“A Persian Picnic, With Plants,” an essay by Barbara Ertter

Kicking back above timberline, enjoying a laid-back picnic lunch with a group of congenial companions—does life get any better? Granted, the conversation was mainly in Persian, the slopes had been well-grazed by village sheep, and few plants were

currently in bloom. Still, it was a botanist’s treat to find lamb’s ear in its native haunt, and the view over the precipitous valleys of the northern Alborz Mountains and cloud- shrouded Caspian plain was downright awesome.1

This, my second trip to Iran, was the brainchild of an earlier visit hatched by Fosiee Tahbaz. Fosiee, the first female professor at the University of Tehran College of Agriculture, was a visiting scholar at the University of California at Davis when the Iranian Revolution took place. She opted to remain in the United States with her family and eventually found a new professional home at UC Berkeley. She and I began work on the same day at the University and Jepson Herbaria, which houses preserved plants from around the world. The stories Fosiee shared of the natural beauty and botanical riches of her beloved country made me hope that I could one day travel there myself.

This wish became reality when relations between Iran and the United States softened following Mohammad Khatami’s election as president of Iran. In response to the new president’s challenge for renewed scholarly exchange between the two counties, Fosiee sent a seemingly audacious letter proposing that a delegation of distinguished botanists be invited to Iran. Contrary to the expectations of those of us recruited as aforesaid “dis- tinguished botanists,” formal invitations to do exactly that began arriving from several Iranian universities in January 1999.

Since we could expect the best floral displays between January and May, we had scant time for preparations. In the end, only Fosiee and I managed to go. Excitement mixed with anxiety as I boarded the plane, casting myself on the beneficence of unknown


Love and Pomegranates

hosts in a country of dubious repute. My initial misgivings were quickly set aside during a two-week whirlwind tour of botanical diplomacy, as we were wined and dined (or, more accurately, “tea’ed and kebab’ed”) by university after university.

After this initial trip, Fosiee and I determined that the best way to repay the gen- erosity and hospitality we had received was to bring an array of American botanists into contact with their Iranian counterparts. Because of sanctions, our goal of fostering ongoing collaborations was not directly fundable, but the biogeographical similarities between Iran and western North America made it possible to get grant support on sci- entific merit alone.

Iran’s central plateau, with its interior-draining deserts and isolated mountains, is comparable to the western North America’s Great Basin. The plateau lies in the rain shadow of the Alborz and Zagros ranges, where alpine wildflowers (and the occasional ski resort) flourish on the highest peaks. Dense deciduous forests, remnants from when such forests spanned the northern hemisphere, persist at the base of mountains facing the Caspian Sea.

These mountains and deserts are home to over 8,000 species of flowering plants, with new species being discovered on a regular basis. Many genera, including wild onion, fritillary, and clover, have numerous (though different) species in both Iran and western North America. Because of the biogeographic similarities, plants from one area—rang- ing from beneficial crop plants to pestiferous weeds—often grow readily in the other.

The stated scientific goal of our proposal was to amass as complete a set as possible of Iranian plants for use by researchers worldwide, collected by teams of American and Iranian botanists. In our experience, the secondary goal of fostering congenial relation- ships among participants was inevitable after time spent together on flower-covered hill- sides, supplemented by discussions while pressing plants, sharing meals and rooms, and traveling from one site to another.

This second trip, in October 2002, was essentially a trial run, with colleagues from Berkeley as the only American participants. With a nervous eye on current events in the Middle East, Dan Norris, Fosiee, and I boarded the plane to Tehran. We were soon on the road to Hamadan, accompanied by three of Fosiee’s former colleagues from the University of Tehran’s College of Agriculture: Hussein Lessani, Marzieh Mahdavian, and Teimour Ramak Maassoumi.

At Bu Ali Sina University we were given the red-carpet tour of research laboratories and the local herbarium, after which the local botanist was thrilled to take us to nearby collecting sites. The next day we continued west to Kermanshah and Razi University, where we received an equally enthusiastic welcome. The team was also taken to an oak forest near the Iraqi border, reminiscent of counterparts in California.

Our next destination was the northern edge of Dasht-e Kavir, one of Iran’s great saline deserts. The long drive took us through starkly beautiful scenery comparable to the Mojave Desert, with colorful sedimentary bands twisted into barren mountains. We


Barbara Ertter

stayed at Semnan field station, a rustic facility reminiscent of counterparts in the Great Basin (except that it was jackals, not coyotes, that provided twilight serenades!) The next day was spent collecting along a tamarisk-lined salt wash, originating at an enclosed hot spring. A side trip into the Alborz Mountains allowed us to collect along a mountain stream above the town of Shahmirzad, popular as a tourist destination. One visiting family, delighted with the presence of Americans, invited us to share their afternoon tea.

Our return trip to Tehran took us through the southern slopes of the mountains, where the occasional stands of juniper made the area look just like northern Nevada. Unfortunately we had only the merest glimpse of iconic Mount Damavand, the nearly 19,000 foot dormant volcano whose snow-capped peak is a popular symbol of Iran.

Back in Karaj we were welcomed into the home of Mahdavian and her family, where we were joined by our herbarium director Brent Mishler. In spite of the 24-hour transit from Berkeley, Brent’s stamina carried him through a full day at the College of Agriculture, including a formal presentation on plant evolution under the visage of Ayatollah Khomeini. His talk generated a spirited round of questions, and we were all swamped by enthusiastic students of both genders asking for our business cards and signatures.

With Brent on board, we headed to the relict deciduous forest on the northern flanks of the Alborz Mountains. A full day in Golestan National Park treated us to breath-taking waterfalls, wild boar rooting in the forest floor, rocky scrub in brilliant fall color, and a rich forest consisting of oak, maple, and the endemic parrotia.

From Golestan we drove west across the Caspian plain, through misty fields and innumerable towns and villages, into progressively wetter realms. At Sisangan National Park we wandered through a forest of Hyrcanian box, where moss-carpeted rocks cov- ered the forest floor. The next day was a transect up the Alborz Mountains, passing through sun-dappled alder forests scattered with wild cyclamen, and ending with the aforementioned picnic. The open high country made me yearn to come back in July or August, when the flowering plants would be at their peak.

To our delight, Lessani and Mahdavian later managed to visit the United States. By the end of our time together, Mahdavian and I had taken to calling one another kho- haram (“my sister”). A follow-up expedition in May 2004 was so successful in fostering relationships among American and Iranian botanists that tears were shed when it came time to part. Although our early high hopes of future collaborations have been tempered by political affairs and other complications, I hold strong to the belief that this is only a transient setback, and that I will yet again enjoy a picnic with my Iranian friends, both human and floral, in the Alborz Mountains overlooking the Caspian Sea.