Collecting wild pea seeds in the Republic of Georgia

On a trip that in itself was a rare adventure into the Republic of Georgia, plant collector and former USDA scientist Walter J. Kaiser and I tracked down a rare species of wild chickpea (garbanzo). Our expedition last June to the former Soviet state took us to the heart of the Caucasus mountain region to explore and collect the wild legume plants that are close relatives of the pea, lentil, and chickpea crops grown in Washington. It was a rare treat to go searching there, since for so many years Georgia has been under Soviet rule and closed to western scientists like Walt and me. Scouring the landscape with the help of Georgian botanist Maia Akhalkatsi of the Georgian Academy of Sciences in the capital city of Tbilisi, we easily found a wild pea species and a wild lentil species and made note of the beautiful wildflowers growing around us. But our most exciting and difficult find was the wild garbanzo, which we nearly missed in the rugged terrain.

We had a general location of the plant, left to us by botanists who explored the area years ago, but not a specific site. So we parked and hiked into the mountains. Our hunt had us scrambling up steep hillsides and sometimes actually scaling the mountainsides. After hours of searching, we considered giving up. We were even in the car driving away, when Walt said, “We should go back.” I agreed. We convinced Maia and our driver to turn around.

About an hour into our continued search, Walt called out that he had found it, a huge stand of this wild chickpea. It was on a slope covered with rocks about the size of my fist. It was so steep and rocky, we had to lie on our sides to keep from sliding down. But that was good news, because the plant was apparently thriving in a niche where competing plants could not survive. As I crawled closer, I could tell the wild chickpeas were healthy, in full flower. They had many pods with viable seeds that we readily and happily collected. We celebrated that night with a bottle of good Georgian wine.

Georgia has been a place of social struggle for two centuries since its annexation by the Russian empire in 1801. Although the state declared independence in 1918, during the Russian revolution, the Soviet Union moved in after three years. In fact, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was born in the Georgian city of Gori. But he didn’t do the country any favors, executing thousands of Georgian nationalists. A statue of the dreaded dictator still dominates the city center.

Georgia finally became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Independence didn’t ease the country’s situation. Today it has a struggling economy and is still troubled with groups that want independence from the central government.

Bordered by Turkey and Armenia over mountains to the south, the Black Sea to the west, Russia over mountains to the north, and Azerbaijan to the east, Georgia is a place of mountains and valleys where many of our modern cereal and legume crops were domesticated as long as 10,000 years ago. This region is rife with the wild ancestors of barley, wheat, peas, lentils, and chickpeas, all of great interest to plant scientists for their potential for providing genetic material that could improve their cultivated cousins. In many cases these ancestors have genetic traits, like physical structure and disease resistance, that are lacking in our conventional crops. Crossing the wild species with our domestic plants could transfer those characteristics to our field crops and possibly increase yield or cut down on chemical inputs.

However, seed material from the Caucasus region has been missing from the U.S. Plant Germplasm Collection and has been unavailable for crop improvement research projects like ours. Walt and I had long wanted to visit Georgia to rectify that, but until recently, the country’s political problems had made it nearly impossible to travel there to collect plants for use in our research.

The prospect of getting samples of the wild species in the Caucasus became a reality with the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the willingness of scientists in Georgia to assist in our collection efforts. Our visit to Georgia was planned in close collaboration with Maia Akhalkatsi. Our route through the country was somewhat restricted by poor road conditions and recurring troubles in certain provinces. Still, we covered about 6,000 km during our exploration.

Dr. Akhalkatsi knew the country well and where the specific target species, Pisum, Lens, and Cicer, might be found. The Botanical Gardens of the Institute of Botany also had many species of plants from Georgia and a small collection of cultivated accessions of pea, lentil, and chickpea, of which we were able to obtain samples.

Besides the wild chickpea, we found several types of wild peas, two of which we discovered near the ruins of old churches. I think they may have been used in gardens tended by monks in earlier times. We also found and collected wild faba beans, numerous vetches, and other forage legumes. The military road, built during the Soviet time to connect Russia with Georgia, took us to the highlands near the Russian border, but its poor condition made it clear that the Georgians were not interested in keeping it passable. Nevertheless, the trip was worth the effort. In that highland area, we found an impressive array of wild flowering plants, including orchids, rhododendrons, and lilies.

The area is pristine and beautiful, with mountain meadows full of wild flowers and unusual species of plants. The lands of Georgia are a destination for botanists and naturalists from throughout the world.

However, in keeping with the times and to help quench the world’s appetite for oil and gas, a long pipeline is being built to transport the valued commodity from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean Sea, where it will be pumped into tankers for worldwide distribution. While the pipeline may bring money into this struggling region, it may also threaten fragile ecosystems and endanger the wild and rare plant populations like our chickpea. We hope that in the coming years of development there, the wildland races of grains and legumes can be protected.