BEIRUT: At the Arab Book Fair, ecologists Georges and Henriette Tohme eagerly greeted their fans between French editions of Tolstoy and pocket handbooks on proper comportment for the hajj. A second edition of their encyclopedic opus, “Illustrated Flora of Lebanon,” was published last week, and plant-loving locals eagerly waited to snap up their copies.For well over 50 years, the couple has dedicated their lives to chronicling and preserving Lebanon’s unique ecosystems, particularly its wide-ranging flora. Friday evening, Georges Tohme, longtime president of the National Council for Scientific Research and former President of the Lebanese University, proudly showed off the fruits of their continued labors to exhaustively record all of Lebanon’s botanical wealth.
In the intervening years since “Illustrated Flora” was first published, the Tohmes have painstakingly documented every species of plant present in Lebanon’s nature reserves. The most difficult task, however, has been archiving all the new species they have found, Georges said. The Tohmes have documented 219 new flower species in Lebanon since 2007.
Many of these species are not endemic to Lebanon, Henriette explained. “We have found species that have been introduced here because of foreign products people have brought,” she said.
Like the increasingly international pastiche of Lebanon’s flora, both French and English speaking botany enthusiasts will enjoy the second edition of the Tohme tome. While the first edition was only available in English, the Tohmes cited increasing local interest as the reason for the translation.
Galvanizing the next generation of local ecologists, amateurs and experts alike has motivated the Tohmes to continue their work all these years. “We’ve always called for the education of young people,” Henriette said. “Ignorance,” she continued, poses the greatest threat to Lebanon’s complex and often fragile ecosystems.
The Tohmes, however, are unwilling to consign themselves to the classroom.
“We go into the field at least twice a week,” Georges told The Daily Star. Despite their advancing age, both Georges and Henriette gather specimens themselves. “Then we spend one day analyzing,” Georges said. “We dissect them to see the internal structures.”
The 2612 floral photographs in the second edition all come from their personal collection. Together, Georges and Henriette digitally designed each of the book’s 600-plus pages.
Georges is one of the masterminds behind the recently launched “Lebanon Flora,” an online database of local plants that was created to help scientists, conservationists and amateurs alike take stock of the nation’s unique natural diversity.
Georges explained that urbanization, agriculture and flower picking were other reasons for regional extinction of certain plants, particularly in coastal regions.
Mouin Hamzeh, Secretary-General of the National Council for Scientific Research, states in his introduction to the “Illustrated Flora of Lebanon” that the Tohmes “established a reputation as the foremost chroniclers of the endangered nature of Lebanon, combining rigorous methodology with aesthetic genius.”
At the book signing Friday, green thumbs young and old waited for Georges to autography their copies.
“We’ve been doing this for 50 years,” Henriette said proudly.
“And always together.” her husband chimed in.