Although Kyrgyzstan occupies only about 0.04% of the world’s surface area – about 2% of the world’s species of flora are found growing here and about 3% of the the animal kingdom is also represented.
The wide variety of flora which can be found in the country is due to the different landscapes, the various altitudes, the mountain ridges and the hollows formed between them which in many cases form isolated micro-environments.
In the low-lying valleys and in the low foothills, steppes prevail. In the middle mountainous zone are widely spread meadows, forests, and shrubs, whilst in the high mountainous zones alpine meadows, “kriofill”-cushion areas and mountain tundra can be found. “Thorny-cushion” vegetation covers the stone-detritus mountain areas.
About 4000 species of plants have been catalogued in Kyrgyzstan.
The most widely spread trees are spruce, juniper (archa), and nut- and fruit-tree forests. There are also spruce, maple, poplar-willow, and birch forests and Tien-Shan rowan-trees grow everywhere. There are walnut forests occupying an area of over 600,000 hectares, (the largest walnut forests in the world – featuring walnut-trees, apple-trees, pear-trees, and cherry-plum, cherry, currant, and rasp-berries canes), in the South-East of Kyrgyzstan in the Ferghana and Chatkal ranges at altitudes between 1000 and 2200 meters a.s.l.
The forests in the south of the country are currently facing serious problems of deforestation. As well as trees being cut down to provide valuable wood both for export and domestic use (for building, and firewood), areas of woodland are being turned into arable land by farmers looking for additional land resources. Livestock often trample underfoot young plants. Also, pests such as the Gypsy Moth are taking their toll on denuding the forested areas. Kyrgyzstan has reduced, or eliminated the use of chemical agents in line with treaties that it has signed, and the sheer economic cost of such measures. Steps such as the introduction of new species of insects to help control pests are being introduced. Disease also takes a toll on the number of trees. There are also a number of international projects aimed at preserving and expanding the forest resources within the country.
Shrub thickets such as “karaghun”, cherry, rosary, pistachio, almond, cherry-plum, sea-buckthorn, barberry, willow are widely spread throughout the countryside. Sea-buckthorn, dog-rose, and willow grow in the flood-lands of several rivers.
In alpine meadows (at an altitude of 3000 meters a.s.l.) edelweiss, dandelion, Alpine Aster, Semyenov onion and primroses grow. Edelweiss is not as rare as it is in Europe – and dandelions are not thought of as weeds in the same way as they are in the West. At certain times of the year the mountain sides may be covered with poppies or tulips. About 5 km south of the Jety Orguz sanatoria, is Dolina Svetov (Valley of the flowers) a valley opens out which is ablaze with colour from May – when there are multitudes of poppies – throughout early summer. Apparently there are reputed to be petroglyphs here – but no-one seems to know exactly where. There are often yurts here which can offer accommodation.
In the forests, steppes, and meadows it is possible to find many different species of funguses. “Mushroom gathering” used to be a very common activity.
The flora of Kyrgyzstan includes many plants with different uses, such as:
Food and culinary
Materials for use in construction, manufacture of furniture, artefacts such as musical instruments – and grass mats (Chiy)
Here is a list of some of the flora which you might encounter in the Kyrgyz Republic
Apple – there are about 14,000 hectares of apple trees growing in Southern Kyrgyzstan
Archa – juniper - is a very sturdy tree and can withstand a daily temperature change of up to 80 degrees Centigrade and can reach up to 200 years of age (although it is hard to judge the age of a particular specimen by looking at it). The trees seem to thrive clinging to rocks which have little soil in which to sink their roots and arid conditions – although they also thrive in valleys with quite different conditions where they reach a height of 15 meters. The four different varieties provide almost half of the woodland in Kyrgyzstan. Their strong root systems have served as a barrier for landslides and avalanches. Grasses provide a major threat to the archa tree – especially to juvenile trees, because they soak up the moisture in the soil, but another threat is man – much of the stock has been chopped down for timber.
Birch – The Moutain Birch tree grows in clumps throughout the mountains.
Edelweiss – four varieties of these “flowers of the rocks” thrive in Kyrgyzstan – especially in the Issyk Kul region. They flower between June and September.
Edward’s Pentilium – known locally as Aigul’s flower – or the “lunar flower”. There is a legend of a Khan who ruled an area where paths of the Silk Road crossed, and he had an only daughter, Aigul. She loved the commander of the Khan’s army, Kozulan, who perished whilst fight invaders. His soldiers brought her his heart and she, grieving buried it and then threw herself off the top of a mountain. Where drops of her blood fell beautiful flowers grew and blossomed – Aiguil’s flowers. The proper name for these flowers is Edward’s Pentiliumand they grow extensively in a region around Batken in the south of the country. The only other place where they are found is in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was described by the famous German traveler, Alexander Gumbold, although there is no evidence that he actually visited the area. The flower is unusual in that the seeds of the flower take seven years to ripen in the soil and another seven years are needed before flowers appear on the thin stem. Flowers normally appear in late April and Early May. It usually blossoms at the full moon and in the first year there is only a single bloom, a year later: two flowers blossom. After another year: three. According to local people, examples of the “lunar flower” consisting of thirty flowers on one stem have been seen. Although the flower is not very rare, it is not listed in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan – but it is considered a “blasphemy” to pick the blooms – and the story is that schoolchildren are excused lessons to patrol the vicinity where the flower grows and prevent “tourists” from picking the flowers.
Ferule – a grass which grows to 3 meters tall and produces bright yellow flowers only once in six years
Herbs – see the separate page about herbs.
Kupina, (fraxinella – “that which cannot be singed”). This plant, with light rose flowers, could be reminiscent of the burning bush found by Moses on the slopes of Mount Sinai. Glands in the plant exude essential oils and when a lighted match brought to this plant the air around it seems to ignite with a light blue flame – but leaving the plant intact. In fact the air around the plant carries a mix of particles which help protect it from the heat of the sun during the day and extreme cold in the night and it is this that burns. Two words of warning: 1.) Do NOT try this for yourselves – it is NOT a good idea to take a match to a piece of vegetation – especially in the heat of the summer as there is a great risk of fires which can devastate the environment as well as endanger property, life and limb – and 2.) the plant needs to be handled with care – protect your skin – the substances given off by the plant can burn the skin and, unfortunately, the effects are not immediate but only appear after the passage of some time. It is best NOT to pick the flowers.
Lilac – Thirty varieties of Emerus, (a plant of the lilac family) grow in Kyrgyzstan. Growing to about one and a half meters with bright, colourful blooms which can reach 1 meter in length.
Pear trees usually grow on Southern slopes of mountains and the wild varieties are very similar to that found in gardens and orchards.
Pistachio – a small tree that grows to less than 5 meters tall. Some people call it the “tree of life” and rate the pistachio nut as a source of “vivacity, health and long life”. They are also used in the treatment of lung and kidney disorders. The nuts ripen in July. Timber form the trees is used in engraving. The trees can survive extreme conditions and live to 150 years old.
Prangros – is used for animal feed in winter – but when green it is poisonous – and can cause blisters if handled.
Sea Buckthorn - it may seem strange for a plant with this name to be growing in landlocked Kyrgyzstan, but it does, abundantly with golden berries and sharp spikes. The berries are high in vitamin component and used for jams, juice, wine and oil. The plant is extremely useful as well, because its roots and foliage bind the soil and prevent it being washed away or bleached by summer floods.
Semyenov’s Silver Fir – grows mainly in the Western Tien Shan – on steep shady slopes. It is a dense rich evergreen providing timber and a balsam, which is made from it’s resin and is used in both perfume and pharmaceuticals.
Shrenk’s Fir – “The Queen of the Tien Shan” – grows on steep mountain slopes, at altitudes of between 1300-3000 meters. It grows “strong and straight” – rising up to 45 m tall, with the roots clinging to the rocky surface – one side of the tree always faces the mountain whilst the other faces open space.
Snowdrop, a favourite spring flower that is usually found only in the Chui valley.
Sogdian alycha – the mountain palm tree – can exhibit a bewildering range of colours of both foliage and fruit – even on the same bush. The fruit can even take different shapes and sizes. These trees start to produce fruit from an age of about five years and they can live to an age of 120 years.
Tulips – there are some 22 different varieties of wild tulips which grow in Kyrgyzstan – eight of them are sufficiently rare as to be included in the Red Book as endangered species. Amongst the most famous are the Greigue – sometimes calles the “green tulip”, the Kauphman and the Zinaida. There has been some speculation in tulip bulbs but a number of projects have been started to help preserve them. This includes the Chunkurchak State Biological Reserve in the Chunkurchak Gorge – just 25 kilometers from Bishkek. The flowers bloom mainly in April and May.
Walnut – the walnut tree is probably not a native to this region – it probably came here from further South-East, possibly as far away as Malaysia. Alexander the Great and his army discovered it in Central Asia, however, and sent specimens back to Greece, where it thrived. To this day the walnut is known in Russian as “Greek Nuts” – an irony not lost on the local populace. The trees grow in the South of the country, in Djalal Abad oblast – in the Chatkal mountains and the Ferghana valley at altitudes of between 800 and 2000 meters above sea level. Perhaps the most famous spot where they are found is in Arslan Bob – but they found throughout the region. The trees have a large spreading crown and the nuts can fall at harvest time creating a carpet of nuts. The nut has a very high calorific value. The timber from the tree is a valuable commodity – selling on the world market at the same price as silver. The burl is sought after by cabinet makers all over the world. This has led to a large amount of controversy as areas of woodland have been denuded to take advantage of this valuable crop.