August Grisebach and Floral Provinces

In 1872 August Grisebach (1814–79), professor of botany at the University of Gottingen, Germany, published a two-volume work that greatly advanced the study of phytogeography. Its full title was Die Vegetation der Erde nach ihrer klimatischen Anordnung: Ein Abriss der vergleichenden Geographie der Pflanzen (The vegetation of the Earth according to its climatic distribution: A […]

In Upper Teesdale and on the Lizard Peninsula there are plant communities that survive from a time when the climate was very different from that of today.

Edward Forbes and the Significance of Ice Ages

The River Tees rises in the northern Pennines—a chain of hills that runs in a north-south direction down the center of northern England—flowing about 70 miles (113 km) to the North Sea. In the upper part of the valley, called Upper Teesdale, there is an unusual community of plants. The plants are not rare, but […]

Alphonse de Candolle and Why Plants Grow Where They Do

Augustin de Candolle had traveled in Brazil, Indonesia, and northern China, and his observations convinced him of the importance of soil type in determining the way plants are distributed. In 1820 he wrote Essai elementaire de geographie botanique (Elementary essay on botanical geography), in which he elaborated on an idea that Linnaeus had proposed earlier. […]

Franz Meyen and Vegetation Regions

Humboldt was generous in his support for young researchers and helped many at the start of their careers, but if he can be said to have had a favorite, that person was Franz Meyen (1804–40). When Humboldt first met him, Meyen was working as a physician. Humboldt secured for him the post of professor of […]

Karl Ludwig von Willdenow and the Start of Scientific Plant Geography

In 1788 when he was 19 years old and about to enroll at the University of Gottingen, Alexander von Humboldt met Karl von Willdenow (1765–1812), a 23-year-old medical student. Humboldt already had a keen interest in natural history and his meeting with Willdenow strongly encouraged it. Willdenow was learning medical botany, and his detailed studies […]

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a Prussian naturalist and geographer who explored Central and South America. This portrait, painted in 1806, two years after his return, shows him studying a plant specimen. (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource)

Alexander von Humboldt and the Plants of South America

Alexander von Humboldt's exploration of South America, accompanied by the French botanist Aime Bonpland (1773–1858), did much to establish biogeography as a distinct scientific discipline, but Humboldt was much more than a geographer. In his most famous work, Kosmos, published in five volumes between 1845 and 1862, he wrote that “I always wanted . . […]

Ernest Wilson, Collecting in China and Japan

In April 1902 Ernest “Chinese” Wilson (1876–1930) arrived back in England from his first plant-collecting expedition. He brought with him 35 Wardian cases of plants, seeds of 305 plant species, and herbarium specimens of 906 species. Between 1899 and 1919, Wilson undertook five expeditions to China and three to other parts of the world, from […]

The Wardian Case

Until the middle of the 19th century, plant hunters traveling in distant lands were able to send samples home only by preserving them first. Insects had to be killed and pinned to cards, and plants pressed and dried to make herbarium specimens. It was possible to send plant seeds on journeys lasting many weeks or […]

The Wardian case, invented in about 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868), made it possible to transport living plant specimens around the world and have them arrive in a healthy condition.

Robert Fortune, Collecting in Northern China

The Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is one of the very few palm trees that can survive in the cool, wet Scottish climate. For that reason, it is a fairly common sight in Scotland, especially in coastal resorts attempting to offer a taste of the exotic to city vacationers. The species was introduced to Scotland by […]

George Forrest (1873–1932) was a Scottish plant hunter who undertook seven major expeditions to China, returning hundreds of species to Britain. (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh)

George Forrest, Collecting in Yunnan

George Forrest (1873–1932) was one of the most successful plant hunters of the early 20th century. He undertook seven major expeditions to western China and returned to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh more than 30,000 specimens of 10,000 plant species, of which 1,200 were new to science. Forrest was also one of the most adventurous […]

Reginald Farrer and Alpine Plants

Rock gardens and the alpine plants that grow in them have been popular since the early years of the 20th century. They became fashionable following the publication in 1907 of My Rock Garden, a book that remained in print until about 1950. It was followed a year later by Alpines and Bog Plants. Both books were […]

The York Factory Express, so called because it was used to transport company documents as well as furs and other goods, was a route between Fort Vancouver and York Factory that was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the first half of the 19th century.

David Douglas in North America and Hawaii

The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is a magnificent tree that occurs naturally in western North America from British Columbia southward to northern Mexico. It can grow up to 330 feet (100 m) tall and is one of North America's most valuable sources of timber. The tree can occur in dense stands in forests, but it […]

A Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) growing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This species is native to the eastern United States, growing mainly in the Appalachian Mountains, and is named after the Catawba tribe of Native Americans. (Adam Jones/Visuals Unlimited)

Rhododendrons, Primulas, and Frank Kingdon-Ward

Rhododendrons have long been popular with gardeners. There are approximately 850 species in the genus Rhododendron. At least 26 species occur naturally in North America. The following illustration shows one of these, Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense). In China there are about 650 species and large numbers grow in the mountains of Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim. […]

Adolf Engler and the Vegetation of the World

In 1924 the German botanist Adolf Engler (1844–1930) published Syllabus der Pflanzenfamilien (Summary of plant families). In this work, Engler set out his own system of plant taxonomy. Many herbaria, field guides, and floras still use Engler's classification, and the 12th edition of this two-volume work, edited by H. Melchior and E. Werdermann, was published […]

Augustin de Candolle and Natural Classification

Linnaeus developed the approach to classification that Tournefort had used, but he did not depart from its principles. Under the Linnaean system, plants were grouped together on the basis of similarities in their flowers—the number and arrangement of stamens. His system was easy to learn, so students liked it, but it was unnatural, and in […]

How Plants Are Classified

Most plants, though not all, have a name in the language of every country in which they occur naturally. In many cases they also have several local names. In addition, every plant known to science has an “official” or scientific name. This name is in Latin, by convention it is written in italic characters, and […]

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–78), in his early 30s, wearing Lapp dress and holding a plant. He acquired the costume during his 1732 expedition to Lapland and wore it for this famous portrait. (Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Carolus Linnaeus and the Binomial System

A common plant is likely to have many names, but to avoid confusion it will have only one scientific name. The scientific name will be in Latin and it will have two parts, the first being the name of the genus and the second of the species. This use of two names to identify a […]

The flower is the reproductive apparatus of every flowering plant. This flower carries both male (stamens) and female (carpel) reproductive organs, enclosed in petals. Flowers of some plants hold either, but not both, male or female organs, and some flowers (e.g., of grasses) have no petals.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and the Grouping of Plants

Its flower is the most obvious feature of most flowering plants. Many flowers have brightly colored petals. These attract pollinating animals. Plants such as grasses that are pollinated by wind have no need of petals, so their flowers are usually smaller and drab in color, but they are nevertheless prominent and clearly visible. However it […]

The Viceroyalty of New Granada (Virreinato de la Nueva Granada) was the name given in 1717 to the Spanish colonies in the northern part of South America. The region approximately covered the modern countries of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, as well as part of Peru, Brazil, Guyana, and Nicaragua.

Jose Mutis and the Bogota Botanical Garden

The Jardin Botanico Jose Celestino Mutis in Bogota, Colombia, is a research and scientific center and the country's largest botanic garden. It occupies 20 acres (8 ha) and specializes in Andean species, with greenhouses containing plants from every region of the country, including 5,000 species of orchids and the world's largest example of the giant […]

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the Royal Garden, Paris

In 1778 a former Paris bank clerk published Flore Francaise (French flora) in three volumes. The work was an immediate success and, with the support and help of France's leading natural scientist, Georges- Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–88), its author was appointed an assistant botanist at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden […]

Sir William Hooker (1785– 1865), the English botanist who in 1841 became the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (George Bernard/Science Photo Library)

Sir William Hooker, the First Official Director

Both Joseph Banks and George III died in 1820, and in the years following their deaths interest in the gardens waned and they came close to being abandoned. The new king, George IV (1762–1830), had little interest in them. The decline was arrested with the arrival of the first director, Sir William Hooker (1785–1865), in […]

The colored areas indicate territories controlled by Britain in 1822. At that time the British Empire was still expanding, but the territories were widely scattered and located in many different climatic zones.

Sir Joseph Banks, Unofficial Director of Kew

Princess Augusta died in 1772. Her son, George III, inherited both Kew Gardens and Richmond Gardens, and in 1802 he joined them together. George III was keenly interested in agriculture and agricultural research—an enthusiasm that earned him the nickname “Farmer George”—and he turned part of the combined gardens over to raising sheep. During his reign […]

In 1762 a pagoda in the Chinese style was constructed in Kew Gardens. This photograph of the gardens was taken from the top of it in July 2003. The gardens cover about 300 acres (121 ha) and contain the world’s largest collection of living and preserved plants. It is a World Heritage Site. (Getty Images)

Sir Henry Capel, Princess Augusta, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

Britain's principal botanical garden occupies more than 300 acres (121 ha) beside the River Thames at Kew in southwest London. It became a botanical garden in 1752, so what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is of much more recent origin than most of Europe's botanical gardens and it is not the oldest botanical garden […]


The tulip originated in Turkey. It was introduced into Europe in the 16th century and became highly popular in the United Provinces (now the Netherlands). Growers discovered they could produce a wide range of varieties with many different colors, some a single but vivid red or yellow, some white, and some with more than one […]

Although they were colorful and attractive, the first tulips to be seen in Europe were much less showy than tulips were to become after many generations of selective breeding. This illustration appeared in Hortus Eystettensis (Eystett’s garden) by Basilius Besler (1561–1629), published in 1613. (Georgette Douwma/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Carolus Clusius, the Leiden Botanical Garden, and the Tulip

Within a few decades, botanical gardens were opening elsewhere in Europe. The University of Leipzig, Germany, began work on its garden even earlier, in about 1542, but it opened later than the Italian ones. In about 1567 the University of Bologna converted its physic garden into a botanical garden. University administrators were recognizing that a […]

Pisa, Padua, and Florence, the First Botanical Gardens

In 1544, the botanist Luca Ghini established Europe's first botanical garden in Pisa, Italy. Ghini was acting on the orders of Cosimo I de'Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, who wished the garden to stock simplicia—plants with medicinal properties. The garden was linked to the University of Pisa, and is still: Its official title is […]

The Rise of the Herbarium

There was nothing novel in the practice of pressing and drying plants, especially flowers. The oldest example of a plant preserved in this way consists of the twigs and leaves of an olive tree (Olea europaea) made from a bundle of olive twigs bound together by cords made from palm leaves that was discovered in […]

Herbarium specimens are dried and pressed in a single operation by laying each plant between two sheets of absorbent paper such as blotting paper. Several plants are processed together as a stack. They can be pressed between two boards linked by four bolts and wing nuts. The press should be placed somewhere warm to accelerate drying.

Luca Ghini and How to Press Flowers

Gardeners were often avid plant collectors. Highly competitive, they sought to impress their rivals by their displays of the latest fashions in plantings and of plants that had only recently arrived in their corner of the world. The landscaped gardens with which 18th-century landowners delighted their houseguests were often stocked with exotic trees, and the […]

Lancelot “Capability” Brown

During the 18th century there was a reaction against the excessively formal gardens to be found in the grounds of most European palaces and great houses. A more romantic approach became fashionable, and landowners sought to surround their homes with parkland that appeared natural. Rectangular beds and straight paths gave way to curved lines. A […]

The Tudor garden at Hampton Court Palace, London. The beds were replanted in the 18th century. (Jim Steinberg/ Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Formal Gardens, Restoring Order to a Chaotic World

The rising interest in plants was accompanied by a wish to cultivate them, and private gardens became increasingly popular from early in the 16th century. Borrowing the basic design of the medieval monastic garden, these gardens were usually walled and were tranquil places where people could relax, enjoying the shapes, colors, and perfumes of the […]

Identifying Plants: The Herbal Becomes the Flora

In 1622 Caspar Bauhin published Catalogus plantarum circa Basileam sponte nascentium (Catalog of plants occurring naturally around Basel). This slim book was a list of the plants growing around Basel. It contained no illustrations, but it listed all the synonyms for the plants it described and details of where each plant might be found, and alternate […]

Left: Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) leaves have edges suggestive of a row of teeth. Right: The blotches on lungwort leaves (Pulmonaria officinalis) are reminiscent of the surface of lung tissue.

The Doctrine of Signatures

People are very good at recognizing patterns, even where no pattern exists, and pattern recognition played an important part in early herbal medicine. When people rummaged through the meadows and along the hedgerows for plants that might heal their ailments, they saw similarities between plant forms and the part of the body that was sick. […]

Chelsea Physic Garden, in London, has existed since 1673. Originally it was a place where students could learn to identify medicinal plants. This is greenhouse 56. (Peter Jousiffe/Science Photo Library)

The Apothecaries’ Garden at Chelsea

In every major city there are annual events that mark the passing of the seasons. London is no exception, and one of its annual festivals attracts gardeners and garden enthusiasts from all over Britain. The Chelsea Flower Show is a celebration of garden design and plant breeding. The show takes place in a garden that […]

Monastic Gardens

In the Middle Ages European monasteries and convents were centers of learning, and the monks and nuns also had a duty to care for the lay community outside the monastery walls. They provided shelter and hospitality for pilgrims and other travelers, schools for local children, and they cared for the sick. Most monasteries and convents […]

The Bauhin Family

Herbals grew steadily longer in the course of the 16th century, and as they grew so did the number of omissions and inaccuracies they contained and repeated. There was only one way the situation could be remedied: Someone had to go through as many of the publications as possible looking for duplications, synonyms, and obvious […]

The genus Fuchsia is made up of more than 100 species of plants originally from Central and South America. They are now widely cultivated for their attractive flowers and as hedges, and they have become naturalized in Europe. These fuchsias are growing in a hedgerow near the town of Dingle, in County Kerry, Ireland. (Dennis Flaherty/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Leonhard Fuchs, Fuchsia, and the First Botanical Glossary

It is the custom for botanists to honor distinguished members of their profession by naming plants for them. The fuchsia is a popular ornamental shrub, grown for its flowers and as a hedging plant. The French botanist Charles Plumier (1646–1704) was the first European to discover it. In 1696–97 Plumier found it growing wild on […]

Nicholas Culpeper and His Herbal Best Seller

In 1653 Nicholas Culpeper (1616–54) published The Complete Herbal. It was the last of his works to be published in his lifetime, and he wrote the following explanation of how he felt obliged to offer an alternative to what he regarded as the unnatural and harmful treatments of his medical rivals. This not being pleasing […]

John Gerard and His Herbal

In the 16th and 17th centuries, barbers performed surgery as well as cutting hair and shaving men. The red-and-white barber's pole is believed to represent blood and bandages associated with their merged calling, and in Britain surgeons are still addressed as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” This arrangement began in 1163, when a papal decree forbade […]

Rembert Dodoens and the First Flemish Herbal

In 1578 a printer called Gerard Dewes, living at the Sign of the Swan in St. Paul's Churchyard, London, published a new herbal for which he claimed much. He advertised it as (with the original 16th-century spelling): A nievve herball, or, Historie of plantes: wherein is contayned the vvhole discourse and perfect description of all […]

Conrad Gessner, the German Pliny

A polymath is a scholar who is learned in a wide range of subjects, a kind of all-purpose expert. Conrad Gessner (1516–65) of Zurich, Switzerland, was one of the most remarkable polymaths the world has ever known. Some historians have described him as a one-man Royal Society, but during his own lifetime he was best […]

Konrad von Megenberg and His Illustrated Herbal

A modern field guide to plants or a book about the plants found in a particular region would sell rather few copies if it lacked illustrations. Modern photographic and printing technologies make it relatively simple to include colored illustrations, but this is a recent advance. Before the invention of photography and offset printing, an illustration […]

Albert the Great and the Structure of Plants

Herbalists need to be able to identify plants, and if they are to cultivate them they need to understand the environmental conditions their herbs require. They require the skills of the horticulturist to produce the raw materials from which their pharmaceutical skills allow them to concoct remedies. These are important skills, but they are not […]

The Aztec Herbal

Plants grow almost everywhere, many have therapeutic properties, and people of every culture treat their ailments with the herbal remedies they find around them. The peoples of the Americas are no exception, and when Europeans first arrived in Central America they found that the Aztec people were highly skilled practitioners of herbal medicine. The Spanish […]

The earliest Chinese spades, of the type Shennong is often portrayed with, were used to till the land for centuries before the invention of the plow. Charms were shaped like spades, and spade coins, called bubi, were used during the Zhou dynasty from the 11th century b.c.e. until the third century c.e. This is a spade coin from that time.

Shennong, the Divine Farmer

Traditional Chinese medicine is based largely on herbs, and it has been practiced for a very long time—about 5,000 years. Chinese legend attributes its origin to an emperor who is thought to have lived from about 2737 b.c.e. to about 2697 b.c.e., probably not far from the city of Xian in what is now Shaanxi […]

John Ray and His Encyclopedia of Plant Life

In 1686, 1688, and 1704, the English naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) published the three volumes of Historia generalis plantarum (A general account of plants); each volume had approximately 1,000 pages. Ray was 59 and this was the culmination of his life's work, in which he attempted to classify plants. The book described more than 18,600 […]

Pliny, Preserving Knowledge

Knowledge is fragile and easily lost. The books in the library at Alexandria were not bound volumes like those in modern libraries, but texts that were handwritten on scrolls of paper made from the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), a type of sedge, and a long book might comprise several scrolls. Later texts, though not those […]

At its peak, Alexander’s empire extended from Macedonia in the west to central Asia and the Indus River in the east, and from the southern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas to Egypt.

Alexander the Great and His Empire

Aristotle taught Alexander (356–323 b.c.e.) before the prince inherited the throne of Macedon in 336 b.c.e. and began to extend the empire his father had won by conquest. Later, the garden at the Lyceum in Athens came to contain plants contributed by followers of Alexander's armies. Theophrastus based many of his plant descriptions on accounts […]

What Is a Pharmacopoeia?

A pharmacopoeia (also spelled pharmacopeia) is a published list of medicines and other health care products. Modern pharmacopoeias list products that are authorized by the government for use. The term pharmacopoeia was first used in 1561 and came into general use early in the 17th century. Lists of recipes for making medicines from plant, animal, […]

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is seen here on a page from an illustrated Greek edition of De materia medica by Pedanius Dioscorides published in Constantinople in the mid- 13th century. Dioscorides described sleeping potions made from this plant and used as a surgical anaesthetic. (The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource)

Pedanius Dioscorides and His Catalog of Medicinal Plants

So many plants possess medicinal properties, and combinations of ingredients from different plants generate yet more treatments, that a specialist worker preparing medicines or a physician prescribing them could not possibly remember them all. Medical workers need reference books listing recipes for medicines, descriptions of useful plants and their properties, and aids to diagnosis. For […]

Medicine and plants

In Uganda's Kibale National Park, scientists have observed chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) searching for and then chewing the bark or leaves of plants that have very little nutritive value, but that local people use to relieve symptoms of malaria and diarrhea. The chimps also chew these plants when they are sick and they, too, use them […]

Theophrastus, the Father of Botany

When Aristotle quit Athens for the last time, he left his friend and assistant Theophrastus (ca. 372–ca. 287 b.c.e.) to lead the Peripatetic school. In his will Aristotle bequeathed the Lyceum buildings and garden and his library to Theophrastus and made Theophrastus guardian of his children. Theophrastus was a popular teacher, some accounts claiming he […]

Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) in his later years. The photograph is of a Roman marble bust that is a copy of a Greek original, which is now lost. (The Granger Collection)

Aristotle and His Natural History

Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) was a Greek philosopher who lived at a time when most people believed in a world governed by gods, demigods, and other supernatural beings. According to tradition, in the distant past these beings had made the plants and the stories about how they did so are woven into the Greek myths. It […]

El Nino Wreaks Havoc

The complex, interrelated geology of the Andes, the Atacama Desert, and the Atacama Trench all come together in the face of El Nino, a weather pattern that affects the whole planet. The microscopic plankton that grow in the sunlit waters of the upper ocean provide the foundation for the ocean's food chain, just as grass […]

A 22,000-Year Rainfall Record

Desert conditions have seemingly always dominated, with only temporary periods that proved less harsh as a result of global climate changes. For instance, a recent report in Science presented a detailed account of rainfall in the Atacama going back 22,000 years. The researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Arizona, and the Universidad […]

Detecting Life

When scientists wanted to test the robot destined to explore Mars, they took it to the driest, most lifeless place they could find, the Atacama Desert. They hoped that the austere desert could help solve a mystery and prevent a blunder. Even before H. G. Wells wrote his terrifying War of the Worlds, scientists wondered […]

Atacama Desert

Atacama: The Oldest Desert: South America

T he ancient, cold Atacama Desert might as well be on another planet. In fact, when scientists wanted to find a place harsh enough to test the robots they planned to send to Mars to look for the faintest, most beleaguered traces of life, they came first to this 700-mile-long (1,100 km) desert in northern […]

The First Bird

Another fossil from the same area revealed new insights into how birds developed the ability to fly, according to findings in Science. The fossilized bones and feather impressions of the pigeon-sized bird dubbed Apsaravis ukhaana were uncovered in Ukhaa Tolgod in the Gobi. The creature appears to be very close to the root of the […]

The First Indiana Jones

Roy Chapman Andrews had a very odd dream for a young boy roaming the hills of Wisconsin. He wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. But his life exceeded even his wildest dreams and included dinosaurs, bandits, international fame, and a career so exciting he became the model […]

Sand Dunes Swallow Dinosaurs

Despite the scale of the great Gobi sand dunes, it is still startling to learn that more than 65 million years ago those sand dunes were big enough to bury a dinosaur in an instant. At least, that is the conclusion of an international team of scientists who published a study in Geology. The Gobi […]

Wildlife of the Gobi Desert

The harsh conditions of the Gobi have forced the creatures that live there to adapt and survive. Although much of the desert consists of sandy or stony plains, the mountains, canyons, springs, marshes, and fitful river systems provide enough diversity of habitat to shelter an array of fascinating creatures. These include wild Bactrian camels, several […]

Sand and Soil

Sand defines the Gobi Desert, the dried-out remains of soils that once sustained life during the ice ages. Unlike soil, sand lacks the organic material to nurture plant life. Experts still puzzle over the source of the great, hypnotic fields of massive sand dunes that dominate hundreds of square miles of the nearly rainless desert. […]

Alshan Plateau and Junggar Basin Semi-Deserts

Two major areas adjacent to the deep desert, the Alshan Plateau and the Junggar Basin, transition from barren sand to arid grasslands. The Little Gobi desert lies in the southwestern portion of the larger desert area. Higher and wetter, it fills the space between the Yellow River on the east and a mountain chain. It […]

Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe

The region most typically desert is the Eastern Gobi desert steppe, which covers some 109,000 square miles (281,800 sq km) and extends from the Inner Mongolian plateau in China north into Mongolia. High and cold with elevations from 2,300 to 5,000 feet (770–1,700 m), this region gets as much as eight inches (200 mm) of […]

Plate Tectonics: The Restless Earth

The Earth's surface is divided into several major crustal plates, layers of light rock 30 to 100 miles ( 48– 160 km) thick floating on top of the Earth's heavy, iron-rich mantle. Currents that originate in the molten, super-dense core trigger inexorable currents in the mantle above. The currents in the mantle, in turn, push […]

Cutting Off the Moisture

The collision of continents ultimately isolated the portion of central Asia that includes the Gobi Desert from the moisture-laden winds from the ocean. The winds blowing up against this barrier of mountains rose until the moisture it contained condensed into rain or froze into snow. The Gobi sits surrounded by such a ring of mountains, including […]

Gobi Desert

Assembling a Continental Desert

Almost unimaginable forces raised the vast network of surrounding mountain ranges that created the Gobi Desert. Understanding the creation of the Gobi requires an understanding of plate tectonics and the theory of continental drift. Geologists have discovered that the Earth's surface is divided into a series of crustal plates that include both heavier oceanic material and […]

Gobi Desert: Central Asia

T he dry, wind-tormented sands of the 500,000-square-mile (1.3 million sq km) Gobi Desert harbor deep secrets—from the evolution of life to the restless stirrings of the planet. The high, windy, bone-dry region is a continental desert as a result of the mountains that surround it and cut it off from moist, ocean air in […]

Living in Dreamtime

Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation of these desert-dwelling people was their rich, mystical culture, layered with stories and stitched together with faith and insight into the natural world. The Australian aboriginals boast the longest continuous cultural history of any group on Earth. Central to their view of the world is the mysterious and transcendent notion […]

The Aboriginals: The Oldest Culture

The Australian deserts also harbor one of the most remarkable, desertadapted cultures, the Australian aboriginals. They adapted to the harsh conditions and their long isolation with a culture sparing in the use of tools but rich in philosophy and cultural adjustments to desert conditions. Moreover, their long isolation from other human cultures has made them […]

Kangaroo Hops Happily through Hard Times

The kangaroo remains the most distinctive and recognizable marsupial in Australia. Although Australia separated from Antarctica and begin drifting north 6 million to 1366 million years ago, the ancestors of the first, ratlike marsupials hopped out of the trees some 0 million years ago. They eventually gave rise to kangaroos and their various relatives, all […]

Disastrous Explorations

Ironically, although the aboriginals could not withstand the Europeans in safe territory, the Europeans could barely survive in areas the aboriginals considered home. Australian history is filled with tales of disastrous attempts to explore the interior. The most renowned of the Australian explorers was Ernest Giles, who led three major expeditions to explore these great […]

Australian Deserts: Australia

T he hard, sprawling deserts of Australia and the remarkable people who have lived in them for 50,000 years offer fascinating clues to human evolution, climate shifts, and the intricate connections between living things and the ecosystems they inhabit (an example is shown in the color insert on page C-8). Although Australia boasts tropical forests […]

Weaverbird Communes

One of the most remarkable creatures of the Kalahari Desert is the sparrowlike weaverbird. Small, gray creatures, they are unremarkable unless they have gathered in a group, when they become one of the planet's most interesting and sociable birds. Hundreds of birds form a single flock, which then cooperatively weaves a giant nest of twigs […]

Desertification in Africa

Great Animal Migrations

Any creatures that live in the Kalahari must therefore either survive without relying on easy access to surface water or migrate through the area during the times when the scarce rains fall. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Kalahari is the way in which it blends into the larger, surrounding stretch of arid grasslands, […]

A Fossil Desert

In many ways, the Kalahari is more of a fossil desert than an actual desert. The great sand-covered plateau that includes the Kalahari is testament to desert conditions that once more closely resembled the Sahara than the current semiarid grassland mitigated by scattered acacia trees and shrubs, which fill the same niche that plants like […]

The Bushman Diet Drug

Ironically, the wisdom of their traditional culture may harbor treasures that could mitigate their otherwise brutal poverty. For instance, the San Bushmen have long chewed pieces of the hoodia cactus to take the edge off hunger, since they sometimes had to go days with little or nothing to eat on long hunts or in times […]

Studying the Human Mystery

Thus, the lifestyle of the Bushmen who have lived in balance with the demands of the desert grasslands of the Kalahari for at least 30,000 years may provide invaluable clues to human origins and our original huntergatherer lifestyle. The traditional Bushmen were renowned for an intimate knowledge of the desert that enabled them to make […]

The Original People

Once upon a time, paleontologists believed that human beings and the other primates went their separate ways 15 to 30 million years ago. They based the conclusion on inexact and wide-ranging dating of bits of teeth and skulls scattered throughout the world. Moreover, paleontologists found bits and pieces of big-brained, upright-walking hominids they believed gave […]

Kalahari Desert

Kalahari Desert: Southern Africa

Odds are, human beings hit upon the lifestyle and innovations that enabled them to populate the planet in some place very like the Kalahari Desert, a small, surprisingly diverse, just-barely desert in southern Africa that still harbors what many geneticists consider the original human beings. The 100,000-square-mile (260,000 sq km) Kalahari is a faint echo […]

The Ship of the Desert: The Camel

The camel remains one of the most remarkable and important of all desert-adapted animals. Consider the following facts about the camel: Go seven months without drinking, if they can get moisture in their food Go two weeks without a drink even if they eat nothing in the heat of summer Lose 0 percent of its […]

Strange Animals Thrive in Harsh Conditions

Many of the most unique and specially adapted creatures of the Arabian Desert have already disappeared or cling to a rootlet of survival. One remarkable creature that has vanished from most of the desert is the ferocious honey badger, a 10-inch-long (250 mm), 25-pound (11 kg) mass of muscle and aggression also known as the […]

Plants Cope with Salt and Heat

Surviving in such a harsh, hot, waterless place demands special adaptations in desert plants. Most have made elaborate adjustments to the lack of water. Many are halophytic, or salt tolerant, having evolved ways to handle loads of salt and minerals that would kill most plants. Many of the low-lying areas into which the wadis drain […]

For Deserts—Location, Location, Location

Sprawling along 22? of latitude, most of the Arabian Desert lies north of the tropic of Cancer. Summer heat reaches temperatures of 129°F (54°C). Although some of the coastal stretches get moisture in the form of ocean fogs at night and in the morning, most of the sandy expanse gets less than 4 inches (100 mm) […]

World’s driest places

A Landscape of Sand

The great, flat sandy plains separating both the volcanic mountain ranges and the uplifted plateaus dominate most of the Arabian Desert. Covered with rocks or gravel fitted into something of an armor plating by the patient actions of wind and frost, these desert pavement surfaces protect the dry, sandy soil beneath. Some of the plains […]

Hidden Riches of the Arabian Desert

That long, rich geologic history helps explain the vital importance to the world of this seemingly barren and inhospitable desert. In its northern reaches, the 1,300-mile-long (2,080 km) Arabian Peninsula merges with Arab Asia through the treeless plains of Syria. The highest point lies in Yemen, 12,336-foot (3,760 m) Mount Al-Nabi Shu'ayb. Much of the […]

The Arabian Horse

The oldest purebred horse, the magnificent Arabian, which starred in The Black Stallion, has played a key role in human history and the development of our intimate relationship with the horse. Distinguished by their narrow, delicate faces with large nostrils and a teacup muzzle, the Arabian's lineage dates back to at least 500 B.C. It […]

Arabian Peninsula Nourished Civilization

Oddly enough, the same titanic forces that created the Arabian Desert at the head of this great rift system also nurtured the rise of Western civilizations and three of the world's dominant religions. North of the Red Sea, the Suez Canal connects directly to the Mediterranean Sea, which is shrinking as a result of the same […]

The Birth of an Ocean

Even today, the geology of this desert caught between Africa and Eurasia remains dynamic. For instance, the Earth's crust is splitting apart along the long, narrow gash of the Red Sea, which runs between the Arabian Desert and Northern Africa. The gaps between Africa and Eurasia began opening 35 million years ago along the 1,600-mile […]

Arabian Desert: Middle East

T he great, sand-swirled Arabian Desert that includes almost all of modern-day Iraq and Saudi Arabia is all about beginnings, both the genesis of Western civilization and the birth of an ocean. Moreover, the remarkable geology of the region sustains modern civilization with the compressed ooze of eons past in the form of the world's […]

What Lies Ahead for the Sahara?

The Sahara remains the most sparsely inhabited place on the planet, with the exception of the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Most of the herders and traders who once made a living here have vanished, their cultures crushed by contact with outsiders and shifts in trade routes that no longer require goods to cross the harsh […]

Animals Also Evolve Ingenuous Adaptations

The Sahara once had a broad, vital array of animal species, including elephants, lions, ostrich, and a host of other species. But many animals vanished as the climate shifted, the desert expanded, and human beings killed off the fragile survivors. For instance, a hunter killed the last known antelopelike addax in the northern Sahara in […]

Plants Outwit Drought and Heat

Few plants can deal with the combination of heat, cold, and dehydration. Large areas in the shifting dune fields have only a handful of plants struggling to grow fast enough to avoid burial. In the low-lying areas that once held great lakes, only salt-tolerant halophytes can detoxify concentrations of salt and minerals that would cause […]

Desertification worldwide

In the Grip of a Dry Climate

The Sahara remains the preeminent example of a midlatitude desert formed as a result of the way in which heating at the equator drives the atmospheric circulation of the whole planet. Moist, heated air rises high into the atmosphere at the equator, which draws the steady flow of the trade winds in the midlatitudes. The […]

Living on Million-Year-Old Water

One recent study demonstrated that the Sahara's hidden but increasingly hard-pressed supply of groundwater is actually fossil water that fell as rain more than a million years ago. This source of groundwater fell from the sky when the African continent was farther south, the current Mediterranean Sea was a low-lying desert, and the Sahara was […]

The Ghost of Water

Most of the rugged, sandy terrain of the Sahara drains into expansive internal basins or, in the north, into the ghostly tributaries of the Nile River. A few rivers that arise beyond the limits of the desert drain into it, contributing to its fitful supply of streams and its ancient supply of groundwater. The greatest […]

Sand Dunes Sing

The dunes of the Sahara sometimes sing by emitting a low, haunting humming or booming sound. The still poorly explained sound puzzled some early explorers. Marco Polo in the the century blamed, “evil desert spirits [which] at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments and also of drums and […]

Sand dunes

The World’s Biggest Sand Dunes

The Sahara is best known for its massive sand dunes. These sand dunes cover about one-quarter of the Sahara, the tallest, most complex, most extensive dune fields in the world. These dunes are the result of powerful, constant, continental winds moving sand left over from a time when the Sahara had lakes, streams, and floods, […]

The Geology of the Sahara

Today, the vast, hostile Sahara remains the mother of all deserts. High points like 11,204-foot (3,415 m) Mount Koussi in Chad rise like stone fortresses in a great battlefield of sand. A series of ridges and mountain ranges are separated by great, stretched, low-lying depressions, like the Quyattara Depression of Egypt that lies 436 feet […]

Blame the Plants for Speed of Sahara Expansion

It is important to note that even after taking into account the effects of the Earth's wobble and the shift in summer temperatures, climate experts cannot account for the speed with which the grasses withered and the Sahara expanded. Blame the plants, concluded a team of German scientists led by Martin Claussen, which published its […]

A Devastating Desert Expansion

Starting around 6,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert started an abrupt and devastating expansion. In a geological blink of an eye, the boundary between hard-core desert and grassland shifted by about 500 miles (800 km), which increased the size of the desert by nearly 50 percent. Moreover, the summer monsoons that had sustained the grass-harvesters […]