Plant exploration in Albania

Peter Barnes & Petrit Hoda

(originally published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine 18(3): 170-179 (2001))


The history of plant exploration may be said to go back to the beginnings of the human species, but in practical terms, it is the history of scientific endeavour in this field that is of greatest interest. In this respect, some parts of the world are much better-documented than others, notably most of western Europe, North America and to some extent, China. Very often, the activities of native botanists and collectors are rather less well-documented than those of visitors.

Similar contrasts apply within Europe, much of which has an extensive botanical/historical literature. Greece is perhaps the best-documented part of the Balkans, yet about neighbouring Albania, it is difficult to find many references in the literature. One good reason for this is the fact that the Albanian state we know today was demarcated only in 1912, its southern boundary only extended to its present position around 1921. Nevertheless, Albanians have a long and drama-filled history going back to the times of the Illyrians. Furthermore, during the years from 1945 to 1989, it was difficult for most foreigners even to get into the country, let alone to explore freely. The disintegration of the Communist regime in the early 1990s has led to greater accessibility, but has brought its own problems, too.

This paper is intended to draw attention to some of the literature on the flora and vegetation of Albania, and to the various plant hunting expeditions over the years. Whilst the studies of indigenous botanists have progressed steadily in recent years, little of their work has come to the notice of the West, and we also attempt to correct this important omission.

The country

Asphodelus luteus above Borsh

Albania is a small country of 28,748 sq. km, approaching the size of Belgium. With over 28.5% of the land surface exceeding 1000m altitude, it is easily the most mountainous country in Europe. Consequently, it has most spectacular and diverse landscapes, from the mountains of the north and east to the extensive coastline in the west. The climate shows both Mediterranean and Central European influences, with mean January temperatures ranging from 10º to –3ºC, mean July temperatures from 25º to 17ºC; rainfall also shows wide variation, from 600mm to over 3000mm. It represents a meeting place for the Central European and Mediterranean floras, and consequently has a remarkably rich flora with more than 3250 species of higher plants. Strict endemics are few in number - about 1% of the flora - but there are many more near-endemic species, whose distribution extends over the political borders into one or other of the neighbouring countries.

Among other Albanian botanists, Hoda (1993) provides a concise overview in English of Albanian phytogeography, useful background reading for anyone contemplating a first visit to the country. Flora Europaea of course includes Albania, but its coverage for the country is probably somewhat incomplete. There are two Albanian floras, of which the 900 page excursion flora, Flora Ekskursioniste e Shqiperisë (Demiri, 1983) is an invaluable field guide, if a bit bulky. Although in Albanian, it is generously illustrated by line drawings (mostly from Fiori & Paoletti, Iconographia florae italicae, 1933). The Flora e Shqiperisë, (Paparisto et al, 1988, 1992; Qosja et al, 1996), is likewise illustrated with line drawings -- in the first volume, at any rate, of rather variable quality and accuracy. Again, the text is in Albanian. Three of four planned volumes have been published so far, and the final one is expected to appear in 2001. Other works covering aspects of the Albanian flora and vegetation are mentioned below.

Plant exploration in Albania

The history of documented plant exploration in Albania is rather short, the country appearing to have attracted the notice of foreign botanists only rather late in the 19th century. Botanical activity there falls quite neatly into three distinct periods: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Communist era; and the post-Communist period.

The period up to World War II

Like other parts of Southern Europe, Albania has a long (and still active) tradition in the use of native plants for medicinal purposes, and this implies a considerable, if specialised and not necessarily ‘scientific’, knowledge of the indigenous flora and its uses. Prior to World War II, however, little if any study was made of the native vegetation by Albanian botanists. Indeed, it appears that there was virtually no scientific activity in the country at this period.

The scientific study of the flora and vegetation of Albania began to develop only towards the end of the nineteenth century. At this period, it was foreign botanists such as Ascherson, Baldacci, Degen, Halácsy, Formánek, Weiss, and Wettstein who, between them, made the major contributions to the floristic knowledge of the country. Of these, Baldacci and Wettstein perhaps stand out. Whilst a few developed a special interest in Albania, for most it was but one element in a wider study of the botany of the whole Balkan peninsula.

One of the earliest to collect in the area was Emanuel Weiss, perhaps also one of the first to write specifically about the Albanian flora (Weiss, 1866), albeit in the context of the larger area. A further contribution to knowledge of the northern Balkans in general came from Ascherson and Kanitz (1877).

Two other early papers specific to Albania were those of Grimus (1871) and Halácsy (1892), the latter recording some species new to the country; in the same year, Richard (von) Wettstein published a contribution to the flora of Albania.

Much more significant is the work of Baldacci, whose interest in the region began to bear fruit in 1893, when he published an account of a visit to the island of Sazan, near to Vlora. In 1894 and 1896 he made two important expeditions to southern Albania (Baldacci 1898). His travels and collections during these two trips range from the region from Vlora to the mountain, Mal e Tomorit (east of Berat), south to the parallel ranges of the Lunxhëri and the Nëmerçkë mountains east of Gjirokastër, and east to Mali Melesin on the Greek border near Leskovik. Baldacci’s work, however, covered a much wider region, taking in Montenegro, the mountains of northern Albania (the “Albanian Alps”), and Greece.

Under the series title Bemerkungen uber einige orientalische Pflanzenarten (Remarks on some oriental plants), Árpád von Degen described several new species from Albania between 1895 and 1897, including the endemics and near-endemics Ajuga piskoi, Wulfenia baldaccii and Forsythia europaea. Eduard Formánek also published on the region’s flora in 1895, whilst Kosanin (1909) explored the mountains of the north-east. Palacky (1895) compared the floras of northern and southern Albania.

Interest in the Albanian flora continued well into the twentieth century, again with foreigners being prominent. Much floristic information on the country has been amassed in the work of Wettstein, Dörfler, Hayek, Bornmüller, Csiki, Janchen, Jávorka, Kümmerle, Markgraf, Pampanini, Beck, and Fiori. Many of these were concerned with a wider region, but newly-recognized Albanian endemics were described by, for example, Wettstein (1918), Jávorka (1920), Dörfler (1921), Kümmerle (1922) and Markgraf (1931). Significant milestones came with the publication of Hayek (1917), Bornmuller (1933) and Turrill (1929), the first providing the basis for subsequent regional floras.

This period also saw the first contributions to the description and analysis of Albania’s vegetation from the phytogeographical viewpoint, and some modest studies in towards phytosociology. Lujo Adamović (1907) initiated studies in this direction. Between 1927 and 1949, Friedrich Markgraf followed up with numerous substantial offerings, notably Markgraf (1927, 1932). He subsequently joined Mitrushi on the Flora Europaea Committee, as a regional advisor for Albania, for volumes II to V of that work.

The botanists A.H.G. Alston and N.Y. Sandwith, of the British Museum (Natural History) and Kew, respectively, made two expeditions to the mountainous parts of southern Albania in the summers of 1933 and 1935. The first was in June and July, the second in August and early September, so the main flowering season was well-covered. Their visits took in the Nemërçkë and Lunxhëri mountain ranges near Gjirokastër, the serpentine area near Voskopojë, the Morova Planina on the Greek border, and brief explorations around Sarandë and Korçë. The collections made during their visits were copiously documented in Alston & Sandwith (1940).

In 1937, P.L. Giuseppi and S.G. Fiedler, with others, travelled extensively in eastern and southern Albania, primarily with an eye to the introduction of good alpine plants to Western gardens. Their party had two cars, and travelled sometimes together, sometimes separately, meeting up from time to time. Both their accounts are entertaining, but that of Giuseppi (1938), he being much the more botanical of the two, is far more plant-oriented than Fiedler’s discursive and amusing account (1941).

Another botanist with a strong interest in the introduction of good garden plants was the Austrian, Fritz Lemperg. He wrote of his travels in the Albanian Alps in the far north (Lemperg, 1935), an expedition from which surplus plants, established in his garden at Hatzendorf near Graz, were distributed in 1936. In 1938, he explored extensively in the south, visiting the Nemërçkë, Lunxheri and Gramos mountains). The results of the latter expedition were listed by Rechinger (1939), and Lemperg also distributed wild-collected seed - five lots were received by the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley.

Inevitably, botanising became impossible during World War II, for much of which most of Albania was occupied, first by Italian, later by German forces, until the liberation in late 1944.

The Communist era, 1946 - 1991

It is well known that the Communist regime, formally established in 1946 and lasting until the early 1990s, saw the increased isolation of the country, to the extent that exploration by foreign botanists became almost impossible. The corollary was that this period also witnessed the establishment and growth of an indigenous botanical and scientific culture. During the succeeding forty years, Albanian botanists have made an increasing contribution to the knowledge and understanding of their native vegetation.

Prominent among these are the names of Paparisto, Demiri, Qosja and Mitrushi, now considered the founders of Albanian botany. Numerous important books and papers have come from their work. Among their books, the four-volume (three published to date) Flora e Shqiperisë (Flora of Albania) is pre-eminent (Paparisto et al 1988; Paparisto et al 1991; Qosja et al 1996). Important steps towards the realisation of the full Flora include Mitrushi (1955), on the trees and shrubs of Albania; Paparisto et al (1962) Flora e Tiranës (Flora of Tirana); a forest Flora of Albania by Mitrushi (1966), and Demiri’s (1983) excursion Flora. Ing. Mitrushi was subsequently a regional advisory member of the Flora Europaea Committee.

Another significant early work was a dictionary of Latin and Albanian plant names (Lako, 1965). Other publications of note to appear during this era include books on weeds (Qosja, 1966), poisonous and/or medicinal native plants (Qosja, 1977; Demiri, 1979; Xhamo, 1985). This period also saw the beginnings of attention to plant ecology, Qosja (1983) and Mersinllari & Hoda (1985) dealing with aspects of coastal habitats.

Various unpublished doctoral theses of this period and later also concerned themselves with ecology and geobotany. Among these we may mention Ruci (1986) on flora and vegetation of the Shkodra district, Hoda (1989) for communities of Pinus nigra, Vangjeli (1982) for oaks, Mersinllari (1988) for the beech, Buzo (1989) for pastures and meadows, Dinga (1980) for roses, Mullaj (1989) for coastal vegetation, Proko (1992) for fir, and Miho (1994) for phytoplankton of the Lake of Butrint.

The Communist era also saw the foundation of the Botanical Garden in a splendid setting of 14 ha., on the outskirts of Tirana. Established under the auspices of the University of Tirana Department of Botany in 1971, the garden now has a staff of about 20. It suffered serious damage in the period of instability in 1991-92. Since then, new funding has been secured and significant rehabilitation of the gardens is under way, under the guidance of the Director, Liri Dinga.

Inevitably, few foreign botanists were able to take a direct interest in the Albanian flora during this period, and floristic work, in particular, took a back seat. Nevertheless, Gölz and Reinhard (1984) published a detailed overview of orchids in Albania, which included a description of their new Orchis albanica, while Halda described Daphne skipetarum from Albania in 1981). Similarly, Ubrizsy & Pénzes (1960), Kárpáti (1961), Jakucs (1967) and Horvat et al (1974) added to the phytogeographical knowledge of their predecessors.

The post-Communist period

In some respects, the division of Albanian botanical history into three sections is an artificial one, since the third is really a blending of the first two, in that it sees the beginning of cooperative work between Albanian and foreign botanists.

The former continue to produce valuable papers, some based on earlier unpublished theses: Buzo (1991) developed his ideas on natural meadow vegetation; Hoda (1992) discussed the geobotany of Pinus nigra; Ruci & Mullaj (1995) wrote on the vegetation of the Karavasta Lagoon; Mullaj, Hoda & Mersinllari (1999) on the Kune-Vaine lagoon complex (both internationally important wetland sites). Conservation is another area that has recently received attention, with the publication of an Albanian “Red Book” (Vangjeli, Ruci & Mullaj 1995).

An important trend of the past few years has been the appearance of various international cooperative studies. Fremuth et al (2000) is an excellent example at the “popular” level, whilst Hoda et al (1999), Kit Tan, Mullaj & Ruci (1999) are more substantial works, and doubtless represent the beginnings of a strong new trend. Some recent international cooperative programmes include:

1. a programme of skill-transfer, with the Unit of Vegetation Science, Lancaster University, and supported by the UK Environmental Know-How Fund, (1994-1995).

2. on the framework of the “Darwin Initiative Programme”, with the Unit of Vegetation Science, Lancaster University, (1996-1998).

3. on the framework of the Project “INTERREG II” ( of the European Community), with the University and Botanical Garden of Lecce and Bari (Italy). This project concludes at the end of 2001.

The work of the Albanian botanists already mentioned, and of the present generation of botanists in the country, has been of good quality, but there remains a need for more work on the floristics and other aspects of the vegetation of Albania. In spite of the riches of the Albanian flora already recorded, it is certain that more remains to be discovered. There are still areas, mainly isolated mountain peaks, that remain unexplored. In addition, the number of Albanian botanists with a floristic speciality remains small, and their experience is inevitably limited. Most of the endemic species were described by foreign botanists such as Baldacci and Jávorka. More recently, however, a few have been recognised and described by Albanians, notably Leucojum valentinum subsp. vlorense (Paparisto & Qosja 1983) and Gymnospermium shqipetarum (Paparisto & Qosja 1976).

At the present time, there appear to be no full-time or professional botanical illustrators active in Albania. Two who contributed to the Flora e Shqiperisë, Pjerin Shala and Agron Marika, both now retired. It is to be hoped that more will emerge in the near future.

Already, it is clear that Albanian botany is beginning to benefit from strengthening scientific links with the rest of Europe. For Albanian botanists, it is now much easier to communicate with, and visit, botanists in other countries who share an interest in the flora and vegetation of this part of Europe. Conversely, the relaxation of restrictions on visits to, and travel within, Albania by foreigners is beginning to lead to some useful results. As early as 1990, botanical special interest holidays were being organized (North, 1990; Barnes, 1997): such trips can only help to increase interest in the botany of a little-known country. The wider experience of such as Pignatti and of Rodwell is reflected in their co-authorship of the recent report already mentioned.

The years since the disintegration of the communist regime have been sadly troubled in their own way, notably with the frequent and drastic breakdowns in law and order. However, there is every reason to hope that such difficulties will be resolved, and that the years ahead will be as beneficial to Albanian botany as to all other fields of human activity in this small, but intriguing country.

For a fairly comprehensive list of references, please follow the link in the left column.