Reviews of Floras

PART I

It is not easy to obtain copies of most 'floras' covering the Indian Himalaya (when they exist).  I do have:
'Flora of Lahaul-Spiti (A Cold Desert in North-West Himalayas*)
B.S.Aswal & B.N.Mehrotra
(Bisehn Singh Mehendra Pal Singh, 1999)

* Please note it is "Himalaya" not "Himalayas", which is correctly used in the book but not on the dust-cover.....

As this region is part of the 'Trans-Himalaya' it is of special interest to me.  Lahaul borders Ladakh, whose flora I have specialised in since 1980.

Previously, Lahaul & Spiti were considered separate districts.  In the British days, 'Lahul', was a province of the Punjab.  Combining the two for governmental administrative purposes might be justified but in floristic terms, it would have been better to keep them separate.  Spiti was closed to foreigners for decades after Indian Independence.  Even nowadays relatively few visit (I have not been there myself but to Lahaul six or seven times).  The same applies to Indian botanists.  It is clear from the pages of the flora that the plants are much less well known than those in Lahaul.   It seems the author has seldom visited Spiti.  As far as I know, there are quite a number of species found in Spiti which are not in Lahaul.

This book is primarily an attempt at a Flora for Lahaul only.

My first impressions of this book are not favourable.  At least it is modestly-priced.....  Two fundamental mistakes have been made. Firstly, the inclusion of quite a number of species which only grow on the main Rohtang Pass, the border between Lahoul and the Kulu Valley, primarily on the Kulu side, southern slopes of the main Himalayan range, being very much 'Himalayan' species not 'Trans-Himalayan' ones.   When a typically Himalayan species just creeps into Lahoul, such as on the Northern slopes of the Rohtang above Koksar, these are acceptable records but will be uncommon, if not rare as a whole.  Secondly, many species which the authors have never seen nor are there any pressed specimens in Indian herbaria are included.  To their credit they have drawn attention to numerous misidentifications of plants by Chowdhery and Wadwha published in their 'Flora of Himachal Pradesh Analysis' (1984) but still persist in including species on the strength of their presence in this flora!  In check-lists and floras it is standard practise to draw attention to past misidentifications and "doubtful" species.  Stewart in 'An Annotated Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Pakistan & Kashmir' (1972) by assigning these as "Dubia".

In addition to inclusion of questionable Chowdhery & Wadwha species, the authors accept quite a number of Rau's highly doubtful records from 'High Altitude Flowering Plants of West Himalaya (1975) which they admit they have not seen - hardly surprising, as most are unlikely in the extreme, an example being Myricaria prostrata (now known as Myricaria rosea, known from riverside gravel from Central Nepal to SW China, common in Nepal's inner valleys but not the Indian Trans-Himalaya).  Quite what plant Rau mistook this for, I cannot imagine, as its habit, foliage and flower colour are completely different to other Myricarias in Lahaul or bordering districts;  the authors list only one other Myricaria from Lahaul - M.germanica, yet 'Flowers of the Himalaya' say M.squamosa is common and gregarious at riversides in Lahaul.  How can such an abundant species be missed, yet a non-existent species be included!

The authors then provide keys to distinguish between species, many of which are not found in Lahaul-Spiti......

Such false entries will confuse plant geographers and lead to misunderstandings as to plant distribution.

This aside, the fundamental issues are the reliability of identifications within this flora and are there any species growing in Lahaul-Spiti which are missing from the flora?

Dealing with the second point, first.  Apparently, this flora is mostly based on the intensive field surveys and collections made by the senior author during the period 1977-1985.  This was followed by scrutiny of literature and study of herbarium specimens of earlier plant explorers deposited at various herbaria (presumably on in India).  What a shame the authors did not have access to large numbers of specimens collected in Lahoul by Koelz & Thakur Rup Chand in the 1930s, which have languished, un-touched (some no doubt have rotted away or infested with insects by now) for 80 years at the Urusvati Institute, Naggar, Kulu Valley.  A duplicate set was named, labelled and mounted in the herbarium of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  This is by far the best set of specimens (with quite good accompanying field notes - too many specimens in herbaria have few, if any, notes taken in the field, an approximate altitude or even the name of the nearest large settlement.

I cannot but conclude that I have explored for plants in Lahaul more extensively than Aswal - a high proportion of the pressed voucher specimen he quotes are from near the first settlements in Lahaul (Koksar to Sissu) after one has crossed the Rohtang and turned North-West with a majority of those from higher altitudes limited to the Baralacha La (which is on the main route from Manali in the Kulu Valley, Himachal Pradesh and borders Rupshu, part of Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir State and close to the border with what was Tibet (now controlled by China).

In 1985 & 1986, I led two botanical tours involving treks up the Miyah Nullah, Lahaul starting at Udaipur.  There are quite a number of such valleys, unsurveyed by Aswal.  It does not seem he has trekked much at all.   What about the route from Baralacha to Kuzum La via Chandra Tal?  What about a short trek towards the      glacier?   And what about the plants found above the Baralacha and Kuzum La (this pass is on the border between Lahaul and Spiti)?  I suspect quite a number of high-altitude species are missing from this flora.  As for the very steep northern slopes of the Great Himalaya, which is crossed at the Rohtang, these are likely to not have been covered.  What about the trek from Chatru up to the Hampta Pass (Lahoul side) undertaken by groups of plant enthusiasts from the UK (who would carry on down into the Kulu Valley)?

Overall, I conclude that the coverage is poor making it impossible to meaningfully complete the ambitious objectives of this 'Flora', which I shall comment upon in bold:

1.    to provide the means of identifying plants of Lahaul-Spiti; as I am already more familiar with the plants of Lahaul than anyone alive, the fact that what I have seen of this flora to-date, in no way enables me to reliably identify any unknown species, photographed in Lahaul, the authors have failed.  If I cannot benefit from this flora then who can?  Blindly following the keys to families and then genera, is likely to lead to numerous misidentifications - after all, those without my expertise are likely to think they have found plant species which do not occur in Lahaul or Spiti.....

2.    to up-date nomenclature of the plants of the region; whilst this is certainly an improvement on Hooker's 'Flora of British India', as most Indian botanists operate in isolation internationally, the authors are likely to have been unaware of many taxonomic and nomenclatural changes.  Added to which, ANY flora, no matter of what standard, is out-of-date as soon as it has been printed.  I regularly refer to Stewart's 'An Annotated Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of Pakistan and Kashmir' printed in 1972.  This is of a high standard but very much out-of-date now.  As is 'Flowers of the Himalaya' first printed in 1983.

3.    to obtain and record first-hand information on the medicinal and ethnobotanical uses of the plants from the local population; meaningful information on the medicinal uses of plants in Lahaul could only be obtained by consulted senior amchis (doctors of traditional medicine) as Dr Walter Koelz (who collected thousands of pressed specimens with Thakur Rup Chand, a member of Lahaul's ruling family for the Urusvati Institute) checked, thanks to Chand with those of the time (the 1930s) towards his account 'Notes on the Ethnobotany of Lahul, a Province of the Punjab' published in 1979. Instead they in a basic and virtually meaningless way summarise the findings of other authors from the 1950s, not specifically applicable to Laahul or Spiti.  Hardly first-hand information!

4.    to document rare, threatened and endemic taxa; this is dependent firstly upon correct identification and secondly upon adequate coverage.  I consider both are inadequate. The senior author, without consulting specialists in the West, published Meconopsis bikramii as a species 'New to Science' (in an obscure journal which few have access to).  Like many others, I find this highly unlikely. I would like to view a photograph of the voucher pressed specimen.  In all probability, this is just a variant of the widespread Meconopsis aculeata.

5.    to record the ecological amplitude of population;  I am rather confused as to what this means? 

6.    to serve as a representative flora for Western and North West Himalaya between 2400-5000m; I have greater overall expertise on the flora of the 'Western Himalaya' and 'North-West Himalaya' than anyone alive.  The flora found in Lahaul (I do not know the flora of Spiti well-enough to comment authoritatively) is not 'representative', even if this work had been of a higher standard, of these regions.  It is very much a transition between the flora of the Kulu Valley and that of Ladakh, primarily a 'Trans-Himalayan' flora with species of the borderlands of Western Tibet being well-represented.

7.    to suggest suitable protective measures for the conservation of natural resources;  It is impossible to suggest such measures unless the standard & reliability of identifications along with better coverage had taken place.  Even if the authors had covered more ground in Lahaul and Spiti, they would have needed o be able, in the field, the reliably identify many of the species they saw, to meaningfully assess abundance or rarity.   This cannot be based upon a relayively small number of present-day and even fewer 19th and early 20th Century collections in Indian herbaria.  And what 'Suggestions for Exploration and Conservation of Natural Resources' did the authors actually make?   These were very general, oddly enough recommending that comprehensive modern floras be prepared for the Himalayan region!  Did they count their flora covering Lahaul-Spiti as part of this?

8.    to provide material for the compilation of the flora of Himachal Pradesh in particular and the Flora of India in general  If this flora represents the material utilised towards a 'Flora of Himachal Pradesh', then I express deep concerns.  We await a 'modern' flora for Kashmir, Ladakh, Kulu Valley etc.

I shall check my own lists of species seen in Lahaul and those recorded by other Western botanists and plant enthusiasts to check if any are missing from this flora.

Comments