Paul Bartlett plant hunter and Garden Manager of Stone Lane Gardens, near Chagford has just returned from an expedition to Askhi, a 2500m plateau in the Georgian Caucasus mountains, where his team were searching for a rare species of Birch tree.
Paul spent a week trekking around the steep cliffs and heavily forested slopes of Askhi. The team often had to fight their way through dense undergrowth on trackless mountainsides. The highlight of the expedition was the discovery of a large population of Mingrelian Birch (Betula megrelica).
Paul explained “After a four-hour struggle up rough slopes entangled with brambles, pushing our way through thickets of shrubs and stumbling over loose rock, we finally came out of the forest onto a ridge. In front, the ground fell away in a 400-metre cliff. The transformation from dark, sweaty forest to blue skies and the view of endless mountain-tops was stunning. All around us on this clifftop were Mingrelian birch. A little pocket of this rare tree in a vast, rugged landscape.”
As well as studying the trees in the wild, Paul’s team are engaged in an Educational programme with one of the biggest local schools at nearby Chkorotskhu with links to Chagford Primary School. For the last year Arsena Bakhia, one of the Georgian team, has been spending one day a week teaching the students about their wild environment and the importance of looking after the forests and mountain habitats. Currently these areas are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Uncontrolled felling of trees and over-grazing are wiping out this ancient landscape.
The habitat for countless plants and animals (including the brown bear) is being reduced, and the risks of erosion, landslides and flooding are now increasing. Arsena has been educating the students about this threat, so that they may discuss this with their families and friends, and hopefully start to raise awareness locally of the need for management of these precious landscapes.
The students and staff of Chkorotskhu school welcomed the team and a lively discussion was enjoyed. Paul presented the school with some young Mingrelian birch that the school will plant in their grounds. The continuing link with Chagford Primary School was also discussed and all agreed this was a wonderful opportunity to share cultures and ideas. The students at Chkorotskhu are looking forward to communicating with their English student friends at Chagford. Lisa Rowe, a teacher from Chagford, has already organised a Skype video call between the schools and is keen to build on this link.
Back in the capital Tbilisi, Paul and his colleagues from the Institute of Botany had an important meeting at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, where they stressed the importance of preserving the mountain habitats. Stone Lane Gardens, along with their partner Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), are helping the Institute of Botany present the argument for creating a Protected Area. By making this an international project, it may be possible to bring more pressure on the Georgian government to act. Stone Lane Gardens is supported by funding from the Rufford Foundation and BGCI.
Back at Stone Lane Gardens, Paul is looking after the Mingrelian birch grown from seed collected on his Georgian expeditions. Stone Lane Gardens holds National Collections of Birch trees and is responsible for the first ever ex-situ conservation collection of Betula megrelica. You can support the work of Stone Lane Gardens by visiting the garden, which is open all year round, seven days a week, from 10am. The Mythic Garden sculpture exhibition runs until the end of October at the garden. Admission prices and directions can be found at www.stonelanegardens.com