PLANT FROM THE PAST

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

In Britain and Ireland it is invasive. In Bulgaria it is symbol of Strandzha Mountains

8a755a452008086b374631012e7b5429_XL.jpg

The importance of a plant species can vary according to the ecosystem it is part of. A beautiful plant that grows in a very limited area in Bulgaria is a case in point.

Rhododendron ponticum, or Strandzhanska zelenika, is a rare and rewarding sight when you are exploring the Strandzha, the mountains on Bulgaria's southeastern border with Turkey. Growing up to 5 metres tall, the shrub has dark, evergreen leaves and violet-purple flowers. It blossoms in May, adding vivid splashes of colour to the thick foliage of the pristine Strandzha forests. Its preferred habitat is the shady and damp cover of tall trees such as beech and oak.

The Strandzha is one of only two places in Europe where Rhododendron ponticum grows naturally. The other is in the Caucasus, in Georgia. Fossil record shows that this was not always so. Before the last Ice Age hit the planet 20,000 years ago, covering Europe with a thick layer of snow and ice, Rhododendron ponticum was common on the continent.

Today, all that remains are the pockets of Rhododendron ponticum in the Strandzha and the Caucasus, and of Rhododendron ponticum baeticum subspecies in Spain and Portugal. In Asia, the plant faired better and can be found in Turkey, Lebanon, the Himalayas, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Rhododendron ponticum

A sign of climate change: This winter, it was reported that Strandzha Rhododendron ponticum blossomed twice, in November and February, long before usual

The rarity and beauty of Rhododendron ponticum is why it is an emblematic plant for the Strandzha, a geographical area that is a haven for rare species owing to its centuries-long isolation. A special festival is dedicated to the plant, in Kosti Village, in May.

Rhododendron ponticum also has healing properties. Traditional medicine prescribed its dried flowers for the treatment of rheumatism. Due to the andromedotoxin in them, they should only be applied to the skin. If you are walking in the Strandzha and see a plant in flower, abstain from picking its buds. They will not poison you, but the plant is protected in Bulgaria and picking any plants in the Strandzha National Park is forbidden anyway.

While Rhododendron ponticum is rare and protected in Bulgaria, in Western Europe it is simply a pest. The West discovered the plant in the 18th century via travellers to the Near East. In 1763, it was introduced as an ornamental plant in Britain, quickly becoming a favourite of gardeners who valued it as a rootstock for grafting on other Rhododendron species deemed more beautiful.

The plant did well in its new home, and took over much of Western Europe as well as parts of New Zealand. Its presence in the local ecosystems has had a lasting effect, as its nectar proved lethal for several bee species.

The story of Rhododendron ponticum is one about the perils of survival, the importance of adaptation and the unpredictable consequences of human intervention in established ecosystems. When in the Strandzha you can enjoy Rhododendron ponticum guilt-free, as it is at home here, in the thick forests that have preserved life since the last Ice Age.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.