harvesting permits should be assumed for stakeholders.

Processing Facilities

Small scale processing factories should be established, and present traditional system should be enhanced.


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