Floras: In it for the long haul...

As Kew launches the world's first tropical regional Flora in ebook format, botanist Martin Cheek reflects on the hugely important and practically relevant information held within Floras and the future of Floras online.

Grevillea ‘Coastal Sunset’

A Flora is a book or other resource detailing the plants of a particular country, region or habitat. Kew’s launch in Africa of the world’s first tropical regional Flora in an ebook format in January 2014 coincided with the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first part of a Flora by Kew: Flora of the British West Indies in 1859. The ebook is an annotated version of Flora of West Tropical Africaand has been produced and edited by George Gosline. Now, instead of hauling around the three volumes (1,946 pages) of the printed version into forests and grasslands of West Africa, botanists will be able to access Flora of West Tropical Africa on their mobile phone! 

A fundamental resource

Completing Flora accounts has long been a part of the professional commitments of Kew’s herbarium botanists. Many of the Flora projects I have been involved in began decades before my time at Kew. In terms of scientific prestige, writing Flora accounts, although challenging and laborious, scores very low. Floras are not rated as peer-reviewed scientific journal publications, so do not figure on any science citation index. Yet Floras are fundamental to identifying plant species in the areas that they cover. Unlike briefly sensational scientific papers that can be superseded in days or months, Floras remain in daily use for decades. They are the final word in resolving long-running uncertainties and disputes as to which plant name belongs to which plant species and are therefore something that Kew will continue to support and fund for years to come, because of the fundamental knowledge and the resource that they provide to a global community.

It is only in preparation for these Flora accounts that many species first receive their scientific names. In the last Kew Flora account that I wrote (for Flora Zambesiaca), two out of three species were new to science. Floras are the basis for local field guides, ethnobotanical studies, agricultural and forestry support, and for conservation assessments. They form the scientific bedrock for plant knowledge in the areas they cover.

William Hooker's vision for Floras

Kew has had an exceptional tradition of producing Floras. It all began with the inception of Kew as a government-funded scientific institute, and the appointment of Sir William Hooker as first Director in 1840. With the support of the government he conceived the series of Kew Floras, addressing British areas of interest around the globe, which were to become the mainstay of Kew’s scientific output.

A network of collaborators from outside Kew helped William Hooker to realise his Flora production plan and he recruited them to his cause, set out the steps to be followed, put the all-important specimens at Kew at their disposal, and raised funds for their expenses from the government. Of these early Floras, Flora Capensis (South Africa, Harvey and Sonder 1860-1925), Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (J. Hooker 1864), Flora of Tropical Africa (Oliver et al. 1868-1937), Flora Australiensis (Bentham 1863-78) and Flora of Mauritius and the Seychelles (Baker 1872) were most notable. 

Moving forward to the twentieth century, three new tropical African regional Flora projects were started, to succeed Flora of Tropical Africa: Flora of West Tropical Africa (15 countries from Mauretania to British Cameroon, first published in 1936, with a second edition in 1972), and the more detailed Flora of Tropical East Africa (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) completed in 2012. This is by no means a trivial accomplishment, and Kew’s management over the centuries must take the credit for seeing these projects through, when other big tropical regional and even national Flora projects are so far from completion.

Facilitating national Floras

As well as contributing to tropical regional Floras, Kew has played its part in facilitating national Floras. Floras for Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, and Guinee were built on the foundation provided by Flora of West Tropical AfricaFlora of Ethiopia and Eritrea, while funded and edited by Sweden and printed in Ethiopia, was largely written at Kew by botanists such as Mike Gilbert and Kaj Vollesen, who needed the essential specimens and literature at Kew, and support of Kew specialists. Likewise Flora of Somalia although published by, and researched at Kew by, Mats Thulin, was financed from Sweden.

Documenting the species of globally important centres of plant diversity has resulted in another set of Flora Projects at Kew; examples are Flora of Mt Jaya, New Guinea published in 2006, The Plants of Kupe, Mwanenguba & Bakossi Mts, published in 2004, and the glorious Plants of Mt Kinabalu (Borneo) published in 2004, which documents about 5,000 species. Another exciting Kew Flora project soon to be published is the Generic Tree Flora of New Guinea.

Kew specialists also contribute to Flora projects of other institutes such as the dynamic Flora of Thailand and Leiden’s long-running yet far from complete Flora Malesiana (S.E. Asia). It is sad to consider that if Flora Malesiana is ever completed, many of the species that it documents will by then long have become extinct.

The future for Floras

What next for Floras at Kew? The future of Floras is clearly digital, and as part of a new strategy Kew will drive forward e-taxonomy and the electronic sharing of Floras, so that scientists all over the world can access this vital information for biodiversity science. Recently, Kew has led the way in creating an online portal called eMonocot that links together information from a range of sources and provides a single entry point for sharing information about monocotyledonous plants.

Following on from this, and building on Kew's World Checklist of Selected Plant Families, we are now aiming to deliver the e-taxonomies created from Floras into a number of online global resources for plants. These newly created e-taxonomies will contribute both to the World Flora Online project, a large international initiative currently being led by Missouri Botanical Gardens, and Kew’s own Plants of the World Online Portal (POWOP), which will be launched as part of Kew’s new science strategy early next year. POWOP will build, with international partners, upon the eMonocot structure to provide a single point of access for authoritative information on any plant species, from anywhere in the world. However, even when existing descriptions of species are made electronic, harmonised and incorporated into these e-resources, there are still surely many thousands of species remaining which will need new descriptions written.

Taxonomy and Floras are therefore as relevant as ever before; Kew aims to build and enhance this aspect of its work going forwards (for example, not a single technical position in curation has been lost in the current restructure and we are launching a new MSc in taxonomy next autumn). At the same time we aim to bring taxonomy headlong into the digital age.


Baker, J.G. (1872). Flora of Mauritius and the Seychelles. L Reeve & Co, London.

Beaman, J.H. (1998-2004). The Plants of Mt Kinabalu (Borneo). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Bentham, G. (1863-1878). Flora Australiensis: a description of the plants of the Australian territory. L Reeve & Co, London.

Cheek, M.R. (2004). The Plants of Kupe, Mwanenguba & Bakossi Mts: a conservation checklist. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Available online

Gosline, G.W. (ed.) (2014).  Flora of West Tropical Africa eBook OL25442466M Available online

Grisebach, A.H.R. (1859-1864). Flora of the British West Indies. L Reeve & Co, London.

Harvey, W.H., Sonder, O.W., Thiselton-Dyer, W.T. & Hill, A.W. (1860-1925). Flora Capensis. Hodges, Smith and Co., Dublin.

Hedberg, I., Demissew, S., Tadesse, M., Edwards, S. & Phillips, S.M. (1989-2009).  Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Jointly published by Addis Abbaba National Herbarium and Uppsala University.

Hooker, J.D. (1864). Handbook of the New Zealand Flora: a systematic description of the native plants of New Zealand and the Chatham, Kermadec's, Lord Auckland's, Campbell's, and Macquarrie's islands. L Reeve & Co, London.

Johns, R.J., Edwards, P.J., Utteridge, T.M.A. and Hopkins, H.C.F. (2006) A Guide to The Alpine and Sub-Alpine Flora of Mount Jaya. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Available online

Oliver, D., Thiselton-Dyer, W.T., Prain, D. and Hill, A.W. (1868-1937) Flora of Tropical Africa. L Reeve & Co., London

Thulin, M. (1993-2006) Flora of Somalia. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Long-running Floras with many editors and authors and multiple publishers

Flora of Tropical East Africa (1948-2012)
1966: C.E. Hubbard & E. Milne-Redhead
1966-1972: E. Milne-Redhead & R.M. Polhill
1973-1997: R.M. Polhill
1998-1999: H. Beentje & C. Whitehouse
1999-2002: H. Beentje & S.A.L. Smith 
2002-2009: H. Beentje & S.A. Ghazanfar
2010-2012: H. Beentje

Flora Zambesiaca (1960 onwards) Available online