Botanical Paradise - Travels in Kyrgyrzstan - part one

Sunday, July 15, 20120 comments

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.

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