After 64 years and 267 installments, Kew’s study of East African plants finally complete


The dry thornbush of NE Kenya, collecting on a virtually unknown mountain, Murua Ngithigerr © Dr Henk Beentje

Botanical books are often imposing tomes but few are quite as weighty as the Flora of Tropical East Africa (FTEA) – published in 267 parts that take up two metres of shelf space, it is the pinnacle of a 64-year project to document every wild plant species in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and its partners.

The largest botanical project of its kind in the last 100 years, the FTEA project has involved 135 scientists from 21 countries, some of whom are gathering at Kew Gardens today to celebrate its completion.

Aloe in northern Kenya © Dr Henk Beentje

When the project was started by scientists from Kew in 1948, there were thought to be 7,500 species in the region. There are now known to be 12,104 meaning that Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have as many native species as the whole of Europe. In the last four years alone, 114 plant species new to science have been described in the FTEA; across the whole project more than 1,500 new species have been found.

The region includes a vast range of habitats from deserts, such as the Chalbi, to dense rainforest and from the afro-alpine moorlands of Kilimanjaro to the grasslands of the Serengeti. About 2,500 of the plants found there do not occur anywhere else in the world, so unless they are protected in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania they face the threat of extinction.

Henk Beentje, current editor of the FTEA said, “The FTEA, like all floras, is all about communication – without proper identification and names there is no communication about plants, and without communication all work on and with wild plants rests on quicksand. Now all further work on the wild plants of this region will be built on a solid foundation – not just botanical work but work on local uses by local people, ecology, vegetation work, zoology, and, of course, conservation.”

Scientists will today discuss how to build on the success of the project, its application to practical conservation in the region and future collaborations.

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