Flora of Afghanistan

As with the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Afghanistan tends to only be in the news for the wrong reasons.  Let me, for this country, present a different perspective.  I once again, shall share with you extracts from Dr R.R.Stewart's HISTORY and EXPLORATION OF PLANTS IN PAKISTAN and ADJOINING AREAS, published towards FLORA OF PAKISTAN in March 1982.  As explained previously, Dr Stewart gave me permission to utilise anything he had published.

I have never visited Afghanistan myself - the closest I got was when I attempted to escort a group of plant enthusiasts to the KHYBER Pass during a botanical tour of Pakistan in 1987. We were turned back by a Pakistan Army tank (the Russians were in Afghanistan at the time) - much to the disappointment of two ladies who had specifically paid to come on the tour to see the Khyber!  I recollect Afghan refugees were lopping branches off trees for fire-wood in the Botanical Garden at the UNIVERSITY of PESHAWAR, much to the distress of the Curator, who showed us around but he naturally sympathised with their predicament.  I know that if illegal immigrants - even if they had fled a war-torn country genuinely in fear of their lives - started doing the same in the grounds of Kew Gardens, they would not get such a sympathetic response!

Understandably, not much has been published about the flora of Afghanistan in recent year, so I was delighted to receive my copy of the Spring 2015 issue of 'The Rock Garden' (Quarterly of the North American Rock Garden Society).  It contains an excellent article 'On the Frontline of Botany: in Afghanistan' (with fine accompanying images as you can see from the front and back covers reproduced here) written by John Mitchell, Alpine Supervisor at Edinburgh Botanic Garden.  Staff from Edinburgh Botanics teamed up with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which helped greatly in obtaining permission to enter the country, which is understandably very hard.  Security and safety were taken very seriously with one of the requirements of participation was to attend an 'awareness' course run by an ex-SAS (the British Army's Elite Special Air Service) - who talked them through various scenarios and what to do in them.  I am impressed, so often in the past the wonderfully 'amateurish' British approach to travelling to dangerous places has prevailed. Being a member of staff of an institution, whether a horticulturist or botanist does not mean they necessarily have even basic hill-walking skills.

This genuine 'expedition' took place in 2011albeit with considerable local input (and quite rightly so).  To help with communication and security there were 4 people from Conservation Organisation for Afghanistan Mountain Areas (COAM) and two senior members from UNEP.  Unlike trekking in the Himalaya or even in Pakistan, little English would be spoken, especially in remoter parts.


Within the article was a photo of an ANEMONE.  This was labelled as ANEMONE TSCHERNAEWII but in 'AN ANNOTATED CATALOGUE OF THE VASCULAR PLANTS OF WEST PAKISTAN AND KASHMIR' Dr Stewart wrote it as ANEMONE TSCHERNJAEWII Regel - which he gave as a synonym for ANEMONE BIFLORA DC. Over the years I have been told that the ANEMONE BIFLORA from Kashmir I have offered as seed, was in fact ANEMONE TSCHERNJAEWII.  I do not know what is the current taxonomic treatment of this group - nor I suspect do others making the pronouncements.  It is certainly true that the Kashmir material (I have never seen it flowering in the wild but was successful in flowering it in my Slough garden from tubers supplied by P.Kohli & Co. in the 1980s.  What is clear is that the Kashmir plant does not match the red form of what is known in cultivation as ANEMONE BIFLORA introduced from Western Iran by Jim & Jenny Archibald.  The image taken by John Mitchell is certainly close to the Kashmir species, which had more dissected foliage. 


"Afghanistan is a rugged, land-locked country.  The Soviet Union lies to the North, Pakistan to the East and south and Iran to the West. It is between latitude 30 degrees 25' North and 60 degrees 45' East. It covers 365,000 square miles, an area larger than that of France. Seen on the map, Afghanistan is an irregular oblong block of territory with a narrow piece of land projecting from the northeast corner called the WAKHAN CORRIDOR.  The corridor separates Pakistan from Russia and furnishes a high level summer route to China. It extends to 74 degrees 51' East.

Although Afghanistan is included in the FLORA IRANICA as part of the Irano-Truanian floral province, it is necessary to point out that although the main central mass of the country can be called Iran-Turaniana, important parts of the flora have very different affinities.

DR PER WENDELBO of Sweden, who has collected in Chitral, Iran and Afghanistan, thinks there may be enough difference between the two floras of the two countries to warrant making them two sub-regions of the Mediterranean type.  In his paper SOME DISTRIBUTIONAL PATTERNS WITHIN THE 'FLORA IRANICA' AREA in 'PLANT LIFE IN SOUTH-WEST ASIA' (Bot. Soc. Edinb., pp. 29-42, 1971), he says, 'Probably there is a rather marked difference in the composition of the flora of Persia and Afghanistan, which makes it possible that the main parts of the two countries belong to two floristic sub-regions.  The flora of Afghanistan is apparently more related to that of Central Asia than to that of Persia.  The KOPET DAGH mountains make up an important transitional zone.'  Dr Wendelbo also states, 'Central Asia has been an extremely important source for the flora of the whole region'. The great majority of the Afghans live in the central floral zone which can be called 'TURANIAN'.  I agree with Dr. Wendelbo that there is a great deal of difference between the PERSIAN and AFGHAN flora.  When 'FLORA IRANICA' is complete, someone should make a detailed comparison.

The Great Himalayan ranges do not run east and west but have a northward trend until they meet the HINDU KUSH in Chitral.  They then take a distinctly southwestward turn.  Mt. TIRIC MIR at 7700m is one of the great mountains of the world and it is in Chitral, just east of Aghan territory.  From this highland region a great spur of the Hindu Kush range runs eastward fanning out towards IRAN and another runs southwestward to BALUCHISTAN.  This more southern line of ranges froms the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two most important Afghan rivers are tributaries of the Indus and the two most important passes are located where these two rivers, the KABUL and KURRAM cut across the boundary range.  The KABUL river enters Pakistan at the famous KHYBER PASS and the KURRAM river enters by the PEIWAR PASS.  Between these two passes the boundary range tyrns east and west and is called SAFED KOH (White Mountain) because MT. SIKA RAM, which is 4655m high, is white most of the year.  At PEIWAR PASS, the river turns south and then southwestward though WAZIRISTAN into northeast BALUCHISTAN.  In WAZRISTAN the mountains are called the SULEIMAN RANGE but as the peaks are not higher than 3600-4000m they do not become snow-capped and are very barren and rugged with only a small population of nomads and shepherd farmer.  There are forts instead of factories.  The rainfall is not high enough to produce perennial streams and the forests are open and at high altitudes.  I do not know of any meterological figures.  There is no large town in this arid area.

These mountains which separate the two countries are not only a political boundary but they are also a barrier to plant migration and they prevent monsoon rains from reaching Afghan territory except in the far north in the province of Nuristan.

ASPLENIUM  ADIANTUM NIGRUM - collected in Chitral 1897/99 (on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan); common from Dir, Chitral and Swat eastward from 1000-2700m


Living at Gordon College, Rawalpindi most of the time from 1911 to 1960, and visiting PESHAWAR frequently and collecting twice in BALUCHISTAN, twice in the KURRAM Valley and once very briefly in CHITRAL and once being refused permission to collect in Afghanistan, I have often wondered what the flora was like on the other side of the KHYBER.  The first botanical exploration of AFGHANISTAN was done by people based on India and although I do not know anyone who has done any botanical work in AFGHANISTAN in a hundred years entering from the south.  It should be of interest to Pakistani botanists to know what has been done in that country botanically and what the flora is like.

In 1961 DR. E.H. WALKER of the SMITHSONIAN in WASINGTON, D.C., gave me a copy of KITAMURA'S 'FLORA OF AFGHANISTAN' which had been published the year before.  I was working on a 'CATALOGUE OF THE PLANTS OF PAKISTAN' and was interested in finding out which Pakistani plants grew north of the Pakistan border and have been interested ever since.

The first man to do any collecting in AFGHANISTAN was JOHN MARTIN HONIGBERGER (born in 1795 in KRONSTADT, TRANSYLVANIA in RUSSIA, an adventurer who was away from home for 35 years, earning his living as a doctor.  He must have been a man of boundless curiosity.  He first lived in Turkey and then in EGYPT and by 1830 he had reached LAHORE in the PUNJAB.  At this time MAHARAJA RANJIT SINGH was at the height of his power and lived there most of the time as Court Physician, until the British took over in 1848.  In 1833, after being away from home for years, he determined to go home on a visit and went by a dangerous route northward into Russia via Afghanistan.  It was hot weather and there were swarms of locusts.  They were robbed by the WAZIRIS and he did little collecting until he arrived in Afghanistan.  He halted for a time at KABUL and made a plant collection which he took with him to VIENNA and gave to DR. S.L. ENDLICHER (1804-49), who with DR. EDUARD FENZL (1808-79), Curator there, published as Fasicle of HONIGBERGER'S plants but did complete publishing a list of his discoveries.  The first and only fascicle was named SERATUM CABULICUM.  Much of his collection remained unnamed for 140 years until rescued by Dr Rechinger who published the names of some of them in his SYMBOLAE AFGHANICAE and they will be, or have been, published in the FLORA IRANICA.  Kitamura omits Honiberger from his introduction, and gives credit to GRIFFITHfor doing the first collecting in Afghanistan.

WILLIAM GRIFFITH (1810-45) was probably the ablest of the British botanists who served in India and the amount of work which he did in his short life and the number of species he collected, about 7000, is probably greater than that of any other botanist in India.

CHEILANTHES PERSICA (syn. C.szovitsii) - collected in Chitral 1897/99 (on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan); this xerophytic fern is found from Madeira and the Canaries east to Gilgit and Baltistan


After arduous service in BURMA, William Griffith was directed to accompany the British Army invading AFGHANISTAN in the FIRST AFGHAN WAR (1839-42). He entered from BALUCHISTAN by the CHAMAN route. he made a tour of the country from west to east, and was the first to collect in KAFIRISTAN, now NURISTAN, the easternmost province, which is adjacent to CHITRAL, GILGIT and HUNZA of Pakistan with a flora entirely different from that of the rest of the country, because it benefits from the summer monsoon.  The rest of the country is dry all summer except in the alpine zone where there is melting snow on the mountain tops.

Due to the non-cooperation of the KAFIRS (unbelievers in Islam) he was unable to do as much collecting as he had hoped.  One day he was ambushed and his servant was wounded.  the forests in Nuristan, like those of the Himalaya, have a closed canopy while the forests in the rest of the country are the open, park-like type without a definite tree-line.

Griffith collected from April 1839 to September 1840.  He was a keen collector and inspired a number of army officers to collect for him and encouraged locals to bring him specimens of both plants and animals.  DAVID RITCHIE (1809-66) and GRANT were surgeons.  There was a CAPT. E. SANDERS. LT. THOMAS HUTTON was a zoologist and HENRY MORTIMER DURAND was a Political Officer.  The DURAND LINE, the boundary between the NORTH-WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE of Pakistan, was named for him.  GRIFFITH died of Malaria in 1845 before he could write up his work.

In 1970 MISS J.M.LAMOND, now MRS WOOD of EDINBURGH BOTANIC GARDEN, published 'THE AFGHINISTAN COLLECTION OF WILLIAM GRIFFITH' (Notes R.B.G. Edinb. 30: 159-175).

DR. J.E.T. AITCHISON (1836-98) a British Civil-Surgeon, who wrote on the plants of HOSHIARPUR and JHELUM districts of the Punjab, through the influence of GEN. COLLETT (1836-91), QUARTERMASTER GENERAL, was permitted to collect in the KURRAM VALLEY.  GEN. COLLETT also did some collecting there and RHODODENDRON COLLETIANUM is named for him.  In 1902 COLLETT published 'FLORA SIMLENSIS'.

FLORA SIMLENSIS with sample page covering PRIMULA DENTICULATA, which grows in AFGHANISTAN

In 1879 AITCHISON collected both in the UPPER and LOWER KURRAM VALLEYS.  In 1880 he was not able to work in the HARIAB, the upper district, but only in the lower valley, based in  PARACHINAR.  At that period both portions of the valley were AFGHAN territory, but since this war the lower valley has been a Political Agency under the NWFP of Pakistan.  The inhabitants of this valley are Shias in a sea of Sunnis.

AITCHISON published two reports, the first to be written on this flora, which is remarkable for being, like that of NURISTAN, largely Sino-Himalayan.  His first report was on his work in 1879.  It would have been better if he had waited and published on the two years work at one time. If he had done so he would have avoided much repetition and some confusion for each year he numbered his specimens beginning with No. 1, so that in citing his specimens the collecting years needs to be added.  He studied his collections at Kew and the report on the first year's work was published in Journ. linn. Soc. 18: 1-113. (1880) and the result of the second in 19: 139-200, with 26 plates, 1881.  He published some new species and others were named only to the genus.

From Sept. 1884 to Aug. 1885 AITCHISON explored the southern and western parts of Afghanistan.  Starting from QUETTA he entered Southern Afghanistan exploring along the HELMAND river to where it flows into marshes.  He then went north to HERAT.  His report entitled ' THE BOTANY OF THE AFGHAN DELIMITATION COMMISSION' was published in the TRANSACTIONS OF THE LINNAEAN SOCIETY Series 2 Vol. 3:1-139 with 48 plates (1888).

POLYSTICHUM  LONCHITUS - collected in Chitral 1897/99 (on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan); this cosmopolitan high level fern is common in the birch zone including Kashmir @ 2700-3600m

The next collector seems to have been PROF. A.A. VON BUNGE (1803-90) a Russian baron who collected in Western Afghanistan in 1858-59.

In 1924 and 1926-27, N.T. VAVILOV and P.P. BUKINICH toured in Afghanistan looking for cultivated plants. Between 1923 and 1929 C.MANGER collected some plants near KABUL.  In 1935 G. KERSTAN of the GERMAN HINDU KUSH EXPEDITION collected especially in NURISTAN and part of the results were published in FEDDE REPORT. BEIH. 108. 1938.

During 1937 and 1939 DR. WALTER KOELZ of the University of Michigan, USA, with his collector RUP CHAND toured in Afghanistan, especially in the north, collecting herbarium specimens and seeds for the U.S. DEP'T OF AGRICULTURE in Beltsville, MD.  There is a set of these collections here in Michigan.  A set went to DR. RECHINGER in VIENNA and many determinations were published in SYMBOLAE AFGHANICAE and are being published again in FLORA IRANICA.

MR and MRS KOEIE and L. EDELBERG, members of the third DANISH EXPEDITION TO CENTRAL ASIA collected in Afghanistan in 1948-49.  Between 1948-51 H.F. NEUBAUER collected especially in eastern and northern Afghanistan and in Nuristan in 1951 and O.H. VOLK in 1950-53.  The list of collections of all of these expeditions, like those of KOELZ, are being published in the FLORA IRANICA and some were printed in the SYMBOLAE.

Since 1952 Japanese botanists have been much interested in the flora of Afghanistan and the Central and N.W. Himalaya.  The first to arrive in Afghanistan to collect was DR. O. SUZUKA who collected many plants while studying ARTEMISIA MARITIMA.

In 1955 a team of botanists from KYOTO UNIVERSITY went to Afghanistan along with other scientists. The botanists were DR. KIHARA, DR. YAMASHITA, DR. KITAMURA and ASSIST' PROF. NAKAO.  Their large collections were named by DR. KITAMURA with the aid of many taxonomists and edited by him.  The results were published by KYOTO University in 1960 and are entitled 'FLORA OF AFGHANISTAN'.  The book is well illustrated, has a good introduction and lists about 2680 species.  This number is far from complete as the Japanese have not had the advantage of having access to the specimens of a good many collectors which are available for DR. RECHINGER and his collaborators.  We will have to wait for the completion of RECHINGER'S monumental work before we can estimate the number of species growing in Afghanistan.  Though incomplete, Kitamura's book will be much used until someone prepares a second edition, adding many species from Rechinger's volumes because Kitamura's work is in English while Rechinger's is chiefly in German and Latin.  Rechinger's volumes provide keys and descriptions while there are only descriptions of the new species in Kitamura.

I recently went through DR. BOR's list of Afghan grasses is SYMBOLAE AFGHANICAE No. 6 and find that omitting varieties, he lists 279 species while Kitamura lists 165.  DR. MARCEL RAYMOND of Montreal lists 95 sedges as coming from the whole of Afghanistan while the Japanese only have 64.  In COUSINIA, however, Kitamura lists 103 and only 78 are in SYMBOLAE.  I think that when the FLORA IRANICA is complete that the number of species listed from Afghanistan will be at least a third larger than Kitamura listed in 1960.

To be continued....

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