What the forests and valleys of Altai hide
Have you ever gone stargazing at the mountains? If yes, it means you clearly remember the coolness of infinite skies and you might feel quiet crystal sounds getting more and more intense by the dawn. Ancient people believed that distant jingle is caused by falling stars, when a falling star would turn into tiny stars you find on the ground in very remote areas. The 'stars' in the story represent edelweiss – a legendary flower.
This high altitude flower is blossoming from June to September right by the ice crust of the glaciers. In Europe it is literally called alpine or silver flower. Scientists call it 'leontopodium' literally meaning 'lion's paw' for its resemblance of a paw of a lion. In Russian the word was borrowed from German dialect meaning royal white. Since the flower only grows places high up and hard to access and under tough climate conditions, it is a symbol of bravery.
It is rather hard to find it, but young people used to climb up to pick up edelweiss for their ladies just to prove their masculinity – so it also became a symbol of love and faithfulness. Though the flower is notoriously famous for its extinction. It attracted so many people that almost disappeared, since the climate doesn't help it either.
The last straw was Oscar awarded musical 'The Sound of Music' (1965) – after release edelweiss became endangered in its natural habitat. In Altai now you can find Siberian Edelweiss, a is slightly less than alpine. An intricate peculiarity of the flower is its acquired UV resistance. The petals have structurally adjusted to absorbing ultraviolet letting the light pass through. If ever it is discovered how, we will be able to create an spf lotion to protect the skin from the sun with 100% security.
Never forget edelweiss is a unique flower and it is protected by the red book for a reason.
If you happen to visit the mountains in spring, try to find rhododendron ledebourii – or maralnik, that some people compare to sakura. In fact, they are different and their only similarity is bright flowers. In spring the bush is no taller than 2 meters and it gets covered by purple blossoms – favourite of the locals. In the Far East, the blossoming of maralnik is associated with the onset of spring; in the Altai Mountains, these pink clouds are associated, in addition to spring, with the beginning of the tourist season. In Japan the tradition of watching sakura blossoming is rather old, it is considered that enjoying the beauty of flowers and nature shows how fast the time flies, its mortality. Try it too.
Rhododendron is endemic of mountain Altai and it belongs to the ericetal family. Its Altai type is named after German botanic who worked in Russia – Karl Ledebur, who became famous for creating a collection of plants growing in the Russian Empire decades ago – it was called 'Russian flora'
One of the frequently asked questions is 'when does rhododendron blossom?" though there is no exact answer to it. It lasts a week to a month and it totally depends on the weather in the spring.
On the north-east in Biya basin and in Teletskoye lake surrounding you will find taiga – and silver fir, aspen, birch, bird cherry, ashberry and arrow-wood that grow there, among bushes and tall grass. There is no moss and the woods spread up to 1800-1900 meters above the sea.
On the lower mountains the main tree is pine tree – it doesn't grow above 600-700 meters. While larch is used to either infertile terrains or high-altitude colds, its main preference is enough sunlight. So as you go deeper in the center of the republic you will see how the pine is replaced by larch at 2100-2200 meters above the sea. In the river valleys and southern slopes larch forests grow in thick grass where grains dominate. On the northern slopes the bottom of larch woods would be layered with rhododendron, meadowsweet and Altai honeyberry. Some larches grow up to 20-30 meters tall with a diameter of 2-3 meters. If you come across such a giant remember – it might have grown out of a seed two thousand years ago.
On the south-west of Altai dark pine taiga raises up to 2500 meters above the sea level. It consists mainly of Siberian cedar, pine and silver-fir and the taiga covers all the northern slopes. Moss, bushes and berry bushes grow right below – honeysuckle, blueberry and cranberry. Cedar is not only a legendary and unique tree here; but also a nutrition source for many birds and animals. Great pine cones harvest would take place every 3-4 years, but "dry" years are damaging the bears here – they mostly gain weight before hibernation eating pine cone nuts. Many cedars live up to 800 years. If you climb rocks up to 2000 meters you will find bergenia – a medicating plant. Its dry leaves are used for tea-making which has the same effects as some antibiotics. You can also find here a very strong adaptogen – maral root or carthamoid rhapontic.
In mountainous region it is very common that the forests die away and the slopes are covered with steppe terrains. They are covered with bluegrass, carnation and purple sage. At the sunny field you would see prairieweed – a short bush with pretty yellow blossoms. The weed leaves can be put into tea to fortify immune system, relieve fever and speed up sweating. It is also helpful with upset stomach. Also if you leave the leaves to soak 2-3 hours, the infusion can cure burns and cuts.
Central and western parts of Altai are the lands of meadows. In subalpine fields there are thistle, crane's bell, globeflower and stonecrop – curing plant of rhodiola, a strong adaptogen and aphrodisiac, that is as powerful as ginseng.
The alpine fields are covered with very short layer of flowers. But still it looks especially picturesque with its bright marigolds, yellow poppies, blue columbines, dark centauries and dragonheads.
The higher you climb the poorer the flora is. In half-deserted areas of Chuya and Kuray basins, Bashkaus valley, Chulyshman valley and Ukok plateau it is typical to see feather grass and sedge. Most part of the summer the steppe there is very plain in colours and only spring would bring bright hues there.
On alpine fields up to 2500 meters you can find dwarf birches, that sometimes would make thick tousles that is not easy to cross without following a path.
The most severe flora in Altai is located on a mountain belt up to 3000 meters – tundra. Plants typical there are moss, lichen and little algae in creeks and lakes with eternal ice.
A lot of plants can be eaten while hiking. For example – dock, nettle and red hemp nettle. Out of the most valuable plants there are alpine leek and dwarf alpine onion. Greens like wild mint, thyme and water pepperwort are used as spices. If you are making tea after a long day of hike, take some leaves of cranberry, raspberry and marjoram.