Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Petunias and democracy.....Travels in Kyrgyzstan Part 3

Bishkek is my first experience of the former Soviet Union (USSR), words drained of real meaning to a younger generation, but for any of us who grew up and were politically aware before 1989 a major part of our consciousness of the world – but now all that seemingly indestructible grey concrete has turned to dust. I’m here for a botanical tour of north-east Kyrgyzstan, the most mountainous and remote of the former USSR’s ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’, up against China’s own remote province of Xinjiang. Amazing to be in a country which was once almost totally closed to outsiders, and about which we knew almost nothing. Now it is developing for tourists, but it feels like virgin territory for visitors.

There are more pictures on a Flickr site here.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Land of the yurt and the gerbil - Travels in Kyrgyzstan Part Two

Deliriously species-rich meadows above Bokumbaevo; pale yellow is Pedicularis littenovii - a semi-parasite.

our second full day at Chong Kemin, a valley in the north-east. Totally off the beaten track. We're staying in a guesthouse which is the first in the area. a bit like a Nepali trekking guesthouses, all rather improvised, The village is very poor, people seem to have nothing beyond the basics. Poorer than Romania or Bulgaria. Hardly any cars, very battered old Ladas. Boys on horses gallop around.
Linum olgae

Later today we went further up the valley and walked up a side gorge, primed to look for Linum olgae, a perennial flax found only here and only seen in flower by a handful of botanists, “the snow leopard of central Asian botany” as Brian put it. Catherine and I were in the lead, it took her about 2 mins to spot something pink, I got out the binoculars, thought it worth the scramble, so up we went, an incredibly steep hillside. I was sure it was a linum from some metres, shouted down and soon they were all coming up, even the older ones – about 4 are around 70. Catherine, Cassian and I went further up and we found thousands of the flowers, a very pretty pink in fact whole hillside covered with them.
A yurt. We have one in our garden too, but the originals are made of felt over an ingenious collapsable lattice framework. The top crown piece, analagous to a keystone, appears on the national flag.

We nearly lose Catherine when she screams and disappears, having partly fallen into an enormous hole, nearly 25 cms across and a metre deep. Clearly dug by an animal; apparently there are giant marmots in this area.

Extraordinary number of beehives on flatbed trucks below dramatic red rocks reminiscent of Sedona (Arizona). Nomadic Russian beekeepers who live in cabins next to their charges are a real feature here. We fantasize that they are are old USSR hippies of some kind. There doesn't look like so many flowers for them, as there is heavy grazing.

yurt-kitchen at our yurt camp in Song Kyl

Walk started from yurt camp in very picturesque but heavily grazed area, not the first place which feels more like Switzerland than central Asia. The group seems to go at an agonizingly slow pace: it is true that walking with botanists is like walking with a four year old. Much getting down on the ground on all fours to photograph tiny little plants. Eventually three of us decide to break away and just march up the track up the mountain as far as we can. We find some very interesting plants, and look longingly through the binoculars at the other side of the river at the ungrazed vegetation on the other side, I debate whether we should wade the river, but decide it is too dangerous. I understand how the old plant hunters took ridiculous risks sometimes. Luckily we find some little islands with ungrazed plants which we can wade across to: they are like little reserves of incredible plant species density. Its difficult to know how much grazing damages wild plant communities; in the short term it probably doesn't but it makes it very difficult for botanical exploration and associated eco-tourism. In the long-term many taller species may be eliminated. It's only going to get worse here – usual problem of too many people in the world eating too much meat.
Trollius dschungaricus and friends

Health of group generally better, much sharing of bowel-data.  A walk through extraordinarily eroded semi-desert habitat, in rain !! Rest of day typical english summer day crap weather, cold and wet. …. Then we go to town centre and half an hour wandering around an utterly depressing decrepit place. One nice shop, a grocers, everything stacked up on shelves behind counters, with biscuits for sale by the pound and other time-warp eccentricities. I feel a bit like I have walked into one of those museums where everything is made up like it was the 19th century.
All the buildings in an advanced state of disintegration as most of the cars. Toothless old man in local headgear grabs Elly and gestures towards the mountains, presumably saying something like “come to my yurt” .

Little girl, big grass: our redoubtable Kyrgyz fixer Meerim Kozhoshova with Achnatheum splendens, a rather magnif grass we saw in many locations. Great garden and landscape potential.
This country is full of ruins. Most of the industry collapsed after the end of the USSR, and the whole infrastructure is crumbling, though thankfully schools look ok. and the odd house seems to be having money spent on it. Odd bits of dereliction everywhere: strange tanks and pipework rusting by the side of the road, roofless factories, large industrial yards growing weeds, roofless old collective farm buildings, even a sports ground full of weeds and a few sheep. And – by the side of the lake, a vast ?theme park, with concrete yurts and murals along a very extensive wall, goes on for at least 0.5km, turn the corner and the entire site is full of weeds. The only new buildings are the wretched banks. Only the main roads paved, residential areas are gravel and mud.

The Ala Meddin valley, outside the capital Bishkek.
When we get back a sauna is ready for us, so at least we can wash in lovely hot water. Fantastic felt rugs on the floor of our rooms and very nifty home-made beds.
Before supper some of us wander around the streets, admiring local building techniques, almost entirely based on adobe bricks, rammed earth or cob, as indeed they appear to be everywhere. The new eco-builders' paradise?
Catherine Janson discovers that Allium caeruleum greatly improves mobile phone reception. A highly distinctive species, widespread but never found in quaniity. Cassian Schmidt looks longingly up the Ala Meddin valley.

Took a long time to get anywhere but unbelievably worth it when we did. About 2000m+. Few paths as such so a lot of walking across fields and gerbil-chewed steppe. Someone says that DNA analysis has shown that Black Death started amongst gerbils here. Fantastic views. Landscape on a truly massive scale. Eventually we get to some very good patches of wildflowers. And another. And another. In fact they keep on getting better, a truly incredible mix of species, every patch you look at you see something else. Then we spot some pink in some rose scrub– it is Linum olgae again, 200 kms south-west of its only known location to date! We end down the bottom of the hill along a stream where the flowers are even better – in visual terms, an amazing dense mix: Codonopsis clematidiea, Veronica sp. Pedicularis littinovii, Galium boreale, G. verum, Aster alpinus, Onobrychnis sp., Artemisia spp. (several), Astragalus sp., Scabiosa ochroleuca, Dracocephalum sp.,
Achnatherum splendens, Phlomis pratensis, Geranium collinum., Leontopodium sp.
Linum olgae - again! in the most species rich meadow i have ever seen. Blue is Codonopsis clematidea

Everyone snaps away furiously. We are in a kind of dream; everything is so perfect, so fresh, the light is soft enough for good photographs, indeed a thunderstorm rumbles away down the bottom of the valley. The range of truly incredible plant communities we have seen today is quite unbelievable.

Ligularia macrophylla was the theme plant of the trip for me. We saw it in so many locations, a real damp soil indicator. It an east-Asian element in a basically Eurasian flora.
Further meadows down in the valley are visually even better. Hallucinogenic. Oddly much of the visual impact is down to species native to Britain: two Galium, the vetch Vicia cracca, the little umbellifer Pimpinella saxifraga, an Origanum and a Hypericum almost identical to our O. vulgare and  H.perforatum. There is almost no grass though, and the unfamiliar species such as codonopsis, pedicularis and ligularia add an exotic touch. Makes me think we could achieve something similar at home.

Bokumbaevo in the sunlight is not so bad. Groups of young men hang around Ladas and Moskovitchs and other products of the USSR's half-hearted domestic car programme. Many have various bits missing (the cars not the young men). Entire families disgorge from the front seats of others, with goods stuffed in the back. A Lada 4x4 pulls a trailor with one cow entirely occupying it.
A group of elderly men in traditional felt hats play cards on a car bonnet. Meanwhile a distinguished looking old man walks by; he is wearing a jacket with all his war medals, including a big red star with a hammer and sickle.
The Song Kul plateau, a kind of mini-Tibet, at 3000m and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Very heavily grazed but the route to the loos in the yurt camp was through drifts of Edelweiss.

We came down from the Song Kul plateau partly by foot, being dropped at the pass and then walking down the road, botanizing as we went. According to Brian it took us 5 hours to go 3.5kms! A lot of alpine rarities at the top, things under the height of my ankle don't interest me so much so I spent a lot of time watching marmots through the binoculars. They clearly do not like eating Phlomis pratensis, so the hillsides are full of them. I spot a white one, the first we have seen amongst millions of the plants. A shout sends the rest of them scrambling up the slope. Marmots have to retreat for some peace and quiet.
Below the alpine belt is an area of meadows totally dominated by two geranium species: G. collinum and G. pseudosibiricum. I would say they comprise >80% of the biomass, with some alchemilla and a few other, and only the occasional grass. The hillsides are literally pink with them, for a belt of around several hundred metres high on this western side. I can honestly say I have now seen more geraniums than all the others I have ever seen in my life put together and that is saying something. There's another belt below this which is dominated by a pale yellow semi-parasite plant growing in grass, so whole hillsides are pale yellow: Pedicularis littinovii. Some discussion about how such an enormous biomass of parasite can survive without eliminating its host – the grass. Like the familiar yellow rattle on a mega scale.
"Its the next ledge up Bettina! Don't step back though!" The pass up to the Song Kul plateau had a very interesting range of alpine zone plants, much grazed by marmots in places.

Cassian, Bettina and Brian scramble up some very steep slopes to look at interesting alpine rock/scree merging into meadow flora. I spot something blue through the binoculars and direct her, “left a bit, then up a bit, right, watch the cliff edge”. Its just another Dracocephalum, of which we have seen a lot. Such attractive plants, but ungrowable in Herefordshire.

Geranium collinum, G. pseudosibircum with Phlomis pratense and Persicaria nitens - by the million.

There are more pictures on a Flickr site here.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Botanical Paradise - Travels in Kyrgyrzstan - part one

The All-Archa valley national park is only 30mins from Bishkek the capital.

Two and a half weeks with no mobile phone or internet contact! -->
Kyrgyzstan has an amazingly rich flora spread over its extremely varied and rugged terrain. Dominated by the Tien Shan mountain range changes in altitude, geology and rainfall create many different habitats. Dutch nurseryman Brian Kabbes and his Kyrgyz partner Meerim have started to run trips here to look at plant life. In just over a year Brian has built up an extraordinary knowledge of the plants here, in a country with virtually no botanists, and almost no published information on its plants. We're a group of 12: assorted plant people, including Cassian Schmidt from Sichtungsgarten Hermannshof in Weinheim, Germany, his wife the garden designer Bettina Jaugstetter, Dutch garden history expert and editor of Onze Eigene Tuin Leo den Dulk, and another garden designer friend, Catherine Jansen.
I'm very happy here!

The flora is basically Eurasian with odd east Asian species. The mountainous areas look like central Europe; we could be in Switzerland! and the plant life is largely made up of very familiar genera, but with very different species and enormous numbers of them. Ligularias hail from further east, while more drought-tolerant plants like Eremurus, Ephedra and Perovskia dominate in the very large areas of dry steppe, reminding us that we are on part of that vast complex of plain and mountain that make up central Asia and link us to Iran, Afghanistan and China's province of Xinjiang.
Cassian with Fleur and Eric from De Kleine Plantage nursery examine Salvia stepposa

Meadows in the Chong Kemin valley are particularly spectacular. We joke that Piet Oudolf designed them. Oceans of Salvia! Deep violet-purple, Salvia stepposa with yellow Hypericum, some yellow clover things (which looks just like yellow clover things back home) red clover and pink Origanum dominate. But there are hosts of other plants, including the exquisite pale yellow Centaurea rupestris, some other centaurea, blue Echium vulgare, Phlomis pratense, Nepeta nuda, many Artemisia and in the damp bits towers Ligularia macrophylla. Cassian remarks how similar in structure it is to the Silphium of the American prairie. Of course we are an exact climatic and geographic equivalent of the prairies, on the same latitude as Missouri I think, and as far from the sea as it is possible to be.
Brian Kabbes has developed an incredible knowledge of Kyrgyz flora in just over a year

Frustratingly difficult to photograph wildflower meadows at the best of times, here the strong light makes it almost impossible. I end up discarding most of what I take, especially so of a tall herb flora area we had visited earlier in the All-Archa valley. Pictures just look like green porridge.
Tall herb flora in All-Archa. Aconitum leucostomum.
Phlomis oreophila. Herbaceous phlomis spp. were some of the most seen plants of the trip. Good foliage and structure as well as colour.

Tall herb flora develops on the wet but very well-drained slopes of mountains, mineral nutrients are at a high level and a kind of giant flora develops, almost all perennials with no grasses, like a vast garden border on a kind of overdrive. I find it the most exciting flora of all, with most of its elements very garden-worthy. Unfortunately it is often very difficult or dangerous to access. Steep slopes overlooking the valley were full of giant monkshood Aconitum leucostomum, a Polemonium caucasicum Geranium gracile and several species of herbaceous Phlomis. The latter are a major and visually very prominent part of the flora here. Occasional Eremurus fuscus too, more of the vast Ligularia, and Rheum wittrockii – a rhubarb whose flowers are collected by locals; they are indeed delicious, a culinary treat I can see us applying to our own garden rhubarb next year.
Meerim points out rhubarb flower stalk as a local delicacy.
Catherine and Bettina are not so sure? Flavour is amazing mix of sweet and sour.

Much of the tall herb flora is on very steep slopes, and you have to crawl up and if you fall you have to make sure you fall into the slope. I prefer to do it barefoot as you get a better grip but you then risk impaling yourself on any bits of old branch which lie half buried. Every now and again you slip and slither down and you grab onto the nearest Aconitum or Ligularia for support. We look across at vast rivers of tall herb flora snaking their way down wet scree slopes on the mountains opposite and then see the boulders at the bottom – getting up there would be practically impossible.
Another species in cultivation! Seed collecting was not a major aim of the trip but if it came our way in the bag it goes.

Cassian Schmidt is in seventh heaven and collecting what seed he can (it is far too early for most that we see). “This would look so good in the Hermannshof” and “this would grow in our roadside plantings” are frequently shouted from slopes, thickets and meadows; he looks always at the potential of these plants for gardens and public situations. Catherine is like a mountain goat, ready to run up a slope to check out some little splash of pink or blue we think might be interesting. I have just got myself a decent set of binoculars which are very useful for scanning these steep slopes and deciding whether or not to risk our necks charging up them.
Needless to say we photographed endlessly

It is interesting to see the level of genetic variation in the plants we look at. If we had a proper base here in the country (some babushka with a garden who would grow stuff in her garden for us, for example) we would already have got quite a few good cultivars by now. Aconitum leucostomum we have seen in pearly white, subtle two-tone pink (the first pink monkshood?) and deep purple. There is a lot of variation in Salvia stepposa too; Cassian ecstatically points out different bract sizes (bigger bracts mean a longer season of colour as they outlive the flowers) and plants with darker stems. One morning we find two plants with the most exquisite ethereal pale blue flowers. It would sell by the thousand if only we could get it back home! We stand in the middle of a track looking at some stems, and then look up and see that we are in front of a parked truck, with four men squeezed in the cab, who regard us with great amusement.

Three variants of Aconitum leucostomum, from Jeti Ögüz area.

Echium vulgare - a very common arable weed, often alongside hemp and henbane.
Every day Leo den Dulk's hat would sport a different selection of the local flora.

There are more pictures on a Flickr site here.