The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 10th August 2010

The Vegetation of Ethiopia, Plant Collectors and the Flora Project

Given by - Sylvia Phillips

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons


As reported in the Summer 2009 issue of News File, two small groups of Anglo-Ethiopian Society members were fortunate enough in March of that year to visit the Kew Herbarium, London, to see some of the Ethiopian plant specimens. Dr Sylvia Phillips, Honorary Research Fellow, was our guide on those study visits and the Society was delighted to welcome her back earlier this year to give the August lecture.

Sylvia started by reminding us that the vegetation of Ethiopia is varied and complex - certainly not what the 'man on the street' thinks of when asked about the country.

Modern studies were initially based on the 1983 vegetation map of Africa produced by Frank White. Types included: Sudanian and Sahelian vegetation zones with a dry climate and a vegetation dominated by woodland, wooded grassland and subdesert scrub; Afromontane or Afroalpine highlands with a climate and vegetation modified by altitude with more plant diversity than might be expected.

In 2010 a new Atlas of Potential Vegetation of Ethiopia was published and definitions of previously accepted vegetation types were completely revised. Sylvia's short photo tour of the regions based on this classification highlighted: Juniperus at Menengasha, typical of dry montane forest; Acacia commiphora in bushlands, which allows a rich ground flora of Aloe and Euphorbia to develop; coffee and bamboo forests in the evergreen montane; and the well known Hagenia, Hypericum, and Lobelia in the Afroalpine moorland.

Turning to plant collectors, one of the earliest was James Bruce. The most important of early times, however, was undoubtedly the German naturalist/botanist Georg Heinrich Wilhelm Schimper. Other noted botanists who worked either in the field or on herbarium collections included the Frenchman Achille Richard (1794-1852), the Italian Emilio Chiovenda (1871-1941), the Austrian Georg Cufodontis (1896-1974) and the Italian Rodolfo Pichi-Sermolli, a fern expert (1912-2005).

Thus, the botanists and collectors up to the second half of the 20th century were mainly, or perhaps even exclusively, European. The Ethiopian Flora Project - a project to publish a complete new Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea - was started in 1980, after a long planning period (the first meeting having been held in 1970). A key objective had been to make sure that the Ethiopian Government approved the project. This was the first time that Ethiopians were formally involved in the botanical study of their country. But it has truly been an international project with the National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, the Kew Herbarium, the Botanical Museum and Library, University of Copenhagen and the Department of Systematic Botany, University of Uppsala as partners. Sylvia herself has worked recently on the project. The Flora was finally finished in 2009 (published as an 8 volume set) and covered 7000 species of flowering plants and ferns. This is a great accomplishment but Sylvia noted that special mention should be made of the increasing number of Ethiopians who have worked on the project over the years and the fact that 11 Ethiopian students have achieved PhDs under the scheme.

The Flora Project has also given rise to other projects such as those on medicinal plants and essential oils and populist books on lilies and orchids have been published.

Our thanks go to Dr Sylvia Philips for a very informative and entertaining lecture and we also offer our congratulations to all on the Flora Project.

First Published in News File Winter 2010

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