Flora of Ladak (NW Himalaya) - a preliminary check-list

by L. Klimeš and B. Dickoré

Click here to see a list of important collectors of vascular plants from Ladakh


One of the grand tasks of current taxonomy is to prepare a checklist of seed plants of the globe (Govaerts 2001; for first results see "Global Plant Checklist" - http://plantnet.rbgsyd.gov.au/iopi/iopigpc1.htm, "Species 2000" database - http://www.sp2000.org/). This work is largely based on collating data from regional floras and databases. So far, the progress is relatively slow, as the number of redundant names, cryptic synonyms, poorly resolved aggregates and other problems is high. For this purpose regional floras, checklists and databases with reliable taxonomy and complete coverage of critically examined data are required. Besides, new species are still being described at a constant rate of ~2000 yr-1 (Knapp et al. 2004). The majority of novelties comes from the tropics; but certain extratropical regions remain poorly explored as well, and numerous species occurring there still await recognition. This holds even true for regions covered by well known national floras, such as Flora of China (Wu & Raven 1994-) or Flora of India (Singh et al. 1993-), where still some regions remain difficult to access and their flora is poorly known. The westernmost part of the Tibetan plateau, including the Ladakh territory of the Jammu & Kashmir State, India, is a large high-altitude region without a reliable species checklist and standard flora. Even if Ladakh is called a "cold desert" by local botanists (e.g., Negi 1995), it markedly differs from real cold deserts in the north (Kun-Lun Mountains). All available literature and field data collected in the course of preceding project suggest that its flora is unexpectedly species rich.

The study area

Ladakh, located in NW India (Jammu & Kashmir State), represents the westernmost part of the Tibetan plateau, at an elevation above 2600 m above sea level with peaks rising to 6500 m and snow line situated at about 5800-6000 m. Its nearly 100,000 km2 include a considerable part of the transitional zone between outer ranges and Western Tibet, forming a naturally delimited area of Transhimalaya. The interface between the humid outer Himalaya and dry and cold plains of central and western Tibet is generally quite sharp. For example, in Nepal, this transitional zone is usually not more than a few kilometers broad. In such conditions flora of the transitional zone is not particularly interesting, as it is formed by a depauperate floras of outer Himalayas and Tibet. Only in the Western Himalayas (and to some extent in the easternmost Himalayas) the transitional zone is broad enough to host a specific flora, relatively rich in species restricted to this zone. In spite of the high altitudes and severity of the environment, this flora shows a remarkable diversity. Geomorphologically, Eastern Ladakh differs considerably from the western parts of Ladakh, which are dominated by deep, narrow valleys, down to 2600 m, and glaciated peaks, where altitudes go up to 6000 m. Precipitation is much higher, especially at the higher altitudes, and the snow line is situated by 1000 m lower than in the east. Consequently, the flora of Western Ladakh differs considerably, and true Himalayan species are more prominent. Eastern Ladakh represents an area which is well delimited climatically, biogeographically and culturally, and its flora is sufficiently different from floras of neighbouring regions. Similarly to eastern Pamir or Tibet, plants in Eastern Ladakh are generally subjected to multiple stresses, such as low precipitation (ca. 50-100 mm per year), extreme diurnal temperature fluctuation, strong winds, solifluction at the higher and salinity at the lower altitudes (Stewart 1916-1917).

History of botanical exploration

The Ladakh area was visited by foreign explorers at the beginning of 18th century already, however, first botanical results were obtained by expeditions organized a century later (Moorcroft, Strachey, Thomson, J.L. Stewart, Duthie, Schlagintweit, and the Czech palaeontologist and naturalist F. Stoliczka). However, difficulties with logistics strongly restricted the number of explorers and limited the number of plant specimens collected there. The results of these early period were summarized in Flora of India (Hooker 1875-1897), up to now the only complete standard flora covering the whole Ladakh. The first flora of Ladakh was published R.R. Stewart (1916-1917) who compiled all earlier records and added his own data. Relatively few botanists and collectors visited Ladakh in the course of the first half of 20th century. Moreover, with an exception of W. Koelz, most of them collected relatively few specimens in the area (Bosshard, Shomburg, Kashyap, Trinkler) or concentrated on western parts of Ladakh (R.R. Stewart, Meebold, Osmaston). From the 40s of 20th century Ladakh was closed both for foreigners and Indian botanists for three decades. As a consequence, scientific activities of research institutions turned to other areas and with an exception of the Swiss geobotanist Hans Hartmann, who visited various parts of Ladakh from 1974 to 1997, and several small expeditions (Beck, Kriechbaum & Holzner, Billiet & Léonard, Grace et al., Vondrák), botanical research was not fully re-established after the area became partly accessible in the middle of the 70th. At the same time Indian botanists started to explore areas along the main routes, which resulted in the second flora of Ladakh by Kachroo et al. (1977) and later in Murti's treatment of Monocots (2001). A recent attempt to publish a modern account of flora of NW India is that by Singh et al. (2002) who compiled the first volume of the Flora of Jammu & Kashmir. A part of Ladakh is covered by the Flora Karakorumensis by Dickoré (1995; Monocots), which is largely based on specimens deposited in major European herbaria. Finally, some volumes of the comprehensive and still incomplete Flora of Pakistan (Nasir & Ali 1970-) cover the border areas of Ladakh. My own research of Ladakh flora started in the 1990s and resulted in a detailed understanding of distribution of plants along environmental gradients (Klimeš 2003, 2005), in a description of several new species (Al-Shehbaz 2002, Kirschner et al. 2005, Soják, in prep.), in an establishment of a herbarium of Ladakh flora which includes more than 6600 specimens and became the largest collection from this region in the world. Finally, a database was established, containing critically evaluated records of all vascular plants from Ladakh (88,000 items), including their pictures from literature (2700 items), photographs from the field (1450 items), and photographs of herbarium specimens of plants from Ladakh and related species from a broader area (11,000 items), which include several hundred of type specimens.

click here to see some details on herbarium collections from Ladakh

The need for a check-list

While the above list of explorers, even if incomplete, may seem impressive, there is still no checklist of any part of the Ladakh flora, not speaking about a standard flora. So far, all attempts to fill this gap have been based on compilation of data scattered in literature. Two exceptions should be mentioned, i.e., Flora of Pakistan, which however covers Ladakh very unequally, depending on authors of treatments of individual families, and the comprehensive Flora Karakorumensis by Dickoré (1995; Monocots), which, however, does not consider specimens deposited in Indian herbaria. As a consequence, even a basic information, such as the number of species in Ladakh or in any of its sub-areas, remains unknown, as indicated by the discrepancy between individual estimates of numbers of seed species in Ladakh, ranging from 611 (Kachroo et al. 1977) and 880 (Kachroo 1993) to 1250-1500 species (Klimeš 2005, unpubl.). This causes serious difficulties not only to scientists, but also to natural protection activities (see Humbert-Droz & Dawa 2004) and to the research focused on medicinal plants, which is a traditional topic of Indian botanists, due to its vital importance for the public (Kaul 1997, Chaurasia & Gurmet 2003).

Various types of checklists (endemics, threatened plants, medicinal plants, useful indicators, etc.) are more and more needed for comparisons with other areas, natural protection and for applied research. Those available for the Ladakh flora are largely biased, as documented by the list of endemics of Ladakh flora (Humbert-Droz & Dawa 2004: Appendix 1). This includes 23 species. However, only one of them have not been found outside of Ladakh. On the other hand, several species described from Ladakh, and so far apparently not collected otherwise, are not given. Similarly, in the list of "rare and endangered medicinal plants of Ladakh" (Humbert-Droz & Dawa 2004: Appendix 2) 46 species are given. Of these, 12 species do not occur in Ladakh at all, 24 are common in at least some regions, one is a synonym of a common plant, and one is taxonomically unclear. Thus, only 8 species given in the list can be considered as rare (even if not endangered).

Therefore, there is an urgent need for a complete checklist of plants and a standard flora of Ladakh, which should include information on the distribution of all species in individual areas, their abundance and habitat demands. This is the only way how to prevent the increasing noise in plant names utilized by local botanists and to avoid further misapplications of plant names, which also have serious consequences for the research focussing on medicinal plants, and for applications based there upon. Furthermore, a comprehensive evaluation of distribution data is needed to promote and establish Nature Protection in the area, which should be based on a serious background, rather than on the present, crude and preliminary assessments of species' rarity or threat.


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  • The checklist is alphabetically arranged and includes only species confirmed in the study area.

    Click here to see a list of important collectors of vascular plants from Ladakh

    Click here to browse the check-list of Ladakh flora