Ethiopia has received much publicity over the years about its land degradation caused by loss of forests and natural vegetation. Though little is known about the true nature of the original plant cover, areas of natural habitat do exist, giving examples of the richness of this country. As in the animal world, many of the plants are endemic, and much has yet to be discovered. A 'Flora of Ethiopia' project is documenting the plants of the region.
Some species endemic to Ethiopia are among the ones commonly seen in and around Addis Ababa, such as the stinging nettle (Urtica simensis) and the tall Erythrina brucei tree. The large yellow flowered senecio, Solanecio gigas, is commonly seen as a hedge in towns and villages. In the Asela area a globe thistle is endemic: Echinops ellenbeckii with its large red balls of flowers. Echinops longisetus, also red-flowered and endemic, can be seen in Bale. The smaller, blue-flowered Echinops kebericho is seen only in the grasslands of Shewa and Gojjam.
Around September and October much of the highlands are coloured yellow by daisies collectively called the meskal flowers (adey abeba in Amharic), as they flower at the time of Meskal, or the Finding of the True Cross, celebration. Many of these are Bidens species, and six of them are endemic. In Bale carpets of flowers are seen, many being endemic. One of these is the small bushy Alchemilla haumannii. This is interspersed with a bright yellow-green herb, the endemic Euphorbia duma lis. Large areas may be populated with red-hot poker plants, Kniphojia joliosa, and the skyline at high altitudes is broken by endemic Lobelia rhynchopetalum, whose leafy rosettes stand two to three metres (6.5 to ten feet) high before sending up a spike of flowers - reaching six metres (20 feet) at times. -The endemic Plectocephalus varians looks rather like a Scottish thistle at first but is soft to the touch.
A visitor used to European plants will find many familiar flowers in the highlands, some even the same species as those growing in more temperate climates. St. John's wort (Hypericum spp.) can grow as the familia small herb in grassland or as a bush or tree, the large yellow flowers being seen in the dry season. There is only one rose indigenous to Africa, Rosa abyssinica, and its sweet foliage and creamy white flowers can be smelt and seen in many areas in the dry season. The tiny pimpernel flowers of Europe will be seen in short grass areas of the highlands. Anagallis serpens is a pale pink colour, but there are also red and blue species. Heathers of the genus Erica, which cover large areas at high altitude, will grow to form substantial trees ten metres (33 feet) tall if left undisturbed.
On the high plateaus at 4,000 metres (13,120 feet), clumps of white and mauve gentians (Swertia spp.) of many varieties bespeckle the ground, many of these yet to be named scientifically. Carpets of small blue lobelia and mauve and pink clovers carpet the sides of the roads. There are many different species of yellow-flowered everlasting flowers, Helichrysum spp., and groundsels, Senecio spp. One of the most common is Helichrysum splendidum, whose grey bushes cover large areas of the high rabica, bursting into yellow flowers before the beginning of the rains. Alchemilla or lady’s mantle plants cover the ground profusely, many species intermingling in the rich sward found here.
Trees found in the highland areas are often juniper and hagenia, or kosso as it is called in Amharic. Other trees of the highlands include the African olive (Olea rabica) and several species of Maytenus with their striking red and white seeds.
The forests of south-eastern Ethiopia on the slopes of the Bale Mountains are relatively untouched, their remoteness being their salvation. A journey through the forest here shows the altitudinal zonation, starting with heather trees at the top, with carpets of wild flowers beneath, to other species such as bamboo (Sinarundinariaalpina), podocarpus, milletia, celtis, and so on, until at 1,500 metres (4,920 feet) the level of lowland woodland is reached, with trees and shrubs such as Combretum, Termillalia, and Commiphora spp. On these southern slopes of the mountains there is no juniper, and on the north there is no podocarpus, though the two are seen together in other areas.
The most extensive areas of natural forest still left are in the west and south- west. Although not as rich in species as their equivalent in neighbouring countries, there are important timber species such as Aningena spp. And a number of endemic herbs, including the spice crop Afromomem koririma. These forests are the home of Ethiopia’s major export crop, rabica coffee.
In drier areas, such as down the Rift Valley and to the south, there is less that may be familiar. Acacia trees and bushes fill large expanses of country, the latter so thick in areas that it is difficult to pass through. Other species are adapted to harsh conditions, such as Dobera glabra with its leathery shiny green leaves and Balanites aegyptiaca, with large green spines and green stems taking over the function of leaves. Along rivers there will be large acacia trees, as well as figs and tamarind, both of which are favoured foods of baboons, other animals, and numerous birds.
The smaller herbs, such as Blepharis edulis, are often very spiky with flowers that bloom as soon as the rains fall, only to disappear again as the soil dries up.
Around Addis Ababa the most striking aspect of the vegetation is the profusion of eucalyptus trees that surround the city. It is these trees that were and are the salvation of Addis.
They were introduced by a Frenchman at a time when firewood in Addis was so scarce that plans had been made to move the whole city fifty kilometres (31 miles) to the west.
The fast and continued growth of the eucalyptus has meant that even when no other fuel is available the people can cook, and the many small fires often cause a pall of smoke to hang over the city. Eucalyptus is also used extensively in building, both for the rickety trellis of scaffolding and the actual construction, such as in the roof timbers.
The climate of Addis means that many European species can be grown here, and gardens of roses mingle with the odd remaining juniper and hagenia trees.
To the north of Addis are extensive areas of seasonally swampy highland grassland where agriculture is not practised, with clumps of eucalyptus trees marking each settlement.
Few books exist that are helpful in identifying plants. However, there is an excellent small, locally produced book by Sue Edwards called Some Wild Flowering Plants of Ethiopia, and ETC has published the informative Some Endemic Plants of Ethiopia by Dr Mesfin Tadesse. For the serious student of plants, three volumes of the Flora of Ethiopia, are available from the National Herbarium, and also the Honeybee Flora of Ethiopia.