Ethnobotany of the Georgian Caucasus

The territory of modern-day Georgia has been continuously inhabited since the early Stone Age, and agriculture was developed during the early Neolithic era. In Georgian the name of the country is "Sakartvelo", and "Georgia" is semantically linked to Greek (γεωργία) meaning "agriculture" Human occupation however started in the Early Pleistocene. The 1.7-Myr-old hominid fossils of Dmanisi in Southern Georgia are the earliest known hominid-site outside of Africa. This specimen has been classified as In the Late Middle Paleolithic and Early Upper Neanderthal and modern human occupation are well documented. Upper Paleolithic fossils of Dzudzuana Cave include remnants of wool (Capra caucasica) and dyed fibers of wild flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) dated to ~36–34 Ka BP.

The Caucasus is counted as one of the global biodiversity hotspots, and Georgia has its fair share of the tremendous diversity of the region. Botanical exploration of the Caucasus has a long history, yielding good recent treatments of the area’s vegetation, in particular with regard to Georgia. As such Georgia has long been the center point of botanical Exploration in the Caucasus, with Bakuriani alpine Botanical Garden serving as a hub. The visitor’s log of the garden reads like a “Who's who” of 20th century botany.

The archaeological findings from Neolithic and Early Bronze periods are rich with plant fossils and seeds of both wild species and local landraces. Seven species of cultivated wheat - Triticum aestivum L., T. carthlicum Nevski, T. compactum Host, T. dicoccumSchrank, T. macha Dekapr. & Menabde, T. monococcum L., T. spelta L., one wild relative, Aegilops cylindrica Host., as well as millet - Panicum milliaceum L., barley -Hordeum vulgare L., Italian millet - Setaria italica L.) P. Beauv., oats - Avena sativa L., wild lentil - Lens ervoides (Brignolidi & Brunhoff) Grande, and pea -Pisum sativum L. have been discovered in Arukhlo, dating back to the 6th - 2nd millennium BC. The earliest grapevine seeds indicating cultivation were excavated in southern Georgia and date to ~8.000 years BP. Due to its long tradition, agriculture in Georgia is characterized by a great diversity of landraces, and endemic species of crops. These show a high level of adaptation to local climatic conditions and often-high disease resistance. Early research documented this great variety, but a rapid loss of local cultivars of cereals, legumes and flax began in the 1950s with Stalinist agricultural reform. Despite the long cultural history, recent studies on cultivated plants are rather scarce.

Georgia counts as one of the oldest Christian regions, adopting Christianity around 320 CE. A great example for early church construction is Gergeti Trinity Church, built in the 14th century, located at 2170m at the base of Mount Kazbeghi (5047m), overlooking the narrow valley leading from Georgia to Ingushetia. However, ancestral shrines are still very common in many regions of Georgia.

Grapes - Vitis vinifera L. (Vitaceae) show genetic diversity in Georgia, with about 500 varieties known, and in most regions the population takes great pride to produce their own wine and share it with visitors. Hardly any house in the Georgian lowlands is without at least some grapes in its garden or backyard. Today, forty-one cultivars of grapevine are used as commercial varieties in Georgia, and good wine is readily available, but the history of grape cultivation and winemaking goes back millennia. Like in other parts of Europe, Georgian grapes were devastated by the Phylloxera vastatrix (Planchon) Signoret and after the infestation in the 1860s most Georgian grape varieties are now grafted on rootstocks of American grapes resistant toPhylloxera.

Wheat - Triticum L. (Poaceae): In the 1940s sixteen species, 144 varieties, and 150 forms of wheat were registered in Georgia (Menabde 1948). This diversity has however greatly diminished and most species had already disappeared by the 1960s, when introduced cultivars were favored in Soviet kolkhoz systems. At present, none of these species are sown in Georgian commercial agriculture.

Barley – Hordeum vulgare L. (Poaceae) is also an ancient agricultural crop in Georgia, and had particular importance in beer production, as well a function in religious rituals and traditional medicine.

Caucasian Rye – Secale cereale L. (Poaceae) used to be cultivated in the high mountain regions of Georgia (1800-2200 m), and entered into bread and beer production, although barley was preferred for beer.

Threats to diversity

The process of genetic erosion of ancient crop varieties was originally of little concern for the mountain areas of Georgia, which until the 1990s acted as a depository of ancient crops. Nowadays the main reason for genetic erosion of ancient crop varieties is the demographic decline in mountain regions due to harsh economic conditions and lack of modern infrastructure. The shift from ancient cultivars to modern high-yielding crops such as maize and potato, which took place in the lowland areas much earlier, began in mountain villages after the end of Soviet occupation, when local inhabitants who had been forced to the lowlands, returned to their original villages. However, many villages in high altitude Georgia were abandoned under pressure during Soviet occupation, and while some families have returned at least for the summer, many villages were completely abandoned in the 1980s and remain in ruins. While sheep were produced on a large scale during Soviet times, leading to widespread overgrazing, nowadays only a few scattered herds remain, and traditional wool items are getting more difficult to find. Sadly we could not find any grain cultivation anywhere, although old landraces of wheat and barley were formerly preferred to prepare bread and beer for religious rituals.

We started fieldwork in Georgia at the end of the last decade. Since then expeditions have led to all corders of Sakartvelo.

Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden

Recently Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden, in collaboration with William L. Brown Center at Missouri Botanical Garden has started an ethnobotanical research program covering the whole of the Republic of Georgia. BABG, with its central location in Georgia, especially with regard to the most important regions of traditional use (Ajaria, Svaneti, Tusheti) will on the one hand function as ethnobotanical education and resource center, and on the other hand establish an ethnobotanical garden section to serve the in-situ conservation of plants traditionally used in the Caucasus, as well as educational garden. Field expeditions will be organized to collect live plant material and seeds of medicinal plants for ex-situ conservation in previously prepared sites in the Alpine Botanical. Based on literature and field observations, a red list of endangered medicinal plant species is compiled. The project work is undertaken in close cooperation and participation of local community representatives and interest groups. Close links are established with the Bakuriani regional non-governmental organization "Tskratskaro" to disseminate knowledge on medicinal plants among schoolchildren and teenagers. Posters of Georgian rare medicinal plants are printed and distributed to the local population.

Area: The garden collections occupy approximately 6 ha. Majority of the collections is maintained at the alpine rock garden. At present the garden supports 94 endemic species of the Caucasus including 32 Georgian endemics. In addition, the garden collections include 77 rare and 55 endangered plant species. A 10 ha fragment of primary forest formed by spruce, pine and beech is part of the garden. The forest is critical that this forest ecosystem be conserved, as it is one of the last remnants of the regional primary forests, 15 ha of traditionally used hay meadows