Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago

Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago

by Anthony Miller and Miranda Morris

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 2004. Pp.776. Illus. Indices. Appendices. Maps. Hb. £75. ISBN 1-872229-159-7.

Over a hundred years ago the British botanist I. B. Balfour collected 5–600 specimens of flowering plants on Socotra and published his Botany of Socotra (1888), establishing the island as a treasure trove of rare and magical flora. At last we have a successor to this work. In the late 1980s Anthony Miller of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, undertook to carry forward the study of the flora of this Indian Ocean archipelago with his colleague, the linguist Miranda Morris, who has worked alongside him to document the ethnobotanical knowledge and practices of the indigenous people. The result is a description that now numbers 825 higher plant species including 15 endemic genera and 307 endemic species, establishing the Socotra archipelago (with Abd al-Kuri and The Brothers – Samha and Darsa) as one of the most botanically important island groups in the world. The Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago is the definitive record of this biodiversity and its ethnobotany.

The self-stated aim of the publication is to provide a practical guide for conservationists and planners as well as students, botanists and others interested in the plant life of the region. The book’s centrepiece is an Encyclopaedia that covers all plant families, genera and species recorded to date from the Socotra archipelago. 

The entries systematically describe taxonomy, ecology, conservation status (of endemics), distribution and ethnobotany. The ethnology text is organised under headings such as names, food (human), food (livestock), bees/honey, flavouring/food additive, fuel, timber, fibre/cordage, leatherwork, wood, medicinal/veterinary, cosmetic, pest control and so on. The Encyclopaedia is preceded by photographic Plant Portraits of most endemic and some non-endemic plant species and by a hand-illustrated Key aimed at enabling non-taxonomists easily to identify all the higher plant species of the book. This Key, devised by Miller and his talented botanist and illustrator (and also the book’s designer) Diccon Alexander, has evolved considerably since 1994 when drafts were circulated to a range of colleagues for comment. Although meant to be user-friendly, consulting the Key is not entirely free of frustration, but it is nonetheless a worthy tool. There are two new maps, one with revisions of Johnstone’s Socotra 1:12500 RGS, 1978; there is a wonderful computer-simulated aerial view of the main island and an extensive section of colour photographs depicting the seven main vegetation types, the diverse topography of plateau, plain and mountain, and the character of the people who husband and utilise the flora of the islands. 

The volume ends with two appendices, one on lichens and one listing the 26 species and combinations new to science, and finally the requisite indices of plant names and Socotri names. Unfortunately, there is no general index for those who want to pursue the wealth of multidisciplinary information in the book.

The invaluable introduction is divided up between Miller and Morris. Inevitably two very different voices are heard, and it is right that the editor, Ruth Atkinson, chooses not to try and blend them into one. Miller’s broad approach sets forth a scholarly history of the scientific exploration of the archipelago, the geology, the geography and climate, and patterns of plant distribution; and, perhaps most interesting of all, an explanation for the origin of the Socotran flora and thoughts about the extent of its active speciation. It is his logic which governs the classification and diagnosis of the plants, but where he draws on the bioinformation of other scientists, he credits them thoroughly. Morris takes on the awkward task of introducing the geography and people of Socotra strictly in relationship to the plants, and the result is perhaps less capacious than Miller’s section, although equally authoritative. (Her ethnological material represents a fraction of her knowledge about the people of Socotra – their language, culture, society, poetry, spirituality and much more.) She explains the interaction between the population and the terrain and climate, and then addresses the inhabitants’ concept about plants in the islands and their multitude of uses. Her introductory remarks attempt to correlate and amplify her observations of traditional practices that appear piecemeal under plant names in the body of the book. A touching example is the careful explanation of the cowherd’s tulchan, a doll made of calf skin and sweet smelling herbs such as Lavendula nimmoi or Micromeria remota to console the cow which has lost her calf. It will be noted that Morris’ introduction rarely cites other researchers. In the Encyclopaedia, however, particularly where she deals with comparative uses of the plant or closely related species in the surrounding region, her references are copious. Morris contribution to our understanding of Socotra’s ethnobotany comes from her unique first-hand information collected in the field. Like Miller’s advancement of floristic science, her work deserves recognition for its originality and outstanding skill.

Conservation issues receive great emphasis in the book. An overriding concern of the authors is to see the biodiversity of the archipelago understood so that it will be protected by world conservation bodies. With social change coming faster and development under way, the island’s fragile ecosystem is threatened. Climate change also may be bringing extinctions. These pressures are discussed at every turn. The authors respect the people of Socotra for the stewardship they have provided of their island’s flora over two millennia, and no one reading the book can help but marvel at the ways that Socotrans have found to utilise and yet conserve the natural world that sustains them in times of plenty or drought. The book is dedicated to these careful guardians of their island’s biodiversity, and rightly so.

The heft of this 776-page volume precludes its use as a field guide, but the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s website provides links to smaller articles by field workers as well as virtual reality panoramas of the islands for the general public. It is a pity that the quality of the colour reproduction in the book itself is poor. Nevertheless, this is a definitive monograph to cherish, to use and to share. Anyone who seriously cares about the Socotra archipelago should give it pride of place on their shelf even if it dents one’s annual book budget to purchase it.

Francine Stone

Dr Stone’s review was first published in the Bulletin of The Society for Arabian Studies, No.10, 2005. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Editor of the Bulletin and of the author.

Anthony Miller and Miranda Morris