Context & Culture

Plants of Afghanistan 1: Centre of Global Biodiversity


Among the hundreds of containers bound for Afghanistan which were impounded for over a year at Karachi docks because of a trade dispute were copies of a ground-breaking book on Afghanistan’s plants. S W Breckle and M D Rafiqpoor’s Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation, (1) is unique, the result of decades of work by several professors – Afghan, German and British – and written in both Dari and English. It is both scholarly and accessible and intended for practical use. The book has finally found its way to Kabul, more than a year after it was published, and more than 4000 free copies are finally being distributed to Afghan schools, universities and research institutes. AAN’s Kate Clark has been leafing through the book and hearing from botanists as to why Afghanistan’s plant life is quite so exciting – it is, they say, a globally important centre of biodiversity.

Afghanistan is particularly rich in flowering plants. This may be counter-intuitive, given how relatively dry the country is, but there are far more species and sub-species here than, for example, in damper central Europe which is much more favourable for plant growth.  4500 flowering plants have been identified so far in Afghanistan and many more, it is believed, are yet to be found and named.

A particularly high proportion of those plants – 30 per cent – are endemic, ie they are found nowhere else in the world.  By way of comparison, the British Isles has only a handful of endemic species out of about 1700 flowering plants. Unlike Britain, where each new ice age tended to wipe the land clean of species, Afghanistan’s valleys acted as refuges for plants. That allowed them, over millions of years, to evolve into a multiplicity of new species, specially adapted to very local conditions. As Breckle and Rafiqpoor point out, this is evidence of the ‘major importance of the Afghan/Central Asiatic area as a very old and major centre of development and evolution in flowering plants – at all levels – family, genus, species.’ (The same pattern is true for Afghanistan’s fauna – which has more species of vertebrates than Europe does.)

In Afghanistan, the old geology and wide diversity of habitats has also contributed to diversity.  Habitats range from the high mountains of the north-east which rise to 7000m to the deserts of Helmand at about 500m: there are alpine meadows, some dense forests, although rapidly receding due to logging and fire wood collection, pistachio and juniper woodland, and steppes and arid deserts and even sub-tropical semi-deserts.  Anyone who has seen the dry places bloom after spring rain or winter snow will appreciate how beautiful, if short-lived – many of Afghanistan’s flowers are.

The biodiversity of the plant-life is startling.  There are more than 600 species of legumes/pea family, including the spiny cushion plants(Astragulus) so typical of much of the Afghan landscape with 380 endemic species; there are more than 500 Compositae/daisy family, including 144 types of thistle alone, 93 of which are endemic to Afghanistan; also, 225 species of the Cruciferae/cabbage family.  Then there is the Labiatae/mint family with 205 species, including more than 40 species of cat mint (Nepeta), 24 of clary (Salvia), as well as thyme (Thymus), mint (Mentha) and marjoram (Origanum). Other families producing spectacle and beauty are the lillies (Liliaceae) with 156 species, including 15 species of tulips and 65 of onions and the irises (Iridaceae), with more than 30 species.

AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, points out that Afghanistan is part of a ‘Vavilov Centres’, (2) one of eight regions of the world where crop plants were first domesticated.  For plant breeders, having access to the wild relatives and related species of a crop is important. (3) The plant crops domesticated here include wheat, peas, lentils, chickpeas, sesame, hemp, onion, garlic, spinach, carrot, pistachio, pear, almond, grape and apple.

Breckle and Rafiqpoor’s book is illustrated with pictures of more than 1200 of Afghanistan’s flowering plant species. The book gives the Dari common names, where they exist, along with distribution and aids to recognition. There are also practical introductory chapters on Afghanistan’s physical geography and climate, information on conservation and plant collecting techniques and many maps, photos and diagrams.

This is a beautiful, ground-breaking book.  The lead authors are, now retired, but formerly dean of the faculty of biology at the University of Bielefeld, Siegmar W. Breckle, born in Germany in 1938 and, Daoud Rafiqpoor, born in 1949 in Kabul, who is the co-ordinator of the ‘Biodiversity in Change’ project at the University of Bonn. Three other academics also made major contributions: Helmut Freitag, retired, but formerly a professor at Kassel University, Andreas Dittmann, Professor of Geography at the University of Giessen and coordinator with the German Academic Exchange Service which funded the free distribution of the book to Afghan schools and colleges (4), and Ian Hedge, of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

Professor Hedge, who is now 83, travelled widely in Afghanistan in the 1960s and many of the pictures in the book are taken from those pre-war botanical expeditions.  Hedge told the BBC in January that, although he went to Afghanistan to study the plants, he ended up falling in love with the country and its people.  ‘I had travelled in Turkey and a little in Iran before going to Afghanistan, but for me Afghanistan was the really beautiful country.’ (Read about him protesting the book impounding at Karachi here).

In Hazarajat, I recently met a team of botanists from Kabul University and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, one of whom, Tony Miller, had studied with Professor Hedge as a young PhD student in the 1970s, helping classify and name the plant specimens Hedge had brought back.  The Kabul/Edinburgh team was working with a group of very enthusiastic botany and agriculture students from the universities of Kabul and Bamian.  They had just spent several days and nights in the Koh-e Baba, the mountains that run through the centre of Hazarajat, staying in mountain villages overnight and learning/teaching practical fieldwork skills.  The new field guide was in use.

The mix of passion and scholarliness in the team made me wish for a second life as a botanist in Afghanistan.  Given the many problems facing natural habitats here, their work is important.  It also looked like lots of fun.

A second blog will look at the rangeland of Hazarajat and the importance of the wild plants which local people gather for food, fuel, fodder and medicine. AAN has put together a top ten of the forage plants of the Koh-e Baba. They include rhubarb, wormwood, giant hogweed, liquorice and caraway.

  

(1) Published by Scientia Bonnensis, (2010) ISBN 3940766305, 9783940766304.  In Kabul, a reference copy can be read in the AREU library.

(2) Named after the Russian botanist, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, who developed the theory. The region stretches through Punjab, Pakhtunkhwa/North West Frontier Province, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and western Tian-Shan (China).

(3) Ruttig remembers that, in the model farm in Darulaman in West Kabul, there were more than 120 types of wheat.  Along with the farm, he said, they survived the many years of war before finally succumbing to drought and neglect during the Taleban’s regime – who did make (unsuccessful) efforts to draw the Germans in to rescue the farm.

(4) Dittmann is also the chair of the prestigious Arbeitsgemeinschaft Afghanistan (AGA, or Afghanistan Research Group – (ARG)), an association of German scientists who work on Afghanistan. Its website, although inactive since AAN’s former Advisory Board member Bernt Glatzer’s death in 2010, still links to many resources on Afghanistan. The website is in German, but much of the linked material is in English.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture