Swat Valley - a celebration of its flora

The Swat Valley has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years.  I wish to do my small bit to support the efforts which have centred around Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate - she is known mainly for human rights advocacy for education and for women in her native Swat Valley, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of northwest Pakistan (known as the North-west Frontier Provinces in the 'British' days).   And I shall do so by celebrating and drawing attention to the varied and attractive flora of the Swat Valley.  This in no way trivialises the terrible events but allows us to appreciate and value the beautiful things in life - this is important.  One MUST be positive.  Let us hope that in more peaceful decades to come, visitors and locals can appreciate what they have.

I am one of a limited number of Westerners who has visited Swat, leading a 'botanical' tour from Islamabad/Rawalpindi through to Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan in the spring of 1987 see: http://www.chadwellseeds.co.uk/pakistan.  The images which illustrate this account are from scanned in slides taken at the time.  Sadly, it is likely to be many years before before it would be sensible to return to take fresh digital ones. 


Dr Ralph Stewart described the SWAT within his HISTORY AND EXPLORATION OF PLANTS IN PAKISTAN AND ADJOINING AREAS (Flora of Pakistan, 1982).  When I visited him at the home for retired PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARIES in DUARTE, CALIFORNIA, he gave permission for me to utilise whatever he had written in whatever way I saw fit.  For more information about Stewart see: http://www.chadwellseeds.co.uk/flora-of-ladakh-1 .  I shall reproduce extracts of his account below:

" The most interesting and beautiful part of the NORTH WESTERN FRONTIER PROVINCE of Pakistan is SWAT.  It is bounded on the east by the INDUS, on the north by GILGIT, on the west by DIR and CHITRAL and on the south by MARDAN and NOWSHERA districts. Most of Swat is contained within the watershed of the Swat river but BUNER, a district on the southeast, drains into the Indus being separated from the rest of Swat by a range of hills.

'The Star Tulip' (TULIPA STELLATA)
The lower part of the Swat Valley has been well populated for two thousand years or more. It was a well known centre of GANDHARAN civilization and the people then were BUDDHISTS.  Buddhist STUPAS and other archaeological remains are still visible and below Mingora, Pakistani and Italian teams have excavated buildings and statuary similar to the antiquities in Peshawar and Mardan Districts. The area is well watered and green but the original forests vansished long ago. Most trees are cultivated and are not indigenous.  We can, however, guess at what the dominant trees of the lower valley were in ancient times, for there is a taboo against cutting graveyard trees and as each village has its cemetery, it has a grove of ACACIA MODESTA mixed with OLEA FERRUGINEA.  VISCUM CRUCIATUM is a common parasite on the olives.


To see Swat at its best, one should visit it in late March or in April when the fruit trees are in bloom and there is still snow on the surrounding mountains. There are fields of opium poppies and blooms of various pastel shades, reminding me of the tulip fields of Holland.  Most, if not all, of the spring flowering trees have been planted.  In fact almost all the trees about Mingora and Saidu Sharif are adventives.  There are apples, pears, plums, figs, mulberries, walnuts, apricots, loquats, grapes, the Persian lilac, willows, the Lombardy poplar, the shisham, the silk cotton trees plus some Eucalyptus.

White and purple forms of IRIS GERMANICA are cultivated

At this season, the mustard fields are golden yellow and the yellow basant (REINWARDTIA) is common on banks and in crevices of limestone rocks.  It blooms even though cropped close to the ground.  Protected in a garden it becomes 60-90cm tall.  The young wheat fields are full of poppies.  The graveyards are blue with a cultivated Iris and sometimes with a white one. 

White form of IRIS GERMANICA - can easily be confused with IRIS KASHMIRIANA

There is a small wild IRIS SISYRINCHIUM and a large yellow one, IRIS AITCHISONII.  There is a small blue SCILLA, lots of pink and white tulips and blue IXIOLIRION.  There are numerous mints, peas, wild onions and buttercups.  There is the beautiful 'Hazara Liliy' (NOTHOLIRION THOMSONIANUM - which used to be called LILIUM ROSEUM). 


There is also a striking large yellow mint, EREMOSTACHYS SUPERBA, which I have only found here and in the plains below Attock. I think that INCARVILLEA EMODI, which used to be called an AMPHICOME and which grows in limestone crevices is the best of all.  I nearly forgot the NARCISSUS, probably introduced, which blooms in January.

GENTIANA  ARGENTEA - abundant in early spring
This Spring flora came in from the west and is North African or Mediterranean. It disappears in the hot weather and when the monsoon breaks, an unrelated tropical flora, Indian or Indo-Malayan takes its place. The Swat spring flora is finer than the one we have in the foothills of the Punjab further east.

Zabta Khan (foreground) with our driver in Swat Valley

When ALEXANDER THE GREAT came through Afghanistan into North India on his great Indian expedition, which took him as far south as Lahore before turning West, he did not enter India through the Khyber Pass but passed through Swat to the Indus.  SIR AUREL STEIN, the great Central Asian explorer and archaeologist, obtained permission to explore Swat while it was still closed to outsiders, in his hunt for the route ALEXANDER took.  For that purpose he was allowed to survey and map the state. In his search for the places the Greeks called AORNOS in the Greek Chronicles, he visited many places on the Indus side of the state that no other outsider had been able to see, and it is too bad that no plant collector was assigned to work with him.  He found that the side of Swat toward the Indus is extremely rugged, precipitous and pathless and too steep for cultivation and so has very few inhabitants. Although Sir AUREL was no plant collector, I saw two or three specimens he had sent to KEW from Swat.  BUTEA MONOSPERMA which must be at the western edge of its range and the other, I think, is IRIS DREPANOPHYLLA.

During the period when Swat was closed, someone by the name of T.D. WEATHERHEAD collected a few plants there in 1938 which are in the herbarium of the NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM in London. 

Swat is not an old State but the creation of WALI MIAN GALI who built the little empire by conquest. When we visited Swat in 1952, the original Wali had retired to a rather small white marble palace he had built at MARGUZAR, a quiet retreat a few miles up the valley from SAIDU SHARIF, the capital. The retired Wali did not know English but his son was educated at the ISLAMIA COLLEGE, PESHAWAR.  The son was an enlightened ruler and the State improved rapidly under his administration. He built roads, schools and hospitals and founded a college in the capital. His little army was used for road building. His father had established law and order by building a chain of small, square, stone and timber forts, with a garrison of about 40 men each, and these were all connected with headquarters by telephone. The soldiers had no uniforms but could be recognised by their guns and ammunition bandoliers.

Swat was closed to almost all outside visitors during the British raj, but after 1947, restrictions were gradually removed and permission was easier to obtain.

Before the modern period, during the CHITRAL RELIEF EXPEDITION of 1895, the Commanding Officer, GENERAL GATACRE collected a few plants in Lower Swat but for half a century, Swat was a blank on the botanical map. Then in 1949, PROF. MUHAMMAD SALIM of the GOVERNMENT COLLEGE, LAHORE, took a group of students to Swat and made a collection of about 300 numbers which they sent to me for naming.  So many of them were unfamiliar that when in 1952, another party of Lahore professors and students was organized, I was happy to join them.  From that beginning a stream of collectors has gone to Swat.

In 1952 our party went by train to DARGAI in MARDAN District. This was the end of the line. We then went to Swat by bus. We first climbed to the MALAKAND PASS (835m) and then followed the Swat river to MINGORA, the business centre, of the little country and only a few miles from the capital. Our first collecting trip was to MT. ILAM, site of an old Hindu shrine at 2910m. We were allowed to stay in the Wali's guest house and the next day his younger son and grandson accompanied us.  The route we followed was through his private game reserve so thata it was an unspoiled collecting ground for plants. After this we hiked up the highway to KALAM at 2045m in SWAT KOHISTAN, using it as a centre for exploring the surrounding mountains.


Swat can be divided into three main areas.  In the main valley there is LOWER SWAT where most of the people live, which extends up to BAHREIN where the mountains close in and the river flows through a gorge. These mountains cut off many of the rain-bearing clouds of the monsoon so that UPPER SWAT or  SWAT KOHISTAN, is drier than LOWER SWAT and has a flora more like  CHITRAL and parts of GILGIT.  The summer climate of this area is very pleasant and some day KALAM and the area towards UTROR may become a resort.  This is the second part of Swat.  Not only does it have a different flora but the inhabitants are DARDS and not PATHANS and they have their own language and style of dress.


The third part of Swat is BUNER.  This is a fertile area, mostly below 1000m, chiefly south of LOWER SWAT and separated from the valley by a range of hills.  The road to BUNER from MINGORA has to cross this range by the KARAKAR PASS.  Once, when PROF. NASIR and I visited Swat, we left by this road, visited the shrine of PIR BABA and then went south by a little used road to NOWSHERA.  BUNER is warm and tropical in the summer and is drained by the INDUS itself. We made a collection in BUNER but I do not know anyone else who has collected there except SULTAN ABEDIN of KARACHI University.  There is no doubt there are others.

Just as NANGA PARBAT dominates ASTOR, and CHITRAL is dominated by MT. TIRICH MIR, UPPER SWAT IN DOMINATED BY MT. MANKIAL, c.5800m.  UPPER SWAT or SWAT KOHISTAN is so mountainous that there is little land level enough for irrigation and the population is scanty.  When I was there KALAM (1900m) was only a small village where the TEHSILDAR had his headquarters. KALAM once had 1000 houses but was almost wiped out in a war between USHU and UTTOR. In 1962 there was a new rest-house on the plateau, high above the river, with fine views of the snows of MT. MANKIAL.  The river forks at KALAM.  One branch turns west toward DIR and the other leads up to a pass which the Japanese in their report on their visit to this area call the DADARILI AN (5060m) leading into GILGIT.  Duthie called it the PALOSAR PASS.  The Japanese call MANKIAL PEAK, MT. FALAK SAR.  In this region the limit of cultivation was not much above 2100m with maize and buckwheat being the highest crops.

BETULA UTILIS forest - note the characteristic curvature at the base of the trunks

IN SWAT KOHISTAN, at the tree line, as in KASHMIR, there is BETULA UTILIS, the white birch, in some places, but the most interesting thing for me was the presence of a gregarious oak, QUERCUS SEMECARPIFOLIA, which might be reduced to shrub size or become good sized trees with rounded tops, which were well separated as in a park. The Japanese in their discussion of the trees of this area do not mention this species. I was also pleased to find PINUS GERARDIANA (which the Japanese call PINUS GRIFFITHII) between KALAM and UTROR. The first time I went to Kalam the motor road had not reached KALAM but the last time, in 1962 it went a few miles further to GABRAL on the Utror side of the area. I believe that it now goes north to USHU.

In 1953 with A.R.BEG, I walked east from Kalam past USHU to the first glacier on MT. MANKIAL.... The area was not considered safe and the TEHSILDAR sent six soldiers with us, charging a rupee a day for their services.

Accommodations were most primitive. One night calves were turned out of their shed and we spread maple leaves on the floor and placed our bedding on the leaves.  Another night we slept in a small windowless shop.  The soldiers must have had to supply their own guns for no two were alike. Some were flint locks, a few were long-barrelled and many, if not all, were village made copies of Mausers, Enfields, Austrian nor even American guns.  The dates on the originals were also copied and I noticed 1859, 1881 and 1884.  A gun collector could have found most interesting material for a museum.  There was no time-piece in the nearby army post and only one man could read.  It was evident that they were not overpaid.

'Deodar or Indian Weeping Cedar' (CEDRUS DEODARA)

There was a good deal of cultivation between Kalam and Ushu.  I was interested in the wayside trees between c. 2000-2300m. There was a little PINUS GERARDIANA.  DEODAR was dominant for a mile or two and the for no apparent reason QUERCUS BALOOT, which wasdominant in the gorge above BAHREIN appeared again.  Then there was FRAXINUS XANTHOXYLOIDES and near a stream FRAXINUS EXCELSIOR.  In one place there was a quite a little QUERCUS DILATATA.  QUERCUS INCANA does not reach this altitude.

The climate of KALAM must suit the deodar to perfection for I never saw so many DEODARS anywhere else and it was regenerating naturally.  Now that roads reach Kalam I hope the forests will not be destroyed for quick profit but that modern forestry methods will be used in order to keep the forest healthy and productive for the future. There must have been some magnificent specimens in the past.  In a mosque we saw a beam 200' long.  The tree must have been 250' tall. We saw some magnificent beams in bridges.

Anyone visiting Kalam should take a day or two to collect in the Sho Nala, the nearest little valley running down from MANKIAL to the USHU stream. We found some interesting things in the nullah: CICER MACRANTHUM (a Chitral and Russian species), ALCHEMILLA TROLLII, CHRYSANTHEMUM TIBETICUM, HYSSOPUS OFFICINALIS and DRYOPTERIS OREADES (another Central Asia species).

'Blue Pine' (PINUS WALLICHIANA) - green first year cones

In the SWAT KOHISTAN forests there are a good many kinds of trees, both evergreen and board-leaved. There are two pines, PINUS WALLICHIANA and PINUS GERARDIANA and the HIMALAYAN FIR, SPRUCE and YEW.  I did not find the yew common.  The BLUE PINES were suffering from the smallest of the mistletoes ARCEUTHOBIUM MINUTISSIMUM.  There are two maples, ACER CAPPADOCICUM and ACER CAESIUM. There are several willows, CRATAEGUS SONGARICA, PYRUS LANATA, PRUNUS CORNUTA and PRUNUS ARMENIACA, MALUS PUMILA, CORYLUS COLURNA, POPULUS CASPICA and POPULUS CILIATA, JUGLANS REGIA, EUONYMUS HAMILTONIANUS, ELAEAGNUS UMBELLATA.  These all grow or are cultivated in the Western Himalaya.

'West Himalayan Spruce' (PICEA SMITHIANA) - young cones

For details of my 1987 botanical tour to Pakistan (incl. a full list of species seen) see: https://sites.google.com/a/chadwellseeds.co.uk/main/Pakistan

Map of PUNJAB and adjoining areas from FLORA OF PAKISTAN


Until 1949, Swat was practically unknown botanically and its bibliography is very short.  The first paper to mention the Swat flora is Duthie's 'THE BOTANY OF THE CHITRAL RELIEF EXPEDITON OF 1895' published in the first volume of the 'Records of the Botanical Survey of India, 1898'.  This barely touches on Swat.  The second was 'PLANTS OF WEST PAKKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN' edited by Siro Kitamura, Kyoto Univ., 1964.  This book is illustrated by maps and excellent photographs.  The work is based on a joint trip, as far as Swat is concerned, of Kyoto and the Punjab University in 1957.  There were three Japanese Forestry students as collectors: K.Honda, K.Ogino and G.Iwatsubo and my former student Shaukat Ali Chaudhary who is now in Saudi Arabia.  This party was in Swat from July 9 to the 24th.  They ascended the Swar river to Kalam and then went north via Ushua and the Jaba Lake to the Dadarili Pass which led them into Gilgit.  They seem to have been the first botanists to have gone to Gilgit by this route. The names of the plants which they collected in Swat are mixed in with those collected on other expeditions in Nuristan, Gilgit, Chitral and Baltistan and so their list is hard to use. They report few new species and on pages 247 to 268, they discuss the vegetation of Swat Kohistan and the East Hindu Kush.  The third is my Check-List of the Plants of Swat State, Northwest Pakistan, reprinted from the Pakistan Journal of Forestry 17(4), 457-528 (1967).

In 1965 Dr. Karl Rechinger collected in Swat and he includes Swat and Chitral in his 'FLORA IRANICA'.  My 1967 Check-list of the plants of Swat contained 1473 taxa of flowering plants and 55 pteridophytes. Two more have turned up since..... I am not under the illusion that these numbers represent all the plants for this was my estimate tweleve years ago and much collecting has been done since that time.

Before 1950, Swat was practically unknown and in these 30 years scores of students from Karachi and Punjab Universities and from the Forest Research Institute, Peshawar have collected plants in Swat.  Little Swat material  has been collected by people from outside Pakistan and so it will be possible for the person who prepares a flora for Swat to assemble enough material in Pakistan to prepare a really good flora.  The early collections from the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and in fact, from almost everywhere are scattered far and wide.

To be continued.....