The Silk Road is a place of legends, adventures and dreams, hard travelling and great beauty. It connected the west and the east, Rome and China, and along its various routes it carried trade in silk, spices, gold and ivory and introduced the compass, printing and gunpowder from the east along with learning in astronomy, mathematics and medicine from the Arab nations.
The name was first applied by the German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 and, despite the name being always mentioned in the singular it was never a single route but a 5,000 mile traverse of Asia which varied over time. What might be described as the central route ran from Turkey through Syria, Iran, Iraq, Central Asia, through Western China to Central China connecting such fabled cities as Istanbul, Kaysen Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tehran, Kabul, Samarkand and Anxi.
Alternate routes brought travellers to Xi’an via Almatz, over the mountains of Afghanistan or the Pamir of Tajikistan a long journey where water and brigands were plentiful or over the steppes of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan which was flatter, easier but considerably longer. Political upheaval and wars have disrupted travel and changed routes at times but, as the author states, “Whatever else has altered over time in Samarkand and the other Central Asian Silk Road cities, the natural beauty of the area has not.” There has been one constant factor of the Silk Road which neither war nor custom have changed and that is the flowers.
It was the beauty of the flowers which brought Christopher and Basak Gardner back to the Silk Road over fifteen years to search them out and photograph them in their natural surroundings and, having read the book and especially after enjoying the photographs I am not at all surprised by this. The wealth of species, the breath and range of environments and the sheer beauty of the photography in the book is simply magnificent. It was rather mind-boggling then to read the author saying he had portrayed 545 bulbs, herbs, trees and shrubs in the book and that this represented approximately only 1% of the flora of the regions in which he had travelled as he had estimated that there are approximately 40,000 temperate species to be found along the Silk Road and, as half of the Silk Road is in China, 31,000 of these are to be found there. The numbers only serve to open the mind to some appreciation of the wonders of the plant world in these areas – though I must admit that I found it difficult to open my mind to that extent. We can only gaze with wonder and enjoyment at those flowers so beautifully photographed for this book and try to imagine that there another 39,500 plants we have not seen. It is a statistic I find somewhat flabbergasting.
Christopher Gardner is a trained horticulturalist who worked for a time at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, travelled extensively in the Himalaya and was co-author with Tony and Will Musgrave of “The Plant Hunters”. Basak Gardner is also a professional botanist and was head of the herbarium at the Nezahat Gokyigit Botanic Garden in Istanbul. Together they have led specialist botanical and wildlife tours worldwide, particularly along the Silk Road.
The lover of plants will experience a taste of heaven while reading this book. The lover of photography and beautiful illustration will risk drooling on the page and all gardeners will be inspired to seek out and grow some of the treasures of the Silk Road in their own garden.
Can I blow trumpets in my writing? Can I shoot fireworks here? Can I wave banners so you will know what a wonderful book this is? Unfortunately, not but I do hope you realise what a treasure I believe it is. You will be delighted with this book.
In The Garden (RHS magazine) Roy Lancaster wrote: “Without a shadow of a doubt this is the most spectacular account and presentation of native flora I have ever seen” while, in The Financial Times, Robin Lane Fox wrote, “The most beautiful new book… for a gardener, the book is like a glimpse of paradise”.
[Flora of the Silk Road – An Illustrated Guide, Christopher Gardner and Basak Gardner, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, HB, 12 X 10 inches, 406pp, £35, ISBN: 978-1-78076-941-7]
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