Flora of the Silk Road


Few ar­eas or jour­neys in the world con­jure such ex­otic ideas than the Silk Road.

It’s re­ally a se­ries of routes span­ning the Asian con­ti­nent brought into ex­is­tence by the im­per­a­tive of trade. Think of Palmyra and Pe­tra. Think glim­mer­ing, fan­tas­ti­cal silk cov­eted in the west since the birth of Christ, and ex­otic spices to thrill the pal­ette. As a con­se­quence, tech­nolo­gies, re­li­gious ideas and sci­en­tific ad­vances moved east to west and vice versa.

China was vastly su­pe­rior in her tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties with the in­ven­tion of the book, the bomb and the com­pass be­ing well known ex­am­ples. Ad­vances in math­e­mat­ics and medicine came from the Arabs in the west.

The camel car­a­vans made routes snaking right across Asia. They wend the ‘long way’ with more wa­ter­ing stops, or the faster, harsher, more moun­tain­ous and desert steppes.

Trade was an im­per­a­tive, de­spite or aided by the var­i­ous dy­nas­ties in con­trol. Those who al­lowed safe pas­sage through their lands could gen­er­ate much in taxes. But moun­tain ranges pro­vided strongholds from which ban­dits could launch raids. The most feared were the Hashisheen, a group of Shia Mus­lims, from which the word as­sas­sin stems, who ter­rorised the area for more than a cen­tury. As the Mon­gols swept across Asia in the thir­teenth cen­tury, the great wealth of the Silk Road was re­stored with the fierce po­lit­i­cal con­trol of the great Genghis Khan, who had cre­ated the largest con­tigu­ous em­pire in the his­tory of the world at his death. But noth­ing lasts for­ever.

With the demise of Mon­gol con­trol, the Ot­toman Em­pire brought a new era of sta­bil­ity to the western end but the iso­la­tion­ist Ming dy­nasty stopped Chi­nese trade. Even­tu­ally the Euro­pean powers man­aged to ex­clude the wealthy Ot­tomans and took to the oceans for trade. Once again the route is reborn with Chi­nese trucks, trains and oil pipelines car­ry­ing goods de­sired by the mod­ern world. It also means that travel for us as plant hunters and tourists has never been eas­ier, although con­flict in a few coun­tries makes vis­it­ing there dif­fi­cult and land­mines left in the wilder­ness of Afghanistan makes wan­der­ing a dan­ger­ous oc­cu­pa­tion.

The Easter- most end of the route in coastal Tur­key has a Mediter­ranean flora. In­land cool forests have car­pets of bright pink cy­cla­men, whilst alpine mead­ows fea­ture mil­lions of bright gold and pur­ple cro­cus. Many gar­den favourites like helle­bores, snow­drops, lilies, del­phini­ums, sea hol­lies, daisies and or­chids are found in these ar­eas.

Cen­tral Asia is a twisted, con­torted mass of moun­tain ranges. The cli­mate is con­ti­nen­tal, be­ing so far from the ame­lio­rat­ing sea, the win­ters are bit­ingly cold and the sum­mers hot with mostly drier sum­mers. As the rain­fall and soil types vary so does the flora a botaniser can dis­cover. Mov­ing north and east, ver­dant herb-rich mead­ows are found. Fur­ther in there are tracts of for­est with wal­nut and conifers. Here prim­u­las and blue pop­pies can be found in abun­dance. The arche­o­log­i­cal re­mains in cen­tral Asia, the cen­tre of the Silk Road, are truly mag­nif­i­cent.

Continuing east is the mas­sive, end­less wastes of the Tak­la­makan Desert, a high al­ti­tude waste­land. The Hi­malayan up­lift sep­a­rates the Irano-tu­rano flora from that of China where the mon­soon cre­ates a whole new di­ver­sity due to the wet sum­mers. Golden monastery rooves sit amongst rich and var­ied species of herbs, in­clud­ing the golden Clema­tis tangutica.

Many species of pop­pies bloom across the re­gion, from blue to pur­ple, yel­low and red.

In North-west Yun­nan of China is a bi­o­log­i­cal hotspot of di­ver­sity, where three mighty rivers cut par­al­lel paths down through the Ti­betan Plateau. Huge peaks with deep val­leys al­low such a huge range of plants from tem­per­ate to sub­trop­i­cal. An in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence is of­fered to the trav­eller with a con­stant pro­ces­sion of fab­u­lous plants.

If you would like to hear more about the fab­u­lous plants of the Silk Road with a lit­tle bit of his­tory and trav­els to other botan­i­cal high­lights thrown in, Chris Gard­ner, au­thor of ‘‘Flora of the Silk Road’’ is giv­ing an il­lus­trated ad­dress, hosted by the NZ Alpine Gar­den So­ci­ety, in the Philatelic Cen­tre, Man­dev­ille Street this Thurs­day Oc­to­ber the 5. Doors open at 7.30pm.

Plant sales and flower dis­play. Buy a few to grow your­self. Chris was a gar­den designer but now lives in Tur­key and has run botan­i­cal tours for 20 years.


Gen­tians in the wet, mon­soon af­fected moun­tains of Yun­nan

Gen­tians in the wet, mon­soon af­fected moun­tains of Yun­nan

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