Plant Collecting in the Republic of Georgia: Part 1

by Andrew Gapinski, Manager of Horticulture
October 8, 2016

Plant Collecting in the Republic of Georgia: Part 1

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has launched a 10-year initiative to expand and refine our collections of living plants–The Campaign for the Living Collections. This cross-institutional effort focused on plant exploration, collection, and production aims to enhance the Arboretum’s resources for research and conservation. Arnold Arboretum Manager of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski and Director of Operations Stephen Schneider just returned from an 11-day expedition through the Republic of Georgia. Below, read Andrew’s report from the field.

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip1 2016 Andrew Gapinski

The Mtkvari (aka Kura) River, flows west to east from Turkey, north through the central valley of Georgia and back south through Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea. As it flows through the heart of Tbilisi, it passes by the historical district of Metekhi.

I write this post over the Black Sea as I travel on a return flight from Batumi, Republic of Georgia to Istanbul, Turkey and then onward to Boston. While building a collegial relationship with our Georgian partners, we collected seed, herbarium vouchers, and associated collections data, as well as compiled notes on species occurrence for future plant collecting trips. This expedition provided follow-up to a scouting and partnership building trip Steve participated in earlier this year. Throughout our journey we were joined by colleagues from the National Botanical Garden of Georgia (NBGG) in the central city of Tbilisi and the Batumi Botanical Garden (BBG) located on the Black Sea. I leave Georgia with immense gratitude and deep respect for the Georgian people, their history, and culture, and a fascination with the richness of the region’s flora, geology, and remarkable natural beauty.

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip2 2016 Andrew Gapinski

Tbilisi’s cobblestone streets are lined with small store fronts selling a variety of goods and services from bakeries, cafes, and small markets to currency exchange, garden plants, clothing, and tourist souvenirs.

Our trip started on September 27 with a late night flight (11:30pm) out of Boston Logan International direct to Istanbul. Following a five-hour layover, we boarded our flight to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and largest city (1.5 million people, elevation: 380-770 m), arriving early on the morning of September 29. We were greeted at the airport by Grigoli (“Gigo”) Otari Deisadze, a field botanist with the NBGG and our travel companion, who would accompany us for the duration of our expedition. As he drove us to the hotel (around 1:00am), we made quick plans with Gigo to meet again later that morning to head to the heart of the city to walk about, finalize plans for the coming weeks, and meet and visit with staff at NBGG.

Gigo dropped us off curbside along the Mtkvari (or Kura) River, to explore the cobblestone streets of Tbilisi on our own, grab a quick coffee and khachapuri (a pizza-like Georgian staple of bread and cheese), and handle final preparations (e.g., currency exchange). Tbilisi is located in Georgia’s central valley that runs west to east between the Greater Caucasus Mountains along the country’s northern border and the Lesser Caucasus to the south. The humid continental climate in this east/central section of the country offers hot humid summers and moderate to cold winters (similar to that of warmer parts of Massachusetts down to New Jersey, extending west below the Great Lakes to Nebraska and Kansas). Faces, foods, and flora captured our senses and signs of Tbilisi’s 1,500+ years of history were beaming around every corner—from active archeological digs unearthing stone foundations and clay wine vessels to the Georgian, Russian, and Persian architecture illustrating stories of past occupation. A giant monument on the nearby Sololaki Hill called Kartlis Deda (The Mother of Georgia) watches over the city wielding a sword in one hand while offering a bowl of wine in the other—a symbol both of their long history of struggles and resilience and the welcoming nature of the Georgian people for those who come as friends.

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View from cliff top within the National Botanical Garden of Georgia overlooking the collections and Tsavkisistskali river valley below. City of Tbilisi in the distance.

We met up with Gigo at the agreed upon point—near Tbilisi’s bath houses fed by warm sulfur springs (legend holds the springs as the reason for the city’s founding)—and headed to the NBGG located in the southern part of old Tbilisi center. Founded in 1845, the garden rises out of the valley of the river Tsavkisistskali, and is broken into five thematic sections of scientific collections: plant introduction, plant conservation, rare and medicinal plants, floriculture and landscape design, and environmental education. Gigo provided introductory information as we made our way to the administrative building to meet with Garden staff and to finalize details of the trip. Tinatin Barlishvili, Deputy Director, welcomed us and together we reviewed plant lists, maps, and the layout the journey ahead. Our collecting objectives would take us to four main areas: two days just north of Tbilisi in the Saguramo Range, the “foot hills” of the Greater Caucasus Mountains; west through the Mtkvari River valley to the Lesser Caucasus for two days of collecting in the Meskheti and Tavkvetili Ranges surrounding the town of Borjomi; a day of travel further northwest and collecting in the central valley lowland forests near the city of Kutaisi; and finally a stop in the Adjara region collecting with our friends from the Batumi Botanical Garden around the tree-line in the Shavsheti Range near the Turkish border. We continued our visit to NBGG with a discussion of our trip objectives with Tamaz Darchidze, Director, and Tolcha Shetekouri, a student at NBGG who had done field work with Gigo in the past and would be joining our team for collections around the Tbilisi area. We spent several more hours touring the collections and meeting with NBGG horticulture and conservation staff, and concluded our visit at the Institute of Botany with a meeting with Director Shalva (Nukri) Sikharulidze for more information on species occurrence and seed-set timing in the various target areas. Although all of these faces were new to me, Steve was greeted as an old friend, as most had already worked with him on his trip in June.

Saguramo Range, September 30 – October 1, 2016

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip6 2016 Andrew Gapinski Steve Schneider

Steve Schneider and Grigoli (“Gigo”) Otari Deisadze finalize plans at the National Botanical Garden of Georgia for targeted plant collection locations.

Gigo, Tolcha, Steve, and I headed out early Thursday September 30 to collect in the outskirts of the city of Mtskheta—one of Georgia’s oldest cities and first capital—northwest of Tbilisi 20km (12 mi). We planned to focus our efforts on the roadsides leading to the Shiomgvime Monastery (The Church of St. John the Baptist), which by the end of the sixth century was the largest monastic community in Georgia (around 2000 monks). We found ourselves in a scrubby plant community—clearly, heavily cut for lumber and fire wood and grazed over the centuries. Paliurus spina-christi (Jerusalem thorn), Rhamnus pallasii (black tangras), Ligustrum vulgare (common privet), Fraxinus excelsior (European ash), Quercus iberica (Georgian oak), Carpinus orientalis (Oriental hornbeam), Jasminum fruticans (wild jasmine), and several species of juniper (Juniperus sp.) were abundant in these areas.

After making several collections between 550-650 meters, we headed back into town for lunch and a visit to Svetitskhoveli Catherdral, an UNESCO World Heritage Site dating (in its present form) to 1029 and Georgia’s second largest church. Afterward we headed northwest to the Tbilisi National Park (aka Sagurmo Reserve), Georgia’s oldest National Park, established in 1973. We traveled along the winding gravel road leading to the Zedazeni Monastery near the summit of Mt. Saguramos (1385 m). This dense forest was dominated by Fagus orientalis (Oriental beech), Carpinus caucasicus (hornbeam), and Quercus iberica (Georgian oak). We made collections of several species including Tilia cordata (littleleaf linden), Fagus orientalis (Oriental beech), and Ilex colchica (Black Sea holly). The next day we continued our work northeast of Tbilisi in the province of Kakheti in the Gombori Range—several additional collections were made including Mespilus germanica (common medlar), Crataegus pentagyna (smallflower black hawthorn), and Euonymus latifolius (broadleaf Euonymus). On the drive back to Tbilisi, we stopped in to the Ujarma, an important fortress town of the Early Middle Ages, which sits atop a hill overlooking the Lori River Valley. We headed west the following morning.

To be continued…

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip7 2016 Andrew Gapinski

Steve Schneider, Andrew Gapinski, and Grigoli (“Gigo”) Otari Deisadze at the National Botanical Garden of Georgia.

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Seed of Quercus iberica (Georgian oak) collected on September 30 in the outskirts of the city of Mtskheta on the roadsides leading to the Shiomgvime Monastery.

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip13 2016 Andrew Gapinski Steve Schneider

Mature seed of Fagus orientalis (Oriental beech) collected September 30 in Tbilisi National Park.

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip10 2016 Andrew Gapinski

Steve Schneider and Tolcha Shetekouri preparing herbarium voucher of Juniperus oxycedrus (prickly juniper). Two vouchers were taken for each collection: one to be housed at Harvard and one at the National Botanic Garden of Georgia.

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Shiomgvime Monastery (The Church of St. John the Baptist), located on the outskirts of the city of Mtskheta, was founded in the sixth century. Caves curved out of the limestone canyon by monks can still be seen in the walls above.

Republic of Georgia Collecting Trip12 2016 Andrew Gapinski

Collecting in Tbilisi National Park (aka Sagurmo Reserve) around 1000 m in elevation. Fagus orientalis (Oriental beech) was the dominate canopy species.

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