Alpine travels in Armenia (part one)
By: Kit Strange - 13/06/2011
See some of the wonderful plants found by Kit Strange from Kew's Alpine team, as she travelled around Armenia to see spring bulbs in their native habitat.
Armenia is a wonderful place to travel to look for alpines. My particular aim was to see spring bulbs, with an emphasis on irises, especially the 'juno' irises and Oncocyclus irises (known as 'onco' irises). Armenia has four different types of onco iris, which grow from rhizomes and have amazing, showy flowers, so the hunt was on to find them all. The country is very mountainous, with most places 700 meters or more above sea level. There are amazing geological features all around, which makes for great plant hunting because you find lots of different habitats in a small area, with different plants to match, all crammed in!
The amazing geology of the Armenian mountains
We went to find iris lycotis (also known as I. iberica subsp. lycotis) on our first day. Travelling south from the capital Yerevan, where the countryside is quite flat, we started to gain altitude and then came to the site of the irises. Growing in Acantholimon scrub, these gorgeous flowers just dotted the landscape like black hankies.
Flowers of iris lycotis dotted the hillsides
The second place we found an onco iris was on the following day, as we walked up a gorge that had a large fish reservoir running alongside the road. There, sharing a very interesting habitat with lots of other bulbs like Leopoldia caucasica and Ornithogalum sigmoideum, we found Iris paradoxa, growing in an area that in early spring, would have been a stream running off the mountain. Just next to the wet habitat where we found the iris, there was a south facing slope which was as dry as a desert. This area also supported a range of different plants.
Driving further south again, and the weather feeling warmer still, we pulled up by a promising looking south-facing hillside, to see if we could spot some nice plants. This habitat had some shrubby trees and lots of annuals in the grass. On quite a steep slope we spotted our third onco, Iris lineolata (I. acutiloba subsp. lineolata). Many of the clumps were quite large, with many flowers. What a beautiful sight! I could tell that lots of animals had been grazing here by the amount of droppings all around - nice food for the irises!
We saw our last onco when we returned to the north again, and had some trips out from Yerevan. In the hills around Yerevan, if you are lucky, you may spot a lovely onco called Iris elegantissima (or I. iberica subsp. elegantissima). This was again growing in long grass with lots of annuals and pretty grasses. Sometimes in the shade of trees, sometimes out in the open. There were fewer flowers but they are large, with white standards (the upright petals) and black beards on the lower petals (falls). These spectacular flowers can be seen from far away.
We were also interested in seeing Iris caucasica, which is a juno Iris. The juno irises grow from a bulb with fleshy roots attached, the leaves are more like a small leek than an iris and the standards (usually the upright petals) of the flower often point downwards and are much smaller than the falls. This group is one of Kew's National Plant Collections and they are grown in the Alpine Nursery. We spotted I. caucasica in quite a few places. The one thing that was very interesting about this plant was the variation in habitats that we saw it growing in. They ranged from sopping wet hillsides in muddy clay, to Artemisia scrub, in almost desert conditions.
Iris caucasica on a wet Armenian hillside
It is a beautiful bright yellow flower but on first opening it’s almost green. A truly wonderful plant - even when you have to fight rainstorms to see it!
- Kit -
Several people contribute to the Alpine and Rock Garden Team blog. Richard Wilford is the Collections Manager in the Hardy Display Section at Kew. His responsibilities include all the areas where alpines are grown at Kew Gardens. The three team leaders, Joanne Everson, Graham Walters and Katie Price, each have their own particular parts of the Gardens to look after. Between them, these four experts have over 55 years experience of growing alpines.
Alpines at Kew Gardens are not only grown to create colourful and informative displays, they also play an important role in the research Kew carries out around plant naming, classification, biodiversity and conservation.
Mountains are found on every continent and each range has its own unique alpine flora, but these plants are under threat from climate change. As temperatures rise, alpines are forced higher and will eventually have nowhere to go. The alpine collections at Kew are studied to help us all understand the mountain flora better and make informed decisions about protecting its future.
"Probably the most beautiful glasshouse in the world is the Davies Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew", John Hoyland, Gardens Illustrated, April 2011
Richard Wilford has written a book on alpines, 'Alpines from Mountain to Garden', published by Kew Publishing. You can buy it in the Kew shops or from Kewbooks.com.
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