Bulbs of the Tien Shan

David Victor davidxvictor@mailblocks.com
Wed, 30 Jun 2004 09:08:27 PDT
Dear all,

I have recently returned from a trip to the Tien Shan mountains and thought 
that you might be interested to hear about some of the bulbs I saw during 
the trip.

Firstly, a little background.  The Tien Shan (The "Mountains of Heaven") 
are a range of mountains running along the Southern border of Kazakhstan 
for several hundred miles, the country itself being roughly the size of 
Europe.  They form the natural border with China, to the South East, 
Kirgistan, to the South, and Uzbekistan, to the South West. The Western end 
of the mountains form an extension to the Himalayan flora and are primarily 
limestone, whilst the Eastern end is more closely linked to the Altai and 
the Siberian flora and is primarily granitic. Its worth adding that 
Kazakhstan is around the size of Europe!

Our trip was to the Kazak side of the mountains, with roughly half the 
period being spent at the Eastern end of the mountains in the valleys 
around the ski resort of Chimbaluk and the other half being in the 
Aksu-Dzhabagly National Reserve, an unspoilt wilderness area.  There was 
also a day spent on the Karatau mountains, a much older area, with a very 
interesting endemic flora.

The flora and fauna of these mountains are absolutely wonderful and much of 
the area is only infrequently visited, as access if often difficult and 
many areas can only be visited on foot or on horseback.  We used heavy duty 
vehicles to get up to 7-8,000 feet, using foot or pony beyond that.  The 
highest we went to was something over 11,000 ft (3,500m).

Our party consisted of a dozen of us, plus a local zoologist and an 
exceptionally good local botanist, Dr Anna Ivaschenko.

The flora is so prolific that it is impossible to give anything more than a 
brief taste of what we saw without writing a book!  With that in mind, I 
think that the best way to approach it is to write a paragraph or two on 
each of the main monocot families.

So, starting with Alliaceae, of which I must admit not to being a great 
fan.  However, this is one of the most prolific of families, with 40 or so 
different species to be found in the area.  The two that I already knew 
were A. oreophilum, a visitor to many gardens in the UK, and A. 
karataviense, which originates in the Karatau mountains referred to 
previously.  Absolutely wonderful to see it growing as a snow melt plant in 
a valley at 8,000 feet next to a large patch of Tulipa kaufmanniana.

The Amaryllidiaceae are represented by two members in these mountains.  The 
most obvious one is Ixiolirion tataricum, whose blue spikes are to be seen 
in meadows and on hillsides all over the place.  The other, Ungernia 
severzovii, is one of those Amaryllids that has leaves early in the year, 
with flowers appearing late in the season, after the foliage has 
disappeared.  Sadly, during our visit, the dead leaves were apparent, but 
nothing else.

The Iridaceae are represented by two genera: Crocus (C. alatavicus which 
flowered before our visit) and Iris.  We only saw Iris songarica, with its 
grey-blue flowers and grassy foliage, at the Koksay Gorge.  However,  I. 
sogdiana was very common throughout the Aksu-Dzhabagley reserve, with 
flowers varying from pale violet to pale yellow.  More interesting in many 
ways were the Juno irises.  I. orchioides was sadly over and all we found 
were the seed heads.  However, in the A-D reserve we found I. caerulea (now 
I. albo-marginata), with its pale blue flowers in flower, alongside Tulipa 
greigii.  An absolutely stunning sight!

We saw one member of the Colchicaceae, Colchicum luteum.  This small, 
yellow flowered colchicum was growing in the same valley as the Tulipa 
kaufmannianna referred to earlier.

Finally, a few words about the Liliaceae, the group that dominates my 
memories of the Tien Shan.  It is almost impossible to walk on these 
mountains without stepping on some member of Gagea.  There are over 20 
members of this genus to be found there, many of which were in bloom when 
we were visiting.  Then there are two species from Polygonatum (P. roseum 
and seversowii), at least one Fritillaria (F. stenanthera) and the "Snowdon 
Lily", Lloydia serotina.  More importantly, there are ten or so species of 
Eremurus, including lactiflorus, regellii and tianschanicus:  Absolutely in 
their thousands in some areas.  But the crowning glory are the tulips.  In 
the West we saw myriads of T. kaufmanniana (in every mix of red and yellow 
imaginable), T. dasystemonoides and T. turkestanica.  We also saw, but only 
very few, Tulipa greigii, with its magnificent large scarlet flowers, with 
black/yellow eye.  In the East, it was Tulipa heterophylla and T. 
dasystemon, again in their thousands.

I hope that my note might encourage some of you to visit these 
mountains.  Whilst it is sometimes tough going, they really will reward you 
for your efforts many times over.

Best regards,
David Victor 

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