Monday, May 20, 2024

Balkan Ecology Project : Eastern Travels – Azerbaijan

EcologyBalkan Ecology Project : Eastern Travels - Azerbaijan

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 ūüôā¬† 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 Köppen 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 РPanthera 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 4×4 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 ‚Ä謆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 ‚Ä謆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.¬†¬†

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 РPineapple 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.    

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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