Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Cedars of Lebanon, Postponed

National flag of Lebanon (photo source: Wikipedia Commons)

I had hoped to arrive in Lebanon today to begin a visit that was to include meeting new relatives, experiencing a new culture, and learning the natural history of a new ecological world.  Unfortunately, security concerns stemming from recent outbreaks of violence in Lebanon related to the current conflict in neighboring Syria prompted us to cancel our trip.  Very disappointing in many respects, one of which is the missed opportunity for me as a naturalist to visit the famous Cedars of Lebanon and the ecosystem in which they are found.  This tree species is iconic in many ways, including its prominent appearance in the center of the national flag of Lebanon (above), its unique botanical standing, and its graceful architecture.

Source: Wikipedia Commons, Olivier Bezes
Its botanical significance is rooted in its regard as "the true cedar", contrasting with other species of trees that are called "cedars" but whose names are borrowed from the "true" cedar.  As a botany student, I had heard of the special standing of the Cedar of Lebanon, but had never grasped the scientific details underlying its status.  With an opportunity to visit the real thing during my then-upcoming trip to Lebanon, I delved into the mystery.  Its Latin name, Cedrus libani, consists of the genus (Cedrus: "cedar") and its epithet (libani: "of Lebanon").  It is one of four Cedrus species occurring in Asia and Africa, is endemic to a region including Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, and is the only Cedrus species in Lebanon.  

Source: Wikipedia Commons, Jerzey Strzelecki
Taxonomically, Cedrus is in the pine family (Pinaceae).  All of the trees we call "cedars" in North America, including Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), belong to the cypress family (Cupressaceae).  Oddly, Cedrus displays a combination of features found separately among three other genera in the pine family: cones that stand upright on the top of branches like fir (Abies), four-sided needles like spruce (Picea), and needles clustered in rosettes like larch (Larix).  Very unique!

Source: YouTube

Due to extensive deforestation, Cedars of Lebanon have become a species of conservation concern, prompting the establishment of several ecological reserves in Lebanon, the largest of which is the Shouf Cedar Reserve.  I was looking forward to visiting this reserve, but that visit will now have to be in a future peaceful time.

In addition to seeing the Cedars of Lebanon, I was also looking forward to getting to know the whole flora, or more realistically as much I could learn during a week's visit.  In preparation for my trip, I had been poring over guides to the flora (a special gift from relatives who know my love of botany)  so that I would already be at least somewhat familiar with the plants I might encounter.  From the encyclopedic Illustrated Flora of Lebanon by George Tohme and Henriette Tohme (2007), I learned that there are nearly 2600 species of vascular plants in Lebanon, a very large number for the small size (~4000 square miles) of the country.  In contrast, Iowa contains approximately 2000 species in an area of over 56,000 square miles!  I was surprised by the number of familiar families and genera that inhabit North America and Iowa, but with greatly different number of species: 57 species of milkvetches (Astragalus, 8 in Iowa), 29 species of wild onions (Allium, 7 in Iowa), 13 species of dandelions (Taraxacum; 2 in Iowa).  The reverse trend was also true: only 15 species of sedges (Carex, 107 in Iowa) and equal number of oaks (Quercus, 7 each in Lebanon and Iowa).

I had also been learning to recognize plants with a smaller, handier field guidebook: Photographic Guide to Wild Flowers in Lebanon by Ahmad Houri and Nisrine Machaka Houri (2008), another husband-and-wife team.  Beyond the technical excellence of both of these works (brimming with interesting and useful information and photos), I was impressed with the conservation ethic that rang clearly through their pages.  In his forward for the encyclopedia, the Secretary General of the National Council for Scientific Research in Lebanon commented "Professors George and Henriette Tohme have established a reputation as the foremost chroniclers of the endangered flora of Lebanon, combining rigorous methodology with aesthetic genius." In their introduction, the Tohmes wrote: 

"Over the past twelve years, we personally have collected and identified 2479 species... of Lebanese plants, which we have photographed.  We still need to find 118 species.  Photographs of several plants were taken 40 years ago and those plants have not been observed since that time in Lebanon: are they now extinct?"

Ahmad Houri is a professor in the Department of Natural Science at the Lebanese American University and is described as "an avid photographer and nature lover."  Nisrine Machaka Houri is described as "an environmentalist who has specialized in Biodiversity Conservation.  Her love of nature transformed a hobby into a profession and now she is undertaking the study of plant biodiversity in various areas of Lebanon." Both are acknowledged as having dedicated a good portion of their lives to the preservation of environment in Lebanon.  In their introduction, the Houris wrote: 

"We wish you the best of time in nature... Please remember, when in nature, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints."  

Reading their words made me rejoice in the passion for science and love of nature shared among naturalists worldwide.  The sentiments expressed by the Houris and Tohmes could easily have been spoken by naturalists in Iowa and across North America with respect to their home states.  They encourage me to hope that one day I can visit Lebanon and experience its natural beauty and biodiversity.