Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Eastern Travels - Azerbaijan - Persian Leopards, Humid Temperate Forests and Hirkan National Park

Still in Azerbaijan and totally enchanted by the remarkable diversity of topography and climate, including humid subtropical, Mediterranean, semi-arid, and alpine climates, a perfect place for a floraphile :)  During this post we'll take a look the beautiful region of Lankaran in the South East, from the wild forests of Hirkan National Park, the local horticultural practices in the lowlands and a walk along the Iranian border. 

In stark contrast to the semi-arid desserts that surround Baku, Lankaran, just a few hours drive South is chlorophyllically opulent. A K√∂ppen climate classification: Csa indicates cool, wet winters and very warm, partially dry/highly humid summers. The forests are absolutely beautiful and home to wild animals, long since hunted to extinction in the majority of temperate forests of the world, including the Persian leopard - Panthera pardus tulliana. You can see these magnificent creatures up close at Baku Zoo and small numbers are reported to live in the Hirkan National Park. 

Hirkan National Park is located in western part of the Talysh Mountains, the mountain range that stretches into Iran  around the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and drops down onto the Iranian Plateau. As mentioned above the mountain range is home to a small population of Persian leopard - Panthera pardus tulliana an endangered species with only an estimated 1,000-2,500 left in the wild. 

The leopards are solitary animals, and they are difficult to spot in the wild. However, there are a number of camera traps in the park that have captured images of the leopards. They are an important part of the ecosystem helping to keep the population of deer and other animals in check which in turn keeps the browsing pressure off the plants.  

To get to the Hirkan National Park you can head to a small village called Sim. Google maps will give you a route that leads you into some off road tracks through lowland villages and eventually to a steep dip with a river at the bottom, that would be possible with a short wheel base, lifted 4x4 but is not at all possible with a car (which is what I had). Google maps is not that great in relatively unchartered territory btw but fortunately asking locals for directions works as well as it ever has. Basically, head to Sim via Sipiapart and you'll find the way. You'll still end up on a offroad track but it's doable in a car all the way to Sim. As you enter the Village of Sim there is a majestic stand of Juglans regia - Persian Walnut surrounded by huge mossy boulders. 

The valley rivers on the way are incredibly beautiful in this area and often you'll find restaurants with tables built into the mountainside and piers extending into the river. Every restaurant I tried served excellent food with local produce. On that note, the restaurant at Khan Lankaran Hotel, on the outskirts of the city Lankaran, offers an outstanding selection of Azerbaijan food and is a cozy spot to enjoy a breakfast, lunch or dinner.  

When you arrive in Sim it's a beautiful 40 minute walk to Sim waterfall that leads through various small holdings of the villages and some incredibly diverse forests. The trees on the high ground and in the forest surrounding the waterfall are Acer spp. that are endemic to this region, Cappadocian maple - Acer cappadocicum and Velvet Maple - Acer velutinum 

On the boulders around the waterfall are some exquisite wild polycultures. I counted at least 16 species (including moss).

On the walk up there are lots of Diospyros lotus - Plum Date ​ that grow wild in these forests of the Hirkan National Park. The fruits have set well on this tree and will ripen October - November.

I harvested some seeds from Diospyros lotus - Plum Date ​ growing on the Pontic Mountains in Northern Turkey (more on that here), the germination rates were very high and the plants have grown well , kept inside of the first 2 winters, and have so far fared well in the colder winters of our gardens. There are probably some good spots, at higher altitudes in Northern Azerbaijan, to collect seeds of these plants that should be hardier and more suitable for growing in colder climates. 

Another common tree in the forests of this area is a plant on our forest garden wish list. A member of the Juglandaceae family, Pterocarya fraxinifolia - Caucasian Wingnut is a tree can thrive in both sunny and partially shaded areas. It is often found near riverbanks and in damp forests. The wingnuts are edible ripening from late Aug - early October, and have a unique flavor, often used in culinary preparations in the Caucasus region. The wood is also valued for its durability and used in construction and furniture making.

Other notable trees in the park include Chestnut-leaved Oak - Quercus castaneifolia a magnificent tree that you'll find planted for forestry often in rows on the low lands around Lankaran.  

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On the way back from the park I finally found a wild Albizia julibrissin - Silk tree, in full flower on a hillside. 

It was also really interesting to see the local horticulture in the lowlands that includes orchards of Citrus spp. as well as small orchards of a plant previously unknown to me in person, Feijoa sellowiana - Pineapple Guava from the myrtle family, Myrtaceae. It is native to the highlands of southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina, and Colombia. Lankaran is one of the few areas of Azerbajain where this plant can grow, being a subtropical region. 

The region is also well known for its tea production and has a long history, dating back to the 19th century when tea seeds were brought to the region from the Chinese province of Yunnan. The tea leaves are typically harvested several times a year, depending on the specific tea variety and weather conditions. The most delicate leaves, known as "two leaves and a bud," are carefully picked by hand to ensure the highest quality tea. Indeed the tea does taste great!

Cattle roam free all over the area ,and as far as I can tell all over the country where there is grazing opportunity. More often than you would think cattle and sheep sit in the roads or a herd will be taking a stroll in the middle of the road, even seen a few on the highways.    

Sambucus ebulus - Dwarf Elderberry is incredibly common in the region , I assume because the cattle and sheep won't eat it.  The berries of this species, like it's relative Sambucus nigra - Elderberry are edible but must be cooked. Sambucus ebulus - Dwarf Elderberry is a great wildlife plant with the flowers providing for many pollinators and the berries serving a food source for birds during the winter months.

I always enjoy the periphery vibes of a border town and as mentioned above the border between Azerbaijan and Iran runs through this area and you can cross between countries in Astara, a city with one half in Azerbaijan and one half in Iran. Looking over to the woods into the neighboring land, it struck me how effortlessly wildlife can roam across borders to find resources and shelter, while we humans spend an incredible amount of resources to restrict movement. I assume that investment pays off eventually but I wonder for who?    

That's all for now!

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Sunday, 25 June 2023

Plants, Wildlife and Polycultures for Forest Gardens and Regenerative Landscapes - Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of a series where I'll be posting some observations and experiences about the various plant species from our forest gardens and regenerative landscapes, as well as interesting plants and polycultures from around the world. We'll be featuring plants from different layers of the forest garden, presenting some established polycultures, and providing some suggestions about how to design, build and manage forest gardens and regenerative landscapes.

Forest Garden Plants 

Lower Canopy Layer Zanthoxylum piperitum - Japanese Pepper Tree makes a great lower canopy tree in the forest garden, a relatively small tree that is tolerant of shade and cast little shade itself due to the thin canopy. we have found Rubus fruticosus cv. - Blackberry and Ribes nigrum cv.- Blackcurrants both grow well under these trees. 

Shrub Layer -  Prunus spinosa - Sloe grows wild in our gardens forming thickets expanding into the meadows from the woodland edge. The thickets provide excellent habitat for Longtail, great, coal, and blue tit, along with various warblers that are often flying in and out of the thicket, probably feeding from the invertebrates but possibly some species looking for nesting sites.

The flowers, if pollinated and fertilized, will go on to form small purple fruits that are used to make Sloe Gin a red liqueur made by steeping sloe berries in gin and adding sugar. The sloe berries are picked after the first frost of the year, which helps to break down the skin and release the juice, before being steeped in the gin. The end result is a sweet and tart liqueur that is often enjoyed as a digestif or used in cocktails. 

Herb LayerArctium lappa - Greater Burdock is a large-leaved plant that dominates a wild patch under a walnut tree in our back garden. They make excellent biomass plants and, when in flower are highly attractive to a variety of invertebrates. The broad leaves are a favorite sheltering spot and food for snails and the inclusion of these plants around a vegetable patch will serve as a good decoy and make it easy to collect the snails to prevent them from venturing into the vegetables. The large fleshy taproot is also edible, best harvested from 1-year-old plants in the Autumn.

Ground Layer - Delosperma cooperi - Pink Carpet​ makes a great ground cover around the forest garden. The plants can tolerate partial shade and we've been planting under new fruit trees and for bordering pathways. 30 cm spacing between plants will form a complete cover within the second growing season and the plants will continue to spread outward via layering. The photos below show the ground cover under Prunus armeniaca - Apricot with Tanacetum vulgare - Tansy on the left.

It's interesting to note that The plant contains the hallucinogen chemicals DMT and 5-MeO-DMT, which can be extracted from the leaves. The concentration of these chemicals varies over the year. The content of 5-MeO-DMT rises during the summer and the content of DMT instead rises during the winter.  

Regenerative Landscape Design - Online Interactive Course 

Want to learn how to design, build and manage regenerative landscapes?  Join us on our Regenerative Landscape Design - Online Interactive Course. We look forward to providing you with the confidence, inspiration, and opportunity to design, build and manage regenerative landscapes, gardens, and farms that produce food and other resources for humans while enhancing biodiversity.

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Leaving herbaceous plants to overwinter without pruning can provide vital benefits for wildlife. Bees, butterflies,, beetles, and spiders, to name but a few, overwinter in various life stages, and by leaving herbaceous plants unpruned, you provide these insects with places to hibernate, pupate, or seek shelter, ensuring their survival and promoting biodiversity in your garden or surrounding area.

When we do cut back plants in the forest garden, the prunings are deposited to the surface of the beds to decompose and return the nutrients locked in the biomass back to the soil. This material too can provide habitat The below photo is a Paulownia branch cut back for mulch last Autumn. In this case, a Spider uses the space to cast a web to snare other insects.

White stork - Ciconia ciconia often forages in the meadows in and around our gardens. These birds are generalist feeders and require a diverse range of habitats, including wetlands, grasslands, and farmlands, to find food. 

Their presence can indicate the presence of a variety of habitats and species in an area. A fascinating bird species with intriguing migratory behavior known for their long-distance migratory journeys, which can cover up to 15,000 kilometers per year going back and forth from Europe to Africa to escape the winter and extremes of summer.  

A few invertebrates from the gardens

We felled an old plum tree last year leaving the stump about 80 cm high. 

Stumps are excellent microhabitats providing a food source to a wide variety of organisms, contributing to nutrient cycling through decomposition, and providing nesting sites for a number of invertebrates including the threatened Stag Beetle. 

To learn more about how to work with the wild join us for Module 5 of our  Regenerative Landscape Design Course where we introduce our wild allies and the role they play in our productive landscapes supporting crop productivity, controlling pests, and providing fertility, and how we can encourage them to live and breed in our landscapes. 

Polycultures from Around the World 

Some of the best broadscale polycultures I've seen include the date palm oases of Al Hamra, Oman, where a tremendous amount of food is grown in a wonderfully biodiverse environment in a Subtropical desert climate. 

Cultivation practices in Al Hamra (Jebel Shams region) are incredible. Dates are the main crop with several varieties of date palms grown, including Khalas, Fardh, Hilali, Khuneizi, and others. The Khalas variety, in particular, is highly prized for its taste and is indeed the most delicious date I've ever tried.

Planted among the dates are Pomegranate, Figs, Mango, Banana, and Citrus with cereal in the understory and wild herbs often encouraged around the edges of the beds. 

The polycultures are planted in small podlike terraces carefully positioned to take advantage of gravity to distribute water to the plants. The whole place is alive with insects, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

The cultivation area is concentrated around the village but extends into the Wadi where the planting is elevated above the wadi floor to avoid damage from the torrents of water that wash through with incredible force following rainfall 

Given the extremely dry climate and absence of soil and plants in the vast majority of the surrounding area it's incredible what has been achieved and what has likely been going on for the last 2500 years. The sole source of fertility seems to come from domestic animal manure and ash from the burning of palm prunings and native scrub that grows within the cracks of the rock faces. 

Another remarkable aspect of the polyculture is how each pod also serves as a nursery for future palms with offshoots from mature palm trees, planted beneath the mother plants (see above left photo). These will start bearing fruit after 5-8 years of growth. 

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We offer a diversity of plants and seeds for permaculture, forest gardens, and regenerative landscapes including a range of fruit and nut cultivars. We Deliver all over Europe from Nov - March. - Give a happy plant a happy home :)

Our Bio-Nursery - Permaculture/Polyculture/ Regenerative Landscape Plants