A study tour to Lebanon
by Helenka Jurgielewicz
Based at the American University in Beirut for three weeks during May and June 2000, I had the opportunity of participating in the Darwin Project in Coastal Vegetation Survey for Lebanon. This project was initiated by the University, along with Kew’s Conservation Projects Development Unit, in response to the rapid redevelopment and building taking place after the civil war. The aim was to make a botanical inventory and establish what may be under threat.
With the students, I visited many coastal and littoral sites, from the extreme north on the Syrian border to the Chouf Mountains south of Beirut. Surveying the sites involved collecting herbarium material from along an established sampling line. It was a great opportunity to botanise: highlights were seeing orchids Orchis sancta and Epipactis helleborine, and many labiates such as species of Salvia, Teucrium, and Micromeria. The coastal flora is largely Mediterranean and some of the sites were idyllic — abandoned terraces and meadows peppered with olive, pistachio, and carob trees and full of a great mixture of flowers, herbs and grasses.Others were rather less attractive, rubbish-strewn dirty beaches flanked by busy roads and advertisement boardings. But there were still gems to be seen — tight hummocks of bright blue Eryngium maritimum and the occasional tortoise!
Other visits I made were east into the Bekaa Valley and a short excursion to Syria. The Bekaa is a plateau between two parallel mountain ranges of Lebanon with an arid climate, cold in winter and hot in summer. We teamed up with a group from the University field station out researching wild wheats, and also with Michel van Schlageren from the Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place on his Middle East collecting tour. At times we were only 4km from the Syrian border and in the distance the spectacular snow-covered high peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range were clearly visible. Amongst many other memorable sights were the stunning purplish-blue flowers of the bulb Ixioliron tartaricum, large colonies of silvery asphodels on steep screes and tiny legumes with bright pink spiny pods. Friendly shepherds would appear out of nowhere proffering coffee from traditional beaten metal pots, strong and refreshing. Syria was surprisingly fertile and hilly in the west and a desolate desert plain to the east that leads onwards to Iraq. It is an amazing landscape formed out of a pale calcareous dirt peppered with flints and inhabited by Bedouin, the military and a small tufted succulent that looked like a glasswort.
Back at the university I undertook the task of designing and writing a proposal for a native-planted area on campus. It is the premier university in the Middle east and fabulously located on hilly terrain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea: a real oasis in a hectic city. Already planted with a mixture of ornamentals, wildflower schemes would add a new dimension, forming a fantastic resource as well as being attractive. The report has been submitted and hopefully the recommendations will be accepted.
I definitely learned a great amount about the flora and the country during my stay, and would like to thank the Kew Guild for their generous support. Looking at plants in the wild is a truly valuable experience.