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Westcountry plant hunter finds rare birch tree on expedition to Georgia

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 18, 2013

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A rare species of birch tree has been located in the wild in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia by a man from Devon.

In September, a combined British-Georgian conservation team led by Paul Bartlett of Stone Lane Gardens, near Chagford, travelled to the mountains of north west Georgia, searching for the rare birch Betula megrelica.

Known only from plants growing in Russian and UK botanical gardens, the original plants of this species of small shrubby birch had been collected from the wild in Georgia in 1971. But no details of their location was recorded and the collectors have died.

With financial support from the Rufford Foundation, the Devon group of Plant Heritage and the backing of Queen Mary University of London and the Georgian Institute of Botany, Mr Bartlett was able to enlist the help of staff at Tbilisi Botanic Garden. The UK-Georgian team then employed three local guides to help explore the mountains of the Samegrelo region.

They set up camp at 2,000m on Mount Migaria and explored that peak and the neighbouring Mount Jvari. They found Betula megrelica in large numbers on the steep north-facing slopes of both mountains. Plants lower down the faces had been grazed by domestic goats and cows.

A great deal of seed was collected and samples of woody material sent to Queen Mary University of London. There, scientists analysed the woody material's molecular structure and it was found to match that of Betula megrelica, thus proving the existence of stable wild populations of this rare birch in Georgia. Mr Bartlett, garden manager at Stone Lane Gardens, was delighted with the outcome of the trip. Stone Lane Gardens is one of just a handful of National Collections of birch (Betula) trees in the UK and finding it in the wild should help him develop a fuller understanding of it.

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