REVIEW ARTICLE 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@example.com)
cidally into two valves. Seeds are numerous, minute,
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 89, NO. 4, 25 AUGUST 2005
a d e b f c 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-
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-
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Received 29 April 2004; revised accepted 19 April 2005
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