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Published in Issue No.126, page 21 to 26
Plant exploration in the Talysch Mountains of Azerbaijan and IranL. Frese Z. Akbarov V.I. Burenin M.N. Arjmand V. Hajiyev
The Talysch Mountains are located in the south of Azerbaijan between latitudes 38°30’N and 39°00’N and between longitudes 48°00’E and 48°50’E. The eastern slopes face the Caspian Sea while the southern foothills are in northwest Iran . In the 300 km from Baku to the town of Astara on the Iranian frontier, climate and soil conditions change considerably. South of Baku, desert-like areas with highly saline soil can be found, while fertile black soils occur in the South. Within a distance of about 200 km, the annual rainfall increases from 400 mm, south of Baku, to 1200 mm in the humid-subtropical provinces of south Azerbaijan and northwest Iran at the Caspian Sea (Zohary 1973). This highly variable environment has created a diverse flora with a high number of endemic plant species.
The wild beet species Beta lomatogona Fischer & Meyer (Beta section Corollinae) is an element of this flora. The species was detected by Hohenacker (1838) in the Talysch Mountains at Tatuni. Buttler (1977) considered B. lomatogona as a model plant for the irano-turanian flora because the distribution limits of this wild beet species are almost congruent with the oriental-turanian geobotanical area. The species has its main distribution area in Turkey . Its abundance decreases from east Turkey to northwest Iran and Azerbaijan . A second wild beet species is believed to occur in Azerbaijan, as indications were found in the herbarium of the Institute of Botany in Tblisi (Frese and Burenin 1991) that B. vulgaris subsp. maritima, similar to the germplasm identified by M. Nasser Arjmand in Iran (Srivastava et al. 1992), can be found in inland areas of Azerbaijan.
Germany and The Netherlands are co-operating closely in the field of plant genetic resources conservation, and are managing two joint germplasm collections: the Dutch–German potato collection at PRI Centre for Genetic Resources (CGN) in Wageningen, The Netherlands and the German–Dutch Beta collection at the BAZ Gene Bank in Braunschweig , Germany . The task-sharing between both countries includes the collection of target species such as Allium, Beta, Brassica, Lactuca and potatoes. Since 1990, Beta collecting missions have often been organized together with the N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR).
Two previous expeditions had been conducted in Armenia , Georgia and Daghestan by Frese et al. (1990) and Frese and Burenin (1991). This third mission was part of a framework programme that was approved by the German–Dutch Board for Plant Genetic Resources in 1993 and by the World Beta Network (WBN) in 1996. Detailed plans were made in 1998, and official consent was granted by the host countries in mid-1999.
Buttler (1977) considers the Armenian highlands as the evolutionary centre of Beta section Corollinae because the distribution of all three basic species (B. corolliflora, B. macrorhiza and B. lomatogona overlap there. Several collectors have stressed the risk of genetic erosion within the section Corollinae (Anonymous 1990; Buttler 1977; Frese et al. 1990; Frese and Burenin 1991). Therefore, the first major objective of the team was to search for and rescue the remaining Beta populations. Though the interest of the team was concentrated on the genus Beta, there was a common understanding that the journey would be conducted as a multicrop collecting mission with the aim of safeguarding the genetic resources of selected plant species for use in beet, vegetable and pharmaceutical crop improvement programmes. In the case of the medicinal plant Hypericum perforatum, it was intended to increase the genetic diversity within a working collection that is being specifically established for screening on wilt resistance. For a forthcoming Beta genome research programme, B. lomatogona accessions from geographically distant sites are required for wide species crosses.
The second objective of the exploration was an assessment of the need for, and feasibility of, in situ conservation projects for Beta species in Azerbaijan and northwest Iran . In particular, species of section Corollinae are difficult to manage in ex situ holdings. In addition to requiring tiresome manual preparation of the hard-coated fruits to facilitate seed germination, all Corollinae species are adapted to specific growing conditions. There are, therefore, good reasons to assume that, when the original seed sample is first multiplied far away from its natural mountainous habitat, plants will be selected within the population for ‘genebank management adaptation’. It seems impossible therefore to maintain the genetic integrity of Corollinae accessions through ex situ conservation. The best way to safeguard the genetic diversity of Corollinae species would be in situ conservation as already implemented for crops, and their related wild species, such as Triticum, Aegilops, Vicia, Lens and Pisum in Turkey (Firat 1999).
Material and methods
To get an overview of material already existing in collections, the main database of the BAZ Gene Bank and the International Database for Beta (IDBB) were searched for collecting sites of Beta, Brassica, Daucus, Hypericum and Lactuca in Azerbaijan and Iran. The herbarium collection at Baku was also searched to gain additional information on potential growing sites of the target species. Further information on the distribution of Beta was found in literature (Grossheim 1945). In addition, a detailed geobotanical map of Azerbaijan (1:600 000) and maps of the target areas in the Azerian part of the Talysch Mountains (1:100 000) were used to plan the travel route. Photographs of different growing stages of B. lomatogona were prepared by the BAZ Gene Bank to facilitate discussion with farmers and shepherds familiar with the vegetation of potential growing areas.
At each collecting site a passport data sheet of the BAZ Gene Bank was filled in. The sheet consists of a mandatory part, almost identical to the ECP/GR multicrop passport descriptors, and an optional part where notes on topography, soil type etc. can be recorded. Each collected sample was identified by a collection number of the format, country code, collection year and a sequence number, for example ‘AZE 99 01’. Longitude and latitude co-ordinates were determined by a handheld GPS system (Garmin 50). The elevation of a site was measured with an altimeter.
Results and discussion
A survey of the samples collected is presented in Table 1, and the collecting areas are indicated in Fig. 1. Some of the germplasm collected in Azerbaijan was partly shared with team members, according to their specific interests. A Material Acquisition Agreement (MAA) was signed by the Research Institute of Agriculture ( Azerbaijan ) and the BAZ Gene Bank. Copies of the complete set of passport data and a travel report were made available to all partners of the collecting team. All seed samples were first left in Iran and, after signature of a separate MAA by the Plant Genetic Resources National Bank, samples were sent to the BAZ Gene Bank.
In the case of B. lomatogona, the International Data Base for Beta (IDBB) documented 11 collecting sites in Iran and seven sites in the former Soviet Union , while 177 sites are recorded for the Turkish distribution area. In the literature only scant information on the species’ distribution could be found. In addition, due to translations and transcriptions between Russian and German and vice versa, some of the described places could not be clearly identified by the local experts in Azerbaijan .
The herbarium of the Laboratory of Botany ( Baku ) provided striking additional information. Before World War II several botanists collected 18 specimens of Beta vulgaris, most of them probably subsp. maritima, and two specimens of B. lomatogona in Azerbaijan , Georgia and Iran (Table 2). The botanist and expert in the flora of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus, A. Grossheim, investigated the flora of Azerbaijan in the 1930s. He determined 10 vouchers, as B. perennis no longer a valid taxon, and collected B. lomatogona in the district of Lenkoran ( Azerbaijan ) and in the Iranian province of Tabris . This discovery proves that wild or weedy types of B. vulgaris occur or have occurred in Azerbaijan . The populations probably belonged to the material detected close to the Iranian coast of the Caspian Sea (Srivastava et al. 1992).
The field exploration started on 20 September and ended on 1 October, 1999 . Between Baku and Lenkoran cultivated B. vulgaris was found in a private garden. The population is not deliberately cultivated in gardens, but survives as a kind of tolerated weed, which is allowed to bolt and produce seed. At Shorsulu, in the district of Salyany, a few plants of B. vulgaris subsp. maritima were found in an alfalfa field. This is proof that the subspecies still occurs in Azerbaijan . The west and south coasts of the Caspian Sea appear to be the northeastern limit of the distribution area of the ‘seabeet’, B. vulgaris subsp. maritima. The seabeet population at Shorsulu seemed to be heavily damaged by grazing of the alfalfa crop. The field was, until recently, used to grow cotton but was ploughed the previous autumn and cropped with alfalfa. Farmers explained that about eight plants per square metre had been growing amongst the alfalfa, and that many neighbours had come in spring to harvest leaves of the wild beet for salads. After the alfalfa was harvested and grazed, only a few short plants with mature seed remained. In an adjacent cotton field, two young plants and a small plant with mature seeds were found. It is doubtful if this wild beet population can survive at the site, even though, its high soil salinity and the ruderal character of the field margins are well suited to B. vulgaris subsp. maritima. The danger is that the use of the field may change again as it did in 1998/1999.
On 22 September, a quince cultivation area was passed on the way from Lenkoran to Lerik. Many different forms of quince exist in this area, amongst them a type with soft flesh, which can be eaten fresh like an apple.
In the eastern foothills of the Talysch Mountains , along the Lenkoran Chay River , rice is produced. The cultivation of rice was halted by the planned economy in 1930, and until 1990 traditional varieties were only used and maintained privately. After the independence of Azerbaijan , the cultivation of the favourite local variety ‘Ambarbo’ was increased again.
The search for B. lomatogona started in the Lerik province the same day. At Tatuni, a growing site where B. lomatogona had previously been found (Grossheim 1945), farmers and shepherds recognized the species from photos, and showed three plants growing close to a garden. In the graveyard of the small village of Geledera at 2000 masl the B. lomatogona population, described by Prilipko and Grossheim in 1930 (Table 2), was found to be still very large. The area is not as intensively grazed as sites visited earlier. A farmer reported that this species used to be found at several sites in the area. Sheep, goats and cattle prefer B. lomatogona as forage just at the time of flowering, with the result that a decreasing number of these perennial plants can produce mature seeds. There are more farm animals in the area than before because younger, jobless family members have returned from the towns to the villages to start families. They earn their living mainly by the production of domesticated animals on the pastureland, which in fact is common property. Hence, the growing human population is causing genetic erosion in B. lomatogona in the Talysch Mountains of Azerbaijan .
The report of the farmer living at Geledera agrees with the account of a shepherd claiming to be 100 years old, who said that almost all of the birds which used to be abundant in the area have now disappeared and that the landscape has become silent.
At the village of Pirsara , another site of B. lomatogona known from literature, the farmers did not fully recognize the plant, but showed us species with leaf shapes and roots similar to B. lomatogona, i.e. Rumex and others. Later, we learned that the following day about 50 inhabitants of the village had searched the local slopes for B. lomatogona, unfortunately without success.
The slopes of Kyz-Jurdur were described as another site of B. lomatogona. The dry, southern slopes of this mountain were found to be extremely overgrazed, while the humid slopes exposed to the Caspian Sea are not suitable for B. lomatogona. Inhabitants of the village in the Kyz-Jurdur valley remembered the wild beet species, B. lomatogona, which grew on the southern slopes, but was lost years ago through overgrazing. Because the intensity of grazing did not differ very much within the mountainous plateau, the chance of detecting other populations of B. lomatogona was considered to be low, and exploration of the Talysch Mountains in Azerbaijan was stopped.
At Tatuni and Pirsara two old potato varieties were collected. The farmer at Tatuni presented a red-skinned potato type which had been grown by his grandfather. The farmer living in Pirsara presented a blue-skinned potato which had long been cultivated and consumed by the family because of its good taste. Farmers sometimes mentioned preferring their own old potato varieties because of their taste. Potatoes imported from Iran would be consumed only in case of need.
On the way back from Lerik to Lenkoran, at a small farm in the village of Hamarmecha , a woman farmer showed us beet seeds and explained that she had mixed fodder and garden beet seed in the sample. Her explanations were interesting because freshly collected seed is sometimes composed of roughly equal amounts of different varieties or even cultivated taxa. Curators of collections consider that this results from a seed sample-handling mistake by the collector but, in fact, is caused by farmer’s seed stock management procedures.
The farmer had bought the lentil sample, AZE 99 20, a long time ago in Lenkoran and had maintained it since then. The sample is distinguishable from AZE 99 21 by its smaller seeds, and is used for soup preparations, while the large– seeded lentil sample is used as an ingredient in the traditional dish ‘Ploff’. She had also bought the climber bean accession AZE 99 22 from a neighbour who had produced the seeds himself. AZE 99 24 has a lower thousand grain mass than AZE 99 22. The tender green pods of AZE 99 24 are eaten as well as the dry seeds. Similar crops and crop uses were found in other villages, such as Hamuscham and Matlajatag, which are located in remote areas of the eastern foothills of the Talysch Mountains in the districts of Astara and Lenkoran along the Penserchay River .
From Astara, on the Iranian frontier, the journey continued to Ardabil , a large city in the southern foothills of the Talysch Mountains . In 1990 and 1991 the region was explored by a national team which had found B. lomatogona at three different locations. Some of the populations sampled then were very small, and one of the objectives of the 1999 mission was to trace larger populations in the area. Trips from Ardabil to known collecting sites were disappointing. Only at one site (Gerdeh, Ardabil district) three plants had survived in a field margin. The main cause of plant and population losses proved to be ploughing for cultivation of crops like alfalfa (for example at Namin, Ardabil district).
Only single populations of B. lomatogona and B. vulgaris subsp. maritima were sampled during the mission. As northwest Iran and Azerbaijan are probably the northeastern limit of the distribution area of both species, it was known in advance that tracing new material would be difficult. The narratives of local people and the experiences of the local agricultural experts show that overgrazing and intensified use of arable land has caused genetic erosion in B. lomatogona.
The distribution area of this wild beet is separated into uneven parts, the major part in central Anatolia and the minor part in Armenia , northwest Iran and southern Azerbaijan . Buttler (1977) noted that B. lomatogona is not a typical plant of natural habitats, but should be considered as segetal flora preferring cultivated land. Land cultivation probably enabled the species to invade from the arid highland steppe. Although land disturbance by the early farmers favoured the distribution of the species in cereal fields and field margins, modern agriculture and overuse of land is threatening the existence of B. lomatogona today. This wild beet has a narrow ecological tolerance and cannot survive under more humid conditions. Land cultivation with modern ploughs and the shift from dryland farming of wheat to irrigated cultivation of sugar beet will therefore threaten the species. E. de Meijer, a team member of the collecting expedition in Turkey (Anonymous 1990), noticed that the central threshing places in Turkish villages contributed to the dissemination of the B. lomatogona, which is harvested together with the wheat, brought to the central threshing place and redistributed from there. Modern seed threshing equipment will probably prevent this seed distribution mechanism. In the Eskisehir province in Turkey the species is abundant and almost continuously distributed. As the species frequently occurs in field margins, land cleaning programmes can also contribute to the decline of the species (Anonymous 1990). There are, therefore, good reasons to assume that there is a need to monitor the population density and distribution to prevent unexpected loss of genetic diversity. The observations made in Turkey may explain why almost no wild beet plants were found in Iran , where large fields with small field margins and few field bushes dominate the landscape in the drier area around Ardabil .
Due to time constraints, it was impossible to visit all the historical sites of B. vulgaris subsp. maritima, or to get a clear idea of today’s distribution in Azerbaijan . Some places are on islands in the Caspian Sea (Table 2), the names or locations of which were unknown even to our Azerian partners. A search for B. vulgaris on islands and inland sites would be very interesting for two reasons: firstly, the subspecies may be endangered in Azerbaijan and on the Iranian coast of the Caspian Sea ; secondly, because of the saline soils and warm climate, ‘maritima’ populations from these areas could contain highly salt- and drought-tolerant forms. In addition, while looking for ‘maritima’ populations, collectors could search more systematically for landraces of B. vulgaris subsp. vulgaris. Examples from this area are still under-represented in the world Beta holding.
This was one of the first plant explorations in the Talysch Mountains for many years. During the 2-week mission only a fraction of the area could be visited, making an objective assessment of the situation difficult. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that in B. lomatogona, a key species of the irano-turanian flora, genetic erosion has taken place at the margin of its distribution area, which may progress to the distribution centre with the intensification of agricultural production practices and increasing human population pressure. To allow the development of an in situ and on-farm management programme specifically focussing on the wild flora and traditional crops of the Caucasus and Transcaucaus region, a systematic assessment of the threat of genetic erosion and factors causing it should be considered. In some cases urgent measures must be undertaken to safeguard unique plant populations in Azerbaijan , such as the historical remainder of B. lomatogona at Geledera (district of Lerik) and B. vulgaris subsp. maritima at Shorsulu (district of Salyany). The wild beet population at Geledera could best be protected by establishing an in situ conservation project, whereas B. vulgaris subsp. maritima is used by the local people and would qualify for an on-farm management project. Currently, with the use of satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS), maps with a scale of 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 are being produced for the Ministry of Agriculture in Azerbaijan . The management and monitoring of in situ and on-farm projects could be assisted by the national remote sensing centre that the Government of Azerbaijan intends to establish (www.fao.org, News & Highlights, FAO, 13 Dec. 1999 ).
We are indebted to everyone in the local administrations who supported our mission through their advice and the provision of guides and experts. We are also very grateful to all the people we met in the villages who shared their knowledge with us and always offered their hospitality. Their enthusiasm and their interest in the objectives of our mission make us believe that, with their help, it should be possible to develop in situ and on-farm conservation projects.
The exploration was funded by the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry (BML) through the project 100 of the German–Russian programme on co-operation in agricultural science. Considerable logistic support was also provided by the Sugar Beet Seed Institute (S.B.S.I) and the S.B.S.I. staff at the branch office in Ardabil . We greatly appreciate the excellent cooperation between the different Ministries and the local authorities in Azerbaijan , Iran , Russia and Germany .
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