The Tasman Sea? Er, no.
The Black Sea, as seen from the New Zealand section at the Batumi Botanical
Gardens in Georgia.
In a corner of
a foreign field
The author stumbles on
something strangely familiar in an obscure corner of the former Soviet Union
Cabbage trees, flax and
bush-clad hillsides plunging into a shimmering blue sea: Sounds like New
Zealand, right? Well, not quite... This is the Republic of Georgia, and the
sea in question is the Black Sea, not the Tasman.
For the few visitors
who make it to this obscure corner of the former Soviet Union, the first
hint that something botanically odd is going on comes at a Roman fortress
just north of the Turkish border.
Its 18 black basalt
towers and kilometres of walls enclose five hectares of lush gardens, where
villagers tend kiwifruit vines and vegetable plots among the ruins.
But, for New Zealanders
at least, having one of the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman
military architecture to oneself is not the only surprise: Gonio Fortress is
also crowded with cabbage trees.
Dozens of these
unmistakeable New Zealand icons are scattered throughout the gardens.
Others, the bases of their trunks whitewashed, form an avenue through the
centre of the fortress; further on, two neat rows of flax lead to the grave
of a Georgian saint.
After this unexpected
find at Gonio, I started seeing New Zealand flora everywhere.
In the nearby city of
Batumi I spotted a clump of flowering cabbage trees by the port, and many
more surrounding a lake in a neglected park. A flax bush was thriving near
Stalin’s one-time home, and what looked very much like a Dracophyllum
was sheltering a group of old men playing backgammon outside a betting shop.
So what on earth is all
this New Zealand flora doing in a country few New Zealanders have even heard
I found a clue a few days
later at the Batumi Botanical Gardens, 10km north of the city at the aptly
named Green Cape.
There, next to a bamboo
picnic pavilion and a curiously spelt sign reading “Section of Neu-Zeiland”,
a hillside thick with cabbage trees, flax and manuka drops steeply to a
It was a scene straight
out of New Zealand – until a carload of holidaying Georgians pulled up in a
modified Lada, Russian pop blaring from the stereo, to photograph each other
in front of the exotic vegetation. They barely noticed the eucalypts across
the road in the Australian section.
Later I tracked down Yuri
Dzirkvadze, deputy rector of the Batumi Agrarian Institute, whose school
occupies a corner of the botanical gardens.
After some linguistic
difficulties, he told me – I think – that the gardens boast more than 2000
species of woody plant, 500 flowers and herbs, and one of the best
collections of bamboo and camellia plants in Europe. There’s also a pretty
good collection of rhododendrons.
The 114ha gardens are
divided into three separate parks and nine phytogeographical sections,
including East Asia, North America, Australia, the Mediterranean, the
Himalayas and Transcaucasia.
At 1.2ha and with a mere
19 species, the New Zealand section is one of the smallest – but also one of
the most interesting, Dzirkvadze said. For decades visitors had been helping
themselves to cuttings from the cabbage trees and flax, which now grow as
decorative plants all over Batumi.
He then fished out a
list of New Zealand species planted at the cape. And thank God for Latin:
the Georgian language, with its unique alphabet and Byzantine grammar, makes
even Russian seem straightforward.
Apart from flax,
Phormium tenax, and the ubiquitous cabbage trees, Cordyline australis
and Cordyline banksii, species in the New Zealand section
include manuka, kowhai, leatherwood, broadleaf, rewarewa, lowland ribbonwood,
a Hebe cultivar, a Pittosporum and two species of totara.
All very interesting, but
I still didn’t understand how so much New Zealand flora ended up in Georgia
in the first place.
I found the answer on
Dzirkvadze’s bookshelf, in the form of the “Concise Reference Book on the
History of the Batumi Botanic Gardens”. The book explains in charmingly
idiosyncratic English how the gardens’ beginnings can be traced to the
arrival of the Russian scientist Andrei Krasnov in 1893.
Impressed by Batumi’s
mild climate and similarity to that of the Pacific – annual rainfall of
2600mm, average temperature in summer 22°C and in winter 8°C – he believed
an exotic garden could help drag the region out of poverty.
“In spite of the
neglected state of this area caused by unfortunate past, this site is
magical with its southern climate,” he wrote, clearly relieved to have
escaped the bitter winters at Kharkov University.
Krasnov’s goal was to
create a “second motherland of subtropical cultures”, concentrating on rare
and valuable plants from lands with similar soils and climatic conditions.
In the process he hoped to make Georgia’s Black Sea coast as prosperous as
the holiday resorts of Western Europe.
In 1895 he embarked on a
year-long expedition to India, China and Japan, collecting flora on the way;
in 1912 the Russian government granted 100,000 Roubles for the purchase of
72ha on Green Cape.
In the following year
some 2000 species were planted on the cape, and Krasnov struck deals with
botanical institutes across Europe, the US and Japan. The London Royal
Botanical Gardens alone sent 300 species, including several from New
An optimistic Krasnov
said, “less than 25 years will pass and this region will be better than the
Riviera, people will walk along the alleys of evergreen oaks and palms and
northern man will find the illusion of tropical countries here.”
When Krasnov died in 1914
he was buried in his beloved gardens, at the end of an alley of cypress
trees overlooking the sea.
Somehow his gardens
survived the Russian civil war, two world wars, and Georgia's
post-independence chaos and economic collapse. But, like the rest of the
country, they have fallen on hard times.
Few trees are labelled
and piles of rubbish moulder in the undergrowth. The Soviet-era cable car,
which once carried crowds of picnickers up the cape, is now a jumble of
rusting steel. Batumi’s biggest hotel, instead of accommodating tourists
drawn to the city’s beaches and gardens, is home to hundreds of refugees
from Georgia’s civil war with the breakaway province of Abkhazia.
So Krasnov’s dream of a
prosperous Black Sea coast rivalling the French Riviera is as far from
reality as ever – but the climate is still mild, the landscape magical, and
the wine abundant.
The difference now is
that, for the first time in a century, Georgia is open to western visitors.
And some of those visitors will travel thousands of kilometres to find
themselves gazing out over the sea and Krasnov’s cabbage trees, and wonder
whether they had left home at all.
First published in
New Zealand Geographic, July-August 2005. Since this was written Georgia
suffered another disastrous conflict when in 2008 its government picked a
war with its much bigger neighbour, Russia.
Where on Earth?
The Republic of Georgia is located at the eastern end of the Black
Sea, sandwiched between Turkey, Russia and Azerbaijan.
It has an area of 70,000sq km - making it a quarter the size of New
Zealand - and a population close to 5 million.
If anything, its geography is even more varied than New Zealand's,
boasting everything from a temperate coast with white sandy beaches
to semi-desert, as well as snow-capped mountains more than 5000
Its people speak Georgian, which has a unique 2500-year-old
alphabet, and trace their ancestry back to Noah. It is one of the
world's oldest Christian countries, and its most famous - or
infamous - son is Joseph Stalin.
The country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and
plunged almost immediately into civil war. Once the most prosperous
part of the USSR, state wages fell as low as US$5 a month in the
nation's post-independence chaos.
Unlike the Russians to the north, the Georgians drink wine, not
spirits, and place great value on hospitality and honour. They are
also keen rugby players, another link with New Zealand...
Cabbage trees in
flower at Batumi’s Black Sea port.
trees at the Batumi Agrarian Institute are labelled in Georgian, Latin
The fortress at
Gonio – built by the Romans in the first century, rebuilt by the
Byzantines in the tenth and again by the Turks in the sixteenth – is one
of the world’s best preserved examples of Roman military architecture.
The gardens inside
the Roman fortress at Gonio hold a few surprises - like these distinctly
New Zealand cabbage trees.
A villager tends her
vegetable plot among the first-century ruins of Gonio.
Flax bushes inside the
Roman fortress at Gonio form an avenue leading to the grave of a