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Our Search for Sustainable Kutki

Our Search for Sustainable Kutki

Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa), or katuki, is one of Ayurveda’s most prized and precious herbs. Growing high in the cliffs of the Himalayan mountains, this small, somewhat elusive perennial herb has long been revered in Ayurveda for its potent medicinal properties.

Unfortunately, the spread of Ayurveda across the globe and a rise in demand for kutki’s beneficial properties have led to severe overharvesting and a lack of sustainable harvesting practices.

Like other highly sought-after Ayurvedic superstars, such as jatamansi and sandalwood, kutki is now considered an endangered herb at risk of eventual extinction.1  

As Ayurveda becomes more mainstream across the globe, the practice of ethical and sustainable sourcing of medicinal herbs becomes ever more pressing and important.

Out of reverence for this small, mountain-growing plant and the incredible benefits it has offered Ayurvedic medicine throughout history, we are dedicated to doing our part to ensure that kutki not only survives, but thrives.

With this in mind, we at Banyan have chosen to stop offering kutki until we are able to find a truly ethical and sustainable source. But the story is far from over! Read on to learn more about our history with kutki, as well as the exciting prospects that lie ahead.

kutki flower

The Many Benefits of Kutki

Kutki is one of those herbs with an astounding plethora of benefits, confirming why it’s so worth the time and effort to protect and support this precious plant.

In Ayurveda, it is used to support digestion, immune function, respiratory health, and even glowing skin. Studies have also shown it to be an excellent source of antioxidants.2

Kutki’s main claim to fame, however, is its ability to support the liver and gallbladder, even considered by some to be Ayurveda’s top herb for liver health.3

This exceptional benefit is partly in thanks to its intensely bitter quality. In fact, the name Picrorhiza is derived from “picros,” which means bitter, and “rhiza,” meaning root. Even the common name kutki comes from “karu,” which means bitter in the Punjabi language.4

Kutki’s unique benefits have made it a very beloved herb of Ayurvedic physician Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute, where Banyan’s inception as a company was sparked. This close relationship was one of the initial motivators to source kutki—not only for the Ayurvedic community at large but also to support Dr. Lad in using it for healing and educational purposes.

man holding whole kutki plant

Banyan and Kutki—A Look at the Past

This isn’t the first time we’ve chosen to stop selling kutki.

Kutki needs a very specific environment to grow and requires extra care and awareness around harvesting practices—otherwise, it will go extinct. When we learned in 2008 that this plant had become endangered due to ever-growing demand, we made the decision to discontinue it. We were determined to seek out a truly sustainable source with ethical and trustworthy harvesting practices.

This search took three years, and it wasn’t until 2011 that we were finally able to secure kutki that was sourced and harvested in a way that met our standards.

At that time, Banyan formed a partnership with a supplier of CITES-certified kutki based in the Himalayan mountains in northern India. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) works to ensure that international trade in wild plants does not threaten the survival of the species.5

This partnership provided a sustainable source of cultivated kutki that we could happily and confidently share with our customers.

At the same time, it gave us the opportunity to communicate closely with the supplier and monitor the patches of kutki over time, to understand the potential for long-term sustainability.

One way that we mitigated overharvesting was by sourcing at a small scale and maintaining very small purchase orders.

Very aware of the delicate nature of endangered herbs, we were honored to be able to share the benefits of kutki with the Ayurvedic community while also proactively supporting sustainable harvesting techniques. 

What’s Happening with Kutki Now?

A few years ago, we lost our long-term kutki supplier. Since then, our team has been working patiently to identify another trustworthy and sustainable source.

We care deeply about supporting the long-term sustainability of Ayurvedic herbs, and when it comes down to meeting market demand or supporting the long-term health of a botanical species, there’s no question where our priorities lie.

Since we have been unable—so far—to find another supplier of organic kutki that meets our high standards of sustainability and fair trade, we have decided to discontinue kutki as a product offering for the time being.

We know it is in the best interest of kutki’s long-term well-being to wait for a truly sustainable source.

With that said, our efforts to support ethical harvesting, sustainability, and the use of traditional Ayurvedic herbs like kutki continues, and we are hopeful that we will find another sustainable source in the years to come.

A Potential Substitute for Kutki

With the goal of protecting the traditional Picrorhiza kurroa variety of kutki, our team is currently investigating the use of a kutki analog—Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora.

These two plants have been used interchangeably for several decades now within the herbal industry. Even though they are two distinct plant species, they are both part of the Scrophulariaceae family and share several similarities.6

The signature bitter quality, organoleptics, and traditional uses of the two herbs are nearly indistinguishable.

They are so similar in fact, that one of the only ways of telling them apart is by the length of their stamens. Picrorohiza kurroa, commonly found in the western Himalayas, have long stamens while Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora, native to the eastern Himalayas, have short stamens.7

Our Herbal Science and Research team is hopeful about the use of Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora as a substitute for Picrorhiza kurroa. Both our team and Dr. Lad have had a chance to work with the new species with great results, agreeing that it holds promising potential.

kutki plants

The Story Continues—Our Future Vision for Kutki

For some time now, our Sourcing team has been working with FairWild, a third-party certifier of fairly traded and wild-harvested herbs, to identify potential kutki suppliers. In fact, our Sourcing team has recently spent time investigating and assaying some wild patches of Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora in India.

While we are hopeful about establishing a new partnership, we are not in a hurry.

We expect to investigate these new opportunities over several more years and if we find success in establishing strong sourcing partnerships and verify that long-term sustainability can be achievable, we will then look into incorporating kutki into our ingredient offerings once again.

We acknowledge that transitioning to using Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora still comes with caution. This species is also considered a threatened medicinal plant that has a limited growing region, typically growing in the high elevations of Nepal and the surrounding area.

Knowing this, we would only work alongside suppliers who are partnered with organizations like FairWild.

In this way we will be able to support the local communities and livelihoods of small-scale suppliers while encouraging ethical harvesting techniques with all wild ingredients.

Our intention is that this process will help us to further understand the long-term sustainability of threatened and endangered herbs, including but not limited to kutki, and to be able to share this knowledge with our customers and the Ayurvedic community at large.