Caucasus x Appalachia | SERIES INTRO

Caucasus x Appalachia | SERIES INTRO

I spent 3 weeks in the Republic of Georgia back in 2019 for an ethnobotanical exchange project. I experienced country life in a small village outside the city of Kutaisi (Imereti region). There I learned so much about Georgian history, cuisine, and the plants/fungi used for food and medicine. It’s 2024 now, and I still reference my field journal, photos, audio recordings, and research. I always thought I’d make some mini doc with all that collected information, but life gets busy as you know. So I’ll just put it all here for now. For every summer season that passes I’m called back to Georgia. I toggle between the Appalachians and the Caucasus in my mind’s eye while I harvest mulberries, purslane, walnuts, greenbriers, wild grapes (muscadines), and so many other shared plant genera.

United Nations Map of Georgia
Georgia Caucasus

That comparative analysis of the southern Appalachians (where I live) and the lower Caucasus keeps my mind turning. I had never expected Georgia to feel so familiar, but there I was observing and marveling at plants that grew in my own oak-chestnut forests and field edges  - things like dandelions, greenbriers, geraniums, sorrels, elderberries, nettles, mullein, and so many others. Granted, some of the species were different, like a Caucasian rhododendron instead of a North American rhododendron, or a Persian walnut instead of an American black walnut. Nevertheless, species of the same genera usually share the same traits, and so I’ve been immensely intrigued with how our respective cultures use these plant relatives in similar and dissimilar ways ever since. Take for instance the Georgian greenbrier, Smilax excelsa. In Georgia it is called ekala. Ekala is a fairly common wild-harvested food in Georgia. In my part of the world we also have greenbrier (there are some 20 Smilax species endemic to North America), but nobody I know touches the stuff unless to eradicate it. Elderberry by comparison is used similarly by both cultures - for medicine and flavoring. 

Gelati Monastery, Kutaisi, Georgia
 
Imereti Georgia
I suppose few Americans interact with most of the edible plants I’ll discuss in later posts. In the states, foraging is a hobby, not a necessity. But in a politically and economically tenuous place like Georgia, many people know the local flora and depend on it when times get tough. It seems every Georgian generation to date has had some version of a “dark time” - times when grandma and grandpa’s folk knowledge comes in handy. Sure, there are thriving restaurants, robust markets, and fast food joints in the city, but the cities are few and far between. There are many Georgians who live the village life and have to be self-reliant through community farming and some foraging. I learned so much from the kind, resilient Georgians I met, and I’ll forever be grateful for the hospitality and freely given knowledge. 
Imereti Georgian women

I’ll share a lot of what I learned in upcoming posts. It’ll give me the chance to deep dive on individual plants and topics. And I hope my fellow plant nerds will find it all as intriguing as I do! There’s an itch I need to scratch when it comes to comparing my home region and the Caucasus. I won’t be able to cover every genera in separate posts, so I’ve compiled a working list below. These are plant groups that have some significance as food and/or medicine and can be found in both the Caucasus and the Appalachians. This is not a comprehensive list, and I’m sure I’ll add to this list in future. But these are the plants I’m familiarized with - both here at home and during my time in Georgia. 

PLANTS (food/medicine)

CAUCASUS

Nat = native

APPALACHIANS

Int = introduced
Barberry Berberis vulgaris (nat) Berberis canadensis (nat), Berberis vulgaris (int)
Beech Fagus orientalis (nat) Fagus grandifolia (nat)
Bladdernut Staphylea colchica (nat) Staphylea trifolia (nat)
Chicory Cichorium intybus (nat) Cichorium intybus (int)
Comfrey Symphytum caucasicum (nat)
Symphytum officinale (int)
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale (nat) Taraxacum officinale (int)
Dock (Sorrel) Rumex spp. (nat) Rumex spp. (nat/int)
Dogwood Cornus mas (nat) Cornus florida (nat)
Elder Sambucus ebulus (nat), Sambucus nigra (nat) Sambucus canadensis (nat)
Eleagnus Eleagnus multiflora (int?) Eleagnus pungens (int)
Garlic, Wild Allium ursinum (nat), Allium victorialis (nat) Allium tricoccum (nat)
Grape, Wild Vitis vinifera (nat) Vitis rotundifolia (nat)
Greenbrier Smilax excelsa (nat) Smilax spp. (nat)
Linden Tilia begoniifolia (nat) Tilia americana (nat)
Mallow Malva neglecta (nat), Malva slyvestris (nat) Malva neglecta (int)
Mint Mentha pulegium (nat) + more spp. Mentha spp. (int), Pycnanthemum spp. (nat)
Mulberry Morus alba (int), Morus nigra (int) Morus alba (nat), Morus rubra (nat)
Mullein Verbascum thapsus (nat) Verbascum thapsus (int)
Nettle Urtica dioica (nat) Urtica dioica (int)
Oak Quercus iberica (nat) Quercus spp. (nat)
Persimmon Diospyros lotus (nat) Diospyros virginiana (nat)
Plum, Wild Prunus divaricata (nat), Prunus domestica (nat), Prunus vachuschtii (nat) + more spp. Prunus alleghaniensis (nat), Prunus americana (nat) + more spp.
Pokeweed Phytolacca americana (int) Phytolacca americana (nat)
Purslane Portulaca oleracea (nat) Portulaca oleracea (int)
Redbud Cercis canadensis (int), Cercis siliquastrum (int) Cercis canadensis (nat)
Rose, Wild Rosa canina (nat) + more spp. Rosa canina (int) + more spp.
Solomon's Seal Polygonatum glaberrimum (nat) Polygonatum biflorum (nat)
Trifoliate Orange Poncirus trifoliata (int) Poncirus trifoliata (int)
Vaccinium Vaccinium arcotostaphylos (nat) Vaccinium pallidum (nat) + more spp.
Walnut Juglans regia (nat) Juglans nigra (nat)
 
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
*I was able to visit Ilia State University during my time in Georgia and speak to some of the faculty members who study the ethnobiology of the Caucasus. They have extensive articles and reporting on the subject. I've listed just a few of their articles below, but you can visit this link to learn more.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318163929_Ethnobotany_of_the_Caucasus_-_The_Region
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309654813_Medicinal_and_Food_Plants_of_Svaneti_and_Lechkhumi_Sakartvelo_Republic_of_Georgia_Caucasus
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/359082391_Ethnobiology-of-Georgia-1
https://powo.science.kew.org
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