The Balkans Plant Hunting Expedition

Not So Helle-boring - Botanical Trekking through the Balkans

June 3-13, 2012
by Tony Avent
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
Shop for Perennials at Plant Delights Nursery

Trip Goal

Our goal was to explore the Balkan flora of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Balkan flora is some of the richest in Europe, with nearly 1,000 endemic plants in the Central and Southern European regions. The presence of ancient rocks at the surface combined with the uplifted mountains which further isolated plant communities resulted in such a unique flora. The Balkan flora includes a number of habitats from climax woodlands to Mediterranean regions to alpine locations and pretty much everything between. Our goal was to visit as many different habitats as possible within our short time frame.

I was pleased to accompany Dr. Tom Mitchell of Evolution Plants on the trip to a region that Tom had botanized more than ten times prior. Tom is an evolutionary biologist from England, who will be opening his new nursery in spring 2013, with a specialty in hellebores, peony species, and other rarities. Joining us was Hans Hansen, a Michigan plantsman and director of plant breeding for Walters Gardens.

As most folks know, the Balkan region is just recovering from a horrific series of civil wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia and divided it into the countries we visited. The nationalistic and religious factions in the region were the primary basis for the conflict. Much of the tug of war was over the Bosnia-Herzegovina region that was wanted by both Croatia on one side and Serbia on the other, and by the majority Muslim population who desired independence from both. Many of the regions in which we traveled were off limits for many years and may be again as quiet feuds continue to simmer. We feel it is critical to encourage more botanical exploration of such regions and preserve through propagation the genetics in ex-situ (off-site) locations.

There are many plants that we already know and grow from the Balkans including most of the hellebore species, Paris quadrifolia, several arum species, Epimedium alpinum, several of our favorite hardy geraniums including Geranium sanguineum and Geranium phaeum, martagon lilies, European ginger, and much more. Many times, plants in the trade which have little heat tolerance are presumed not to be growable in our area, but all too often, all we need to do is collect genetic material from warmer regions. We have found few instances of plant explorers from the United States who have spent much time looking at plants from the Balkan region.

Sunday June 3, 2012/Monday June 4, 2012

We departed Raleigh just after 6pm on the first leg of our flight that would take us across the pond to London. We left on Sunday, arrived just after 7am UK time on Monday, and rendezvoused with our expedition leader, Tom Mitchell. Tom was kind enough to pick us up at the airport and take us to see his new nursery venture 2 hours north. We spent the rest of the morning at Tom's nursery looking at plants from his treks worldwide and imagining what it will be like when the nursery is finally open to the public. We visited his caged specimens of the rare Aesculus wangii and saw native patches of Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart's Tongue Fern) and Dryopteris filix-mas to mention but a few. *If you are interested in purchasing seed of any of the hellebore species mentioned below, go to As if we needed it, seeing his potted specimens of Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus was enough to get us even more excited about our upcoming trek. A couple of plants at the nursery among many that caught my eye was a gold-leaf Solomon's Seal that Tom found in France and a golden lily of the valley, Convallaria ‘Golden Jubilee'. The array of rare and hard-to-find plants will be something special when Evolution Plants finally gets off the ground in spring 2013.

After lunch at a local pub, we took a series of trains south to the Gatwick airport where we would spend the night until our morning Easy Jet flight to Zagreb, Croatia.

Tuesday June 5, 2012

We arrived in Zagreb, Croatia just after 11am and, after grabbing our luggage and passing through customs, we headed for the currency changer for some Croatian Kuna then on to the rental car counter. Keys in hand, we made our way outdoors to find our car. On the way to the car, I was fascinated by an airport billboard advertisement for a bank using Sharon Stone's famous pose from “Basic Instinct,” with a note at the bottom to find them on Facebook...that's quite an impact forFacebook.

Instead of a normal rental car, Tom had reserved a bright red Peugeot Boxer...the European equivalent of a hybrid between a utility van and a Hummer. Excited about having plenty of vehicle room and a sunny 75 degree F day, we pulled away from the airport in search of cool plants. Almost immediately, we found our ears ringing with that unmistakable sound of snap, crackle, and pop! We tried to convince ourselves that we really hadn't heard the unmistakable sound of cracking fiberglass that happens when an innocent vehicle suffers an unprovoked attack by another, but we couldn't all be having the same nightmare. As I looked out the window, I saw a sad grey sedan sitting there, mercilessly attacked by our obviously more aggressive and larger bright red Peugeot.

After a return visit to the rental car counter, several quick pictures, and another send off from the counter representative with a "You won't need to be careful anymore", we were on our way once again. This time, allowing for a wider turning radius, we pulled out of the airport and headed for the motorway. We stopped at a nearly abandoned roadside rest stop motel restaurant for lunch, then off again. There were to be no such things as quick meals in the Balkans as fast food is non-existent and the pace of life is quite different from back in the US.

Not far west of the Zagreb airport is Samobor, which was our base for the night. You may recognize both names, the first for the dwarf Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb' and the second for Elizabeth Strangman's Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor', which was discovered there. By 2:15pm, we had crossed the Croatian border north into of many new countries that were created after Yugoslavia was dismantled in the 1990s after the most recent political tug of war. As we drove toward the mountains, we could see a distant rain storm engulfing the area where we were heading. As we neared our destination and parked, the rains were steadily coming down so we dug out rain gear from our luggage and prepared for the worst. No sooner were we fully covered and ready to start our first hike, when the skies magically cleared and the rain ended.

Parking at a roadside cafe, we crossed the road and started up an old logging road at a low 650' elevation, onto a gently sloping wooded hillside. As soon as we entered the woods, we began seeing familiar plants. The hillside was filled with Epimedium alpinum by the thousands. Among the epimediums was the common European ginger, Asarum europaeum. I have never been able to grow this at home because of our heat and humidity, but have always concluded that since it has such a wide range, someone simply needed to make a collection from a hot summer region.

Among the asarums and epimediums were the unmistakable spotted leaves of pulmonaria. I don't know what species grows in this region, but it's been years since any new wild genetic material of pulmonaria has been introduced into existing breeding lines. The same Asplenium scolopendrium that I had marveled over at Tom's nursery was here also, giving an odd tropical feel to an obviously cold winter climate. I had often wondered how this plant could truly be winter hardy to Zone 5, but here was the proof. The further we walked, the more ferns we found. Dryopteris filix-mas was here, along with the rock polypody, Polypodium vulgare. Although certainly not plentiful at this site, it was great to see stunning clumps of the shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, with some that spanned nearly 4' in width. A glance upward revealed a hillside of Helleborus niger - Christmas Rose, the Christmas rose...another plant that I'd longed to see in the wild. Not only was Helleborus niger here, but Helleborus atrorubens was also growing alongside.

The plant that really shocked me, however, was Salvia glutinosa - Woodland Sage, the lovely yellow-flowered woodland sage. I didn't realize it grew this far west, and I certainly didn't expect to find it growing with asarum, hellebores, and epimediums. As I continued walking up the dirt road, I noticed small, but plentiful clumps of Polygonatum multiflorum (European Solomon's seal), growing with a lovely monkshood, Aconitum lycoctonum. A few more steps and I caught a glimpse of martagon lilies growing happy as clams in the deep shade among the hellebores.

As we continued to explore further into the woods, a steep ravine was filled with an amazing assortment of ferns including the ubiquitous rock fern, Asplenium trichomanes. Growing in the same area was a lovely lady fern, clumps of the common primrose, Gentiana asclepiadea (willow-leaf gentian), Daphne mezereum, and an odd shade-loving carrot relative, Hacquetia epipactis. Like Asarum europaeum, the hacquetia in the trade has no heat tolerance, so this form should be much more heat tolerant. The plant I didn't expect to find at a site like this was a drift of Festuca glauca (blue fescue)...growing among the ferns.

Next I spotted what appeared to be a silver-mottled asarum leaf, but on close examination this turned out to be the lovely Cyclamen purpurascens, a gem that was quite plentiful at this site, often growing among the Vinca major. I'm currently in my toothwort phase, so I was very excited to find two species of the spring ephemeral cardamine growing here, although it was nearly time for them to go dormant. It's truly hard to explain the sheer joy of visiting a site like this...let's just say if I could dance, I'd have been doing a mean rendition of James Brown's “I Feel Good.” All too soon, however, it was time to move on down the road. Excited by our first stop, I couldn't wait to see what was next. Our second stop was in a beech/maple/oak forest north of Podsreda, Slovenia at 1,250' elevation. The beech appeared to be Fagus sylvatica and the oak looked like Quercus cerris. My next huge surprise was the masses of Ruscus hypoglossum that grew there. I happen to have a fascination with ruscus, and always assumed that the Ruscus hypoglossum I grew was marginally winter hardy. Surely, finding them growing here puts that myth to rest. We were obviously too late to find the ruscus in seed, but spent quite a while marveling at the variation in leaf length and width. Growing among the ruscus were more European ginger, Gentiana asclepiadea, and in a moist pocket, a lovely patch of Aruncus dioicus in full flower.

At our third but lower site at 820' elevation, we were greeted with large patches of Hepatica nobilis...again, from an elevation that should be more growable than the plants in the trade. This was also the first time, but certainly not the last, to find Sedum telephium (think Sedum ‘Autumn Joy') in the wild...a plant that surprisingly always occurred in the shade. There was quite a bit more Salvia glutinosa here, along with more pulmonaria, but the plant that excited me most from this site was a lovely dark pattern-leaf selection of Geranium phaeum which had popped up right in the middle of a long abandoned cart path. Being a collector of winter hardy aristolochia family members, I was also excited to find Aristolochia pallida here...until I saw the shamelessly dinky flowers.

With our daylight coming to an end, we departed Slovenia and crossed back into Croatia stay at the Hotel Livadic in Samobor for the night. Samobor is a quaint little town with typical European crowded streets and never enough parking. Fortunately, our hotel had enough room in their lot for our oversized vehicle. Although the hotel had no elevator and we had to drag our luggage up three flights of stairs, the bathroom almost made up for the trouble. The bathroom reminded me of Dr. Who's Tardis. It could comfortably seat dinner for 12 while at least six people bathed simultaneously. The bathroom contained a giant hot tub, shower, two sinks, a toilet, and of course, the ubiquitous European butt-washer, a bidet. I don't know how many of you realize how excellent bidets are for cleaning plant roots, so just take my word that they are mighty fine.

Starved from the day's activity, we headed immediately across the parking lot to a lovely but nearly empty little restaurant. If you enjoy pork, chicken, lamb, or'll be right at home in the Balkans. The only odd thing is that all meats are cooked the same...well done. After a wonderful dinner, we headed back to our rooms to process all that we had seen earlier in the day.

Wednesday June 6, 2012

We were up for breakfast pastries and omelets at 8am before heading south of Samobor. Our first botanizing stop for the day was near the town of Rude, Croatia at a low 700' elevation. As we walked past local roadside vegetable gardens, the slopes steepened and we entered the tree canopy. Once again, the hillsides were filled with Asarum europaeum and pulmonaria, still interspersed with both Helleborus niger and Helleborus atrorubens. I was particularly interested in one plant that appeared to have intermediate characteristic of both Helleborus niger and Helleborus atrorubens. It would be fascinating to visit this site during flowering to see if any mixing of the genes has truly occurred...especially since Tom promised to eat his hat if it's a hybrid. One particular patch of Asarum europaeum formed an unusually dense clump...surely a good clone for both gardens and nurseries. This was also our first stop to find the stoloniferous trillium relative, Paris quadrifolia, a plant we would subsequently encounter several more times during our expedition.

As we continued south of Rude, our next stop at 1,700' elevation at a roadside memorial yielded more Ruscus hypoglossum, this time with some fruit remaining...always good to help distinguish male plants from the fruiting females. Paris quadrifolia was more plentiful here than anywhere else on the entire trip, growing alongside Arum maculatum and an interesting Euphorbia. Also plentiful at this site was one of my favorite lamiums, the clumping Lamium orvala, although most of the flowers had already finished at this elevation. One of the pulmonarias we found at this site had unquestionably the largest leaf any of us had ever seen. About an hour out of town, we missed our exit from the motorway south, and since return access to the motorway was limited, we opted to take a back road alternative that looked like a good option on the map. Very important lesson in Croatia...maps lie.

As we wound through the mountains, we passed some amazing countryside, marveling that farmers still garden in vertical rows on the mountainsides. We next stopped at 1,300' elevation in an interesting patch of woods where we found more Helleborus niger, this time mixed with the wide-leaf Helleborus multifidus ssp. istriacus x Helleborus torquatus hybrid swarm. I found the variation in Helleborus niger here quite odd, suggesting again the possibility of some species intergrades. Another particular huge-leaf form of Helleborus niger had unusually large overlapping leaf lobes. Unfortunately, there was no hellebore seed set at this site. Here, I would find my first and only patterned-leaf form of Hepatica nobilis.

We traveled only a short distance before stopping again, this time in an open field in hopes of better hellebore seed set. Indeed the sunny fields were filled with more Helleborus multifidus ssp. istriacus, along with the lovely Salvia pratensis, a familiar looking scabiosa, and the architecturally- fascinating Veratrum nigrum growing against the rocks. Still no hellebore seed, so on we went.

For quite a while, we followed the road mower, muttering under our breath that he was probably the reason we weren't finding any hellebore seed. We finally got around the mower, but by this time we had moved into another vegetation zone dominated by fir trees. From here, we had even more trouble spotting the poorly-marked shortcut highway that we were searching for to take us back to the motorway. Thinking we finally had located it, we climbed dramatically higher for what we thought was a shortcut over the mountains.

After an hour the road changed from blacktop to gravel...never a good sign. We made our first stop on the mountain at 2,654', where we found Lamium orvala that have much darker flowers than what is typical with that species. This has long been a favorite plant in the garden although it fares much better in cooler climates. The highlight of the stop was the rare Solanaceous Scopolis carniolica that we found in full flower...both the white and more rare red-flowered forms.

By 3,000' elevation, the road worsened as we passed logging crews who had the road temporarily blocked with equipment. We stopped again in a flattened area when we saw the lovely Clematis alpinia hanging from the roadside cliff alongside Corydalis ochroleuca, Anemone narcissiflora, and a lovely fern that resembled our native Athyrium filix-femina.

We hadn't planned to stop again, but an amazing form of sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, at 3,300' elevation gave us no choice. The cutleaf green foliage was highlighted by prominent silver markings. By now we were getting more concerned whether the road would ever top the crest of the mountain and head back down. Soon we had our answer...a dead end. Well, not exactly a dead end, but a dead end for our model vehicle. Convinced now that we had indeed taken the wrong road, we were left to backtrack all the way back down the mountain and try the next road north.

As you can imagine, we had completely thrown our schedule off course, which is all too common with this type of exploration. Zipping up and down mountains at more than twice the posted speed had also rendered Hans' stomach a great test case for Dramamine. To make matters even worse, Tom's cell phone had evidently jumped out of the vehicle somewhere along our crazy trek. At least we were finally able to find the road to get us back to the motorway, although there were absolutely no worthwhile road signs. We finally reconnected with the motorway around 5:30pm, at which time we promptly stopped for a long overdue lunch...even stale pre-made sandwiches were greatly appreciated. From there, we headed west for the one hour plus trek toward Rijeka, Croatia.

Our destination for the evening was a hotel in Buzet, a small town in the Istrian peninsula, just across the Slovenian border and not far from the Italian town of Trieste. After we checked into the hotel, we were directed to park behind the hotel in a tiny parking lot that would have spelled trouble for a VW bug, not to mention our bright red oversized Peugeot. This was our smallest hotel room of the trip so far, and once again instead of an elevator, we were faced with three flights of stairs and far too much luggage. We dined outdoors at the Vela Vrata hotel, overlooking the lovely countryside below. It was obvious we had dropped in elevation and were now in a Zone 8 region, by the number of Trachycarpus fortunei (windmill palm) and Punica granatum (pomegranate) that were planted in the city. Dinner was amazing...especially if you like black truffles, for which this region is famous. We were all invited to return in fall for the harvest of the famed white truffles, but I'll have to take a rain check for that dinner.

Thursday June 7, 2012

We began the day with a good breakfast of ham and cheese omelets at Vela Vrata, then were faced with the chore of trying to extract our vehicle from its confines behind the hotel. After a series of 20-point turns and having another vehicle moved, we reached the point where we could then carefully negotiate the winding back alleyways until we worked our way back to the front of the hotel to pick up our luggage. Finally loaded, we were off northward toward the town of Breast.

At 1,624' elevation we made our first stop of the day in a rocky open grassland where we found Dictamnus albus (gas plant) that had just finishing flowering. I have always wanted to grow gas plant, but the material in the trade will not tolerate our summer heat. Unfortunately, there was no ripe seed at this site. I was also fascinated with a very attractive cut-leaf rue in full flower...not one I've seen before. Also here were several dwarf euphorbias including one that resembled a dwarf form of Euphorbia rigida.

The highlight of this site was unquestionably the amazing array of Cotinus coggygria (smoke tree). At this elevation and exposed site, there were smoke trees of every shape, size, and color. One 8' tall specimen had very reddish flowers, others grew as dwarf shrubs, while several dwarf cotinus were groundcovers not exceeding 1' in height, while spreading to 6-8' wide. There is no question that plants from this site have huge commercial potential, unfortunately not all clones had good cutting material. This was also our first sighting of Paeonia officinalis, although the flowers were already faded and the seed weren't quite ripe.

From here, we continued climbing higher up the mountain to our second stop at 2,000', where we found Narcissus poeticus in seed along with nice wide-leaf populations of Helleborus multifidus ssp. istriacus. In this region we also found a more plentiful array of ground orchids. While we had seen Salvia pratensis earlier, this was our first sighting of the closely related Salvia verticillata. Tom was excited to find plants of Allium incensiodorum, a rare native onion of these hills. It was also very interesting to find both green and blue forms of Festuca glauca growing side by side.

The next stop at 2,500' showcased quite a bit of both Salvia pratensis and Salvia verticillata growing together by the roadside along with a wild and crazy stipa grass with awns that twisted as they ripened. I also couldn't resist photographing a couple of lounging black-veined white butterflies perched on a nearby grass.

Further along the road at 2,200' we began to find more ferns. These included Dryopteris pallida, Asplenium onopteris, Athyrium sp., and a small running thelypteris. The ubiquitous Asplenium trichomanes also began showing up here more regularly. At the same time on the opposite side of the highway, Hans spotted both a lovely white-flowered form of Thalictrum aquilegifolium and amazing Lilium bulbifera in full flower...both firsts for our trip.

As we continued around the mountain, we took a side road that led us to an amazing site at 2,100' of Paeonia officinalis, including several in flower. We were quite surprised to find it growing quite well in both shade and sun...strange for a plant known to require all day sun. Dictamnus albus was also in full flower at this elevation and what an incredible sight it was. I really hope these genetics will prove as heat tolerant as I think.

We scrambled up the bank by our first sighting of the typically Asian Polygonatum odoratum (Solomon's seal). This amazing site also included more pulmonaria including some with 18" long leaves...probably a different species than we had seen earlier. Here, too, was our first sighting of what we think was Euphorbia polychroma growing side by side with patches of Geranium of the best geraniums for us in Raleigh. This was the first time we saw Cyclamen repandum growing right next to Asarum europaeum, Helleborus multifidus ssp. istriacus, Hepatica nobilis, Asplenium trichomanes, and Galanthus nivalis in seed...what a superb combination.

Also along the roadside was a lovely minuartia in flower growing among the polemonium (Jacob's ladder). Nearby was a truly dazzling blue-flowered linum-like plant that gave me a whole new appreciation for the genus. It was great to see another plant in the wild that we grow back home, Melittis melissophyllum (bastard balm). While it typically has a light lavender lip, this form had solid white flowers.

One of the more interesting plants at this site was a plant that looked and felt just like a baptisia, but flowered like a giant Queen Anne's lace. We are still trying to place this in the correct genus. So far, we had found almost no hellebore seed, so Tom was thrilled that we were actually able to find good seed set on the plants of Helleborus multifidus ssp. istriacus at this site. As we hopped back in the van, I noticed what was probably the largest elderberry that I've ever seen in full flower. Although we couldn't get close, it was easily 15' tall x 30' wide.

Since it was getting late, we opted to head back to the motorway to make better time as we headed south toward Bosnia. Once we met up with the motorway, we stopped at a gas station for fuel and a sandwich before continuing on our journey down the west coast of Croatia then turning east toward Bosnia.

We then stopped at several sites with very narrow-leafed hellebores where Tom had visited before. As best he could determine, these seemed to be intermediate between Helleborus multifidus, which occurs to the south, and Helleborus torquatus, which occurs to the east. The first site at 2,500' elevation was devoid of seed, but yielded some fascinating narrow-leaf forms growing among the rocks on the sunny slope. I was fascinated at the diversity of the Juniperus communis clones at this site, which were wildly variable from groundcovers to tight shrubby mounds. At the right time of year a nurseryman could easily make several marketable selections from this site. I was also taken by the clumps of gentian growing here in this tough, full sun location.

The hellebores looked similar at the next site nearby, but they also yielded some seed. As we walked higher up in the open field, we began encountering small pines where there had been none below. Just before entering the wooded area, the population of Helleborus multifidus/torquatus ended and after a "dead spot" of 100', Helleborus niger began to occur in moist depressions. According to Tom, this is the southernmost native stand of Helleborus niger, always growing in proximity to a cute twayblade orchid. In the slightly open spots, there were plenty of lovely thyme patches, alternating with large areas of the lovely dwarf Genista sagittalis...another plant we grow well back home.

At the third hellebore site of the afternoon at 2,643', I found the forms of Helleborus multifidus x torquatus to be the most diverse yet. The large three dimensional leaves were like nothing I've ever encountered and it would have been quite easy to get carried away here making selections. I found a few plants that looked like they had some influence of Helleborus niger, although we were much too late to see flowers. Not only were there nice hellebores at this site, but we found some of the most magnificent Melittis melissophyllum with very dark purple lips that I've ever seen. Unlike the scattered Convallaria majalis (lily-of-the-valley) that we'd seen throughout the trip, the plants here formed a huge dense colony. The other highlight was a magnificent form of Iris graminea with huge (for an Iris graminea) striped flowers that emitted a faint grape fragrance. We already grow a small-flowered Iris graminea, so I was very excited to find a much more showy form.

Our final stop for the day near Korenica was another hellebore site with more of the narrow-leaf Helleborus multifidus x torquatus hybrids. Here the hellebores were in full seed, so perhaps Tom's luck was finally turning around. As we all helped gather seed, I couldn't help but notice this strange device sticking out from under the ground. Indeed, it appeared that I had found my first land mine...fortunately a dud (Tom actually checked it out) as were remnants of a nearby bomb. I assumed that the elderly Croatian man watching us must have been using us as his afternoon entertainment.

After that sobering experience, we were more than ready to retire for the day. We headed down the mountain into the town of Korenica for the night and Tom picked out the nice Hotel Macola just before crossing into Bosnia. We assumed that the name “Macola” must have something to do with bears, since there was an overabundance of kitschy bears all through the lobby. Exhausted by the long day, we dropped off our luggage in the room and headed straight for the hotel restaurant. My broccoli soup was a broth with the taste of broccoli, while Hans' cucumber salad was nothing more than a bowl of cucumbers...not exactly what our birthday boy (#42) had in mind. Tom and I ordered the Steak Zagreb, which turned out to be Cordon Blue sans any sign of steak. The food here was average, but as hungry as we were, anything was fine. By 8:30pm, we finished our meal and headed back to the room for a long night of processing. So far all of our hotels had Wi-Fi service, but this hotel had it only in the lobby.

One of the interesting things I noticed in all the Balkan hotels was the wire soap dish in the shower which could barely hold a large bar of soap, much less the quarter-sized soaps the hotels provide. Also, the fruit juices purchased in the Balkans can't suck enough. Whether it's orange juice for breakfast or juice from the convenience store, this stuff suffers badly in comparison to the quality of juice back in the US. I'm unsure if Balkan people just like bitter orange juice and watered down every other kind of juice but is sounds like time for some new higher quality brands to jump into the market there.

Friday June 8, 2012

After an average breakfast of cold cuts at the hotel, we restocked with supplies from a nearby grocery and departed the hotel just before 9am, heading east into Bosnia. We crossed the border at 9:30am with just a cursory glance in the back of the van by the border guards. It was obvious from the number of recently built residences that the construction business was still in high gear after the war, but it was also obvious that memories remain as bombed out homes still stood adjacent to the new homes, and war memorials were plentiful.

Our first stop for the day was about 30 minutes inside of Bosnia where we stopped to check for seed on a population of Helleborus torquatus. Although the hellebores grew here in full sun at 2,300' elevation, they would soon be topped by the abundant Pteridium aquilinum (bracken fern) at the site. Also populating the field were masses of Colchicum autumnale preparing to go dormant. This must be a truly amazing sight when these flower in early fall. Although there was no hellebore seed at the site, I was thrilled to finally spot the beautiful rock fern, Ceterach officinarum, growing in the crack of one of the large rocks that littered the grassy field. In another crack in the same rock was one of many dwarf sedums that we would see regularly on this part of the trip.

Disappointed at not finding any hellebore seed, we loaded up and headed further east into Bosnia. As we drove, I noticed large depressions in the ground that Tom called “dolines.” These were where the oolitic lime formations underground have given way, causing the ground to collapse, similar to what we know as sinkholes. In most, there isn't an open pit, but instead a meteorite-like crater now filled with herbaceous plants and a few small trees.

We decided to stop and investigate a doline at 2,000' elevation, and were rewarded with an amazing array of plants including more Iris graminea and our first sighting of Iris variegata in full flower. Other gems in this doline included Galanthus nivalis in full seed, more Primula vulgaris, Actaea spicata, and our first sighting of Arum italicum. Although we had seen Anemone nemorosa at most sites it was almost always nearly dormant, but here patches of healthy foliage still remained. Just as Tom had promised, the foliage on the hellebores at each subsequent site continued to get narrower. The Helleborus torquatus that occurred at this site was certainly unlike anything we had seen previously. The highlight for me, however, was finding a bright golden leaf form of bastard balm, Melittis melissophyllum.

One final morning stop at 2,500' was a gold mine for seed of the incredible narrow-leaf form of Helleborus torquatus. Nearly every form imaginable was present in this grassy open field, along with my first sighting of another primrose, Primula veris. As with one of our previous sites, the variation in conifer forms was truly amazing. Although it's an annual, I had to photograph the amazing cobalt blue Gentianopsis sp. in flower.

We were near the town of Bosanski-Petrovac, so we enjoyed our first on-time lunch in days at a hotel/restaurant that Tom had visited before. Unlike Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia didn't get the memo about non-smoking in restaurants. Smoking in Bosnia is not only acceptable, but still quite fashionable...sort of like the US in decades past. Since we had changed countries and had not swapped our currency for Bosnian marks, we were thrilled to find that the restaurant accepted Croatian kunas. We enjoyed a very nice meat and potatoes/rice lunch and were soon back on the road heading south.

Just outside of town, we stopped at 2,600' in search of more Helleborus torquatus seed. Although seed wasn't as plentiful as before our lunch stop, we did manage to find some. At both sites were more amazing patches of the dwarf rock garden Genista saxatile, which I appreciate much more than before the trip. A roving band of bovines and I were fascinated with a lovely glossy-foliaged gentian that we continued to see in the region. Like earlier in the day, in the open fields were masses of Colchicum autumnale, the fall- flowering colchicum. In shady areas, we found more Helleborus torquatus, although seed wasn't as prevalent as we had hoped. It was truly strange to keep seeing the perennial foxglove, Digitalis grandiflora, always growing in light shade among the hellebores. The ground orchids here were also amazing and if someone could get these propagated, I'm sure they would make excellent garden subjects.

From here, we had a six-hour drive south, so we limited our stops to just one for Tom to collect seed of Helleborus odorus from 4,200' elevation near the town of Kupres, where they seem to be mixed with Helleborus torquatus. Unexpectedly, we also found some amazing dark-stemmed, probably dark-flowered martagon lilies, some very nice forms of aconitum, alchemilla, Veratrum nigrum, and amazing spotted-leaf dactylorhiza orchids. I spotted two different euphorbias at this elevation, one which resembled Euphorbia polychroma and another that looked for all the world like Euphorbia robbiae...not a plant I would have expected at this elevation.

The winding roads were arduous as we wound our way through small village after small village, heading south toward Mostar and on to Trebinje for the evening. As darkness neared and our attempted shortcuts didn't pan out, we realized that we weren't making good enough time to get all the way to Trebinje, so we pulled into the first hotel we saw in the town of Mostar. As it happened, we stumbled on the lovely Hotel Bevanda Mostar. This five-star hotel even had an elevator...a rarity since we landed in the Balkans. After getting unpacked, we enjoyed a lovely dinner on the dining veranda, which was suspended over the huge running water feature that surrounded the hotel and wedding chapel. The humid Zone 8 landscape included extensive arbors of jasmine, whose fragrant flowers filled the night air.

Although we couldn't get our overly serious waiter (who we nicknamed “Garcon”), to crack a smile, we still enjoyed a delicious dinner. Exhausted, we returned to our room to begin recording and processing only to be startled by the 10:45pm loudspeaker chant from the mosque that was right outside our balcony window. With each passing hour, we discovered more and more problems with what we thought was an ideal hotel. First, the television didn't work...ok fine. Next, we discovered that the toilet didn't work, and unlike the ones in China which are easy to disassemble and fix, these had the tanks hidden in the wall. The final straw was the shower, which I didn't discover was non-functional until well after midnight. In the good/bad scheme of things, that was bad.

Saturday June 9, 2012

After a breakfast with our same non-smiling waiter, we loaded up and headed east to Gacko. Like many of the larger towns in Bosnia, Mostar is located in a bowl-shaped low area in the mountains. These towns suffered the worst fates during the recent war as they were constantly bombed and shot at by troops from the top of the surrounding craters.

As we headed upward into the mountains, our first stop at 950' yielded a lovely clematis with seemingly evergreen leaves and masses of white flowers that is probably Clematis flamula. Nearby was a small growing echium, a lovely silver-leaf plant that we couldn't identify, and a cute campanula relative. Another very interesting plant that we would see for the first time here had foliage like a Queen Anne's lace and flowers like an iberis turned out to be the annual Tordylium apulum.

From here, we climbed higher and didn't stop again until we reached 2,600', where we found an abandoned rocky field that turned out to be filled with treasures including the black-spathe Arum nigrum, a lovely grey senecio, and our first sighting of Acanthus hungaricus var. balcanicus...growing here with common Geranium sanguineum. Unfortunately, we were a couple of weeks too early see flowers on the acanthus. The dominant tree in this very scrubby site was an oak that I think is Quercus cerris. Like the smoke tree earlier, it occurs in every form imaginable including tree shape, shrub shape, and as a groundcover.

Our next stop at 3,500' along the same mountain road was in an opening in the dense woodland canopy where we discovered a large population of Helleborus multifidus x odorus. While Helleborus multifidus isn't the best clumping species, Helleborus odorus brings that trait into the hybrids. Fortunately, the hellebores at this site, which grew among patches of Arum nigrum, yielded large amounts of seed.

From here, we dropped down again in elevation to 2,800', where we stopped to find huge populations of Acanthus hungaricus var. balcanicus including several lovely streaked variegated forms and a clone with five distinct lobes. Other fascinating plants at this site were what appeared to be two forms of ferula (fennel), both with finely cut foliage and one with very long leaves. Also flowering here was quite a bit of Gladiolus italicus and a nearly finished patch of Muscari tenuifolium. In this population of Helleborus multifidus var. multifidus were some lovely pewter-leaf forms that I found quite striking. As we climbed back up the steep hill, we stumbled on patches of Iris pallida growing among the rocks, but they had already finished flowering.

Where the road turned to the south, we stopped for lunch at a small cafe in the town of Nevesinje. The food was good, but I couldn't get over the outdoor sink that was right out of a Jeff Foxworthy routine. Back on the road, we headed south higher into the mountains, only slowing briefly for a herd of sheep winding their way through the traffic.

Following that, our next stop at 3,050' was truly amazing. We discovered more arums, but as soon as we saw the flower, we realized this was one of our target plants, the little-known Arum longispathum, which arum expert Peter Boyce tells me hasn't been cultivated in over 100 years. Growing nearby was Arum maculatum we had seen at an earlier stop. Galanthus reginae-olgae was also everywhere...surely an amazing site in full flower.

Two euphorbias also grew here...both plants I know from home...Euphorbia robbiae and Euphorbia myrsinites, the latter growing among massive piles of discarded asbestos from the many demolished buildings. I guess Bosnian OSHA isn't up and running yet. We had seen little variation on the Asarum europaeum throughout the trip, but here, the leaves seemed larger and glossier. The pulmonarias here also had the best leaf spotting of any we had seen, indicating a possible different species from earlier in our trip.

As we explored the site, we were constantly seeing these very cool and quite large lizards, the 1' long Balkan Green Lizard. I can imagine these would make cool house pets. Nowhere near as spectacular, but equally cute was a small black and white butterfly, which according butterfly guru John Dole, could be a version of our eight-spotted forester. Of course, the one critter that really didn't excite me was one of two Bosnia adders, Vipera berus var. bosniensis. Fortunately, it wasn't thrilled to see me either and quickly slithered under a rock before I could take a photo.

As we walked into sunnier areas, we found quite a few good rock garden plants including drifts of thyme, which certainly made walking more aromatically enjoyable. Among the Euphorbia myrsinites, I found lovely patches of the rock garden Globularia, although flowering had already finished. I'll bet I could actually grow it from this location. There was also a very cute dwarf white helichrysum-looking perennial that I need to identify.

As we continued toward Trebinje, we made our penultimate stop of the day at 2,000' elevation to see our first population of the narrow-leaf Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus. The carpinus ringed open grasslands didn't look impressive until we walked around. It was truly incredible to finally see the amazing variation in the finely cut foliage on this true horticultural legend.

After another hellebore seed stop, we turned south below the Gacko Power Plant toward our evening destination of Trebinje. Near the power plant, we screeched to a stop in a large abandoned field when we realized that there were still flowers on what Tom described as an entire field of Narcissus poeticus.

At 900' elevation (Zone 8), we made our final stop as we approached Trebinje. Here, we found more Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus growing along the edges of the dense brush. As I wriggled my way inside the dense growth, I was surprised to find butcher's broom, Ruscus aculeatus...a true testament to its toughness. This was also my first introduction to the shrubby Petteria ramentacea...a lovely woody legume with yellow flowers followed by amazing bloated seedpods. The site was also home to an eryngium that resembles Eryngium giganteum, lovely patches of the rock fern Ceterach officinarum, Fritillaria messanensis ssp. gracilis in seed, and large patches of Sedum acre.

Finally, on to Trebinje for the evening! We wound our way past a truly phallic natural landscape of thousands of the upright Cupressus sempervirens until we finally entered the city limits. The streets of the 900' elevation city of Trebinje are like so many small European villages...sadly in need of a parking deck. We were instructed to park on the street in front of our hotel where the hotel maintains chained off parking spaces. Unfortunately, everyone but the lovely, dense front desk clerk knew that our vehicle was longer than the intended parking space. After several minutes of wriggling in and out, we finally convinced her that we should give up and go to an overflow parking place a couple of blocks away. We off-loaded our bags and relocated our vehicle just outside a venue where the Hell's Angels motorcycle convention and concert was being held...I'm not making this up.

The hotel Plantai was nicely decorated, especially in the front desk clerk area, but was sadly in need of a lesson in intelligent design. In our room where the desk usually sits was a room-length linen cabinet with doors that were literally falling off because of poor construction. The only electrical outlet in the room was strategically placed behind the same immovable cabinet...a great way to reduce their power bill.

We had a nice dinner at the tables outside the restaurant as we watched the adjacent sycamore-canopied park fill with literally thousands of people...obviously a prime meeting place for the youth of Trebinje. As was common throughout Bosnia, smoking was everywhere...inside and out. We finished our dinner and returned to our room to spend the next several hours on plant processing and records, only to find that during that time, they shut off the hot water for the hotel. There are few things to rival showering in ice cold water after midnight.

Sunday June 10, 2012

After a breakfast of cold cuts at the hotel, then retrieving the van and circling back around to pick up the luggage, we finally departed the Hotel Plantai around 9am. We then headed west toward the Montenegro border, crossing around 9:30am with only a cursory inspection from the border guards.

Our first stop at 3,400' was a Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus site, frighteningly close inside the border, which fortunately had excellent seed set. Just when we thought we had seen the thinnest leaves on Helleborus multifidus, we spied some even thinner at our next site. I was also excited to find Primula veris growing here in full sun, but this time with flower spikes that greatly topped the foliage, which differed greatly from the other forms we'd seen on the trip. Also here was an amazing ajuga with 18" flower spikes, that we assumed to be Ajuga genevensis and a charming little scutellaria that resembled some of our southeast US natives. In light shade there was also quite a bit of Arum nigrum, and in rocky sunny areas sedums were everywhere including Sedum acre and Sedum hispanicum.

Not far down the road at 3,200', we stopped again in a slightly more wooded site to find more Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus, and also the lovely saxifraga we had seen the day before in Bosnia, growing among beautiful patches of Geranium sanguineum. One of the images I'll never get out of my mind was seeing Sedum telephium growing together with Helleborus multifidus...who knew? For the first time on the entire trip, the ceterach ferns at this site were highly variable with large leaf specimens growing right beside smaller ones. My guess is that a ploidy (the number of chromosomes) variation in the ferns is the reason.

At a final morning stop nearby, we found more good seed set on the Helleborus multifidus ssp. hercegovinus. Also, the salvia we'd seen at the end of the day yesterday was in full flower...very impressive. This could be a really nice form of Salvia officinalis. Also, the weedy Euphorbia cyparissias at this site was stunning since we caught it in peak color. What a shame this one runs like it does.

Hungry from a busy morning, we stopped at a tiny roadside café just before the town of Niksic at 2,800' elevation. After making our selections from the extensive menu, we were told in Montenegrin that all menu items were unavailable except for pork, hence we dined on pork chops and freedom fries. We marveled how the restaurants resembled some nurseries who list everything, but actually have very little of what they list. After finishing a nice lunch and trying to pay, we found that the restaurant didn't accept credit cards...only Euros. Unfortunately, we had just spent our last Euros the day before. Faced with the prospect of having to work off our lunch at the restaurant, Tom volunteered to drive into Niksic and find an ATM, leaving Hans and I there for deposit.

Instead of sitting around, I was off to botanize around the restaurant. Not far down the road, I was excited to find another highly variable population of the typically identical Ceterach officinarum fern, along with some very nice specimens of Dryopteris pallida. After crossing through a small patch of scrubby trees, I emerged in a lovely natural rock garden, filled with more wonderful gems including Gladiolus italicus, Edraianthus graminifolius, sedums, and an array of mint relatives.

On my way back to the restaurant, I stopped to visit a lovely World War II memorial, when I also noticed an entire field of Queen Anne's lace and some type of white daisy...simply stunning. After nearly an hour, Tom had managed to find an ATM and returned to settle our bill, and we were off to continue our journey.

From here, we began to climb higher into the Sinjajevina mountains on our way to the town of Kolasin. We made a stop at 5,000' elevation in a Fagus orientalis forest to visit a small population of Polygonatum verticillatum, which occurs sporadically in these mountains. Nearby was an interesting shield fern that resembled Polystichum neolobatum, along with a yellow-leaf salvia that Hans spotted near the highway. Because we were at such a high elevation, many of the plants like the anemone and cardamine that we had seen going dormant at lower elevations were still in flower here.

Just after 5pm, we topped the crest of the mountain to find a truck of young Montenegrin men with a flat tire but no jack, so we stopped and loaned them the jack from our rental until they could get their tire changed. While they were working, we couldn't help but notice more martagon lilies growing along the roadside bank. Once they were on the road again, we continued our trek down the mountain toward Kolasin. I couldn't help but marvel at the massive powerful uplifts that had created this mountain that were quite visible along the side of the road.

Our final stop of the day was to visit the site location for the first ever double hellebore, discovered by English plantswoman Elizabeth Stragmann, and subsequently named Helleborus torquatus ‘Dido'. Although we didn't find any double hellebores here, I did spot a patch of variegated leaf plants, which obviously come fairly true from seed. The bank here was extremely steep and getting up and down was quite a challenge, as Tom found out when he tried to make his way back up through a thick patch of Polygonum cuspidatum (Mexican bamboo).

We finally arrived at our reserved hotel in Kolasin to find it closed...that's right...shuttered. This, despite Tom receiving an email confirmation of our reservation just prior to leaving the UK. Fortunately, there was a security guard there, pointing us in the direction of other hotels down the block. We selected the Mala Hotel Brille, which turned out to have very large rooms...always a good thing on a botanizing trip. What they didn't have was an elevator and obviously, a quality plumber.

We lugged our gear up three flights of stairs, optimistic about what we would find. The rooms were actually quite nice, except for the 10 watt bulb in the main room and a bathroom that couldn't suck enough. The toilet seat rocked like a sea-sick boat, and Tom's toilet didn't work at all until he figured out how to repair the makeshift plumbing system. The shower doors were broken and jammed if you tried to open them from the inside, making it like the proverbial Hotel can get in, but you can never leave. The bathroom shelves were duct taped in place, but at least there weren't any problems with those stupid shower soap dishes I mentioned earlier, since they didn't have any...nor did they have a holder for the shower head. And the water...let's just say that my late 95-year-old grandmother had more water pressure than this hotel.

Unlike the bathroom, their small restaurant was exceptional. We sat outdoors along the narrow cobbled street, wondering what it would be like to botanize from the sidecars that were parked just behind our van. We spotted another couple dining nearby enjoying one of the many pizza menu options, so we all indulged in what turned out to be a wonderful choice. This would be our last night in Montenegro, so we spent dinner plotting out a series of possible routes for the upcoming day since we had a long drive to reach our end destination of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Monday June 11, 2012

After a round of ham and cheese omelets, we checked out and started the day by heading north into the mountains to 4,600' elevation to check out some sites that Tom had for Galanthus seed. Unfortunately, none were located, but we were able to find several more interesting new ferns, an attractive yellow lamium, along with the lovely Lilium pyrenaicum ssp. carniolicum var. bosniacum that Hans spotted in full flower. From here, we turned around and headed south for the long, arduous drive toward our evening destination of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Stops the rest of the day were few and far between, as Tom sped down the mountain toward the coast, being stopped only once for speeding, bringing his Balkan total to 13 speeding stops. One leg stretch stop in an alpine meadow was filled with amazing clumps of Veratrum nigrum and lovely patches of myosotis. Certainly little from this elevation would have a chance in hot and humid North Carolina. We continued down the mountain, gazing out on an amazing landscape as we sped by. We finally found a tourist cafe on the mountain for lunch, where we could eat while gazing out into the conifer forest and mountains in the distance...wishing we had more time.

As we finally approached the southern coastal town of Kotor, the landscape became even more breathtaking...if possible. Finally, just outside of Kotor, we couldn't resist stopping when we spotted the true Acanthus spinosus in flower at 870' elevation. After this very brief respite, we journeyed on to the ferry at Kotor for the shortcut across to Dubrovnik.

Although we had hoped to get to our hotel earlier in the day, we finally arrived around 6:30pm at our pre-booked hotel, the Radisson Blu in Dubrovnik. The Radisson is an upper-end business hotel...another with rooms designed by people without a grain of common sense. Our room was supposed to have twin beds, but Hans and I were sent to a room with only one bed. When I asked for a replacement room, they offered to have housekeeping change the sheets to single sheets...well, NO. When we finally were sent to a twin room, I was shocked to find a glass wall between the bedroom and the bathroom. That's right...not a solid wall like every other hotel in the world, but you can watch everyone else using the bathroom and showering. Inside the bathroom was another of those idiotic partial glass walls instead of a shower curtain. These ensure that you can't turn the water on and get it adjusted before you hop in, and guarantee you will spray water all over the bathroom floor. What kind of idiot designs a hotel room like that? Probably the same one that paid huge sums for the hotel lobby sculptures of giant masses of tangled wire hung from the ceiling. At least the room had plenty of electrical outlets and a box of Kleenex...something that along with alarm clocks, we hadn't seen since leaving the UK.

The dinner buffet was nice, but not to the tune of $45 nice. It was interesting that we weren't the only Americans at the fact, the Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group from Yale were there to give a concert. Unfortunately, we were too poofed out and had too much work to do to enjoy the Whiffenpoofs concert. It was our final late evening as we wrapped up our paperwork for a mid-morning flight back to the US via London.

The Balkans are certainly an area with tremendous horticultural potential for a large part of the US, both in terms of potential garden plants as well as plant breeding genetics. The region is also an area with rich potential for commercial ventures for export-minded Balkan horticulturists. Now that the conflicts in the region have died down, I hope more folks will travel and explore this amazing region.