With Wood among the Flora

Reviewed by Paul Scholte
c/o Courier service (Yaounda), P.O. Box 20061,
2500 EB The Hague, The Netherlands

Yemen Update 40 (1998):53,62

J.R.I. Wood. 1997. A Handbook of the Yemen Flora. With color illustrations by Hugo Haig-Thomas. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. UK. ISBN 1 900347 31 8. Price: £85, 434 pages with 40 color plates.

When I started working on the vegetation of Yemen in 1987, this book was already announced as being in press. We had been using Wood's excellent identification keys on woody plants of the Haraz region and his vegetation descriptions of the Tihama and Yemen in general. A key problem at the time was that no exhaustive check-list covered the Yemen flora, obliging botanists to rely on works of NE Africa, Egypt and Iraq. At various times publishers announced Wood's handbook, but all my subsequent orders were cancelled. Until last year when Kew Botanic Gardens finally published what is the definitively guide to flora of (former North)Yemen.

The taxonomic part of Wood's text in more than 350 pages covers each of the 1750 fern and flowering plant species in the former North Yemen (unfortunately not including the former South Yemen!). Identification keys, mainly based on vegetative characteristics, enable everybody with some basic botanical knowledge to identify the species based on the chosen genus. Keys to thegenera are often given as well. For a few genera, useful line drawings are given of leaves or fruits. The role of the 40 colour plates at the end of the book, other than esthetical, escapes me.Even the author does not refer to them in his descriptions! To facilitate identification I would recommend using Colonette's Flowers of Saudi-Arabia with 1700 beautiful and detailed illustrations,alongside Wood's Flora.

Arabic names are given when there was firm evidence of their name. I wonder why they were transliterated,complicating their use for everyone with a basic knowledge of Arabic.Wood is right in emphasizing the geographical usage of local names,within Yemen as well as amongst other Arab countries. The flora part closes with a useful index of genera as well as of Arabic names. I have not been able to test the keys as yet, but have little doubt about their utility. The species descriptions also give many details on distribution in the country, altitude range and abundance. Such detail demonstrates Wood's intimate field knowledge of the Yemen flora.

These details invite everyone to critically compare one's own observations, for which the author has to be praised. Unfortunately the area encompassing former South Yemen is not included, making the title of the book, published eight years after the unification, rather misleading. We will have to wait for the Flora of Arabia, of which the first volume has just been published but will take years to be completed, to cover this part as well. Further taxonomic clarification will then certainly follow ongenera with large numbers of undescribed species (Caralluma, Grewia, Maerua), as Wood has already indicated.

The 50 introduction pages are the weakest part of the book. The first chapter on "The discovery of the Yemen Flora" does not refer to Hepper's lengthy account on Forsskal,published by Kew Gardens as well! The chapter of "Factors influencing the distribution of plants in Yemen" does not take into account the results of various plant ecological studies carried out at the Agricultural Research and Extension Authority in the late1980s. The chapter on "The Vegetation of Yemenî resembles one of Wood's earlier publications which was highly interesting, but by now outdated. It would have been far easier and more comprehensive to have used as a base the 1:500.000 vegetation map which we published in 1991. The concluding introductory chapter on "The composition of the Yemen flora"is greatly outdated. The publication of White and Leonard summarized the latest conclusions on this subject. These drawbacks are without doubt due to the fifteen (!)years in delay of publication. Wood based his work on his stay in Yemen from 1974-1981 and finalized the manuscript in 1982, with someof the references working up to 1987. He writes: "Every effort has been made to keep this book up to date, since it was completed in1982 despite unforeseen delays in publication". This is somewhat an understatement. The editor could have written an explanation of the changed situation, or even better an appendix with at least a reviewof recent studies. Amongst others this would have included a series of publications from the University of Sanaa (Faculty of Science,Dept. of Biology), the University of Aden (College of Education,Dept. of Biology) and at the Agricultural Research and Extension Authority (Dhamar and Taiz). This would have stimulated these Yemeni scholars to continue in what eventually may be the production of a compendium on the flora of the eastern part of (united) Yemen.

Unfortunately the price of this book is exorbitant, a somewhat simpler production such as normally practised at Kew Gardens (e.g. Friis' Forests and Forest Trees of NE Tropical Africa) and leaving the color plates out could have brought this work to the (financial) attention of Yemeni botanists as well. Despite these shortcomings, no doubt exists on the gap filled with this long awaited Flora, facilitating all future ecological studies in Yemen.


Collenette, S. 1985. An Illustrated Guide to the Flowers of Saudi-Arabia. Scorpion Publishing LTd, London.(copies are difficult to obtain, one can try NHBS, in UK)

Scholte, P.T. , A.A. Khuleidi and J.J. Kessler. 1991. The Vegetation of the Yemen Republic (Western Part). AREA Dhamar/EPC Sanaa (see also book review in Yemen Update). There is both an Arabic and English version. Copies are still available in Yemen at headquarters of AREA (Dhamar) and EPC (Sanaa) . If difficult one can try via A.A. Khuleidi, P.O. Box 5788Taiz, Yemen

White, F. and Leonard, J. 1991. Phytogeographical links between Africa and Southwest Asia. Floraet Vegetatio Mundi 9: 229-246.

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