Swertia chirayita – an overview
P. Joshi1,* and V. Dhawan2
1TERI School of Advanced Studies and 2The Energy and Resources Institute, Darbari Seth Block, Habitat Place, Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003, India
widespread use. Chirata is called Anaryatikta, Ardhatikta, Swertia chirayita is a medicinal plant indigenous to
Bhunimba, Chiratika, Chiratitka, Haima, Jvarantaka, temperate Himalaya. Its medicinal usage is reported
in Indian pharmaceutical codex, the British and the

Kairata, Kandatiktaka, Kiranta, Kirataka, Kirata Tikta, American pharmacopoeias and in different traditional
Naditikta, Naipala, Nepalanimba, Nidrari, Ramasenka, systems of medicines such as the Ayurveda, Unani and
Sannipatha, Sutiktaka, Trinanimba, and Viktaka5,6 in Sanskrit, Siddha. The plant is used as a bitter tonic in treatment
Cherayata in Patna, Chirrato and Chiraita in Nepal, Chi- of fever and for curing various skin diseases. S. chirayita
raita and Kiraita in Mumbai, Chirayatin in Gujarat, Chireta has an established domestic (Indian) and international
in Bengal, Nilaveppa in Kerala, and Sekhagi in Burma. It market, which is increasing at a rate of 10% annually.
is also called Chiaravata (Urdu); Qasabuzzarirah (Arab, Farsi); The plant available in the market many a times is adulter-
Charayatah (Deccan); Nelabevu (Kannada); Nenilawandi, ated and substituted by close relatives of chirata.
Nilavembu, Shirattakuchi (Tamil). The trade name of S. This article briefly reviews the botany, pharmacology,
biochemistry, market demand and trade of the plant.
The plant is a native of temperate Himalayas, found at This is an attempt to compile and document information
on different aspects of S. chirayita
and highlight the
an altitude of 1200–3000 m (4000 to 10,000 ft), from Kashmir need for research and development.
to Bhutan, and in the Khasi hills at 1200–1500 m (4000 to 5000 ft)6,8. It can be grown in sub-temperate regions between 1500 and 2100 m altitudes9. The genus Swertia Linn. Keywords: Amarogentin, bitter, hypoglycemic, swer-
consists of annual and perennial herbs. There is no consis- tency in the literature citing the habit of Swertia chirayita. Some authors have described chirata as an annual5,6 and AMONG the different species of Swertia reported in India, others as biennial or pluri-annual10. It is not clear whether Swertia chirayita is considered the most important for its the plant behaves differently due to climatic conditions or medicinal properties. The bitterness, antihelmintic, hypo- varying genotypes. The plant can be grown in a variety of glycemic and antipyretic properties are attributed to ama- soils with sandy loam rich in carbon and humus. It is also rogentin (most bitter compound isolated till date)1, found in open ground and recently slash-and-burnt for- swerchirin, swertiamarin and other active principles of ests10. S. chirayita has an erect, about 2–3 ft long stem, the herb. Herbal medicines such as Ayush-64, Diabecon, the middle portion is round, while the upper is four-angled, Mensturyl syrup and Melicon V ointment2–4 contain chirata with a prominent decurrent line at each angle. The stems are extract in different amounts for its antipyretic, hypogly- orange brown5 or purplish in colour9, and contain large con- cemic, antifungal and antibacterial properties. Despite a tinuous yellowish pith. The root is simple, tapering and descent hold in the herbal industry, the plant is still collected stout, short, almost 7 cm long and usually half an inch from the wild; it is sparsely cultivated and negligible efforts have gone into developing proper agro-techniques of the Cytological work done on the species is poor. Khoshoo plant. Little research has been done to identify the existing and Tandon11 used pollen-mother cells for cytological diversity among different populations of S. chirayita. The studies in some Himalayan species of Swertia. The authors lacunae in the related research field raise concerns regard- counted thirteen bivalents at metaphase I, and observed ing the vulnerability of the species, emphasizing the need that one of them was bigger than the rest. Flowering in S. chirayita is in the form of numerous small, axillary, opposite, lax cymes arranged as short branches Swertia chirayita – the plant
and the whole inflorescence is 2 ft long. Flowers are small, stalked, green-yellow, tinged with purple colour, Swertia chirayita (Roxb. ex Fleming) H. Karst. is also rotate and tetramerous6,9 (Figure 1). The corolla is twice mentioned in the literature as Swertia chirata, Buch.-Ham.; as long as the calyx and divided near the base into four Ophelia chirata Grisebach.; Agathotes chirayita Don.; ovate–lanceolate segments. The upper surface of the petal Gentiana chirayita Roxburgh5–8 and Gentiana floribunda has a pair of nectaries covered with oblong scales and ending Don8. It is known by an array of names, suggesting its as fringes9. Fruit is a small, one-celled capsule with a trans-parent yellowish pericarp. It dehisces from above, septi- *For correspondence. (e-mail: [email protected]) cidally into two valves. Seeds are numerous, minute, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 89, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2005 a
Figure 1. Swertia chirayita: a, Plant in vegetative phase; b, A 2 ft tall plant before flowering; c, Flow-
ering twig; d, Flowering panicle during seed set; e, Single tetramerous flower; f, Root of a mature two-
year-old plant.
many-sided and angular. Floral characteristics such as principles which attribute the plant its medicinal properties colourful corolla and presence of nectaries support cross- have been identified and isolated (Tables 1 and 2). The pollination in the species. Generally, bees (Apoidae, Hy- entire plant is used in traditional medicine; however the menoptera) are the pollinators of S. chirayita11. root is mentioned to be the most powerful part6. The plant The plant is harvested for the drug industry when it is gathered during the late stages of flowering, commonly sets into flowering in July–September5,9. Seed setting tied up in flattish bundles about 3 ft long and 1.5 to 2 lbs commences around October–November and seeds germinate in weight9 and is sold in the market as dried brownish stems immediately after shedding. Only a few scattered reports in the literature suggest germination studies and nursery S. chirayita is used in British and American pharmacopoe- practices of S. chirata12,13. Ninety-one per cent seed ger- ias as tinctures and infusions19. According to Ayurvedic mination was reported after 3°C chilling treatment for fifteen pharmacology20, chirata is described as bitter in taste days12, whereas another study reported a maximum of (rasa). The thermal action (virya) of chirata is defined as 81% germination13. An observation at the post-germination cooling (shita). Chirata is light (laghu), i.e. easily digestible, growth stage revealed that S. chirata is a slow-growing and ruksha (dry). These characteristics drain heat from species13. Low germination percentage and viability of the blood and liver. Its use has also been mentioned in the seeds, long gestation periods and delicate field-handling Unani medicine21. Concoction of chirata with cardamom, are some of the factors which discourage commercial cultiva- turmeric and kutki is given for gastrointestinal infections, and along with ginger it is considered good for fever6. When given along with neem, manjishta and gotu kola, it Medicinal uses of S. chirayita
serves as a cure for various skin problems. It is used in combination with other drugs in cases of scorpion bite22. S. chirayita belongs to family Gentianaceae, which records the occurrence of taxonomically informative molecules, namely iridoids, xanthones, mangiferin and C-glucofla- The concerns
vones15. Reviews detailing the chemical constituents of the Swertia genus have been reported16–18. The widespread The widespread use of S. chirayita in traditional medicine uses of S. chirayita in traditional medicines have resulted reflects its pharmacological importance. However, existing in considerable chemical analysis of the plant, and active populations of S. chirayita are diminishing. Hence accord- CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 89, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2005 Table 1. Secondary metabolites of Swertia chirayita
1,3,5,8-tetrahydroxyxanthone Xanthone 38 1,3,7,8-tetrahydroxyxanthone Xanthone 38 1,3,8-trihydroxy-5-methoxyxanthone Xanthone 38 1,5,8-trihydroxy-3-methoxyxanthone Xanthone 38 1,8-dihydroxy-3,5-dimethoxyxanthone/swerchirin Xanthone 38–40 1,8-dihydroxy-3,7-dimethoxyxanthone/7-O-methylswertanin Xanthone 38, 40 1-hydroxy-3,5,8-trimethoxyxanthone Xanthone 38, 41 1-hydroxy-3,7,8-trimethoxyxanthone Xanthone 38, 41 2,5-dihydroxyterephthalic acid Aromatic carboxylic acid 42 21-α-H-hop-22(29)-en-3-β-ol Triterpenoid 43 Amarogentin Seco-iridoid glycoside 41, 44 Amaroswerin Seco-iridoid glycoside 41, 45 Chiratanin Dimeric xanthone 46 Chiratenol Hopane triterpenoid 43, 47 Chiratol/1,5 dihydroxy 3,8-dimethoxyxanthone Xanthone 40, 48, 49 Decussatin Xanthone 40, 48, 49 Enicoflavine Triterpenoid alkaloid 40, 48, 50 Episwertenol Triterpenoid 43 Erythrodiol Hexane extract 47, 51 Gammacer-16-en-β-ol Triterpenoid 45 Gentianine Triterpenoid alkaloid 50 Gentiocrucine Triterpenoid alkaloid 50 Kairatenol Hexane extract 48 Lupeol Triterpene alcohol 52 Mangiferin Xanthone 39, 42 Mangostin Xanthone 53 Oleanolic acid Triterpenoid 46, 54 Pichierenol Swertane terpenoid 52 Sweroside Seco-iridoid glycoside 42, 46 Sweroside-2′-O-3″,5″-trihydroxy biphenyl-2″ carboxylic acid ester Seco-iridoid glycoside 46 Swerta-7,9(11)-dien-3-β-ol Swertane terpenoid 52 Swertanone Triterpenoid 44 Swertenol Triterpenoid 44 Swertianin/1,7,8-trihydroxy-3-methoxyxanthone Xanthone 50, 51 Syingaresinol Lignan 42 Taraxerol Triterpene alcohol 44 Ursoilic acid Triterpenoid 44 β-Amyrin Triterpenoid alcohol 54 β-Sitosterol-3-β-D-glucoside Sterol 46 Ø-Taraxasterol or heterolupeol Hexane extract 51 ing to the new International Union for Conservation of there exists a need to translate these in vitro studies to the Nature and Natural resources (IUCN) criteria, S. chirayita has been categorized as critically endangered23,24. This Considering the range of different niches occupied by leads to a need for conservation of the plant. S. chirayita the plant, there is a possibility that many ecotypes and/or has been prioritized by the National Medicinal Plant Board chemotypes of S. chirayita exist. It would be interesting (Government of India) for conservation and cultivation in to study the morphological, molecular and biochemical Uttranchal25, emphasizing the need to develop agro-techno- variations among different populations for S. chirayita. These studies become more relevant in case of species The novel technique of in vitro conservation and micro- akin to chirata, because diversity is often unevenly distributed propagation can help in conservation and production of a among populations. Some of these populations/niches may large number of disease-free, true-to-type plants. Waw- be particularly significant in terms of the amount of rosch et al.26 reported shoot regeneration from root explant. diversity they possess31. Thus populations with maximum Ahuja et al.27 have optimized media condition for faster diversity can be identified and isolated for conservation propagation of S. chirayita. Attempts have been made to without any duplication within the conserved germplasm. standardize root cultures for production of active metabolites S. chirayita enjoys a good domestic and international under in vitro conditions28. Root culture studies have market. The medicinal plant sector in India is unorganized been taken up in related species of Swertia29,30. However, and it is difficult to get a regular update of statistics vis-à- CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 89, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2005 REVIEW ARTICLE vis the demand and supply, collection and economics of zyme polymorphism. Such studies highlight the impor- chirata. The only available data regarding collection and tance of having diagnostic keys for evaluating the authenticity trade of the plant are for the year 1990–1991 with respect to of the available material. This will help in identifying and Nepal32 and for the year 2001–02 for India33,34. The plant documenting authentic samples, isolating superior chemo- has a huge demand in the medicinal market and is an impor- types, and establishing and cultivating them for industrial tant factor for the economy of Nepal. About 45% of chi- use without adulteration. There is tremendous scope for rayita in the Himalayan region is collected from Nepal34. reducing pressure on chirata populations by identifying and The trade and economics of chirata is also affected by promoting the use of superior substitutes of chirata. adulterants of the herb. Andrographis paniculata (green chirayita)35, Exacum tetragonum Roxb., E. bicolor Roxb., E. Conclusion
pedunculatum Linn., Slevolgia orientalis Griesb., Swertia alata Royle., S. angustifolia Buch.-Ham., S. bimaculata Thus there is still a wide scope for exploring different aspects Hook. f. and Thoms., S. ciliata G. Don, S. densifolia Greisb., of S. chirayita. Discrepancies remain about the habit of S. elegans Wight., S. lawii Burkill., S. minor Griesb., S. the plant. There are no established agro-techniques for paniculata Wall., S. multiflora Dalzell., are adulterants promoting its cultivation. Only preliminary studies have found along with true chiretta5. S. minor Griesb. is used as a been done to provide information regarding germination substitute for chirata in treatment of malaria and other fevers5. and viability of chirata seeds. The threatened status of the However, substitutes such as S. angustifolia Buch.-Ham. herb calls for establishing sustainable harvesting methods and S. alata Royle. are inferior to S. chirayita in terms of for S. chirayita. There are, of course, no established varieties bitterness5. Karan et al.36 and Bhatia et al.37 reported or lines of chirata. A strong need is felt to screen the different comparative evaluation of morphological characters and chemo-types of chirata growing at different phyto-geo- chromatographic fingerprint profile for xanthones and se- graphical locations. Similarly, biodiversity studies at mor- coiridoid bitters of S. chirayita along with other species phological, biochemical and genetic levels will enable the of Swertia. The true chirata can be distinguished from research community to realize the extent of variability other substitutes and adulterants by its intense bitterness, within the existing germplasm of S. chirayita and hence brownish-purple stem (dark colour), continuous yellowish pith and petals with double nectaries. Verma and Kumar38 reported variation in germplasm of S. chirata using iso- 1. Karan, M., Vasisht, K. and Handa, S. S., In Supplement to Cultiva- tion and Utilisation of Medicinal Plants (eds Handa, S. S. and Kaul, M. K.), RRL, Jammu-Tawi, 1996, pp. 349–354. Table 2. Biological activities attributed to S. chirayita
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Received 29 April 2004; revised accepted 19 April 2005 Special Section: Water
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