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Coming in from the Cold – The Flora of Siberia

Plant historian, Maggie Campbell-Culver, gives a detailed insight into the plant life found across Siberia.

The landscape of Siberia is like nothing else on earth; it has been called the last great wilderness, and is so large it covers nearly 10% of the world’s land surface. The landscape falls mostly into three different categories of vegetation, the first is the smallest and is the tundra, the frozen plain which fringes the Arctic Ocean and stretches inland for some 320km (c.200miles). The second is the largest area of all covering about a million square miles and known as the ‘taiga’, this is the evergreen coniferous forest dominated by firs, spruces, cedars, pines and larches. The third region is the vast treeless grassland known by its old Russian name of ‘steppe’. The intense winter cold, short summers, the permafrost, swamps, bogs, mountain ranges, great rivers does not immediately make one think of gardens and flowers, indeed horticulture seems out of place in such a wonderfully elemental landscape.

However take a step back and think about a wedding you have attended – do you remember seeing a froth of dainty white flowers in any of the bouquets? Well that was probably what is known as ‘Baby’s Breath’ (Gypsophila paniculata); this tough cookie flourishes all across Eastern Europe and Siberia. Since the eighteenth century plants whose home is Siberia have been regularly appearing in our gardens; fragile looking Siberian iris, several species of lilies, a delightful Siberian bluebell, all well worth growing. Many of us are familiar with the perennial ‘Bleeding Heart’ or ‘Dutchman’s Trousers’ (Dicentra spectabilis), as well as Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum), the exotic Eastern Pasque flower, Bergenia’s or ‘Elephants Ears’ if you prefer, these and many more have made it over the Ural mountains into Europe and grow happily in our gardens never letting on that they come from the land that gardeners ignored.

The trees that inhabit the great taiga of, in particular Eastern Siberia, may best be described more for their quantity rather than their quality. None of the larch species or the Siberian fir do particularly well in Europe, as they miss the fierce dry cold of the Siberian winter, birches on the other hand are happily more accommodating and enjoy both Siberia and Britain. There are too species of pines and spruces, and mixed in is the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) a native of both Britain and Siberia which has the widest distribution of any pine.

Some five thousand indigenous plants contribute to the vegetation of Siberia; a few are in the Red Data Book as being threatened in the wild. In the 1980’s The Flora of Siberia was published in thirteen volumes, and now there are a total of seventeen botanic gardens stretching across Siberia, each of them looking at different aspects of bio-diversity and ecology of the natural flora. It can surely be said that at last the flora of Siberia is coming in from the cold.

For more information about the flora of Siberia please visit www.maggiecampbellculver.com.

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