Plants of Iran
Ostensibly in Iran to see wild crown imperials, our intrepid horticulture explorer also learned about the culture and people that love these flowers.
A trip to see wild crown imperials
Iarrived in Iran at the deadliest hour, 3am. At my hotel in Tehran, the capital city, I slept briefly and fitfully, then rose and drew back the curtains of my hotel room. The rising sun illuminated the snow on a great mountain which seemed to fill my view. It was Mt Damavand, which – at 5610m – is the highest mountain in Asia outside of the Himalayas. It is part of the Alborz mountain range which skirts the Caspian Sea bordering northern Iran. The Caspian Sea is a large, saltwater lake 20m below sea level.
I was with a party of members of the International Dendrology Society to study the Hyrcanian Forest which flourishes on the rain-blessed slopes of these mountains. The Persian civilisation stretches back over seven millennia, the longest continuous civilisation anywhere. Is it because of or despite this that the Hyrcanian Forest is still largely intact?
Certainly today, Iranians have a proud and strong conservation ethic relating to their plants, animals and historic architecture. Large tracts of this forest are in national parks and are protected by forestry staff.
On our first day, we headed north from Tehran, across the arid landscape, then over the mountains to Sari which experiences a generous rainfall. We explored a forest of beech ( Fagus orientalis), not yet leafed out. Cream and lavender primroses, violets, cyclamen and corydalis grew under these trees.
The next day was spent in a woodland dominated by the endemic Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica. Here it’s a shrub, but in its homeland it’s a tree with sensational marbled bark. We spent eight more days exploring this magnificent deciduous forest of huge variety, with too many species of trees to mention.
Open slopes at high elevations were enamelled with glades of sapphire scilla. Under the trees were snowdrops
Galanthus transcaucasicus – yes snowdrops in Iran. Alas, they had finished flowering. On dry open slopes were iris, tulips ( Tulipa montana) and many others – including sternbergia, colchicum, allium and stately eremurus – in flower.
Each day, we picnicked somewhere beautiful. One day, it was on a high pass with fresh green glades of grass, showers of white blossomed malus trees and splendid views across the mountains onto the plains below.
This field trip was followed by a cultural tour which included the Fin Garden in Kashan. Completed in 1590, it is the oldest extant garden in Iran.
Then onwards to Isfahan with its blue tiled mosques, from where a few of us went on our adventure to see the
crown imperials ( Fritillaria imperialis) in the wild. We sped westward across the desert of central Iran, leaving by car in the early morning from the ancient city of Isfahan, towards the Zagros Mountain range.
The earth was coloured dun; the few grasses and bushes, a similar shade of dreary brown.
After two hours, we left the highway and turned north, ascending the lower flanks of the mountains. This was a potholed dirt road – a bumpy ride. Our driver had been instructed to hurry – and he did. We were thumped around, bounced up and down.
Then we saw people climbing the mountain sides; first a few people, then lots of them. We came to our destination. There were hundreds of people, a car park, WCs with running water would you believe, but best of all a celebratory entrance arch. Iranians had come out en masse to walk among their own extraordinary wildflowers.
Arising from the desert amongst the brown grass and prickly
Astragalus spp. were these upside down tulips, as the Iranians call them, coloured like flaming embers, on tall black stems bearing lush green
There were differences in height, shape and colour. One plant had brown coloured leaves and a number had flared, bell-shaped flowers.
leaves with a leafy topknot above the cluster of flowers. There were thousands of crown imperials extending up the valley as far as we could see.
These plants are valued and protected by the Iranian people. There were poles and string to encourage spectators to keep to the path. A lady ranger clothed in a black chador ran up and down blowing a whistle if anyone ventured off this path. I will remember this scene always: the plants, the people, their joy in the wildflowers.
This site was so crowded that our local driver suggested that we move on to another place that he knew further on where the sightseers might be less numerous.
At this next site there was no string and no ranger. We were free to wander amongst the flowers with the many local visitors. We saw no other foreigners; only our own small party. Despite the lack of a ranger, people were careful not to step on the plants and no one picked the flowers let alone dug up bulbs.
Lingering amongst the plants, I began to notice their individual variations. There were differences in height, shape and colour. Some had black and white markings on the base of the flower where it joined the pedicel. One plant had brown coloured leaves and topknot. Most were shaped like tulips but a number had flared, bell-shaped flowers.
If there had been more time to study the plants and venture further up the valley, maybe I would have seen other differences too. I have read that these plants are recent and still evolving. I didn’t see any yellows but I believe that they are there.
The lush growth in the desert was because of underground water moving down from the melting snow on the mountains. But why this form and colour? That is an unanswerable miracle of nature.
Iranian people engaged us in conversation. One took my photograph with his family amongst the flowers. Because the second site was further on from Isfahan, many had camped overnight in tents, making their visit a holiday. A small lake had a fountain made from hosepipe and over it, a flying fox. Children were whizzing down the wire, having fun. A group of young men were making up a fire, cooking a pot of stew. They laughed and clapped and danced.
Margaret and her newfound friends admire the crown imperials in the Zagros mountains.
The entrance to the flower fields.
A closer look at the “upside down tulip”.