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In the Realm of the Ice Queen

Central Asia, a plant-hunter’s paradise, has long held Chris Gardner under its spell. For two decades the Antalya-based botanical writer and photographer has traversed countless miles of steppe and mountain in search of the hardier cousins of many of his favourite Turkish plants – from towering foxtail lilies to the tiny ‘Trollius lilacinus’, exquisite ice queen of the Tien Shan

  • 'Trollius lilacinus' Above In June this ice queen – one of the finest flowers in Central Asia – floods areas of snowmelt in the windswept landscapes of Barskoon, on the southern shore of the Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgzystan. In a perfect combination of beauty and place, this delicate ice-blue 'Trollius', here almost white, changes with the light

Saddle-sore was putting it mildly. I am definitely not a born rider. Thankfully, back in 1999, my 30-year-old body recovered swiftly, helped by a shot or three of finest walnut-flavoured vodka, as prescribed by my friend and fellow naturalist Vladimir Kolbinsev, a long-time researcher and wildlife guide in Kazakhstan. The next day we were off again, riding (or clinging on) as the horses powered up to a 3,000-metre pass in Kazakhstan’s fabulous Aksu-Dzabagly Nature Reserve in the Tien Shan (Celestial Mountains). Once at the pass, any aches quickly dispelled, the landscape and flora were all-consuming. Around us loomed snowcapped peaks. Below us foothills were riven.

This was my introduction to Central Asia, a massive region that for so long had been shrouded in Soviet-era mystery and seemed impossible to reach. Only now was that beginning to change. The ex-Soviet states had their independence, and tourism was growing, fuelled by the lure of the fabled Silk Road, whose ancient hub was Central Asia. Of course, the notion of the Silk Road is an artificial one that we ourselves (or more correctly the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877) have imposed on the landscape. Yet for botanists it is very real and very rich, a plant-hunter’s paradise, a 5,000-mile route from central Turkey to China and Mongolia, passing through the southern band of Asian steppe, and blessed with the most spectacular flora on earth≤…

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Chris Gardner and his wife, Başak Gardner, organise and lead botanical tours worldwide, including Turkey and the lands of the Silk Road ( Their books, ‘Flora of the Mediterranean’ and ‘Flora of the Silk Road’, are available from

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