Saturday 22 November 2014

Ethiopian alpines: 1

The fabulous dwarf form of Kniphofia isoetifolia, apparently known only from this ridge.

In 2003, travelling on what was then a rotten road, and in a hurry to get to our lodging with no time to stop, I spied a flash of an orange flower in alpine turf as we crossed a high pass on the flanks of the Bale mountains. Luckily, on the way back we were able to investigate, and found it to be an extraordinary dwarf Kniphofia - a truly exciting plant. It didn't key out to anything in the flora, but later research in the herbaria in Addis Ababa and Kew showed it to be a dwarf form of K. isoetifolia, apparently only known from this ridge. When I took an Alpine Garden Society tout to Ethiopia in 2007 this spot was again a calling point, so I was keen to visit again this year.

Since then a new tarmac road has been built along that route and while it means one can zip along in comfort, it was evident that much damage had occurred to roadside vegetation. My worst fears were realised when we got to the top of the pass: a heap of road spoil covered the classic site, and an electricity pylon was planted on it too: in addition, agriculture had crept up the valley sides and thin fields of barley were covering every scrap of cultivable ground. Only the rockiest areas are left untouched. Given that this pass is at 3600 m the crop is likely to be minimal, but such is the pressure on the land of the incredibly fast-growing Ethiopian population - which makes all conservation there a tremendous challenge.

Barley in the foreground: the white scar is the site of the original 'dwarf poker knoll'.

My companions (Kirsty Shaw & Suzanne Sharrock from Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Boyce Tankersley from Chicago BG) photographing flowers in a relict rocky patch of alpine habitat - an island in a sea of barley.

On this occasion we had plenty of time to explore the area, in beautiful (but burning) sunshine, and found it full of flowers, in about as colourful a display of alpine plants as one finds in tropical Africa. The dwarf Kniphofia was on its secondary spikes and there were only remnants of the larger species that also grows there, but everything else seemed to be in full flower. Here are some images of these plants, in a very threatened locality - one wonders if anything of this display will be left in a year or two.

Above the road, in very short turf over rocks, are sheets of prostrate clovers, one with pink flowers and another with mauve: I think they are different species, but don't have a name for the mauve one.
The pink species seems to be Trifolium acaule.
The hemiparasitic Hedbergia abyssinica, named after the doyen of Afroalpine botany, the late Olov Hedberg.
Plectocephalus varians has big, Centaurea-like flowers nestled into the turf.

Hard prostrate clumps of Haplocarpha schimperi recolonizing roadside gravel.

Rumex abyssinicus, Salvia merjamie and the beautiful but horticulturally unfamiliar Hebenstretia angolensis (Selaginaceae)

Salvia merjamie is quite a striking plant, with light blue corollas emerging from darker calyces, but it has a distinctly 'musky' odour. It tends to favour disturbed places. 
A mixture of alpine perennials: Plectocephalus, a Senecio, and Scabiosa columbaria, with various other little things.

The dwarf Kniphofia isoetifolia has very bright orange-red flowers. In this habitat island it is accompanied by a larger Kniphofia, and masses of the white Anthemis tigreensis.

Cineraria deltoidea and a Cynoglossum framed by lichen-covered rocks.

Umbilicus botryoides among the rocks.


  1. What a fabulous kniphofia and that trifolium!
    It amazes me how you fellows can run down their names!
    You do get about John

  2. What absolutely amazing plants: you just leapfrogged Ethiopia way on my bucket list--better get cracking! So different from South Africa!

  3. Amazing find of the dwarf form of Kniphofia isoetifolia. Color is so intense...congratulations. I hope you have managed to get some seed.


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