Originally published in the December 1998 newsletter of the Northwestern Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society.
A Kazakhstan Caravan
Kazakhstan is a striking contrast of natural beauty and the crumbling concrete and disintegrating infrastructure of a post-Soviet state. Highways were miles of lane-less obstacle courses of ruts and rocks -- no, pits and boulders -- through the vast rippling of the grassy steppes. Post-apocalyptic piles of the rusted, twisted remnants of farm and industrial equipment lined the roadways. Terrifying tracks, barely wide enough for our truck/bus to squeeze its tires onto, switchbacked up the mountains, while our cheerful translator retold the stories about the time "the Russian scientists plunged to their death when this part of the road collapsed."
What had brought us to this distant and remote place? Well, you could blame it all on Phillips and Rix! All those enticing photographs of glorious plants in their natural homes gave the impetus, this Spring, for my husband, Mike, and me to embark on our first plant expedition ever. Our destination? The western Tien Shan mountains. Our quest? Tulip meadows.
There were four other intrepid souls on our trip: a very dedicated amateur photographer from Gutenberg, Sweden; a clever birder from Johannesburg, South Africa who liked to go on "plant" trips rather than "bird" trips "because they get up later in the morning"; and two women from the south of England, one working on her lifetime plant list and the other a botanist who was training to be the English-speaking guide for future trips here. Our local guide, Anna Ivashenko, was built like an ox, strong as a horse, smoked cigarettes like a chimney, climbed up and down slopes like a mountain goat, had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, and spoke not a word of English. Our common language turned out to be Latin!
Most of our "official" plant hunting was to be in the western Tien Shan and Alatau mountains and their associated foothills (the Karatau) and gorges (Tamgaly Tas, Aksu, and Merke). However, every "pit 'n' picnic" roadside stop revealed botanical treasures. We had a number of "emergency flower stops" for stands of Eremurus fuscus in a farmer's grazing field (rusty brown flowers), for stunning scree hillsides covered with E. regelis (pink), E. cristatus (pink), and for E. lactiflorus on a mountain pass. Other roadside treasures included two amaryllidaceae, Ixiolirion tatricum (blue) and Ungernia sewerzowii, and the only member of Papaveraceae that we saw -- but what a great sight it was, red heads nodding on the sides of roads -- Roemeria refracta.
Driving through the vast unobstructed steppes covered with native and introduced grasses (Stipa capillata, Phragmites australis, Hordeum bulbosum (tasty), H. crenatum, Poa bulbosa, etc.) gave us grand geological views of mountain erosion and swathes of alluvial fans falling out of mountain valleys. As in our own great plains, distances were deceiving, revealing views of our destination miles and miles before reaching it. Of course, the dismal condition of the roads aided in that perception of great distance. When we left the proto-highways, our travel was dominated by four-wheeling in various forms of buses and trucks. Some actually looked like familiar modes of transportation but lacked functional suspension systems as we know them. Others, barely recognizable as public transportation, had structural adaptations and fearless drivers that allowed fording of rivers, clambering over boulders, and traversing mud. Of course, we occasionally helped with pushing, building roadways and bridges with local rocks -- or praying! And was it all worth it? You bet it was!
We saw fifteen species of tulip, all in bloom except the elusive T. regalii with its beautiful crenellated leaves. These included the endangered T. kolpakowskiana (black center in orange-yellow flowers) growing in the cracking mud and rock rubble at Kurdai pass. It has a pair of blue-gray leaves, 6 to 8 inches long, a half-inch wide curved trough, ruffled along both edges, snaking flat along the ground. T. tienshanica (yellow) is another wavy-leafed species, as is T. alberti. Looking for T. regalii, we did come across a gully with a number of Paeonia hybrida with its ferny leaves and last year's seed pods. This was an area of masses of fledgling perennials just showing their crowns on the brown hillsides. Anna proudly pointed out Nepeta ukranica from her homeland.
Camping at Merke Gorge, we found Tulipa buhseana, T. zenaidae (plain red and yellow forms as well as striking yellow flowers with red undersides), and T. bifloriformes (white). Theirs is a tough existence in scorched clay and rock detritus. Tulips in Kazakhstan also take opportunities to hybridize. Anna showed us, for example, how T. ostreoskiana (reddish orange with a yellow center) had crossed with T. kolpakowskiana and added large, black anthers not seen in the species. A beautiful result.
The gorge and local stream valleys near Merke were one of the few places, in our travels, that we found ferns (Cystopteris fragilis, Ceterach officinarum, and three aspleniums: Asplenium septentrionale, A. ruta-muraria, and A. trichomanes). Not surprisingly, this moist environment also offered Arum korolkowii (not in bloom) with Viola rupestris, Saxifraga sibirica, and the striking black stalks of Carex melanostachys. While looking for a private moment, I found a familiar leaf, if not a familiar species, in Alchemilla petropilosa and in the vines of Clematis orientalis.
The beautiful blue-leaved and delicate flowered Leontice alberti, and later L. ewersmanii (yellow flowered), enticed me to do drawings. Generally,I took photographs, but sometimes couldn't resist capturing an alluring plant with a paper and pencil portrait. Here, we also found Ephedra equisetina, identified several days later in the cauldron of rinse water for our sauna in a little log cabin hut with a river rock oven. Yep, there was the requisite glacial stream nearby. Mike hopped into the icy water, as prescribed by our hosts, though I have to admit I was a chicken.
We found Tulipa binutans nodding their tiny heads in the arable fields outside the Chokpak Ornithological Station, where we spent May Day -- a labor holiday, even in post-Soviet days -- slugging vodka and hot tea in an Arabian tent with the Russian ornithologists stationed there. The walk to the station also yielded Corydalis ledebouriana and the white-flowered C. glaucescens. There were numerous gageas in the grass: Gageas chomutovae, G. filiformis, G. popovii, G. turkestanica (capusii), G. dshungarica, and G.emarginata. In our sixteen day trip, we saw 17 different blooming species of gagea. Anna patiently and futilely differentiated one from another, tearing the flowers, leaves, and bulbs apart to show us their varied characteristics. It was gagea overload.
The other extremely common genus as astragalus. At Chokpak, we saw Astragalus atrovinosus, A. sieversianus, and A. anisomerus. During the thousand-foot descent into Aksu River Gorge, we saw five different species: A. severzovii, A macrorhizus, A. inaequlaifolius, A. alboinii (endangered in the Soviet Red Data book), and A. atrvinosus again. At the bottom of the gorge there was another candidate for sketching. This time Soleanthus circinnatus (Boragniaceae), whose nodding salmon-colored flowers uncurl from a graceful spiral. Large, dramatic metallic-black bees pollinate them.
In the Aksu Dzabagly nature reserve, we explored a stream valley between two small hills situated above the village in which we were staying. Here, we discovered the only orchid of the trip, Dactylorhiza umbrosa, and a very, very tiny sedum, Sedum pentapetalum, an annual. Here, also, I fell in love with the many yellow/buff/brown/purple bells of Fritillaria stenanthera and Korolkovia severzovii. When preparing for the trip, I bought my first macro lens and for weeks practiced using it, with and without a tripod. When I saw these frits, I knew this was the culmination of those efforts -- a photographic orgy. Even being cold and wet on the return trip, after taking innumerable portraits from the bottom up -- these plants are NOT tall -- was worth it.
The two most plentiful -- one can hardly call acres of blooming wild tulips "common" -- were Tulipa greigii (generally lower elevations c. 3000 feet) and T. kaufmanniana (often higher elevations up to 6500+ feet). T. greigii were most commonly red, though we saw orange and yellow members of the clan as well. On the hillsides along the River Kokbulak, we could not take a step with stomping on a cluster of beautiful mottled T. greigii leaves. Given its threatened classification, it was distressing to see children holding wilted bouquets attempting to sell them to passengers at the train stations.
We discovered many different populations of T. kaufmanniana in a vast array of colors: white, yellow, red, plus innumerable combinations of stripes and streaks using this palette. Hiking up the slopes of Karzhantau Ridge, there were constant cries of, "Come, look at this one!...Here is the best one yet!...Photo opportunity!...This one's a real BEAUTY!" You could always count on Ingemar, the Swedish camera buff, to have the best individual, in the best lighting, at the best angle. Of course, wind, rain, terrain (or getting lost!) never stopped him. So if you followed his footsteps, you might well be hanging by your toes, cantilevered over a cliff! This was also the hike during which we saw the only blooming primula of our trip, Primula algida (violet-magenta).
As we ascended the road to 8000 feet in the Tien Shan south of Almaty, we found Cortusa brotheri, Draba lanceolata, and Androsace septentrionalis tucked into the steep, rocky outcroppings above the river. These spruce-forested mountains (Picea shrenkiana) displayed two forms of prostrate junipers (Juniperus sibirica and J. pseudosabina). Along the way we found the pink flowered Corydalis nudicaulis and Aquilegia atrovinosa. Around Lake Almaty observatory, the starry, white faces of Crocus alatavicus and Tulipa dasystemon (yellow form) and T. heterapetala greeted us through the snow.
Irises were another big hit on the trip. Most were growing daringly through heavy scree slopes. Our first two, In Tamgaly Tas Gorge, were Iris tianshanica (pale mauve-lilac with purple stripes) and I. kuschakewiczii (pale violet), which set our standards very high. The area where we camped was covered in the salt-tolerant shrub Halimodendron halodendron, covered not only in coffee-bean-like seeds, but also with the remnants of flapping prayer cloths and garment scraps draped over the bushes. While exploring the Bronze Age petroglyphs high in the red rocks and cliffs, we discovered Rosularia turkestanica and Sedum alberti. Spirea hipporitsifolia and the pink flowered Cerasis tienshanica draped over the rocks while Thalictrum isopyroides, with stunning small blue leaves, and Corydalis schanginii (pink with dark centers) snuggled in around them. This was also home to Gentiana olivieri and the lavender-leafed Geranium transversale and the first of more alliums than I can name!
We found a stunning greenish-yellow form of Iris kolpakowsiana at one of the many "emergency plant stops" on our way to Saryyaigyr Gorge. The most anticipated were the endemic Juno irises, characterized by fallen standards and petaloid stigmas. We found four in bloom, yellow I. orchoides and I. tubergeniana, as well as white and lavender forms of I. coerulea and I. capnoides. The very last flower seen before we descended to a hotel, a long-anticipated shower, and our night flight to Vienna, was the singularly beautiful royal purple blotched I. alberti.
We saw and identified over 400 plants on this trip, many in bloom. For Mike and I, as beginners, it was fairly overwhelming. Many, such as the endemic Sergia sewerzowii (Campanulaceae), Lepidolopha karatavica or Pseuderemostachy sewerzowii (Compositae) are not only tongue twisters, but also nearly impossible to see anywhere else, or even READ about. Lots more were a familiar genus but an unfamiliar species. Still others, such as Allium karataviense or Thalictrum minus, live in my own garden. But in all cases, it was a wonderful opportunity and a fantastic introduction into the adventure of tracking down plants in their native habitat!