Mountains, meadows, pastures, rivers – nature has been generous to the people who live in this region, yet they still often abuse it. Healthy nature is a prerequisite for human health, so it is important to cherish was given to us. The same goes for medicinal herbs, which are used for disease treatment and prevention, as well as in cooking and cosmetics production.

The Institute for Medicinal Plant Research “Dr Josif Pančić” deals with the proper use, picking, and processing of herbs.

Serbia has a solid natural potential for growing and picking of medicinal and aromatic herbs. Its exports of medicinal herbs amount to some 20 million euros a year, while around 5,000 people live off this business.

There are more than 700 plant species with medicinal properties in Serbia, 400 of which have been registered as medicinal plants, while 280 of these are traded as industrial raw materials. The cultivation of plants depends on the temperature of the area, which dictates the spices and medicinal species that are cultivated.

A great return on investments

Growing medicinal and aromatic herbs and spices, even on small plots, can be a good source of additional income, and those with larger portions of land, can even turn it into a business.

According to producers, investments in the production of medicinal plants and spices are not high, and the profits are solid, to say the least. Marshmallow, dill, and parsley are medicinal plant species most worth investing in. Sage, valerian, thyme, basil, coriander, anise, oregano, and echinacea are profitable as well.

The tourist potential of nature

The diversity of flora and fauna can also serve to attract tourists and develop the tourist offering further. Sustainable tourism and preservation of the environment are based on a responsible attitude towards environmental protection. As the development of tourism predominantly depends on the natural resources, their preservation is of crucial importance for its development.

Therefore, the collection of medicinal and aromatic plants, as well as plantation production, are activities where these principles can be most effectively applied.

The Poralist project

These data were obtained in the research in which the “Dr Josif Pančić” Institute participated, specifically, the Poralist project.

“The Poralist project was financed by the European Union and the funds were used to secure the budget for research and development of a comprehensive platform of medicinal plants in the territory of municipalities of Bijelo Polje and Prijepolje. Thanks to this funding, we obtained cameras that will enable us to continue our research even after the completion of the project,” Dejan Pljevljakušić, one of the researchers at the “Dr Josif Pančić” Institute, explains.

Six researchers of the Institute participated in this year-long cross-border cooperation project between Serbia and Montenegro.

“The task was to create a register of medicinal plants in these two municipalities, to put forward recommendations for sustainable collection, and provide training on collection and processing of medicinal plants. The main deliverable of this project is the observatory, the kind that we were only able to see at Royal Botanical Gardens. The observatory is, in fact, an online platform that a regular user can visit and watch tutorials about the collection and primary processing of medicinal herbs.

Additionally, the experts organised educational workshops for medicinal plant collectors who suggested prices and what they needed to do their work.

These workshops, Pljevljakušić notes, are incredibly important, given that the collectors sometimes do not pay attention to over-collection, that is the damage it may cause.

“Some herbalists are not even aware that certain plants are under strict protection,” he explains. “The recommendations on sustainable collecting include instructions on how to collect plants so that they don’t wipe out a certain plant completely but leave enough of it for the generations to come.”

The European Union donated an off-road vehicle to the RDA Zlatibor, while the Institute received funds and equipment for the project – most importantly the instrument for the final stages of post-harvesting processing.

Spray dryer, or as my colleagues like to call it, fog dryer, is an instrument that we will use in future research, and on which doctoral dissertations within the Institute will be based,” concludes Pljevljakušić.

Milan Lukić, director of “Dr Josif Pančić” Institute, explains that the Institute is engaged in different types of research, such as ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, reproduction of different types of aromatic and medicinal plants, rare species…

“All of these are highly valuable results, important not only for our profession but for the medical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural sectors, too. Our farmers need to know where they can grow certain types of medicinal and aromatic plants most successfully, what cultivation technology to use, whether they can be grown organically…”

“Bearing in mind that people are increasingly focused on the use of natural disease treatment, or prevention, the importance of studying aromatic and medicinal herbs becomes even greater. Based on all these studies, data, which serve to preserve the health of people, are obtained in a precise manner. So, on the one hand, we have farmers, who are engaged in growing plants, and on the other hand, we have our fellow citizens, who use them as medicines,” concludes Lukić.

Since 2000, the European Union has donated 230 million euros for agriculture and food safety in Serbia. Raising competitiveness, food safety and public health standards, respect for animal welfare, and environmental standards are the main areas of EU assistance to this sector. IPARD (Instrument for pre-accession assistance for rural development) is the leading programme in this area, within which Serbia has been allocated with 175 million euros for the period 2014-2020, with additional 55 million euros of national co-funding, and it is intended for agricultural producers.