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«Indigenous knowledge in agriculture with particular reference to medicinal crop production in Khorasan, Iran P. Rezvani Moghaddam* Ferdowsi ...»

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Managing Knowledge, Technology and Development in the Era of Information Revolution 105

Indigenous knowledge in agriculture with particular

reference to medicinal crop production in

Khorasan, Iran

P. Rezvani Moghaddam*

Ferdowsi University of Mashhad,


University of Western Sydney,


*Corresponding author

A.K.S. Huda and Q. Parvez

University of Western Sydney,


A. Koocheki

Ferdowsi University of Mashhad,



Khorasan province in Iran with a diverse climatic conditions has accommodated a wide range of plant communities particularly herbs, spices and medicinal plants. Among these saffron (Crocus sativus L.), cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and barberry (Berberis vulgaris) have been the most cultivated plants for thousands of years. These crops deliver unique interests and applications, which among them, the novel use of saffron in recent years in cancer cure have been promenaded and stimulated more investigation on this crop. Almost 89% of the total world’s saffron production (270 t) and 92% of the total Iran’s saffron production (240 t) originates from Khorasan province.

Almost all the barberry production in the world (8540 t), and 52% of the total world’s cumin production (29,000 t) and 88% of the total Iran’s cumin production (15,410 t) are produced in this area too. Water scarcity mostly associated with low rain and hot summer, along with low soil fertility are the most limiting factors of crop production in this region. These crops are not only the most important source of income for farmers but also historically strong socio-cultural activities have been formed within the local community. To understanding scientific bases of indigenous knowledge of spice producing communities, the Centre of Excellence for Special Crops was established in 2001 in the Faculty of Agriculture, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad. Although indigenous knowledge has developed quite independently from science, these two should be considered as two sources of knowledge that can supplement, rather than compete, with each other. This paper highlights results of various ongoing researches at Khorasan area with intention of exploring possible opportunities for developing international collaboration.

Copyright © 2007 World Association for Sustainable Development (WASD) P.R. Moghaddam 1 Introduction Indigenous knowledge can be defined as accumulated knowledge, skill and technology of local people derived from their direct and indirect interaction with the environment and nature (Altieri, 1990). Information transferred through generations is improved into systems of understanding of natural resources, farming systems and relevant ecological processes (Pawluk et al., 1992). Farming has a long history in Iran and dates back to 10,000 years. This country is one of the centres of biodiversity of plants and has a history of domestication of various current commercial crops and animals (Koocheki, 2004).

Farmers who are dependent on locally available resources have developed indigenous technologies to provide water, maintain soil fertility and protect their crops.

The common principles and processes of farming practices in this area (Koocheki,

2004) are:

1 holistic view on utilisation of natural resources 2 optimal use of local resources with low external inputs 3 genetic and physical diversity 4 soil protection and conservation 5 participatory, cooperation and collaboration.

Khorasan province under the impact of a diverse climatic conditions, hosting a large number of valuable medicinal plants, which some of them are cultivating (such as saffron, cumin and barberry) by farmers and some of them (Astragalus gummiferu, Pistacia trebenthns, Ferula gumosa, Dorema ammoniacum and Ferula assa-foetide) growing naturally, mainly in fragile ecosystems that are predominantly inhabited by rural and indigenous communities. Saffron, cumin and barberry are unique for the area where water scarcity is the most limiting factor in crop productions for the farmer. All these plants are almost cultivated and harvested and also to some extent processed by family workers and community cooperation bases. Cultivation area and its surrounding environment conditions and production volume of herbs, mostly saffron, has made Khorasan province a unique location in the world for such crops.

The sustainable management of these traditionally cultivated and used plants not only helps to conserve nationally and globally important biodiversity but also provides critical resources to sustain livelihoods.

2 Area of study

Khorasan province in the North East of Iran is the largest province which occupies one-fifth of land surface (300,000 km2) of the whole country (Figure 1). This province has a large border with two main deserts of the country, Kavir Loot and Kavir Namak.

The altitude, the location of plateaus and the deep valleys are some of the most important causes of its diverse climatic conditions. Khorasan has four main climatic zones of steppes, substeppe, subdeserted and mountainous. Annual mean of precipitation of this province is less than 220 mm. Due to saline ground water, presence of a salt layer in the soil, intensive irrigation, high evaporation and low precipitation, there is a large saline area in this part of the country (Abbaspour and Sabetraftar, 2005; Moghaddam and Koocheki, 2003).

Indigenous knowledge in agriculture 107 Figure 1 Location of the study area. Map (a) shows the location of Iran in Middle East and map (b) shows the location of the Khorasan province in Iran

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2.1 Saffron production Saffron (Crocus sativus L.), a monocotyledon, perennial and triploid species belongs to the Iridaceae family (Figure 2). This crop has been historically evolved based on earlier mentioned farming principles as a ‘system of production’ according to local technical, social and cultural criteria (Koocheki, 2004). This crop has a role in the history of Iranian farming systems and food habits. It is believed (Koocheki, 2004) that saffron was first cultivated by Iranian farmers and then spread to other parts of the world. Diversity of wild species (13 species) could also support this claim (Koocheki, 2004). Citation of this crop in historical books and at least records of 2500 years intensive application of saffron by Iranian monarchies is further supporting evidence for such a claim.

Figure 2 Plant of saffron with flowers and leaves

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice and 89% of the production is coming from Iran (Kafi et al., 2006b). It has been used as food additive, culinary purposes, medicinal and colouring agents. The novel use of saffron in recent years has been associated in cancer cure (Abdullaev, 2002; Abdullaev and Espinosa-Aguirre, 2004;

Escribano et al., 1996).

The stigma of saffron is used in Chinese, Iranian and Indian traditional medicine for anodyne, antidepressant, a respiratory decongestant, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, expectorant and sedative, and its crude extract and purified chemicals have been demonstrated to prevent tumours formation, atherosclerosis or hepatic damage (Ma et al., 1998; Zargari, 1990). It has been used against scarlet fever, smallpox, colds, asthma, eye and heart diseases. Saffron can also be used to help to clear up conquer sores and to reduce the discomfort of teething infants (Zargari, 1990).

Saffron blooms only once a year (October–November) and would be harvested by hand. The flowers should be harvested before sunrise, otherwise the quality of the saffron in terms of colour and aroma will decline. After manual harvesting of petals, the stigmas are separated by hand from petals and then are dried. While the amount of individual stigmas collected from each flower would highly determine the final yield, their size would define the quality of saffron. Generally, each kg of fresh saffron flower Indigenous knowledge in agriculture 109 consists of 2173 flower, 47.93 g fresh stigma and 9.48 dry stigmas (Kafi et al., 2006b).

At present, its production is 240 t in Iran and is cultivated in an area of 57,694 ha (Table 1). About 92% of production and 98% of cultivation area is located in Khorasan, of which, 40 t would be for domestic consumption and the rest are exported. Between 70,000 and 200,000 flowers are needed to produce 1 kg of dried saffron, which is equivalent to around 370–470 hr of work. Consequently, the cultivation of this crop for its flowers and specifically its stigmas is very labour-intensive and demand for which results in its high costs (Kafi et al., 2006b). Almost 85,000 families are depending mainly on saffron for their livelihood and they are farmers grown up and live in a hostile environment.

Table 1 Cultivated area, production and yield of saffron, cumin and barberry in, Iran

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Source: Anonymous (2005).

The stigmas of the saffron flower contain many chemical substances. Carbohydrates, minerals, mucilage, vitamins (especially riboflavin and thiamine) and pigments, amino acids, proteins, starch, gums and other chemical compounds have also been described in saffron. The value of saffron (dried stigmas) is determined by the existence of three main secondary metabolites: crocein and its derivatives which are responsible for bright yellow colour; picrocrocein, responsible for bitter taste and saffronal responsible for spicy aroma (Escribano et al., 1996; Tarantilis, 1995). The amount of these compounds in dried stigma tissues is the most important indicator of quality of this spice.

Saffron production technologies have not changed for a long time and all that has been practiced is based almost completely on indigenous knowledge. There are no registered varieties of saffron and the present seed stock is the work of continuous selection over time by farmers, so the intellectual property right of saffron belongs to the local communities.

2.2 Cumin production Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is an annual, dicotyledon, aromatic and herbaceous species belonging to the Apiaceae family (Figure 3). This species has a wide range of applications such as medicinal, spice, cosmetic and food industry. Iran has the most contribution in the world cumin production and usually between 52% of the world cumin exportation comes from Iran (Kafi et al., 2006a). In 1994 total cumin seeds were exported with a value of $30 million (Anonymous, 1997; Riazi, 1997). The cumin acreage and seed production has been increased during recent years. Cumin cultivation area in Iran in year 2004 was 32,364 ha and the seed production was 15,140 t (Table 1) (Anonymous, 2005). About 88% of the total Iran’s cumin production originates from Khorasan province (Anonymous, 2005; Fazel, 1995; Riazi, 1997).

Cumin is an important crop that due to its special environmental growing requirements, is planted in limited parts of the world. Iran, India, Indonesia and Lebanon P.R. Moghaddam are the main exporters of cumin, but to a lesser degree, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, China, Cyprus, Argentina and Mexico also export cumin. The number of people who benefit from cumin varies annually at local and national levels. It was estimated that around 10,000–80,000 people would be involved in cumin growing during drought or rainy years, respectively (Kafi et al., 2006a).

Fruit of cumin is the main economical part with high usage value. Fruits contain oil (7%), resin (13%), essential oil (2.5–4%) and aleuron. Essential oil obtained by distillation of smashed fruit, has a very strong odour with mass volume of 0.91–0.93 (g/cm ) (Zargari, 1990). The essential oils are composed of cuminiqué aldehyde or cuminol (CH10H12O). The special odour of essential oil and fruit is due to cuminol.

In cumin essential oil, other chemicals such as cymene phllandrene, carvone, cuminiqué alcohol are present in low amount (Judd et al., 1999).

Figure 3 Plant of cumin and seeds

2.3 Barberry production Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is a dicotyledon and perennial species belonging to the Berberidaceae family (Figure 4). Barberry is a well-known medicinal plant in Iran and has also been used as a food product. Seedless barberry (Berberis vulgaris var. asperma) is cultivated as a domestic plant for many years in southern parts of Khorasan province.

There is evidence that the barberry was domesticated about 200 years ago in this region (Kafi and Balandari, 2004). Higher price in the internal markets encouraged growers to establish new orchards of this crop. Cultivation area increased from 704 ha in 1981 to 8082 ha in 2005 and barberry production increased from 941 t to more than 8540 t in recent years (Table 1). The province of Khorasan with a production of more than 90% of the total production is the main region of barberry production in Iran (Kafi and Balandari, 2004).

Indigenous knowledge in agriculture 111 Figure 4 Plant of barberry (A) before fruit maturity stage (B) fruit maturity stage

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The climatic condition of this crop production area is mostly desert and semi-desert types with hot summer, cold winter, low relative humidity and high variable range of daily maximum and minimum temperatures (Table 2). Average precipitation in the region is 193 mm/year.

Table 2 Climate information of the southern part of the Khorasan province (Birjand)

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35.9 1896.3 21.9 5.8 193.3 Source: Anonymous (2002).

P.R. Moghaddam Barberry is a deciduous shrub which grows up to 4 m high. The leaves are small, oval, 2–5 cm long and 1–2 cm wide, with a short petiole, presenting various gradations from leaves into spines. The flowers are small, pale yellow, arranged in pendulous racemes.

The fruit is an oblong red berry 7–10 mm long and 3–5 mm wide, ripening in late summer or autumn. They are edible but very sour, and pleasantly acidulous. It is generally propagated by suckers and ripened cuttings (Tehranifar, 2003).

Due to spiny stems and special shape of shrubs the harvesting is one of the most difficult and laborious stages in barberry production (Tehranifar, 2003).

The barberry used to be cultivated for the fruit, which was picked and used for garnishing dishes and medicinal purpose. In south-western Asia, especially Iran and in Europe, the berries are used for cooking and for making jam.

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