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The expedition led by Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922) accompanied by Leut. C.J. Cockburn of the British army and Alexander Scott, a gardener for the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh gives the first detailed botanical account of the island.

Isaac Bayley Balfour: © Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

In 1878 the British Association for the advancement of Science had put aside 100 for "taking steps for the investigation of the Natural History of Soqotra". On 20th December 1879 Prof. Isaac Bayley Balfour, then professor of Botany at Glasgow University, was asked to lead an expedition to Soqotra. He departed from London on 9th January 1880, reached the island on 11th February and departed on 30th March having spent 48 days on the island. During this time he made zoological, geological and botanical collections which included 500-600 specimens of flowering plants and resulted in the description of over 200 species and 20 genera new to science. These are described and meticulously illustrated in his monumental "Botany of Soqotra" (Balfour 1888).

They include many bizarre plants and botanical oddities of obscure affinities: Dirachma socotrana Schweinf. ex Balf. f. - an extraordinary tree in its own family and possibly related to the Malvaceae; Punica protopunica Balf.f .(1882) - the only relative, and according to Balfour, the "primitive stock" of the pomegranate (P. granatum); Dracaena cinnabari Balf. f. - the "Dragon's Blood tree"; Dendrosicyos Soqotrana Balf. f. (1882) - the "cucumber tree" - the only tree in the Cucurbitaceae and two plants of uncertain affinities - Wellstedia Soqotrana (1883) - named in honour of Leut. Wellsted and Cockburnia Soqotrana Balf. f - named in honour of Leut. Cockburn.

Balfour's visit to Soqotra was quickly followed by a second major expedition led by the German ?linguist Dr Riebeck in the spring of 1881. This expedition was primarily studying the people and language of the island but was accompanied by Dr Georg August Schweinfurth (1836-1925), the famous German naturalist, scholar and traveller, who investigated the botany of the island. Schweinfurth had only learned of Balfour's visit the preceding year when he arrived at Aden and on his return very generously sent his collection to Balfour so that the two sets of specimens could be investigated together. Schweinfurth's plants were collected at a slightly different season to Balfour's, in April and May rather than February to March, and so they frequently supplemented the specimens collected by Balfour in flowering and fruiting characters. They are a major contributing factor to the completeness and lasting importance of Balfour's Botany of Soqotra. No more botanists visited the island until the close of 19th century when there was another flurry of activity.