This website has been designed to be as user friendly as possible. You can reach a family, genus or species directly by typing its name in the search box.
If you don’t know the name of the species but you know to which family it belongs, you can either type the name of the family or browse the list of available families. A brief description of the family is then provided and, in some cases, a few references are quoted for a more in depth knowledge. If the family comprises more than one genus, a key to the genera will appear. Once the genus you are looking for has been identified, you can click on it for a brief description, a list of relevant references, and –if composed by more than one species– a key of its species. Once the species has been identified, you can click on its name to access a detailed description with photographs and a distribution map.
The language tries to be as non-technical as possible, to make the content more easily accessible for the amateur user. However, if a term is unknown to the reader, it can be looked up in the glossary we have included or in any of the good botanical dictionaries already available.
The description of each species is preceded by the accepted scientific name, followed by its synonyms and then by the common names it might have in different languages (when either exist). Then, the morphological description follows, starting with the shape and height of the plant (whether it is a tree, a shrub, a subshrub or a liana and whether it is upright, prostrate, creeper, climber, etc.).
The information regarding the overall shape of the plant might not seem very relevant, because even though various parameters that consider the height and the branching of the trunk have been established, they are not always applicable to North Africa. Here, in the Mediterranean environment, trees are generally smaller than in Europe or tropical Africa, and their size is reducing due to the aridification of the soils. That is, as soils become thinner by the erosion and desertification that affect the region, the trees that grow on those soils will reach be smaller. Since the loss of soil is very serious in the area, trees tend to have increasingly shorter and tortuous trunks; and this is aggravated by the increased grazing pressure. Another contributing factor is the disappearance of the primitive shady forest environment, which causes direct sunlight to reach the trees, therefore making it unnecessary for them to grow rapidly in search of light among the other trees, as was the case with their ancestors, centuries ago. The large trees and shrubs that can still be seen in the fields are relics from the past, hundreds-year-old specimens that developed in better conditions than the present ones. In the case of shrubs, the grazing pressure by livestock they face alters and delays their natural growth, and causes distortions in branches and leaves, frequently giving them an appearance that is far from the one they would have under natural conditions.
Caution must be exercised with the description of leaf shape and size. In the same species, the leaves of plants that grow in a humid climate will be larger and softer, while the plants that grow in dryer climates will have smaller and more coriaceous leaves. Likewise, in ± spiny species, branchlets, spines and leaves will be sharper as the dryness of the habitat increases. The measurements offered for the leaf blade are normally the extreme measurements found, either directly in the field or in references. Measurements stated in parenthesis (at the beginning or the end of the figures) indicate exceptional extreme measurements. Thus, for example, if the length of a leaf is stated as (10)15-20(25) mm, the common maximum and minimum lengths are 15-20, although, exceptionally, some leaves have been found that are as short as 10 mm or as long as 25 mm.
Regarding flowering and fruiting periods, two key factors should be considered. First, the dates cited generally correspond to the entire area where the species grows in North Africa, and it is important to have in mind that flowering will start earlier in the warmer areas and later in colder ones. For this reason, the altitudinal and longitudinal gradients must be taken into account. Thus, while plants in coastal areas and in the warmer and more humid inland depressions may start flowering in February, in mountains and in inland plateaux, the flowering of the same species may begin in March, April, or even May. Another important factor to consider is that in the Saharan area many species flower atemporally, with flowering sometimes depending solely on rainfall.
As a visual aid for the identification keys and the descriptions of species, this guide includes over 3,000 photographs, which in many cases will allow for a rapid identification. However, it is not advisable to identify a plant only through photographs, which are intended just as a complement to the information offered by the keys and the descriptions. While capturing the images, we have made sure that no plant was harmed, especially the rarer ones, that were approached with extra care. At all times, it was taken into account that gathering samples in excess is seriously detrimental to smaller populations. That is the reason that samples or herbarium specimens were not collected during the research for this work.
An important new improvement of this edition is the possibility to search for all the known species of a particular area. That is, if someone is visiting a particular region and wants to know what species grow there, they can simply trace the area on the map to get a list of all the known species in that area. This is an especially valuable tool for anyone visiting the territory, because it gives them access to a list of the species present and helps them determine if a species is missing. If this is the case, if the explorer can capture good photographs of the discovered species and gathers a series of important facts (see the “search by map” section), their discovery can make a positive contribution to the improvement of our maps and lists.
North Africa is not yet sufficiently explored from a botanic perspective. Since sometimes clear and precise information about certain species is lacking, the limits of the distribution areas stated in this guide should not be understood as definitive, but rather as an approximation. We hope that, with the help of everyone, the distribution maps can be improved in the upcoming years.
The uses of plants
After several discussions regarding the common uses of plants, it was decided to exclude them to avoid promoting their usage with purposes that not always have been scientifically proven, that in lot of the cases have dubious results and that do not benefit the economy of the countries involved. On the contrary, these uses sometimes threaten the survival of numerous species of plants (and their associated fauna). So it was finally decided that as a rule, it would not speak here of uses that did not benefit the environment (understanding by benefiting the environment, for example, which species are more useful for ecological restoration). This decision has been made because many plant species are threatened precisely by over-collection.
In North Africa there are hundreds of publications on the use of wild plants, for their nutritional properties for humans and animals, medicinal, veterinary and magical uses, for their essential oils, properties of wood, etc. It is continually being published about this and people are collecting more and more plants from nature for their real or imagined benefits.
Since the end of the 20th century, the alarm has been raised about this abuse in the collection of wild plants. Thus, in the Red List of vascular plants of Egypt (Flora Aegyptiaca Vol 1, 2000), when citing Cleome droserifolia, it was indicated that “The severe exploitation as a medicinal plant led to the disappearance of considerable areas of its populations“.
More recently (2018) the IUCN published the book Conserving wild plants in the South and East Mediterranean region. In it the authors of each country indicated which the main threats to the local flora were. One of the most repeated threats was, literally: plant collecting; uncontrolled collecting of plants for medicine and / or food; collecting of medicinal plants; overcollecting of medicinal plants; unsustainable plant collecting; overuse of local resources – food plants… aromatic and medicinal plants…
In the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, among the threats to the conservation of plants is expressly indicated their direct use by man. Of the plant species evaluated worldwide, 3,420 species are threatened by gathering (many of them herbaceous). 26,590 species are threatened by logging and wood harvesting. https://www.iucnredlist.org/search