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Romulea phoenicia

A case of mistaken identity

Ramy Maalouf

Independent researcher, Vila Mariana 04118-080, São Paulo, Brazil;



Romulea phoenicia is flower native to central Lebanon distinguished by its unique yellow and pink flowers. It has recently been confused with the similar Romulea tempskyana from the eastern Mediterranean, posing challenges to understanding these distinct species. This paper clarifies the morphology, distribution, habitat, and conservation status of Romulea phoenicia in comparison to Romulea tempskyana. Romulea phoenicia has smaller yellow and pink flowers, narrower leaves, a shorter flowering stem, and is endemic to sandy, forested mountain soils in Lebanon from 700-1200 m elevation. Romulea tempskyana has larger, deep violet flowers, longer leaves, taller flowering stems, and a broader eastern Mediterranean distribution. The vulnerable Romulea phoenicia is threatened by habitat loss from quarrying, urbanization, pine forest degradation, and grazing. Further research and protection of remaining populations are needed to conserve this unique Lebanese endemic iris. Accurately distinguishing these species allows for proper conservation status assessment and management.


Keywords: Romulea phoenicia, Romulea tempskyana, Iridaceae, Lebanon, conservation, morphology, endemic



Romulea is a genus of flowering plants in the Iridaceae family. It is distributed in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. Amongst them, Romulea phoenicia Mouterde is distinguished by its unique floral morphology and distribution restricted to central Lebanon (Mouterde 1953). However, images of the closely-related Romulea tempskyana Freyn were recently misattributed to Romulea phoenicia in online databases, posing challenges to appreciating these distinct species.


Distinguishing Features

While Romulea phoenicia and Romulea tempskyana share some traits, key differences highlight their identities:

Flower Color: Romulea phoenicia has a bicolored yellow to pink bloom. Romulea tempskyana has singular deep violet flowers.

Size: Romulea tempskyana has larger 3-5 cm flowers versus Romulea phoenicia’s 1 cm flowers.

Style: Romulea phoenicia has a shorter yellow style covered by anthers. Romulea tempskyana has a protruding violet style with feathery purple divisions exceeding the anthers.




Figure 1.  Photos of Romulea phoenicia in situ, Baskinta, Lebanon 27-02-2022. Photos taken by author.







Figure 2. Screenshots of KEW, GBIF & IUCN websites with the photos of Romulea  tempskyana mistakenly identified as Romulea phoenicia. 04-12-2023



Romulea phoenicia Mouterde (Fig.1) Inhabits sandy, forested mountain habitat in Lebanon from 700-1200 m elevation. Bulb has brown, leathery tunics. Leaves linear, up to 20 cm long. Stem short, 1-3 flowered. Spathes green with purple margins. Tepals 1-1 cm, yellow to pink. Style yellow, shorter than anthers. Flowering January-April.

Romulea tempskyana Freyn (Fig. 2) Bulb tunics split into sharp teeth. Basal sheath rounded, pale. Leaves very narrow, compressed, 3-5 times longer than stem. Spathe valves large, lanceolate, lower one herbaceous, upper one scarious. Perianth intensely violet, segments oblong-elliptic. Stamens 1⁄3 shorter than perianth, filaments orange, subulate. Style pale violet, exceeding anthers. Flowering in January. Distribution includes Cyprus, Turkey, Syria ?  

I've appended the descriptions of both plants in their original publishing languages to the end of this paper (Appendix 1).
























Romulea phoenicia, classified as "vulnerable," inhabits a specific niche within the central Lebanese mountains, primarily found in forested areas and sandstone formations between 700 and 1200 meters above sea level with no documented observations from the northern or southern regions of the country. Its habitat is notably limited and specialized, making it particularly susceptible to human influence. Key threats stem from activities such as sandstone quarrying and the degradation of pine forests due to expanding urbanization and construction practices. Additionally, grazing practices pose a significant risk to the delicate understory where Romulea phoenicia thrives. While previously believed to exist in northern Palestine/Israel, the comparision with the photos of individuals clearly show that it’s a distinctive species. This misidentification resulted in the species being categorized as "vulnerable" instead of "endangered." Going forward, vigilant monitoring of the small, fragmented populations is crucial due to their isolation, which hampers dispersal and genetic diversity. Preserving the remaining habitat stands as a critical measure for safeguarding this distinctive Lebanese endemic.

In contrast, Romulea tempskyana has a broader eastern Mediterranean distribution across Palestine/Israel, Turkey, and Cyprus from 0-1700 meters in varied soils and slopes (Freyn 1897) and with a "Least Concern" status (LC)

The IUCN and GBIF listed this species from Cyprus and Turkey only while KEW listed it from Cyprus, East Aegean Is., Palestine & Turkey.



Revisiting original descriptions and morphological features allows recognition of Romulea phoenicia as a potentially unique Lebanese endemic requiring further research and conservation.



I would like to thank Dr. Errol Véla for his review and helpful feedback.

Important update May 14th 2024: 

In a positive development, the major online botanical databases including Plants of the World Online (POWO), Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), and iNaturalist have taken corrective action by removing all misidentified photos that had been incorrectly labeled as Romulea phoenicia when they actually depicted the related species R. tempskyana. This is a crucial step in recognizing R. phoenicia's status as an endemic species limited solely to Lebanon, as originally described by René Mouterde in 1966. The rectification of these influential databases underscores the importance of accurate species identification for focused conservation efforts. With the misidentified photos removed, R. phoenicia can now be properly regarded and studied as a rare Lebanese endemic without the prior confusion. This laudable move by the databases highlights the need for continued vigilance against species misidentification to protect precious flora like R. phoenicia.







Appendix 1 - Original Species Descriptions



Romulea phoenicia Mouterde,

Bull. Soc. Bot. de Fr., 100, 1953, p. 349 (PI. C, n. 6). — 2J.. Tubercule bulbiforme 1-1 cm., à tuniques brunes coriaces. Feuilles linéaires

1-1 mm. de large, 2 ou 3 fois plus longues que la tige, jusqu'à 20 cm. Tige courte à 1-3 fleurs, dressée. Spathe inférieure 1 cm., verte, herbacée, étroitement marginée de pourpre. Spathe supérieure 5-7 mm., scarieuse, d'un pourpre pâle. Tube très court. Tépales 1-1 cm., jaunes à la gorge, d'un beau rose plus haut et anthères jaunes. Style jaune dépassé par les anthères. Floraison: janvier-avril suivant l'altitude. Grès.

L. Mi. Beit Méri sous Deir-el-Qala'a, typus (Mt), sous Beit Méri au-dessus de Bouchriyé(Mt), Broummana (Mt, Bksh), Ras-el-Metn, Deir-el-Harf, Dhour Choueir, Bikfaya (Mt), Mayrouba

(Mt, Pb). Mm. Col de Zahlé (Mt). Aire géogr. —• Endémique.



Romulea tempskyana Freyn,

glaberrima, bulbi tunicis fuscis coriaceis nitidulis apice in dentes 3-5 angustas acutissimas elongato-triangulares fissis, vagina aphylla unica multinervi pallida apice rotundata sub-colorata, foliis 3-5 angustissime linearibus compressis angulatis supra sulcatis recurvis scapo 1-2floro 2-3-plo longioribus basi in vaginam decoloralam multinerviam margine hyalinam sensim dilatatis, spathæ valvis pro ratione majusculis late lanceolatis acutis multinerviis, inferiore herbacea margine rubro suffusa, superiore late hyalina centro tantum herbacea, perigonü (sicco saltim) intense violacei fauce brevissime aurantiaco spathæ sesqui altioris tubo longiusculo aurantiaco vel intense violaceo laciniis subaequalibus oblongo-elliptieis vel lanceolato-oblongis obtusiusculis vel brevissime retusis, staminibus perigonio triente brevioribus, filamentis glaberrimis aurantiacis subulatis anthera aurea vix dimidium æquantibus, stylo pallide-vilaceo, stigmate antheras superante trifido ramis bilobis, capsula ignota. Januario.

Cyprus in peninsula Karpas die 7. januario 1894 leg. Deschamps (exs. 465).

Syn. Trichonema Tempskyana Freyn herb.

Dimensiones: Bulbus 10 X 12-8 x 10 cm. crassus altus, folia cum vagina 10-15 cm. longa, sicco 4-1'/2 mm. lata, scapus 2-4 cm. altus, spatha 15-16 mm. longa, tubus perigonii 9 mm. longus tenuis faucem versus subdilatatus, perigonii laciniæ 16 mm. longæ, 5 mm. ad vel infra medium latae.

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Romulea phoenicia
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