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Food Exploration in the Caucasus: An Encounter with Wild Hablitzia by Justin West
from Permaculture Activist #72

The author with Hablitzia in hand.

During a five-week plant exploration and seed collecting expedition last summer I had the good fortune to meet the wild ancestors of many of our common (and some less common) fruits and perennial vegetables. One lucky encounter in particular was with Hablitzia tamnoides in the wilds of an Armenian canyon. This meeting encapsulated well the journey, the land, and the possibilities that arise when one stays attentive and open to dynamic unfolding of one’s local environment.

For years I have been exploring the world of edible plants, and the Caucasus has for me become synonymous with wild edible plant origins. As I came to find out this past summer, species of almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, hazel, pomegranate, grape, hawthorns, plum, apples, and pears, to name a few of the more common crops, can all be found growing wild in this rugged land bridge between Europe and Asia. Three of the four wild ancestors of wheat originate there. Along with these, a wide range of herbaceous species is found there, one in particular with which readers of Permaculture Activist will be familiar. It was this little known but much talked about Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasian Spinach, which had piqued my curiosity. In August 2008 and early September I had the good fortune to travel through Russia, Armenia, and Georgia exploring the homes of some of these wild edible ancestors, and with luck finally to meet Hablitzia in the wild. To my pleasant surprise, the journey of discovery revealed much to me about the plant, and the plant, equally, drew forth from me clarity of perception about the land.

Geography of the Caucasus

The Caucasus region is roughly the same size as the state of Washington (200,000 sq kilometers), and at about the same latitude. But with 6350 vascular plant species, the area has close to twice the botanical diversity of Washington. As well, an abundance of wildlife inhabit the area (130 species of mammals) including brown bear, lynx, wild cat (ancestor to the modern house cat), European bison, boar, striped hyena, antelope, wild goat, wild sheep (ancestor to domestic sheep), deer, jackal, tiny populations of Caucasian panther, and of course, humans. (The Caucasus are, it is supposed, the land bridge through which our ancestors walked out of Africa.)

Entering the rugged Armenian canyon
where we found Hablitzia growing wild.

The diversity so inherent to this place is an authentic embodiment of the wide range of ecosystems found in the Caucasus, and a prime example of the permaculture principle of diversity at the edges. The Caucasus are bordered on the west by the Black Sea, and to the east by the Caspian Sea. In the north is the Greater Caucasus mountain range, and to the south lie the semi-arid and arid deserts of Turkey and Iran. Here at the confluence of these divergent geographical features subtropical and temperate climates meet. The Black Sea provides warm humid air, which is buffered from the cold northern winds by the Greater Caucasus range. Many species took refuge here during the last ice age, and some from the Tertiary and early Quaternary periods survive to this day.

All of this biodiversity is astounding to contemplate when one considers how long people have lived in this part of the world, and to consider that these people, and this land, have been conquered by virtually every passing empire known through the history books. It is a land which has known armed conflict as a way of life for millennia, and yet somehow, an abundance of biological diversity remains. (1) Equally miraculous is that despite the coming and passing of these many empires (or perhaps because of it) there is a wellspring of cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity which rivals any other part of the world of comparable size. It should be noted, however, that the past twenty years have seen remarkable changes in the Caucasus and consequential pressures on the other-than-human biodiversity not previously felt. Many species are rapidly showing up in the “Red Book” of endangered species.

On the path of wonderment

I wondered, amongst this almost overwhelming diversity of landscapes and plants, if I might stumble upon Hablitzia, but I knew very little about where to look. I kept my eyes open at every opportunity; in every market, and along the many kilometers of trails my partner, Li An, and I walked. However, I was not so much hunting the Hablitzia as I was allowing the landscape to unfold around me and reveal herself in the way that she so chose. Through this mode of open and exploratory traveling we experienced Russian mountainsides covered in ancient old-growth chestnut. Kilometers from the Iranian border in southern Armenia we cracked nuts at the base of a walnut five feet wide, and walked into a hollow ancient Sycamore (Platanus orientalis) over 12 feet wide. In the steppe of Armenia we shared bread, cheese, and smiles with semi-nomadic Kurdish herders. In Georgia, near the border with Chechnya, we drank homemade vodka out of sheep horns with animist herders, and later followed fresh bear tracks along a glacier-fed stream to the headwaters valley. Later, in a small village market we marveled at jars packed full of pickled Smilax shoots and Staphylea flowers.

Through it all we were continually inspired by the sheer diversity of landscapes, and the equal diversity of fresh, organic (2) fruit and nuts in the markets of the cities and in the villages. In peoples’ private gardens, the pears, apples, plums, persimmons, apricots, peaches, and Cornelian cherries were seemingly woven together with streamers of grape vines, and under-planted with patches with corn, beans, and other vegetables. The streets were lined with rows of walnuts and chestnuts. It often felt as though we had stepped not into the past, but rather into a future realm, a post-oil era, where the lack of cheap consumer goods was all but forgotten amidst daily rituals of food production and celebration.

Wine, as one park botanist in Georgia told me, is the petrol of the Georgian. Every glass of homebrew had a distinct flavor, a murmur, and at times a flagrant yeasty bellowing of the small garden in which the grapes were grown.

When we did end up coming across Hablitzia, the whole experience of discovery—the land, the topography, and the climate—seemed such a concrete reflection of the actual qualities of the plant itself. There were no giant, jaw-dropping, primeval trees around. The landscape was beautiful but modest in scale. The weather was hot, and provoked in us an overarching desire to seek shade. Finally, like Hablitzia’s creeping, shade-loving tendrils, the trail, the river, and the canyon itself wound its way through the highland steppe, a meandering crevice of dark green growth in an otherwise brown and rocky land.

We had only been in Armenia a couple of days and were still getting our bearings on the extensive landscape. Our views were filled with dusty browns and red ochres after two weeks in the lush green of subtropical and montane Russia. Soviet-era Russian topo maps in hand, we set out on a four-day trek to follow this particular river to its source. From a first century Roman sun goddess temple and a ninth century Orthodox Christian cave monastery carved out of the volcanic tufa rock, we entered into the narrow river valley in spectacularly poor fashion. We soon learned from the intensity of sunshine that any climbing, up or down, would have to be done in the cool morning hours. Though the terrain, covered in thick brush, was steep, rocky, and at times nearly impossible to pass through, we enjoyed happening upon wild almonds, pears, the ever-present cherry plum (P. divericata), and at least two species of hawthorn (Crataegus spp).

That same morning we arrived in a tiny village perched on a slope which would eventually take us into the canyon. Through the persistent care of some simple irrigation ditches the people of that village have, over countless generations, created an oasis of green, visible from miles away. Meter diameter walnut trees (Juglans regia) surrounded the turf-roofed stone huts built into the side of the hill. They had gardens of corn and beans planted in the north side shade of these giant trees, a testament to the solar intensity of the place.

Hospitality and abundance

A woman and her daughter picking apples in their orchard reached over the fence and handed me some. Before I could say thank you she was already walking back to her trees to get us some more. A brief, choppy conversation of mostly smiles and hand gestures led to us being ushered into their home and sat down at their table for “coffee.” Coffee, in the Armenian and Georgian way, roughly translates into “everything in the cupboard being laid out onto the table and made available to share.” From this one small corner cupboard emerged a banquet of apples, pears, peaches, grapes, watermelon, butter, cheese, jam, bread, honey, dried apples and apricots, walnuts, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweets, and, bizarrely, even the eldest son’s university diploma in computer engineering.

Any chance of beating the noon-day heat was happily thwarted by our gracious hosts. We set out eventually in the baking sun, our packs fully laden with juicy apples and walnuts one can crack with two fingers. We stopped a couple of times to cool off in the river, and when we eventually set camp that evening we were well within the shady overgrowth of the riparian oak and ash of the canyon bottom. The next morning I discovered in the light of day that we had luckily set up camp at literally the very confluence of the two forks of the river. With that good omen and knowing therefore exactly where we were on the map, we headed up the northern of the two, following, when available, a rough game trail along the river.

The moment of discovery

We had just taken a long break, and began walking again when I noticed the Hablitzia growing very inconspicuously among some currant bushes, and up a rocky north-facing cliff wall. It looks a bit like bind weed, but instead of binding steadily up it followed more of a lazy crawl up or down, or along whatever seems to be available. It was, however, the flowers which clued me in to the fact that I had actually stumbled upon Hablitzia. I recognized them from having seen the same tiny green flowers on Stephen Barstow’s Hablitzia in Norway. Upon closer inspection I found small green tissue-paper thin caps, almost like moss operculum’s, falling away from the center of the flower and revealing shiny black seeds, just like the ones Barstow had given me last summer. What luck! There were several plants along this dank canyon wall, each with only a couple of gangly 6-10 foot long shoots on them.

While harvesting some of the abundant seed, I wondered if this would be the first of many more encounters with Hablitzia over the course of the next few weeks. As it turned out it was not. We saw it twice more that day and never again afterwards in the wild, nor in the markets.

Flowers (top) and seeds of Hablitzia tamnoides.

Later that same day, after a run-in with a litter of young boars and a disinterested sow, we arrived at a wider part of the canyon. The river had already narrowed substantially, and the landscape was beginning to soften into less profound cliff faces. Here we found a series of caves, each with a large welcoming entrance, providing ample headroom and plenty of flat space to lay out our bedrolls. The first cave had a ceiling with too many loose rocks, so we moved on to the second wherein we found a lush Hablitzia inhabiting the better part of half the cave floor. The shoots on this giant were about 15-17 feet long and the leaves were in some cases as much as a foot long and wider than my hand; again with abundant seed available. We harvested some while lamenting that the cave floor was a bit too slanted for a comfortable night’s sleep.

We moved on and discovered a third cave, practically hidden by the thick foliage of an apple tree whose trunk was actually growing from within the cave and arching its way out into the light, thereby partially concealing the entrance. A fine dusty ground and a solid ceiling made it our choice for the night.

That evening we built a fire, and in the orange glow of the flames our shadows danced on the cave wall as we steamed Hablitzia leaves. I pondered the odds. While preparing for this trip, the prospect of discovering wild Hablitzia had grown into a pursuit of mythic proportions. I had read about it, and seen it in Stephen Barstow’s garden in Norway, Martin Crawford’s forest garden, as well as in Eric Toensmeier and Jon Bates’ forest garden in Massachusetts. The fact that my partner and I had, without really knowing where in a region of several countries we might look, left me feeling a bit stunned; that the Hablitzia happened to be just at the point of setting seed really felt a bit miraculous.

I sat by the fire that night and in the wake of an incredibly satisfying day, wondered about the signs constantly surrounding us. The growth forms of plants are forever providing snapshots of their environments and the events that have led up to the present moment. I considered the apple tree, branches swaying above me. Likely a feral sprout from a core tossed aside decades ago, the form the tree had taken spoke volumes about the shape of the cave, the wind in the valley, the available moisture, and the daily path of sunshine overhead. The seedling germinated and took root, perhaps nourished by a tiny bit of apple core composted with the aid of a few mouse droppings, a fair trade for the food which the other apple seeds in the core likely provided the little scavenger. Why didn’t the mouse eat all of the seeds? Had a raptor passed overhead at just the right moment, startling the mouse into hiding? Emerging on the inside lip of the cave, that apple seedling must have had a tough first few years, seeking light, and more, searching deep in the rocky ground for moisture. Each bend in a branch unfolds a whole history lesson to the patient and attentive observer. Plants embody perfectly their environments through a unique and creative process of interpretation. And so, I believe, do we. ?

Justin West is the resident applied ecologist at Schumacher College in Devon, UK where he teaches on the MSc in Holistic Science, as well as short courses. He is currently regenerating the lawnscapes around the 14th century buildings into productive forest garden polycultures.

1. It should be noted that although this has been a land of near perpetual conflict, it is also a place in which I have never felt a stronger sense of community and cooperation.
2. Chemical horticulture is largely uneconomical, and besides, Armenians in particular revel in their fresh fruit.

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