Book captures beguiling beauty of Afghanistan in the 1970s

PUBLISHED: 17:56 08 February 2019

Christopher Grey-Wilson pictured in Afghanistan, with plant press in hand 1971

Christopher Grey-Wilson pictured in Afghanistan, with plant press in hand 1971


Think of Afghanistan. A place of death and destruction, of blood and brutality but now a new book by a local author paints a very different picture of this extraordinary country. Derek James reports

Author Christopher Grey-WilsonAuthor Christopher Grey-Wilson

This is a book like no other... the story of an expedition, almost 50 years ago, to a troubled part of the world which would be rather foolhardy to attempt today. A country which is constantly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

It is called A Plant-hunter in Afghanistan and it is written and published by a former Principal Scientific Officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Christopher Grey-Wilson, known as Kit.

Today Kit, who went on to be editor of the Alpine Garden Society, lives at Redgrave in Suffolk with his artist wife Christine where he continues to write books. They have also lived at Hitcham near Stowmarket, Fenstead End, near Glemsford, and Kenninghall in Norfolk.

His latest offering is a rare treat...not just for those who love plants but for anyone interested in this quite stunning part of the world which was turned into a war zone. It introduces to some fascinating people and places in more peaceful times.

Afghanistan, 1971Afghanistan, 1971

Chris, who has written more than 20 books over the years, has now self-published this compelling story of a plant-hunting, nine-month adventure, to both Iran and then Afghanistan.

Illustrated with fine photographs it paints a vivid picture of the people and places they met and visited.

Why has it taken so long?

“The fact is that other projects have hemmed me in over the years and have taken precedence and only now have I had the time to write up the events of that year, 1971,” he explained.

Iris AfghanicaIris Afghanica

At the time he was lucky that his employers, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew allowed him nine months abroad on what was a long and detailed overland botanical expedition.

“This was no joy ride but a serious collecting expedition, its prime aim to collect in relatively little known botanical areas of Afghanistan and south Iran and to record carefully what was discovered,” said Kit.

“The peaceful and welcoming country that I and my colleagues encountered in 1971 was swept away by outside interference from Russia and America with British compliance, the rise and fall of the Mujahadeen, the Al-Qaeda, intertribal fractionisation and the rise of the Taliban.

“All these have heaped woes on the country which are likely to last for years to come,” he added.

Eremuruas stenophyllus, KhenjanEremuruas stenophyllus, Khenjan

Back in 1971 the King (Mohammad Zahur Shan) was still on the throne and the country enjoyed had enjoyed a number of years of comparative peace but all that was soon to end.

“Not all the horrors were perpetrated by the Taliban, although many were. Aerial bombing by Russian and American planes and others, the laying of vast numbers of land mines have left the country demoralised and in places shattered,” he said.

What of the future?

There is hope, great hope, The Afghan people are a mixture of noble races; they are justly proud, independent resilient people, Their time will come again,” added Kit.

In the meantime he believes it is beholden to him to record in words and pictures, through the eyes of the 1971 expedition. That is just what he has done in this wonderful and informative book giving us a look we rarely see of this quite extraordinary land and its people.

As for the future...only time will tell.

A Plant-hunter in Afghanistan by Christopher Grey-Wilson is a limited edition, numbered and signed book. ISBN 978-1-5272-2867-2.

Copies are available directly 
from the author: or from the Alpine Garden Society:
Price: £36 plus p&p.

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