AS AN AVID TRAVELER and lover of alpine flowers, there are many high-elevation places in the world on my bucket list. One mountain range I have encountered time and time again in botanical literature has been the Caucasus Mountains. Many common perennial border plants I grow in my own garden hail from these mountains; Geranium psilostemon, Stachys grandiflora, Campanula latifolia, and Centaurea macrocephala just to name a few. Some of my garden bulbs, such as Puschkinia scilloides and Scilla siberica and alpines such as Gentiana cruciata and Sedum spurium, also originate from this region. As a horticulturist and botanist, I am equally interested in both growing plants in the garden as well as observing them in the wild. With so many of my garden plants being native to the Caucasus, I decided it was a region that warranted a visit. The clincher was reading The Caucasus and its Flowers by Vojtěch Holubec and Pavel Křivka, names familiar to many members of NARGS. Having read the book front to back, and with all the wonderful photos, I knew I had to see the Caucasus for myself. This desire came to fruition in May 2019 when I signed up to participate in the Greentours trip to Georgia. The tour spent 12 days in Georgia, visiting both the Greater (4 days) and Lesser Caucasus (2 days) as well as lowlands between the two ranges.
The Caucasus Mountains, considered the continental divide between Europe and Asia, are located between the Black and Caspian seas, running about 750 miles (1200 km) in a northwest to southeast direction. The Greater Caucasus separate northern Georgia and Azerbaijan from Russia. Several peaks exceed 16,400 feet (5000 m) with Mount Elbrus reaching 18,510 feet (5642 m). The mountains are quite jagged, with permanent snow and glaciers. The alpine zone is extensive and mostly meadow-like to stony. The mountains are regularly cut by wide river valleys. The rock type is sedimentary with limestone predominating.
The Lesser Caucasus, which are about 370 miles (600 km) long, run parallel to the Greater, about 60 miles (100 km) to the south. They essentially separate southern Georgia from northeast Turkey and northern Armenia. These mountains are more rounded with fewer peaks, the highest being just over 13,00 feet (4000 m). There are no glaciers and most snow melts by the end of summer. While there is an alpine zone, the vegetation is more steppe-like. The rock type is mostly volcanic.
Our first two days were mostly in the southern part of Georgia, bordering on Azerbaijan. Here the terrain was quite dry and the vegetation almost semi-desert. It reminded me of parts of Utah or southern Wyoming. The next five days would be spent mostly in the Greater Caucasus, in the region between Gudauri and Stepantsminda. Gudauri, a small mountain village, is the gateway to a ski resort region where the hotels seem to outnumber residential homes. Located at 7200 feet (2200 m), by mid-May most of the nearby mountain snow was melted and the first leaves were emerging. Large drifts of Pontic azalea, Rhododendron luteum, still in tight bud, hinted at the brilliant display of yellow flowers that would blanket the mountainsides come June. Wandering about the village, we saw our first wildflowers, dandelions of all things! I guess they are ubiquitous in the Northern Hemisphere.
There were also other patches of yellow which turned out to be Potentilla crantzii, a species with a wide Holarctic distribution, including my own limestone barrens of northern Newfoundland. Among the first emerging green blades of the surrounding heavily sheep-grazed meadows were the small purple-mauve flowers of Viola sieheana and dark purple-blue blossoms of Polygala alpicola, the latter with intricately beautiful flowers typical of most polygala.
We also saw the first of many bulbous-tuberous species for the trip, Ornithogalum schmalhausenii, with nearly stemless white stars. Along the edges of the Pontic azalea beds grew the very choice and difficult to grow Daphne glomerata, a species with two-to-three-inch (5-8 cm) heads of fragrant white flowers. On a south-facing slope we were graced with many violet-red spikes of Dactylorhiza sambucina subsp. flavescens, one of the few alpine species of orchids we would encounter.
Our first major botanical stop in the Greater Caucasus was Jvari Pass (aka Cross Pass) at an elevation of 7860 feet (2396 m). Human passage through this mountain pass dates back to ancient times and is mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder. Construction of a modern road was started by the Russians in 1801 as this pass was to be very important for the moving of troops and goods. Today it is still a major transportation route for goods between Russia and Armenia. Due to the economic significance of the highway, it is kept open year-round despite being prone to avalanches, many of which were still evident in mid-May as six-to-ten-foot (2-3 m) high snow cuts along the roadside. In fact, in mid-May, the terrain here was still about fifty percent covered by snow beds. While it did not look too inviting from a distance, we were amazed at the diversity of beautiful alpines to be found along the edges of the melting snow.
Our first roadside stop would turn out to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Along the edges of a melting snowbed we were greeted with tens of thousands of the snowdrop Galanthus platyphyllus. They formed a river along the edge of the snow, with blooms even extending through the melting snow. It was a breathtaking sight, not to be soon forgotten. Only six to ten feet (2-3 m) from the edge of the snowbeds, the snowdrops were already finished flowering but were being taken over by blooming Anemone caucasica and Ranunculus kochii, with blue and yellow flowers respectively.
On the other side of the highway, the snow was long melted and the grass bright green. Strangely there was no evidence of snowdrops ever growing here. However, there were plenty of bulbs in the alpine lawn including Gagea sulfurea, Ornithogalum schmalhauesenii and the tesselated green-brown bells of Fritillaria latifolia. Streams created by melting snow were lined with Caltha palustris, another plant with a Holarctic distribution.
This alpine meadow ended with a steep, rocky slope that fell over 1600 feet (500 m) into the valley below. The cliff edge was dotted with rounded, purple-pink heads from Primula algida and intense deep blue trumpets from Gentiana verna ssp. angulosa. While on my belly taking photos, I noticed the minute pale blue blossoms of Gentiana aquatica, surely among the smallest gentians in the world. A little further along the road, we stopped at a mineral spring. While we should have been admiring the wonderful geology, most of us were taken with a ribbon of Primula auriculata, which were growing in the middle of a mountain stream. Among the primrose were emerging leaves and flowers of Petasites albus.
That afternoon we traveled up the Tergi River Valley and Truso Gorge. This wide alpine river valley seemed to stretch to the horizon, ending at glacier-capped mountains. The view was quite breathtaking. We started along the river gravels then headed up into the surrounding stony hillsides. The river gravel beds were home to several species of yellow-flowered draba, the lovely prostrate Veronica liwanensis and two species of viola – V. reichenbachiana with light violet-blue flowers and the very desirable V. somchetica with sumptuous pinkish-purple flowers with darker violet-red veins. As we ascended the surrounding hills, we encountered larger boulders whose cracks were home to one of the Kabschia saxifrages, S. juniperifolia, as well as the delicate alpine fern Woodsia alpina. Among the stony meadow were the super-woolly spikes of Ajuga orientalis, the lavender-pink heads of Primula darialica and clumps of Daphne glomerata. The numerous clumps of Sedum spurium, Alchemilla caucasica, Gentiana cruciata, Dryas caucasica, Sibbaldia parviflora and Veratrum lobelianum were evidence of the floral display that would continue later in the season. The day ended on another hillside near the village of Sioni where we marveled at a large clump of Pulsatilla violacea perched on the edge of a cliff.
The next morning we stopped along a roadside hillside near the town of Tsdo. Climbing several switchbacks, yet still just a gunshot from our vehicles, brought us to a steep grassy meadow which was dotted with yellow clumps of Arnebia pulchra. While a bit of a slog to reach them, it was well worth it as several of the clumps were quite large and at the peak of blooming perfection. Scattered Muscari pallens, with their ice-blue blossoms, were also admired. That afternoon was spent at the Amali Valley, an alpine valley whose distant snow-capped mountains were situated in nearby Russia. Thankfully, the jeeps drove us near the head of the valley but several of us opted to walk back down the valley to the main highway. While this was a several kilometer hike, it was all downhill so actually quite enjoyable.
The valley floor was mostly sheep-grazed meadows punctuated by rocky outcrops, while the valley sides were clothed in stunted birch, beech, spruce, and fir. It was the rocky outcrops and forest edges, not amenable to sheep grazing, where the best flowers grew. The outcrops were home to lovely patches of Androsace villosa, Minuartia imbricata, Pedicularis acmodonta, Polygala caucasica, Astragalus kazbeki and Oxytropis dasypoda. The forest edges had plenty of Fritillaria latifolia but they were joined by the exquisite yellow-tesselated blossoms of F. collina. Plenty of primroses grew here too, including P. macrocalyx, P. auriculata, P. cordifolia and the deep-purple P. amoena. We were even fortunate to find a white form of P. amoena. Scattered among the primroses was our second orchid for the trip, Orchis mascula, with spikes of reddish-violet flowers. On the way back to our hotel we spotted a large clump of violet flowers along the roadside. With the busy traffic on this main road, it was a challenge to stop, but we persevered and were rewarded with an impressive clump of blooming Iris furcata.
On day four we drove quite a distance along a gravel road which followed the Snostskali River up to the mountain village of Juta. Enroute we passed through the ancient village of Sno where the homes were built of local slabs of stone. It was like stepping back into medieval times. From Juta (7200 ft, 2200 m) we hiked up into an alpine meadow that ended in the very picturesque Chaukhi Mountains, often referred to as the Dolomites of Georgia.
We had several target plants here, the main one being the deep purple-blue blossoms of Gentiana pyrenaica. Other target plants that we successfully found in bloom were Puschkinia scilloides, Merendera raddeana, Oxytropis fragrans and Trollius patulus. In the afternoon, we wandered along the Kora River, a tributary of the Snostskali River. The valley walls were too steep to traverse here, but they ended in low cliffs along the river which were easily explored. On these vertical cliffs grew beautiful buns of Draba rigida var. bryoides in glorious bloom. Unfortunately we were a week or two too early to see the many Saxifraga paniculata subsp. cartaliginea, Sempervivum caucasicum, S. transcaucasicum, Campanula saxifraga and Sobolewskia caucasica which were in tight bud. The next day we headed back into lowland areas.
Several days later, we ascended into the Lesser Caucasus, between the areas of Bakuriani and Abastumani. Bakuriani was another ski town where the hotels outnumbered the regular houses. From here we climbed to the Tskhratskaro Pass at nearly 8,200 feet (2500m). The road was a little rough but no problem for our jeeps. The hillsides along the switchback road leading to the pass were covered in patches of Rhododendron caucasicum, which were still in tight bud. A roadside stop near the summit resulted in splendid clumps of Anemone fasciculata and Arabis brachycarpa. At the summit, a rocky outcrop was home to flowering Coronilla parviflora, Pulsatilla georgica, Anthemis zyghia and a yellow draba species. However, the main object of this alpine adventure was to witness millions of Scilla rosenii which formed blue waves across the alpine meadows. It was an absolutely fantastic and unforgettable sight. They grew as far as the eye could see. While most were mid-blue, with so many plants it was not surprising to see some variation from deep purple-blue to pale ice-blue and even a scattered pure white form. Contrasting with the scilla was an abundance of blooming Primula ruprechtii. This area must be equally impressive later in the season when the thousands of emerging Eremurus spectabilis would be in full bloom.
Our last day in the Lesser Caucasus was at the Zekari Pass at nearly 7200 feet (2200 m). This was a horrendous gravel, or more realistically mud, road. We were entangled in major road construction as the local government was widening the mountain road to allow for paving. We did not make it to the summit as the road was simply impassible. We drove as high as we could then hoofed it up the grassy mountainside to the summit. While a rigorous hike, it was worth it for the wonderful diversity of flowers. It seemed that nearly all the alpines we saw previously on the trip, grew here. Most impressive was the pink river of Primula auriculata growing along a mountain stream. Bulbous plants were especially abundant. Anemone caucasica (both blue and white forms), Fritillaria latifolia, Ornithogalum schmalhausenii, and Gagea sulfurea grew by the thousands. Adding to them were Scilla siberica, Corydalis angustifolia, and Muscari sosnowskyi. Other alpines in full glory were several draba species, Veronica filiformis, Scrophularia chrysantha and the bizarre flowers of Pedicularis wilhelmsiana. This lousewort has spikes of pale yellow flowers set among long white woolly hairs and elongated reddish bracts – truly bizarre and exotic! Being of lower elevation than the Tskhratskaro Pass, the first Rhododendron caucasicum were exposing their ivory trusses.
My trip to Georgia was memorable not just for the spectacular alpine wildflowers but for the overall floral abundance in mid-to-late May. We saw over 250 species of plants in bloom. However, we saw even more in bud, suggesting a trip in late June or early July would be just as, or perhaps even more, impressive. It seems another trip to the far east of Europe is warranted in the future!