Episode 148: The Plants of Armenia

The flora of Armenia is one of the most diverse and interesting in the world and includes many favourite garden plants and their relatives. This week’s guest, Tamar Galstyan, has travelled the length and breadth of the country botanising and leading guided plant tours. She’s recently published ‘A Field Guide to the Plants of Armenia’ which includes more than 1000 of the diverse range of plants found in the country and in the interview, we cover the range of habitats and climates found in Armenia, what it’s like to travel there to find plants and how the native flora is threatened by things such as climate change and grazing animals.

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What we cover

How Tamar become interested in plants

What makes Armenia so significant in terms of plants

The sorts of climates experienced in Armenia

The rarest plants you could find

Armenian wild plants that are also garden cultivars

The protection given to the native flora

How to see the plants in Armenia and the best time to visit

About Tamar Galstyan

Tamar Galstyan graduated from the University of Art and Theatre in Yerevan, Armenia. After some years she studied ecology and worked with children as an ecology teacher. Tamar began travelling regularly in Armenia, taking numerous pictures of plants and identifying them. She created a website to help her students learn about the Armenian flora and this led to her popular Facebook page ‘Plants of Armenia’. In 2012 Tamar was invited to guide a botany trip in Armenia. Gradually the geographical range of her trips expanded and some are managed through her own travel company, SkyGreen. Travels in Georgia, Iran and Central Asia deepened Tamar’s love of nature as well as her plant knowledge. She learns by travelling and is passionate about sharing what she has learnt during the past nine years guiding botany trips. 


A Field Guide to The Plants of Armenia by Tamar Galstyan

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Tamar Galstyan  0:00

I have always loved nature and plants. When I was a kid, my family had a little house by the forest. I loved spending my hours playing with my sister and friends in that forest. My parents also loved nature. And we often went to see some other parts of the country on weekends. And much later when I started ecology, that was my second education, I then worked as an ecology teacher. My lectures were focused mostly on Armenian flora. That was almost 15 or more years ago, when I was going to talk about plants, it was almost impossible to find any pictures of Armenian plans on the internet or anywhere else. So to show those plans to my students- that’s why I started to travel with a camera, take pictures and later introduce those pictures to my students. So soon for my website was created. Then my facebook page plants of Armenia where I have published, I think, a few 1000s of pictures of Armenian plans.


Tamar Galstyan  1:17

I am not a botanist. I graduated from the University of fine art and theatre in Yerevan. That’s a capital of Armenia. And I’m guiding, I’m doing botany trips in Armenia. And all my botany knowledge in botany, I obtained in the field travelling and taking pictures. Almost 10 years ago, I was asked to guide a group of English people who arrived to Armenia for botanizing. And since then, I am guiding, guiding both on the trips in Armenia and sometimes in Georgia. I think I belong to those happy people who turn their hobby into their business.


Tamar Galstyan  2:07

First of all, Armenia is the one of the smallest countries in the world. With population less than 3 million. You cannot see my country on the map unless you zoom in and look carefully. The territory of Armenia is less than 29,000 kilometres square. It’s approximately 1/16th of the territory of Sweden, or 1/15th part of the territory of California. The territory of the United Kingdom is more than eight times bigger than the territory of Armenia. So it’s one of the smallest countries of the world. It’s a Christian country. There are parts where the climate is almost subtropical, and there are parts in Armenia regions, with cold and snowy winters and hot, dry summers. There are all forests here and semi deserts with unique flora, wetlands and subalpine and alpine meadows, dry arid forest and steppes covered with millions of plants. I think the diversity of flora and landscapes makes Armenia significant. Another important piece of information about Armenia is that it’s a mountainous and landlocked country with a very diverse climate, nature and soil. There is no zero altitude here the average altitude is 1600 to 1800 metres above sea level. Our highest mountain is four 4090 metres, and the lowest point of Armenia is almost 400 metres above sea level. Yeah, and it’s a very diverse country and there are more than 15 soil types in Armenia including light brown soils, to dark, rich soil full of humus. And within those 19- 20,000 kilometre square there are different climate zones, as I told you, from everlasting snow caps and glaciers to warm, humid and some tropical. This diversity supports Flora with more than 3600 recorded species. And I’m sure there are some species not recorded in the country. Okay, but they exist in the country in the mountains. What I love most here is that because it’s a very little country, you need to drive just a couple of hours to see Alpine carpets and snow melting streams even in hotter Armenian dry summers, when the temperature is sometimes more than 40. There are regions in Armenia when the summer temperature sometimes becomes plus 50. Even in such a hot summer, when you drive up to 3500 metres per 1000 metres, you can see a pink carpet of flowers.


Tamar Galstyan  5:57

Yeah, as I told I have a page on Facebook plans of Armenia, but I published my own pictures of plants taken mostly in Armenia. The idea of collecting those pictures in one field guide arose years ago, besides through my pages, so, the interest of foreigners in Armenian flora, many people visit the page and comment on pictures and share the pictures. Also, from time to time, some people who travelled in Armenia and took pictures of plants asked me to identify their pictures. So, I saw that there is a lack of information about our flora and I try to cover it just a little bit. This book is just a little attempt to make Armenian Flora popular. And in 2020, when my trips cancelled, because of COVID, I started to work on the book, because finally I had time lots of time to do that book with my colleague and friend Chris Gardner, who kindly offered to design the book. I think this book is for travellers who come to Armenia for plant hunting and for people who are interested in Caucasian Flora


Tamar Galstyan  7:23

I think all plants are beautiful in their own way, but the most beautiful plants are rare, I suppose because they attract attention and people collect them reducing populations and disturbing habitats. Iris siberica, Iris eglantissima, these are the most beautiful flowers among all those plants I have ever seen. And they are rare. There are really beautiful and rare tulips in the South. When they flower the slopes become red, and yellow. Just tonnes of tulips. All these plants are spectacular for me. A few years before doing my first trip I read a little article about Vavilovia formosa. If you know that plant, it’s a very little plant three to five centimetres and it grows in scree and it’s difficult to find it because it’s very little unless you know it and unless you know the location where to search it. And I saw the pictures of the beautiful Vavilovia formosa and decided to find it. It took six years to find, 3200 metres above sea level in the south of Armenia. But while I was looking for it, I learned many other things about nature and plants during six years and finding my beloved formosa that was one of the biggest joys of my life. Another joy was finding Fritillaria gibbosa in Armenia in its classic location. Almost you cannot see it anymore, unfortunately. But I was happy to find a new location of it. Yeah, I think these are the most beautiful and rarest plants in Armenia and, and many people come to Armenia to see them.


Tamar Galstyan  10:05

I think all the plants I just named would be beautiful garden plants and they are wild in Armenia and the Armenians don’t cultivate them. And also, alliums, I think because there are lots of alliums here, beautiful alliums big and tall and not tall alliums, lilies, orchids, bellflowers…all those plants might be used as garden plants in in other countries.


I live in a flat in the capital of Armenia and what is my dream to have land and to create my little botanical garden where I would certainly grow to grow all those plants I mentioned. And also roses. There are many species of roses in Armenia and among them Rosa hemisphaerica, which is my favourite. It’s a beautiful bush with bright yellow flowers, as well as sedums plants of sedum genus, scabiosa, some Astragalus there are really, really beautiful plants of Astragalus genus here fragrant and with nice flowers.


There are Botanical Gardens in Armenia, but the biggest is in Yerevann, where used to be more than 1000 species of our local plants in Soviet times, unfortunately, now they grow not as many plants there. It’s more now like a park for people to walk there to have picnics, unfortunately but it used to be a very rich garden in before 30 years ago, 40 years ago.


[Protecting plants] is a painful issue in Armenia. There are recorded protected areas more than 24 I think more than 24 protected areas and nature reservations in Armenia, but there is no real care of native flora here, unfortunately. And almost everywhere you can see grazing animals and some construction even in protected areas. Some activists raise the issue of nature conservation, publish articles ,organise events, but this problem leaves much to be desired.


Tamar Galstyan  14:26

The summers even springs are becoming drier and drier. And last year, we had a really dry summer, really hot and dry summer and that was sad to see. Nature, the country is becoming hotter and drier. I see that because the plants are there are plants flowering for example, in June a flowering in May, the plants which flowering in May they’re flowering in April and the flowering time becomes shorter. And sometimes they are not as big as they used to be. So yeah, I noticed that wood and rivers are becoming, water is becoming less and I never collect plants and when I have groups, I will always ask them to be careful not to walk on the plants, to save them and we all only take pictures my groups take only pictures. But unfortunately, as I told that the over-grazing is becoming trouble for Armenia. For example, I travelled in Central Asia in Iran, I saw the result of overgrazing in those countries. It’s a disaster for those countries. In order to see my plants you, you must drive hours and hours to go higher and higher to find wilderness in Armenia still, we have that. We have lots of wild nature around the cities around everywhere. But because of these animals, these overgrazing that is becoming a problem. That is my main pain, when I go to nature, where I see that people are taking their animals without caring nature and rare plants. Yes, it’s a protected area. It’s a nature monument. But there is no care from the government, real care from the government to protect those areas. Because people cannot regulate that, it’s a responsibility of the government. But we try, we try all the people who are involved in that area, all the people who are interested in nature, we organise the events. We talk about that, we publish articles. We try to do something to protect nature.


Tamar Galstyan  17:54

In Armenia, because it’s so mountainous, you can see the slopes and you always want to see what is on the other side of the mountain or in in the other gorge. Yes, there are lots of parts I would like to go and I would like to see what is there. That’s why I think maybe I find more plants then record it in the list of the flora of Armenia. Yes, just some plants which are not recorded in our flora but are found in Iran, for example, in Turkey, or in Georgia but not Armenia. From time to time. Yes. I find those plants and that makes the list of the Armenian plants longer and bigger.


People can easily travel in Armenia anytime. It’s a comfortable country to travel in. There are good hotels everywhere in the country, hiking trails and all sorts of guides. People are hospitable and helpful, the food is delicious and nature is beautiful almost everywhere. If people are going to travel for plants, the best time to see irises because usually when people come first time to Armenia they want to see irises, when they see irises, then they want to see other plants but first thing they want to say irises, it’s May the best time to see much more plants and drive up to the mountains is June and July. By the way, June is my favourite time. And August also is an interesting time to travel in Armenia, to see late summer plants. So people who want to see irises, they have to come in May, early May.


As I told that summers are very hot here and dry, so those parts is better to go in May and June in April, when the weather is not as dry as in July and August in September. But there are parts again, it’s  better to go in June and July even in August to see more plants.It depends on elevation.


Tamar Galstyan  20:58

I organise trips, I have my own little tour agency. And from time to time people write me and ask me if they can join to my trips. It’s very easy, you don’t need any visa to travel in Armenia, it’s very easy to try to come to Armenia. There are flights from Europe from everywhere to Yerevan, and it’s very easy to travel in Armenia.

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