Dr. Valiollah Mozaffarian is one of the most famous botanists of Iran and a member of scientific board of Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands. The book of “Identification of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Iran” was compiled by him and published by National Network of Research and Technology in Medicinal Plants.
Greetings and appreciation for accepting this interview, please introduce yourself.
This is Valiollah Mozaffarian, member of scientific board of Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands, I’ve been working in the field of botany for 36 years now. Before the establishment of Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands in the present shape and form, I’d been working for National Botanical Garden of Iran, which after the revolution, the National Garden, or shall we say the present Botanical Department was joint to the Institute, and today it’s working as a part of this Institute. However, the Institute had a positive effect on the policies and statute of the Botanical Garden and Botanical Department. Right now, we are still following the same statute and duties.
The establishment of Botanical Garden and its herbarium, and also its great, technical and scientific library, which is one of a kind in Iran, serve the purpose of identifying Iran’s plant species. The primal goal of the establishment of this institute, apart from the practical ones, has been to carry out a fundamental task of identifying plant species. It’s not an overstatement to say that since 1968, this department has identified almost all the plant species of Iran, and that it has ample data.
As a botanist, please tell us the procedures of identifying a plant.
Identification is based on a comparison between a known and an unknown object. In 1753, the first steps into science-based botany started and Carl Von Linnaeus decided to use binomial nomenclature for the plants, next to which he identified and defined them in a section called ‘Description’. The ‘Description’ is based on morphology , the plant’s organs and physical appearance is compared with known objects, for instance we say, the leaves of this plant are ovatus, orbicular, elliptic, etc. These words used, are known and are specifically-defined to people. Therefore, when we say a leaf is ovatus, the shape of that leaf is immediately depicted in one’s mind. These descriptions and expressions in botany are in Latin, for example when ovatus is used, it means like an oval. This is an adjective with 11 forms, depending on the nouns they are accompanied by, due to the noun-adjective agreement rule.
Therefore, if you decide to become a botanist, especially in Iran, you need to learn Latin, because in Iran botany has fundamentally been written in Latin (in recent years each country has published its flora in its own language, for instance the USA, Germany, France, Russia, etc. In the past, we needed to learn Russian in order to know about the Russian flora, but a few years ago, in “Israel Program for Scientific Translations”, Russian flora was translated into English.
Pierre Edmond Boissier, compiled the first Middle Eastern and Iranian flora called ‘Flora Orientalis’, in Latin. For this reason, after the establishment of the University of Tehran, Dr. Ahmad Parsa translated ‘Flora Orientalis’ from Latin into French, because at that time, French was the language of the educated. Also, ‘Flora Iranica’ was published in Latin by Karl Heinz Rechinger. So, an Iranian botanist should know Latin and be familiar with it. I have compiled a glossary which is in five languages, Latin, English, German, French and Farsi, in order for the researchers to find the equivalents of the Latin words.
When a botanist goes to nature, collects a plant and decides to identify it, he certainly needs to compare this unknown plant with a known one, and in order for this comparison to take place, it is necessary to be familiar with all the plants defined in the books on plants of Iran. In these books, the plants are classified as order, family, genus, species, etc, and in order for a botanist to reach a result, he must be familiar with all the properties of these classifications. The full knowledge of these species is not a simple task, and the best way for a botanist is to learn the scientific expressions in botany and how to use these books.
Sometimes a student just needs some limited plant samples for research, then it is best to get help from a botanist and it’s not necessary for the student to learn all of that information. However, learning these botanical expressions and Latin are prerequisites for mastering this science and becoming a botanist. But there’s one question here, what if a botanist collects a plant from nature and couldn’t identify it with the information from these books? After making sure that there’s not enough information in these books on that specific plant, or that there’s differences of shape, etc, that’s when we can say that probably this is a new plant species and therefore, there needs to be further careful and detailed examinations and studies.
How many plant species have you identified so far?
I have introduced about 80 new plant species to the world, so far, which are compiled under my name, such as, Serratula khuzistanica (Mozaff.) Mozaff, I have also introduced 100 other species to Iran, which had already been identified in other parts of the world, but there was no information about their growth in Iran. Besides, I have introduced two plant genera to the world, (Kelussia Mozaff., Opsicapium Mozaff), which does not happen frequently. There’s also a plant genus which is named after me, Mozaffariania Pimenov&Maassoumi.
Since it’s not very common to register the species after people, I made sure that this species is new and requested Dr. Pimenov and Dr. Maassoumi to register that under my name, then, as you can see, the names of these two professors have also been added to the end of the scientific name, as the compilers. There has been 18 other species that were named after me by other scientists, species like, Astragalus Mozaffariani Maasoumi. I have named some of other species that I’ve identified, either after the areas that these plants were collected from, or after my colleagues. As for the 8 species that I identified in Ilam for the the first time in the world, they were registered as elymaitica (Gypsophila elymaitica) or Salvia Bakhtiari, that I registered as a scientific name of Salvia jamzadii Mozaffarian, after my colleague, Dr. Jamzad.
Identification of which plant has been the most memorable?
My first trip to Bashagard County of Hormozgan Province was in 1983, when I identified ‘Pycnocycla bashagardiana‘ for the first time. Also, the other plant that I succeeded in introducing to the world was ‘Indigofera sinus-persica‘, which I named after the Persian Gulf so that it will live on forever. At the moment, I may not be able to express the feeling that you are looking for but all the plants are reflection of God. He has somehow placed all the beauty of creation in plants, and it’s up to you to appreciate them. In my opinion a biologist can understand the mysteries of creation more easily, since the distinctive details and properties among the plants are so delicate and extremely beautiful , only a biologist is able to acknowledge them.
How many exact plant species and medicinal plants are there in Iran, and how many of those species are native to Iran?
The exact number of species and genera can never be specified in a country. For instance, in 1963 Dr. Rechinger included Convolvulaceae family in Flora Iranica, but since then I have added two more species of Convolvulus genus to this family that are called Convolvulus kurdestanicus and Convolvulus elymaiticus. There’s a rough estimation, but precise number cannot be presented. For example, in Flora Iranica, 7700 to 7800 plant species have been introduced, but ever since, 300 species have been introduced to the world, mostly by Dr. Massoumi and his colleagues. My co-workers and I in this institute, as well as my other colleagues throughout the country, have introduced new species to the world, therefore, 8000 minus plus 300 seems to be a fair number. As for the native plant species of Iran, we can say that a quarter of all the species in Iran are native to this country, i.e. about 2000 species.
What made you decide to compile the book of ‘Identification of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Iran’ and what was the purpose?
When I went to the first ‘Medicinal Plants Seminar’ which was held by officials like Dr. Mahmoud Najmabadi, of Tehran University, Faculty of Pharmacy, (on 22 September 1980), I felt the lack of knowledge of medicinal plants identification, among the researchers of this field, and the problem which still exists is that one plant is named but another plant is shown. Even now, in medicinal plants market, when you want to purchase Dracocephalum moldavica another plant is presented to you, which is called Melissa officinalis. Therefore, a consumer will not get the desired properties out the plant. Hence their mistrust of medicinal plants.
My most important reason for compiling this book was, the correct introduction of medicinal plants and the matching of scientific names with the picture of those plants, as a result this book is illustrated. In this book about 860 of Iran’s plant species have been introduced as medicinal plants. These plants species are identified as medicinal plants in the world, by a valid scientific document. In this book, apart from 860 medicinal plants species, 2500 plant species have been introduced, which include, fruits, spices and aromatic plants, most of which are unknown to people, because due to climatic varieties in different regions of Iran, a certain plant might grow in Sistan and Balouchestan, however, a person from Azarbaijan Province might not have seen it. Except for 50 of the species, the rest have been photographed from nature by myself.
These days we see that some people tend to go through old sources and compare them with the modern science, meanwhile, they are faced with the problem of old and new medicinal plants’ names. In my opinion, it’s better to study the plant species’ compounds and compare their treatment properties, rather than to look for names. Our, Iranian traditional medicine, was as vast as the Islamic countries and the Middle East, but Iran is much smaller these days, so a large number of plant species that exist in the old books may no longer be in today’s Iran, and might be found in the neighboring countries.
I need to explain here, that we mustn’t make scientific mistakes, regarding the exclusive medicinal plants of Iran. Medicinal plants are plants that have good geographical distributions. Therefore, among the 860 medicinal plants species that I identified in my book, the exclusive species of Iran may not even reach the number 10. For example, Achillea eriophora, is a plant that grows in the south of Iran, and people there, use it as a medicinal plant, but when you refer to foreign sources, you will not find that much information on its medicinal properties, and only by its similar species, which are medicinal Achillea, you can speculate that this plant too, has medicinal properties. So, I can say that we do not have a medicinal plant exclusive to Iran. But we do have aromatic plants exclusive to Iran, we can name an exclusive aromatic plant, like ‘Nepeta binalodensis’, as a medicinal plant, only when the active compound has been identified in clinical laboratories and its treatment properties have been determined and proven. Just like the 70 other species of Nepeta genus in Iran, that when you refer to the scientific sources, only three species have medicinal properties.
Of course, in some parts of our country there might be some plants that are used as medicinal plants, but not scientifically proven. However, some may ask, ‘why do people use some plants for treatment and as medicine, and that they get the desired results, but there’s no reference of them in the reliable sources?’ In response, I’d say that, I believe the most important property of an aromatic or medicinal plant is the fact that they are nontoxic, since if they were lethal, noone would dare to use them. Like some mushrooms in jungles, that nobody picks, because of the probability that they are toxic. In medicinal plant, this normally doesn’t happen, or their dosage is mostly not so much that could cause death.
In my examinations, out of 8000 plant species of Iran, I have found 300 toxic species. Some of which are identified as medicinal plants, and some are toxic for human beings (for example, some of the narcotic plants are toxic, but when used in certain doses, they are not) and some are toxic for animals. The usage of a number of species is unimaginable for human beings, and so, they are not noticed as much. Therefore, medicinal plants are not toxic in small amounts and this gives us the courage to use them any time we wish. Then, what we are looking for, is to get people to trust medicinal plants.
Some of the problems of medicinal plants industry, is the issue of mistakes and conterfeits, due to your expertise and the fact that you can detect this issue in primary stages, what are some of your suggestions to prevent these from happening?
There’s no way but to increase public awareness. These days, most of the people make a living through medicinal plants, but in the past, the specialists of traditional medicine cured people for the sake of God, and people paid as much as they wanted or gave gifts as fees, and there wasn’t a determined charge. But today, most of those in traditional medicine don’t have the knowledge of medicinal plants, they just repeat a name based on what they’d heard. Therefore, the compilation of illustrated books that clearly introduce these plants, is one way to increase public knowledge. In my opinion, tens of books like the one I’ve compiled, should be written by experts to eliminate this problem.
Is there anything you’d like to add to wrap up this interview?
When we compare Iran’s background in medicinal plants with those of today, we realize the differences. Those days, a medicinal plant was used based on beliefs and today based on making a living. The officials should face the truth about statistics and numbers. Based on what factors does a person claim that there’s 3000 medicinal plants in Iran? What are their references and sources? Or what are their scales when they say, the plant species of Iran is more than that of Europe? My suggestion to those in traditional medicine of Iran, is to increase their knowledge in the field of plants. It is not possible to be involved in people’s lives without the necessary knowledge. Those who claim to know traditional medicine and are making drugs based on what they had heard, without the effects of those medicine being proven, are not qualified to interfere in medicine. There may be some good results at first, but no one knows their consequences in the future.
On the whole, if we want to reach a result in medicinal plants, we need to know our own potentials and the kind of plants that we have in our country. I wanted to take this opportunity to point out an important note, ‘we shouldn’t call all our plants, medicinal plants’, also, if our country’s officials want to boost medicinal plants export, and to improve our economy, we should focus on some limited number of our prominent medicinal plants, and after the cultivation development and the extraction of active compounds, make a medicine that is exclusive to Iran, and just like our need for some medicine, imported from other countries, they would need to import medicine from us.
Source: Written documentary of 2nd National Medicinal Plants, Natural Production and Traditional Medicine