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.

NZ Gardener - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOS: MAR­GARET BARKER

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”.

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