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Plant Exploration in Azerbaijan

By Peter Zale, Ph.D., on May 20, 2018
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Plant exploration is vital to bringing new and potentially useful plants to Longwood Gardens. These plants may be used for various purposes: creating displays, systematically building our collection of over 11,000 types of plants, breeding new plants, or for plant conservation. For the past two years we have targeted the Caucasus region, which encompasses the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, to search for new hardy plants.

Positioned between the Black and Caspian seas, this region is dominated by three mountain chains: the Greater Caucasus, Lesser Caucasus, and the Talysh Mountains. The resulting landscape is dynamic and varied, resulting in a highly diverse flora that allows us to collect for a variety of purposes within a relatively small area. Many plants from this region are already known as great garden plants—snowdrops (Galanthus), peonies (Paeonia), and hellebores (Helleborus) are commonplace here. Despite this, many ornamental species have yet to enter cultivation in the US, and the many unique regional variants of well-known species are rarely cultivated here.

View of the Talysh Mountains west of Lankaran, Azerbaijan.View of the Talysh Mountains west of Lankaran, Azerbaijan.

In 2017, I traveled as a delegate of the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC, a group of US public gardens with similar interests in plant exploration) to Azerbaijan with colleagues from other US public gardens: Phil Douglas (Chicago Botanic Garden), Matt Lobdell (The Morton Arboretum), and Vince Marrocco (Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania), and guest Henrik Sjöman from the Gothenburg Botanical Garden in Sweden. We worked with partners at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences Institute of Botany to accomplish group collecting goals.

The flora of Azerbaijan is similar to that of neighboring Georgia, which I visited in 2016, but there is one key difference that allowed us to expand the scope of collections in the region. The flora of the Talysh Mountains of southern Azerbaijan is strikingly different from the flora of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus. These mountains are home to a relict deciduous forest known as the Hyrcanian forest (Hyrcanian is derived from Hyrcania, a city in northern Iran that is now known as Gorgan). Once more widespread, this unique temperate deciduous forest is found primarily in the Alborz mountains that curve around the western and southern shores of the Caspian Sea, primarily in northern Iran.

Many species from this region occur nowhere else in the world and the relatively few collections from this flora have made it into cultivation in US public gardens. This region experiences extremes of heat, cold, and drought, and holds particular promise for introducing new garden plants and tree species tolerant of climatic extremes. Plants from this region often grow particularly well in southeastern Pennsylvania. The following is a description of our activities and the plants of the Talysh Mountains and the Hyrcanian forest.

The Hyrcanian forest is superficially similar to the forests of southeastern Pennsylvania, being composed primarily of deciduous trees. Characteristic species include Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), Caucasian elm (Zelkova carpinifolia), and chestnut-leaf oak (Quercus castaneifolia). Many of these trees are already found at Longwood and other regional gardens, but many of them are uncommon, many are of unknown origin, and there could be potentially useful horticultural variants yet to be discovered.

A snapshot of the Hyrcanian forest near the village of Az Filial, Lankaran, Azerbaijan, looking as lush and verdant as the forests of Pennsylvania.A snapshot of the Hyrcanian forest near the village of Az Filial, Lankaran, Azerbaijan, looking as lush and verdant as the forests of Pennsylvania.

Persian ironwood is already a well-known garden plant in the eastern US and one of the most common species of the Hyrcanian forest. We made two collections of this species: one from low elevation at 50 meters above sea level and the other at 500 meters, at the elevation limit for this species. Collecting seeds of Persian ironwood can be interesting; like other members of the witch-hazel family (Hamamelidaceae), their seeds have ballistic dispersal, meaning that they are forcefully ejected by the tree at distances of up to 30 feet away. While we were collecting them, we could seeds bouncing off the top of our truck!

The mottled bark of Persian ironwood is highly ornamental and is slightly different on each tree. Each is an individual!The mottled bark of Persian ironwood is highly ornamental and is slightly different on each tree. Each is an individual!

Persian ironwood is best known for its fall color—in variable shades of red, purple, orange, and yellow. This is the “Valley of the Parrotia” between Lankaran and Lerik.Persian ironwood is best known for its fall color—in variable shades of red, purple, orange, and yellow. This is the “Valley of the Parrotia” between Lankaran and Lerik.

The chestnut-leaf oak (Quercus castaneifolia) is another signature species of the Hyrcanian forest. The name refers to the resemblance of the foliage to that of chestnut (Castanea), a close relative of the oak. It is one of the most widely planted tree species in the region for nearly every imaginable purpose—forestation, timber, seed (food) production, shade, street tree, etc.

The developing acorns and leaves of Quercus castaneifolia.The developing acorns and leaves of Quercus castaneifolia.

Despite this, it is rarely cultivated in the US. Interestingly, one of the largest, oldest specimens of chestnut-leaf oak can be found on the Longwood Gardens natural lands. The Longwood specimen was originally collected by the USDA in northern Iran in 1955. The tree at Longwood is the last remaining specimen from this collection. We hoped to collect seeds of chestnut-leaf oak in Azerbaijan to expand the use of this tree in US gardens, but the acorns were not yet mature. PCC members are planning to return to Azerbaijan in October of 2018 to collect seeds of this important species.

We also collected acorns of the Georgian oak (Quercus petraea subsp. iberica), a smaller growing species found throughout the Caucasus and Talysh Mountains that is related to the well-known English oak (Quercus robur). This species is rarely cultivated in the US and may have potential for smaller gardens or planting spaces and is a nice addition to oak collections in US public gardens.

Quercus petraea subsp. iberica.Quercus petraea subsp. iberica.

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) was a favorite plant of Longwood founder Pierre S. du Pont. Not only did he design extensive boxwood plantings throughout the gardens, they have more recently been a target of the Longwood Plant Exploration program: numerous trips to the Caucasus and Mediterranean region occurred in the early 2000s. In fact, Longwood Gardens has one of the largest known wild origin boxwood collections in the US, and we are always on the lookout for more to build the collection. We encountered boxwood in the Hyrcanian forest, but were discouraged by what we found. As in Georgia, the majority of boxwoods we encountered in Azerbaijan were infested by the box tree caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis). This Asian pest was accidentally introduced into the region in 2014, and has become widespread. It appears to kill any boxwood it comes into contact with.

Defoliated, and likely dead, boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) due to infestation by the box tree caterpillar, an introduced pest. This pest is devastating boxwood throughout the Caucasus and Talysh Mountains.Defoliated, and likely dead, boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) due to infestation by the box tree caterpillar, an introduced pest. This pest is devastating boxwood throughout the Caucasus and Talysh Mountains.

The box tree caterpillar rapidly defoliates boxwood plants.The box tree caterpillar rapidly defoliates boxwood plants.

We did find one population with a moderate level of infestation and were able to make a small collection of seeds. It is unlikely that these plants will be able to flower and set seed next year, so our collection was timely. Common boxwood is facing severe issues in our gardens—boxwood blight is the most devastating and has the potential to severely limit this plant’s use in the US. In the future we are targeting and hoping to collect boxwood species from China that have potential blight and box tree caterpillar resistance.

View of the Talysh mountains near the village of Orand. We stopped near this area and collected several interesting plants.View of the Talysh mountains near the village of Orand. We stopped near this area and collected several interesting plants.

Crocus speciosus is one of the most successful fall-flowering crocus species for gardens in our region. A recent taxonomic revision split them into several different species. Despite the changing taxonomy, new forms of this species and its allies all have potential for gardens. We found this precocious flowering individual near Orand. If we had been there a few weeks later, we likely would have encountered thousands of these in flower.Crocus speciosus is one of the most successful fall-flowering crocus species for gardens in our region. A recent taxonomic revision split them into several different species. Despite the changing taxonomy, new forms of this species and its allies all have potential for gardens. We found this precocious flowering individual near Orand. If we had been there a few weeks later, we likely would have encountered thousands of these in flower.

Hardy succulents are popular garden subjects right now. We discovered this Rosularia sp. (or Sedum sp.) growing on steep, shady cliffs in rock crevices. We are excited to bring this species into cultivation and determine its usefulness for gardens.Hardy succulents are popular garden subjects right now. We discovered this Rosularia sp. (or Sedum sp.) growing on steep, shady cliffs in rock crevices. We are excited to bring this species into cultivation and determine its usefulness for gardens.

Peonies are among the most popular garden plants in temperate and cold regions throughout the world. We were fortunate to be able to collect seeds of the virtually unknown Paeonia daurica ssp. tomentosa near Orand.Peonies are among the most popular garden plants in temperate and cold regions throughout the world. We were fortunate to be able to collect seeds of the virtually unknown Paeonia daurica ssp. tomentosa near Orand.

Despite its clunky scientific name, this peony species boasts creamy yellow flowers, born early in the season on compact plants. The foliage and fruits are also showy.Despite its clunky scientific name, this peony species boasts creamy yellow flowers, born early in the season on compact plants. The foliage and fruits are also showy.

On the last day of the trip, we were invited by our partners at the Azerbaijan Institute of Botany to make presentations to their staff about the work at our respective gardens. They then introduced us to their colleagues at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences at their headquarters in a building called the Presidium.On the last day of the trip, we were invited by our partners at the Azerbaijan Institute of Botany to make presentations to their staff about the work at our respective gardens. They then introduced us to their colleagues at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences at their headquarters in a building called the Presidium.

In conclusion, our trip to Azerbaijan yielded 38 total seed collections. More importantly, it resulted in the strengthening of the relationship between the PCC and the Azerbaijan Institute of Botany. Developing relationships with partners to assist with trip planning and field collection locations is critical to the success of international plant exploration. This trip was a learning experience for all involved and is paving the way for future field work in Azerbaijan. The PCC has already discussed future trips to Azerbaijan at different times of the year to focus on collecting additional types of plants that will enrich the collections of Longwood Gardens and public gardens across the US.

Photos by Peter Zale.

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