Orchids in Yemen

by Barbara Evans
Ceredigion SY23 5AN
Wales, UK

Yemen Update 40 (1998):33-36

Barbara and John Evans well grounded in Yemen


The word orchid conjures up, to the average person, images of colorfully exotic flowers, brought from distant lands and grown in the hot-houses of the seriously wealthy or in botanic gardens. These images relate to the kinds of orchids which are epiphytic, growing upon a host plant being on the whole symbiotic with it, aerial in nature, and therefore do not have a terrestrial habit. They are the orchids which have gained tremendous popularity in the world of flower cultivation, breeding and hybridization.

Astonishingly, these epiphytics make up only half of the world's orchid population; the other half, the terrestrials, otherwise known as ground orchids, are probably less well known only because they have become masters of survival through camouflage. Yet this is hardly true, for orchids as a family are relatively young in the evolutionary scale of things and their means of survival are innovative and unbelievably varied. The gorgeous coloring of the epiphytes is just as wonderfully exploited by many ground orchids, whether they are in Africa or tropical Pacific islands. Indeed, the coloring is of vital importance in every case and in one genus, Habernaria, which is very close to my heart, the color green is exploited with such subtle effect that camouflage is total, whether the orchid is on a wind-swept rock in Greenland, or a grass-clad mountain top in Yemen.

To find one orchid in Arabia would be reason enough to marvel, for until today only twenty two kinds have been recorded. To find nine in Yemen -- that dusty, dry old place, biblical and controversial Yemen, land of incense, myrrh and myth -- would seem a miracle. But the miracle happened. To have found them only in time snatched from all-consuming work and life in the capital, Sanaa, during the years 1981-1989 would seem to make the quest endless and almost hopeless unless one lived there forever.

The first orchid we found or rather, almost trampled underfoot, Holothrix aphylla, is an intensely curious orchid and is no more than six inches tall with the palest of mauve, almost white flowers arranged tightly on the stem. Little trace of the waxy dark green basal leaf is seen once the flowers emerge. Its habitat was a stony graveyard near an old town to the north of Sanaa. Some graveyards in Yemen are so ancient as to be no longer used, grazed over by flocks of sheep and vulnerable only to the weather; they are thus almost invisible at first glance for they are part of the broader terracing and pastureland. Of these orchids, others will describe the intimate botanical detail, but those who have seen them on occasion covering only stony graveyards in shallow drifts, following in ones and twos the narrow water channels to the next terrace, will never forget the alarming, demoniacal little face each flower presents if it is closely examined -- at ground level. Two little horns and a goatee beard, a tiny face within little more than an eighth of an inch, is a startling shock to the most ardent orchid lover who lies prostrate to take a closer look. It is one of my favorites for its sheer audacity. Little guardian of the graveyard.

If any orchid we found in Yemen could be called flamboyant, then Habernaria macrantha was that. Habernaria on the whole are the green ones; green in a green world, whether in grassland savannah, on a mountainside, or in woodland, they are well disguised. This one is no exception and was found in more than one location. It is an exuberant eighteen inch high orchid, growing lustily and quite plentifully, for example, at nearly 10,000 feet on precipitous though grassy mountainsides, north of Ta'izz on the Samarra and also Mashwara passes. The single stem emerges from the broadly sheathing leaves and bears the inflorescence of up to nine whitish-green flowers on its top third; it is its nature for the flowers to face in the same direction, towards the sun, and, as in many of its genus, the softly narcissus-like perfume emerges towards evening. A girl of about 8 0r 10 who was tending a flock of sheep on the steep hillside was very curious about our interest in the flowers and though she admired them with us, she did not pick them to give as a present, which would be the normal and generous instinct of the average Yemen, and so we inferred that either the plant was of some intrinsic value to her family, or that is simply was not the custom with these rare plants.

Just after Ramadan in 1983, we happened to be travelling around Yemen during the Eid and were slowly wending our way back to Sanaa, with two days to go before work started again. Climbing Jabal Taaqa, near Jibla, was a pleasant afternoon occupation before finding a campsite somewhere nearby for the evening. Imagine our delight and surprise when near the very top, at about 9500 feet, we discovered a little stand of Habernaria lefebureana, an orchid which is in habit very like the lily-of-the-valley of Europe, with its inflorescence of pure white bell-like flowers. Unlike lily-of-the-valley, whose entrancing perfume is legendary, the aroma from this tiny six-inch orchid is evocative of chocolate and almonds! Once more we were in company with very young shepherds and shepherdesses, four or five in all, whose brilliant Eid clothes of purple and red (the girls) and new gentlemanly sports jackets (the boys) gave an even more celebratory atmosphere in the sparkling afternoon air, as they ran chattering barefoot alongside us. They suggested we might wish to drink. We looked all around and saw no water, though by now our thirst was great. From under a grassy overhand, a secret place, completely hidden from view, they produced a little tin into which they gently scooped water from a pool -- a tiny spring. It was crystal clear and cool. No king could give a sweeter gift. Their little faces watched gravely our every movement as we each in turn received the tin and drank. whilst we almost held our breath lest we should spoil the gravity of this magic moment, of their most courteous gesture and manners.

Habernaria macrantha (Barbara Evans)


When, in Sanaa, you face east and consider that the Arabian Peninsula, bordered to the north by Jordan and the drier parts of Iraq, is mostly an extremely arid plateau of huge expanses of sand and rocky desert which seem devoid of vegetation of any sort, then the quest for and discovery of orchids would seem as bizarre as any story dreamed up by Dean Swift in Gulliver's Lilliputian wonderland of three hundred years ago. However, if you face west and consider the magnificent green mountain ranges and looking beyond, as it were, over the Red Sea to Ethiopia, to the verdant mountains of Africa, then you begin to understand that Yemen is an interface, and the discovery of orchids would not be impossible. Here particularly, in the southwestern corner of Arabia, the Ethiopian montane flora mingled with that of the northern Asiatic and European types before both the last great ice age and the African and Persian Gulf rifts left indelible scars on the land.

In 1981 we had come to Yemen in ignorance, knowing nothing of the flora. Our saving grace was that we had lived in Ethiopia and explored its many habitats, whether finding in the southern Bali Mountains heathers - albeit giant ones, walking through them as if in a forest, or speedwell growing in alpine grassland, and violets creeping along under damp banks in the northern mountain gullies such as at Bolé. Then again, while living in Kenya, we had seen geraniums and buttercups growing in upland moorland, alongside streams and tracks by forest edges. Later still in Malawi, wild lilies, delphiniums, even brambles were clues to the cosmopolitan nature of these flora in general. Here too in highland grassland even on top of Mount Mulanje, we had found over a hundred ground orchids, each almost specific to one habitat, so that in fact we came to Yemen with somewhat practised eyes.

It was on one of our first trips out, to Jebel Raymah, in 1982 that the huge richness of the Yemeni flora became apparent. Climbing up across the giant terraces towards the top - the road was not then complete - wild roses, geranium and pelargonium entranced us; wild herbs perfumed our way. We did not realise that two of the known total of twenty two Arabian orchids had been found, only once, on this mountain, Disa pulchella, with colourful scarlet flowers and Habenaria clavicornis, a green orchid. Thus, with 'rarity' the name of the game we ventured forth again from Sanaa and found not only orchids, but flowers, ferns and even fungi that held affinities with the great families of Africa, Asia and Europe. Cowslips and maidenhair fern grow coyly in the damp and sheltered mouths of caves; they border overhung springs along mountain paths, where men and beasts of burden - often a team of one donkey and one camel - take refreshment from crystal clear pools of ice cold water. Along the crevices and cracks above such springs we found to our amazement the one and only 'Arabian' orchid whose distribution spans continents, extending from the Himalayas to the mountains of Ethiopia and Afro-oriental region in Somalia. Although widespread it may be, its hold is but tenuous, for even in Cyprus and Europe it is a very rare orchid. This Epipactis veratrifolia, however, is one of the most widespread Yemeni orchids. The first time we saw it was not on Raymah but bordering one of those narrow mountainside man-made channels which follow with purpose the cultivated, humid and sometimes richly overgrown, tree- shaded terraces to the east of Jabal Nabi Shu'ayb. It is found among verdure and is green in habit when thus well watered. The otherwise green flower shows exotic traces of deep purple around the rim, and becomes pendulous with age. The whole plant fades with time to buffish yellow, which is in keeping with neighbouring grasses which are hay-like in drought, a fact we discovered when once more we found this plant in dry-season situations, flowers long gone, near Kawkaban, Bab al-Ahjar and Bab al-Ayn. Though not a spectacular plant, it is a great survivor and unique indicator of times past.

The contrast in size of each of these locally rare orchids adds to the excitement of the quest. One could be forgiven for overlooking the two tiny six-inch orchids I've mentioned in my first article, Holothrix aphylla and Habenaria lefebureana, for their very size indicates elusiveness. But when twenty or thirty people walk past a group of brazen four or five foot green stems, a many-flowered spray of 'traditionally' orchidaceous flowers, pink, purple, white, a plant thought of by some, as "very beautiful", and miss it - can there be forgiveness? We were out with the birdwatchers, who of all people might be considered observant (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder!). It was an unusually gregarious (for us) weekend in Ta'izz in 1989, and we were setting out for a walk a few miles west of the town. Lingering towards the back of the group, looking at one plant and another, and occasionally at birds, even we almost missed it as our gaze was fixed earthwards rather than the obverse; the orchid was at head-level, shoulder-level, eye-level. Yes! there is forgiveness, for after all, it was very perfectly entwined in a clump of cactus-like Euphorbia, and its lithophytic habit was unnoticed at first because the whole plant was so beautifully camouflaged as it sprawled on rocks, amongst the thorns. No doubt this, and its universally drought resistant habit, its dry leathery pseudobulbs, and stiff leaves, contribute to its fairly widespread survival in Yemen. Its perfume, however, is unexpected and sweetly pleasant. A young Dutch friend with us, whose job it was, amongst others, to create an Herbarium, a Yemeni national collection, at their agricultural station near Dhamar, was ecstatic; so much so, that as a farewell present when, not long after, sadly we left the country, he gave us an enlarged and framed photograph of this lovely orchid.


The more we looked for orchids in Yemen, the more inquisitive we became about their recent history. From the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries onwards expeditions had been sponsored by the great and good of Europe, not only concerned with philological queries about the interpretation of the Bible, but also to forge trade routes, and answer many geographical, ethnological and archaeological puzzles. Not least amongst these unknowns was the natural history of the world. As well as this, in every expedition there was an element of rivalry. It could be argued that the 'Arabian Journey' to Egypt and Yemen - which was to have on board a philologist, a naturalist and an astronomer, - was initiated by the Kings of Denmark and Norway to counter the success of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science whose first president was the brilliant botanist and taxonomist Linnaeus. To be fair, the expedition was mounted, with some alacrity, in response to a suggestion made by a German professor to those two courts. Pehr Forsskal, the chosen naturalist was, in fact, Swedish and had studied under Linnaeus. Carsten Niebuhr the surveyor was Hanoverian, while only the philologist, Frederick Christian von Haven, was Danish. Departing from Copenhagen in January 1761 the trials and tribulations of this expedition are well documented and worth reading. It is a marvel that any material collected on the journey ever reached home, for the botanist died in Yarim on 5 July 1763. Carsten Niebuhr, the sole survivor, who travelled on to India and then home overland, was away six years in all. Great credit is surely due to him, for after working ten further years he had published not only his own reports but almost all of his perished colleagues' results too.

Three orchids were found by Pehr Forsskal: Holothrix aphylla, Eulophia petersii and Eulophia streptopetala var. rueppelii (modern nomenclature) so when we first found the little Holothrix aphylla on the stony graveyard in 1983, it was as though we were in a time warp, for no one else, we thought, had discovered it since 1762. Our moment of glory was brief, however, for later we read in a Kew Bulletin published in 1979, that it had already been re-discovered that same year, as indeed had the other two, by John Wood who sent samples to Kew Gardens in London for verification. He had left the country by the time we arrived in 1981. Curiously, the little orchid did not flower regularly each year, so perhaps both he and we were just lucky to find it. Far from being deterred, we were even more enthusiastic to use every outing from Sanaa to search for these elusive exotics. Nobody we knew seemed to talk "orchids", let alone "botany", apart that is from an occasional visitor to Yemen, a French geologist called Patrice Christmann who once told us he had seen a pinkish orchid (Eulophia petersii,) near Ta'izz, on a previous visit, long before we saw it ourselves, in 1989. A great orchid enthusiast, he had eagerly photographed the tiny Holothrix aphylla (and us with it!) when we showed him where it was in 1987.

Some orchids are immediately recognizable from their color and habit; Eulophia petersii is one of these. But some, such as the green Habenaria, are unbearably difficult, especially when out in the field with nothing more than a general book of flowers of Europe to use as a guideline. To pick them would be anathema; we knew they were rare, but 'rare' meaning 'possibly unknown'! Once in 1983, travelling mid-morning over the bumpy track from Ibb west to the Mashwara Pass, with a slightly impatient family aboard a tightly packed and therefore uncomfortable Landrover, we spotted several flowering heads of a Habenaria. There was no time to draw it, let alone paint, for the family had the Red Sea in mind- an empty beach, a cool swim and picnic under the shade of the doum palms. For them, to arrive was better by far than to travel hopefully, or so it seemed. They were fretful as we still had an enormous journey ahead of us, a couple of hundred kilometres, and were not absolutely sure of where we would camp. But I have played Eurydice once too often; the thought of travelling on with only my memory to trust, was too great. My heart and soul would forever look back, for who knew when we could return to the same remote spot where we found them. For better or worse I picked one; the stem of this precious cargo was padded in damp newspaper in an old drinks can, lodged in a corner of the wooden chop-box where the flower heads would not be crushed. Then on we drove, back through Ibb and Taiz, down through Kuzayjah, and swinging north at Mafraq al Muhka we followed the concrete Russian road until we reached Wadi 'Urfan. By this time dramatic black thunder clouds streaked with threads of golden lightening were grumbling away to the south of us and we were uncertain whether the powdery sandy soil of the wadi would be kind to us if the rain should come. Yet we bumped on across the empty landscape, arriving at the beach at Mawshij, not unusually with thumping headaches all round.

No doum palms! No shade! And the tide was out. Somehow we rigged up a merciful shelter, for although there seemed to be no sun, radiant heat came from the sky, and the already traumatized orchid would otherwise curl up and die away from its cool mountain home. While John and Mike went off fossicking and bird watching along the beach, I did my best to draw and paint; mad dogs and Englishmen - and women - they say, go out in the mid-day sun. Had we never found another, had the flowers perished, would this Habenaria attenuata be recognisable from my painting? Dire thoughts. Dire straights. I was allowed about an hour, then pack up we must. It was done, though never good enough, with never enough time to show the intricacies of its three dimensional structure and yet retain the soul, the essence - art, not all science. We packed again, and drove on and on until we came to Mansuriyah where we turned east and spent a marvellously moonlit night camped on a pottery-packed midden at al Midman, sleeping on Houndsfields in the open air, though under mosquito nets.

When we did arrive home a few days later, the flower was alive, but of course we still had no books to lead us through an analysis of its exact structure, to find the name. In fact all of the orchids we found were drawn before I could find any way of identifying them. Only later did we find it, thanks to Philip Cribb's key in the 1979 Kew Bulletin; one or two other books were useful, if only by a process of elimination of photographs, and these I also list here. Orchids in this land are rare and should not be picked unless with direct instruction on how to preserve and send them to a well known herbarium for identification.


Agnew, A.D.Q. Upland Kenya Wild Flowers. Oxford University Press. 1974

Blundell, M. The Wild Flowers of Kenya. Collins. 1982

Collenette, S. An Illustrated Guide to the Flowers of Saudi Arabia. Scorpion Publishing Ltd. 1985

Cribb, P.J. New Records of Orchidaceae for Arabia. Kew Bulletin Vol. 42 (2) 1987

Cribb, P.J. The Orchids of Arabia. Kew Bulletin Vol. 33 (4) 1979

Edwards, S. Some Wild Flowering Plants of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa University Press. 1976

Hepper, F. N. and I. Friis. The Plants of Pehr Forsskal's 'Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica'. Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. 1994

Moriarty, A. Wild Flowers of Malawi. Purnell. 1975

Williams, J. G., Williams, A. E., Arlott, N. Orchids of Britain and Europe. Collins. 1978

Williamson, G. The Orchids of South Central Africa. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1977

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