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Red Data Books
Swaziland's Biodiversity

Swaziland's Flora

Boophane disticha

The diversity in physical attributes of Swaziland is reflected in the corresponding diversity in the flora. The vegetation of Swaziland varies from open grassland to forest, and from semi-arid savanna to wetlands.

Swaziland's Threatened and Endemic Plants

Swaziland Flora Checklist

Swaziland's Plant Diversity

Knowledge of plant diversity is based on the collection of herbarium specimens from the country. This diversity is therefore only known at the species, sub-species or variety level, with little or no information available on intraspecies diversity.

Plant Exploration

Collection of plants from Swaziland was first carried out in 1886 by Ernest E Galpin, soon after the commencement of gold-mining in Barberton, and then in 1890, by a Mr Saltmarshe, who visited the Havelock area. The next collector in Swaziland was Dr Harry Bolus, in 1906, who collected plants in the Mbabane and Mbuluzi River areas. The first Swaziland resident to collect plants systematically was Miss Mabel Stewart, who collected a considerable number of plants in the Hlatikulu area in 1911 and 1912 (Compton, 1976).

The first publication of Swaziland plants in Flora form was Dr Burtt Davy's Manual of the Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Transvaal with Swaziland, two parts being published in 1926 and 1932, at which point only 217 species were recorded from Swaziland. From this point in time until the fifties, plant collection was carried out by visitors to Swaziland and by residents, both professional and amateur botanists, with collection being carried out much more widely through the country (Compton 1976).

The first intensive botanical survey of the country was carried out by Professor R. H. Compton, on his retirement to Swaziland in the early fifties, who carried out intensive collection throughout the country, with assistance from Miss M. C. Karsten and Mr Ben Dlamini. This survey was carried out from 1955 to 1966, at which point the preliminary results were published in An Annotated Check-List of the Flora of Swaziland, listing 2350 species including naturalised exotics (Compton, 1966). This was followed by the publication of the Flora of Swaziland, in 1976, containing descriptions and keys for 2118 species (Compton, 1976).

The next major step was in 1975, when a National Herbarium was established in Mbabane. The first Curator was Mrs Ellen S. Kemp, who also carried out extensive plant collection. During the same period, intensive collection of what is now Mlawula Nature Reserve was carried out by Mr James Culverwell. Ellen Kemp published Additions and Name Changes for the Flora of Swaziland in 1981 (Kemp, 1981), and this was followed by A Flora Checklist for Swaziland, in 1983, listing 2715 indigenous species and 110 naturalized exotics (Kemp, 1983).

Plant collection has been continued by various collectors, including the current Herbarium Curator, Mr G.M. Dlamini, covering most of the country, and also, in particular, the nature reserves, by various parks employees.

Work is currently being carried out on the updating of the Swaziland Checklist, with a provisional total of 3400 species, 157 of these being naturalised exotics (Braun, in prep). This includes the first listing of bryophytes, which still require much collection.

The richness of Swaziland's flora is illustrated by the comparison of the flora currently recorded for Swaziland with that of the flora of Southern Africa, where, despite its small size, Swaziland contains almost 14 percent of the taxa recorded from the region.

Extent of coverage of plant exploration

Although plant collection has now been carried out over a number of decades, there are still areas which have not been intensively collected, and even those areas where much collection has been done, there are still species which have not been sampled.

This is illustrated by considering two neighbouring quarter degree grid squares, 2631AA and 2631AB, situated in the north west of the country. The number of specimens and species currently held by the National Botanical Institute in Pretoria for these grid squares are 1907 specimens of 1177 species for 2631AA and only 94 specimens of 87 species for 2631AB. The first square includes Malolotja Nature Reserve, as well as areas intensively sampled by Professor Compton, Ellen Kemp and other collectors.

Intensive collection activities have been carried out for the purposes of botanical assessment of a proposed reservoir site, including an area of just over 1000 hectares, which falls mainly in 2631AA and partly in 2631AB. Prior to this specific assessment, there were approximately 200 species recorded for the area. Plant collection has been carried out sporadically in the area over the last three years, including collection trips with staff of the National Botanical Institute, and the total number of species found in the area is currently at about 550, with a number of specimens still being processed. These collections have added many new records for 2631AA, including 17 new records for the country. Nearly all the specimens collected from 2631AB have been new records for this grid square.

Although it might be expected that 2631AA would contain a higher plant diversity due to a greater diversity of geology, soils and altitudes than 2631AB, this only partly accounts for the low number of species recorded in the latter square, and it is probably due to the relative inaccesibility of most of this grid square that very little plant collection has been carried out.

The state of knowledge of the flora can also be illustrated by considering species endemic to Swaziland. In her 1983 publication, Ellen Kemp states that only four endemic species are known to her (Kemp, 1983). Current investigations have to date confirmed that there are probably at least 25 endemic species, most of which had been collected prior to Ellen Kemp's publication. This increase in numbers has been in part due to new species being described, but also merely as a result of a literature survey.

Distribution and status of plants within Swaziland

With regard to distribution of plant species within the country, very little is currently known. Although much data is available in the form of herbarium specimens, this is yet to be analysed, particularly as the National Herbarium is not yet computerised. Similarly, little is known on the status of most species. Some data on species distributions has been collected by the Forestry Section of the Ministry of Agriculture in the course of carrying out a Forest Inventory for the country (Hess et. al., 1990), and further species distribution data is being obtained of members of the Proteaceae family through involvement with the southern African Protea Atlas Project.

With regard to the status of endemic plant populations, detailed surveys have only been carried out for one species, namely, Kniphofia umbrina, which is restricted to an area of about ten kilometres by four kilometres. Most of the natural populations of this species are under threat, and various activities have been carried out in order to ensure the survival of this species, including establishment in botanical gardens, translocation to a nearby protected area, and seed collection for long term ex situ storage. Another endemic species, Syncolostemon comptonii, may be seriously threatened by the construction of a reservoir. At present, it has only been recorded from within a ten kilometre stretch of the Nkomati River valley, and at least half of this area is due to be inundated by the construction of a reservoir on this river. Little is known about the status of other endemic species, although, partly by chance, some of them occur within existing protected areas.

In situ conservation of plant diversity

In situ conservation of plant diversity in Swaziland is primarily in the form of nature reserves, whose objectives are the conservation of the indigenous flora and fauna. These include Malolotja and Mlawula Nature Reserves, run by the Swaziland National Trust Commission, the parastatal organisation responsible for conservation in the country. In addition to these, there are private nature reserves and game sanctuaries, as well as Hlane Game Sanctuary, belonging to His Majesty the King, and, although their objectives usually do not specifically include the conservation of plant diversity, these areas provide some level of protection to the flora. There are also a number of private farms where a high diversity of flora is protected, although this protection is based on the goodwill of the landowners. Other areas where the flora is protected by default include the sites of royal graves, at a number of localities in the country. There is also legislation which provides protection for certain plant species throughout the country, although enforcement of this legislation is often difficult.

The extent to which the officially protected areas can provide refuge to Swaziland's plant species is illustrated by an estimated 60% of species being recorded from Malolotja and/or Mlawula Nature Reserves. This current figure may well be biased by the high level of plant exploration activities in the reserves, as compared with surrounding areas. Also, although 60% of the taxa may be under protection, the two areas only represent 2% of the total area of the country, and can therefore only contain a limited amount of the intraspecific diversity of these plants. There is the further problem that although these are protected areas, this does not necessarily ensure the survival of all species within the area, as very little is known on the specific requirements for most species.

Ex situ conservation of plant diversity

Ex situ conservation of plant diversity is slowly getting under way, with the program for the establishment of a National Plant Genetic Resources Centre having commenced in 1988 as part of the SADC regional programme. Progress to date with the establishment of the centre has included the allocation of a building and receipt of some equipment, although some items are still required, and the centre is not yet operational. In spite of the centre not yet being completed, seed collection activities have been under way for a number of years, with most of the indigenous plant material at present being in temporary storage in the Kew Seed Bank in England.

Seed collection has included both landraces of crops and indigenous species, from various localities within the country. In the mid-1980's, collection of sorghums, predominantly of landraces, was carried out by SADCC/ICRISAT, with 99 accessions being collected, and collection of wild and cultivated cucurbits was done by the University of Swaziland with funding from IBPGR. In 1988 indigenous Vignas as well as a few accessions of Sphenostylis stenocarpa and Zea mays were collected by a team from IITA. In 1989, the IBPGR collector for Southern Africa in collaboration with the Swaziland Plant Genetic Resources Programme, collected 221 samples of crop relatives and forage species in Swaziland. This was followed by two collection trips carried out by the Kew Seed Bank in collaboration with the Swaziland Plant Genetic Resources Programme, in 1991 (Braun & Prendergast, 1992) and 1992, collecting indigenous and naturalised species specifically for long term storage. Collection of crop landraces and some wild relatives was carried earlier this year by the SADC Regional Gene Bank in collaboration with the Swaziland Plant Genetic Resources Centre. The most recent collection of indigenous species, also carried out earlier this year, has been concentrated within the area due to be flooded by the proposed construction of a reservoir. By concentrating seed collection activities in this area, it is hoped that at least a small fraction of both species and genetic diversity of the area will be conserved. As mentioned earlier, the area contains at least 550 species, one of which is endemic to this valley. Due to the lack of knowledge on the distribution and status of many species in the country, it is not yet known how many of the species found here are not found elsewhere in the country, so it is possible that much valuable material may be lost. Collection activities from this area to date have included 70 accessions of 65 species, representing less than 12 per cent of the species found here.

Utilisation of plant genetic resources

Utilisation of plant genetic material to date has been limited, but it includes material collected from Swaziland of a number of species including various Vigna species, being used for plant breeding research by ORSTOM in Niger, Stomatanthes africanus, being used for research into the biological control of Chromolaena odorata by the Department of Agriculture in South Africa, various bulbous plants being used for research into ornamental plants by the Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute in South Africa, and Sorghum landraces used in plant breeding programmes by SADCC/ICRISAT. In addition, small quantities of seed from indigenous tree species have been collected for investigation for woodlots in a rural development programme run by Yonge Nawe, a local non-governmental organisation.


Braun, K.P. (in prep.). An Updated Checklist of the Flora of Swaziland.

Braun, K.P. & Prendergast, H.D.V.P. (1992). Conservation and Plant Genetic Resources in Swaziland. In: Plant Genetic Resources - Newsletter 88/89, FAO, pp 43-50.

Compton, R.H. (1966). An Annotated Check-List of the Flora of Swaziland. J. S. Afr. Bot. Supplementary Vol. No. 6.

Compton, R.H. (1976). The Flora of Swaziland. J. S. Afr. Bot. Supplementary Vol. No. 11.

Hess, P., Forster, H. & Gwaitta-Magumba, D. (1990). National Forest Inventory of Swaziland. Results and Interpretation. Swazi-German Forest Inventory & Planning Project, PN 85.2204.7-03.108. Forestry Section, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Swaziland.

Kemp, E.S. (1981). Additions and Name Changes for the Flora of Swaziland. Swaziland National Trust Commission Occasional Publication No. 1.

Kemp, E.S. (1983). A Flora Checklist for Swaziland. Swaziland National Trust Commission Occasional Publication No. 2.

Red Data Books Swaziland's Biodiversity  Swaziland's Flora  Swaziland's Fauna

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