Friday, May 18, 2018

Caucasian travels, part two (and last of four)...


Jurinea carthaliniae
Google it! I dare you. The plant barely exists in cyberspace and as far as I know it's restricted to the Meskheti region of Georgia. Finding this (on only one cliff--despite many stops) was a highlight of my visit. I know a thistly, Composite chasmophyte from the Lesser Caucasus isn't EVERYONE's cup of tea, but pity those who aren't charmed by this ludicrous clinger.


The same plant with a better context...


Can you tell I couldn't get quite get enough of this little gem?

As if finding the little Jurinea weren't enough, there alongside it was growing this fantabulous Salvia. Of course, neither one was in seed.


I personally found the Salvia to be BEYOND "compar", but taxonomy prevails. The Caucasus are the mythical site where Prometheus was pinned to the cliff and eagles ate his liver all day long, only for it to grow back in the night. I am quite sure this is where my distant ancestors condemned Tantalus to reach for the rich banquet that always receded. The banquet of three weeks of gorgeous plants is receding into my tantalizing past, and a few items, like these, are taunting me: fortunately we did get seed of 100 and more accessions that shall assuage our longing!

Veronica liwanensis
 Alongside the exotic new things that dazzled me, a workhorse of our Colorado gardens thrived as well: Veronica liwanensis grew at an astonishing number of steppe and montane habitats we visited in the Lesser Caucusus from rock crevices to pastures and margins of woodlands.
Glaucium grandiflorum
 We also found the tiny red horned poppy at many low altitude stops. The hairy leaves were distinctive for me (I've grown the Near Easern form which is more glaucous. Alas, the enormous seedpods were nowhere need ripe!

Astragalus sp.
Somewhere in my notes I have a name for this: there were dozens of exquisite peas and especially Astragalus in the steppe of Georgia (as there our in our correlative steppes). I want to grow each and every one personally--which will require a few more centuries I fear.


Hedysarum sericeum
One of the peas that I was most enchanted with was this compact sweet pea: I would dearly love to try this in the garden. Come to think of it, we have grown a closely related species from Kazakhstan and it's done well...

Malabaila dasyacantha
Almost as numerous and diverse as the peas, the umbels were everywhere. And several represented genera I'd never heard of before like this Caucasian endemic. Since I'm in my Apiaceous stage, these particularly called to me, but once again the seed was far from ready. Drats!

Asplenium septentrionale
The Mescheti area was the first place I found grass fern in Georgia--I was a tad shocked and delighted since this is common in the foothills near where I grew up! But then I remembered I'd seen this in Kazakhstan as well, and of course Europe. We found it again in the Lesser and Greater Caucasus--obviously not a rare plant in Georgia! Alas, not one most people would notice.


Saxifraga caespitosa
 I have had varying responses to this, a botanist saying it's Saxifraga moschata. Whichever mossy it is, it's circumboreal in either case and both species are found in the Rockies. For us they're strictly high alpine, but here this was growing in shady crevices in the Steppe.


 It would be wrong if I didn't mention that everywhere you look in Georgia you see ancient fortifications: It's a wonder the Georgian people have survived--they've been overrun by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and of course the Russians (and who knows who else!): the vast valley between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus has been a corridor of human migration from long before higher Civilization even came about. The very origins of farming and the first cities are in the vicinity of these very mountains. Many peoples, not just "caucasians" have traversed the region. I am so grateful I've had a chance to do so myself!


In addition to being a plant lover, I have a strong interest in Byzantine art and architecture: Georgia's ecclesiastical art is a cousin to Greek Byzantine: I would have loved ot have time to visit more churches--especially those with frescoes such as this one...


The frescoes are often damaged: this is an area of great seismic activity, after all. And the Ottomans and Communists did the churches no favors. They are being restored in earnest now: it appears the work is conscientious--much restoration often destroys the value of the original. It's worrisome!

Paeonia caucasica

I could go on and on: I did take thousands of pictures after all! But all good things must end, and four blogs about this trip shall have to suffice. I couldn't resist including this closeup of a peony in a woodland in the lesser Caucasus.

Papaver commutatum

And this image from the steppe near Lagodechi should convey some of the grandeur of the setting. This is actually a corn field! The Caucasian corn poppy is much larger and showier than even the European P. rhoeas.
Panayoti with poppies
I hope you've noticed that in the thousands of images in my various blogs, I rarely show up. But I can't resist showing myself among these stunning poppies, with the greater Caucasus bearing witness behind!

Here an anomalous one without the usual black splotch...

Add caption
And here a closeup of a tiny specimen on the steppe: it grew in an astonishing range of habitats at lower elevations eveywhere in Georgia. I shall never grow this species in the future without feeling a gust of Caucasian breeze tickle my cheek and my heart!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Caucasian idyll (part one)

Orchis simia
Orchids were a recurring leitmotif throughout our visit to the Caucasus: this lively colony of the monkey orchid was on the property of the Tbilisi Botanical Garden--I'm sure growing naturally. We found this on our very first full day in Georgia, and hardly a day passed the following three weeks without some species of orchid brightening the day up!


Our fellow travelers the first half of the trip were botanists from the Kunming Botanical Garden, here is Dr. Sun Han, the Director of the Garden and an utterly delightful companion on any trip--full of energy, curiosity and enormous grasp of Science.

Ophrys caucasica
Here is what Dr. Sun was photographing! Wish we could get some seed of this: I have a hunch it would take to Colorado!

Dactylorhiza romana subsp. georgica (two color forms)
A glimpse of some orchids from later in the trip: there were masses of these in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus!

A meadow with poppies and mustard at the Botanic Garden in Tbilisi

Cercis siliquastrum
The redbuds were just past peak bloom when we arrived in Tbilisi the third week of April...they were just starting to peak in Colorado then: when we returned to Tbilisi last week (first week of May( they were mostly done, and when I got back to Denver, they're quickly wrapping it up--we're about ten days to two weeks behind Georgia here...

Salvia daghestanica
We never saw this in the wild, but what a treat to see a plant that was introduced to general horticulture in America by Plant Select in the Caucasian endemic garden in Tbilisi!

Ancient Georgian Church
Not many botanic gardens have panoramas like this!

Gondola to the Botranic Garden
Nor are many botanical gardens accessed by Gondola! The old city in the foreground...

Churchkela sale
A little fruit shop doing a sideline selling nuts that are encased in colorful fruit flour--I regret not buying some! Georgia is an interesting blend of the ancient and stunningly modern: I should blog about that too one day. Life just ain't long enough, alas!

Mosque
I was told this caters to both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Gorgeous tile work. Don't you love the way Mr. Anonymous posed for me? Better watch out, or I'll post a picture of you looking silly too!

View of Tbilisi from the Botanical Institute
I might have trouble concentrating at my desk with a view like this!

Boyce Tankersley
My two fellow travelers were Boyce and Peter Zale (below). This was Boyce's fifth trip to Georgia in the last 20 years: we benefited enormously from his knowledge of the country and flora, and the deep and lasting relationships he's established with Georgians everywhere we went. He's Curator of Chicago Botanical Garden and has also worked as director of Horticulture at MoBot--one valuable asset on an expedition! (You can imagine the war tales we swapped over Chacha, wine and beer. mostly wine and beer).

Peter Zale
A research horticulturist and director at Longwood Gardens, Peter was leader of our trip. I came to realize that he gives Dan Hinkley and Tony Avent a run for their money as leading horticulturist in America. In addition to a panoply of intellectual armament, he is almost annoyingly organized and driven: his many skills would intimidate, if he were not fun loving, kind and thoughtful: watch out for this guy! He's America's not so secret Horticultural weapon, What a treat to spend three weeks alongside him, here he is working on our first big outing near Tbilisi.

Female scorpion fly
I had no idea what this was until Jessica Walliser identified it for me on Facebook! And to think people criticize that Social Medium!

Cyclamen coum variety
Although I have grown Cyclamen coum most of my life (finally getting it right in the last decade), I had never seen it in the wild. Ditto Helleborus cf orientalis, Symphytum grandiflorum, Convallaria majalis, Trachycarpum orientale, Brunnera siberica, Scilla siberica and no end of classic garden plants. I gradually came to the conclusion that the Caucasus are the spiritual homeland of much European and American horticulture.Possibly the very model of Eden. Still trying to figure that one out!


Food at a roadside restaurant. Manana Khutsishvili (our incredible guide and Director of the Tbilisi Botanical Institute's herbarium) fretted more about our food and accommodations than she did the flora (which she knows through and through). Everywhere we stopped for food was a gourmet extravaganza. I should have taken names of all the dishes--Georgian cuisine is as rich, diverse and delicious as any of the world's great cuisines (French, Chinese, Mediterranean for instance). I shall miss the rich flavors and constantly varying menus: the pot in this picture is filled with baked beans reminiscent of Mexican pintos, but with a fabulous seasoning of rich herbs: this became Peter Zale's favorite dish--and I suspect he'll open up a chain of Georgian beanpot restaurants when he gets tired of plants. (I somehow doubt that's apt to happen very soon, however: his devotion to Flora made me feel like an acolyte). I'd like to put it on record that I'll invest in that scheme should it come to pass...

Primula macrocalyx
Universal throughout the Greater and Lesser Caucasus at all elevations, this cousin to the European oxslip grows across much of Central Asia. I saw it all over Kazakhstan as well.

Glaucium grandiflorum
The first time I saw this right outside Tbilisi I was thrilled: I've grown this on occasion, and have had a love affair with this genus for decades. This petite annual, however, has never settled down for me. Unfortunately, we never found ripe seed. But we did find that it was abundant and ubiquitous. We saw this again and again all over the drier steppe throughout Georgia from the far eastern corner of the country and throughout the great Central Valley wherever the native steppe hadn't been replaced by cornfields, city or intensive agriculture. It was always pretty uniform in Georgia--hairier than the forms I've grown from Turkey and the Near East. The proper scientific description of this should include "cuter than a bug's ear"!

Papaver commutatum
I first grew this from Annie's Annuals (that purveyor of marvels!) and since then from seed several times. In my next (and last) Caucasian post I shall dwell further upon it. This was taken at Turtle Lake at the north end of Tbilisi where I first had a chance to really enjoy it up close. After that, we drove past millions of these that filled cornfields, roadcuts and sparse woods everywhere at lower elevations. The European corn poppy is lovely, but this species towers over it in size and flashiness: I'll never see it without thinking of Georgia!

Polyommatus icarus
I made this my Facebook Avatar for a week or so after we arrived in Georgia: I can do no better than quote my explanation when I did it:

"My favorite author, Vladimir Nabokov would have been 119 years old last Monday. He was the world's authority on the New World Blues, but his life's dream was to explore for butterflies in Central Asia and the Caucasus. 100 years ago he did that in the Crimea, not too far from where I am. This blue (Polyommatus icarus) did not budge and let me photograph it carefully today above Turle Lake near Tbilisi"


If you have not read Nabokov's "The Gift" you are missing out on a crowning masterpiece of world literature.A multilayered masterpiece that compacts twenty years of the Russian intellectual diaspora, the Berlin renaissance smothered by Hitler, and all of the mountains and magic of Eurasia, compacted neatly. And oh yes, a killer love story. This butterfly flew right out of that book.

Scutellaria orientalis
I have seen various forms of this fantastic plant from the mountains all over Greece, Turkey and all the way to Mongolia: it is one of the most diverse, complex and wonderful species of wildflowers--and a classic rock garden plant to boot. There were several forms of this that grew everywhere in Georgia--not only on the steppe where it was widespread, but high up onto both the Greater and Lower Caucasus. It would be great fun to assemble a collection of this from across its range (plant collectors are as nerdy as any collector out there--we just have more fun!)

Paeonia tenuifolia with Boyce Tankersley
And the Great Caucasus in the distance: we're extremely close to Azerbaijan in this picture. This may be the only picture I have of Boyce without his shiny white teeth in full view: he is a born traveler who relishes every moment and takes everything in stride. You couldn't have a better companion on a collecting trip (or elsewhere)! Miss you already, buddy!

Paeonia tenuifolia in full glory
I really should have saved this for its very own post. I stupidly didn't check my settings and all my pictures that day are a tad overexposed (the late day sun was rather strong). And I was so excited I didn't concentrate and do a single decent closeup. This was actually NOT in Vashlovani Nature Reserve but to the north ans slightly west of there--a spot and a day I shall never forget. If you can excuse the wind and my horrible breathing you can even see these in video if you click here.

Polygala hohenakeri
My last little parting morsel on this penultimate blog: a chasmophytic polygala from Vashlovani Reserve--it looks EXACTLY like our Colorado Plateau P. subspinosa, except the flower color is icy blue instead of magenta. And I have seen a similarly spiny steppe milkwort on the Karoo in South Africa...these connections and reflections across the world's steppe have been defining moments in my intellectual and spiritual life. I count my lucky stars every day! And thank you for your indulgence in reading about this, my virtual life!




Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ending with a bang (Caucasian Idyll #4)

Draba bryoides
How to sum up the last day in the Caucasus? We almost didn't go to Kasbegi (Mt. Kasbek area): rain was predicted. It was far and so much to do still in Tbilisi. But the saner Gods prevailed and we experienced a day none of us is apt to forget--the perfect capstone to an enchanting trip! One of the first treasures we found when we got higher up was this treasure I have grown for decades under various names including Draba imbricata, Draba rigida as well as this--the name our Caucasian botanist preferred! Under any name it's one of the ultimate rock garden plants--and what a joy to finally see it in the wild!

Draba rigida
Here's a look from further back: you might think a Czech rock gardener had designed the spot!
Draba rigida
 You will have to forgive me as I crank out multiple images of one of my faves! I had a clump that looked just like this once..,,

Draba rigida

Primula algida
Nearby in the turf there were dozens of farinose primulas: I had seen this same species nine years ago in the Tian Shan mountains!

Primula auriculata
Another species in the same section made masses of color on wetter spots.

Primula auriculata
Closeup of the same.

Erysimun so,
On a rocky outcrop I was charmed by this little wallflower. Not sure of the species, alas!

Caltha polypetala
Wet swales all over the area were full of this giant cousin of the marsh marigold.

Saxifraga juniperifolia
The steep cliffs had masses of this Porophyllum saxifrage that was already mostly finished blooming.

Fritillaria collina

We found two enormous flowered fritillaries on the mountain: this one seemed to favor woodland,
Fritillaria latifolia
In moister swales this dark brown gem was found near the shining snowdrop below...


Galanthus platyphyllus
We had found most of the native snowdrops in Georgia on this trip--but at lower altitudes, and none of them in bloom. I was delighted to see one flowering...and in tremendous profusion.

Galanthus platyphyllus
Rather rare in cultivation, this was growing thickly in the spots we found it: one I hope one day will be more widely grown in gardens.

Pulsatilla sp.
A bit further along the road we found a few plants of pasqueflowers till in bloom on steep slopes.

Anemone caucasica
On a sunny hillside there were many plants of this anemone we'd only seen in woodlands hitherto.

Chrysosplenium dubium
I was just a tad annoyed to find the golden saxifrage thriving on one slope: I've seen it's cousin in the Altai mountains, but have never found Chrysosplenium alternifolium which grows not far from where I live in Colorado!
Primula meyeri (purple) Primula ruprechtii (yellow)
The woods nearby werew filled with masses of creeping oxalis, and many yellow and purple primroses.
Primula x amoena (hybrid between the previous two)
I found a half dozen hybrids between the yellow and purple, mostly in this muddy shade of lavender.

Primula and Oxalis in the woods
The woods were pretty much a carpet of color--what a treat for winter sore eyes!

Adoxa moschatellina and mystery Corydalis sp.
Two surprises startled us--the tiny greenish Adoxa is quite common in Europe and in Colorado, but it''s considered rare in Georgia. Our guide, Manana Khutsishvili who directs the Georgian Botanical Institute's herbarium had rarely found it. The Corydalis is even more of a mystery: don't even ask (yet)...

Daphne glomerata
On our way home we had to stop and enjoy the spectacle of this grandest of daphnes, endemic to the Kaucasus and a few other nearby ranges.
Daphne glomerata
As a proper plant nerd, I should end with this shot of this queen of its genus...but it's my last night in Tbilisi (flying out in ten hours)...so I must add a short thank you to my fantastic fellow travelers and a tribute once again to Georgian cuisine...


Lunch as usual was lavish and delicious, consisting in part of these huge plates of Khinkali, or Georgian dumplings. Manana on the right, and our driver Temuri knew all the best places to eat, for which we'll be forever grateful (not to mention where the greatest displays of plants were as well!)



Bill is the perfect pairing with Khinkali--in this case a beer named for the nearby mountain--third highest in the Caucasus range.




And a glimpse of the mountain itself from Stepantsminda, the last Georgian town before decending the Dariali gorge to Russia.

What a day! What a three weeks! Perhaps one day I shall have a chance to return again and see these heights in their summer bloom? If not, I feel blessed that I can have seen them in their early spring glory.

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