GREEN CONTEMPORARIES OF THE EPOCH
Flying for the first time to Ashgabat from somewhere in Europe, especially in the hot summer, means that one will inevitably lose the stereotyped view of how a city that has grown up on the shores of a vast desert can look like. “The plane will land on the outskirts of a green city, much greener than Moscow, wrote Moscow writer and journalist Vladimir Rybin half a century ago. And you will walk along the streets, as if along the paths of the park, where you can’t see houses because of the trees, where the crowns of old plane trees sometimes completely cover the sky, forming high arches. And you will admire the talkative aryks (irrigation ditches) running along the sidewalks, and stand for a long time in the squares, catching with pleasure the moist fog of fountains covering your face, and marvel at the exotic yellowwood that drops the green balls of its fruits into the aryks.”
This oasis in the foothill valley between the Karakum desert and the Kopetdag ridge grew up quite quickly by historical standards. After the establishment of the European part of the city in 1881, landscaping work began almost immediately, but the scale was negligible in the beginning, as there was not enough planting material. In addition, there was only the Ashgabat river for irrigation purposes, flowing down from the mountains, and only one kariz, a skillfully dug underground gallery for collecting groundwater and bringing it to the surface. Nevertheless, in just five years, the first nursery for seedlings was founded near the railway station. Two years later, the work began on planting the city’s public garden, now habitually called the First Park by Ashgabat residents. It was the first garden, not yet a park, where berry bushes and fruit trees were grown. At the same time, more than a hundred species of ornamental plants brought from the different regions of the world were planted there. A memorandum from a member of the Russian Society of Horticulture sent to the head of the Transcaspian region, General Alexander Komarov, in 1887 noted: “Planting of seedlings in the garden, in addition to decorative significance, will undoubtedly have scientific interest in terms of their acclimatization.”
Three years later, the city garden was reassigned from the jurisdiction of the military office of the head of the Transcaspian region to the Ashgabat district administration. At that time, there were 1842 seedlings of twelve species in the garden, including ailanthus, white and pink acacia, common locust, begonia-type catalpa, ash-leaved maple, oriental elaeagnus, walnut, paulownia, Japanese sophora, vinegar sumac and balsam poplar. Soon, the garden was reassigned to the forest department of the regional administration, and there were planted more valuable species. Now, 130 years later, some of them, surviving to this day, have turned into huge giants, giving shade to park visitors and playing children who do not pay attention to these natural surroundings.
And here is how Russian travel writer Yevgeny Markov, who visited Ashgabat in 1901, described this park: “There is also a public city garden with a fountain, a grotto and a high hill. White acacias, paulownias, elaeagnus, plane trees and the flora of the Crimean peninsula in general make up the bulk of plants in this garden.” After the expansion of the territory in 1948, the area of the First Park is almost 7 hectares. Long-lived trees coexist with less old and very young seedlings, making up for the inevitable losses.
Four more green areas appeared in the city at the end of the 19th century. This is the so-called Railway Park, where thickset mulberry is still green, being actually of the same age with Ashgabat. In 1892, a garden of the Officers’ Assembly was founded on two hectares of land at the corner of Annenkovskaya and Shtabnaya streets (now Turkmenbashi Avenue and Chary Nurymov Street). It is now a section of the esplanade opposite the old building of the Turkmen State University named after Magtymguly, where several old-timers have survived. In the same year, Kozelkovsky Square was founded that accommodated a nursery for the forest part of the Transcaspian region (it is now the territory of secondary school No. 7). And a year later, Pushkin Square was founded that exists to this day.
In the autumn of 1890, the city authorities started setting a nursery near the village of Keshi, on the basis of which a school of gardening, viticulture and horticulture was soon established. There was grown planting material for landscaping city streets, experiments were carried out on sowing various crops. The school had a specialized library, and plant seeds were ordered from France, Italy, the USA, Japan, Prussia, the Chernolessky forestry (Kherson-Bessarabsky state property department). Other Russian forestries provided four thousand seedlings of various species for the Ashgabat school. Seeds of the Eldar pine, a coniferous tree now widespread in Ashgabat, were brought from the Tbilisi Botanical Garden by forester Dmitry Morozov in 1897. This species has taken root well in the Turkmen soil and feels normal in both summer heat and winter frost. In the city, there are many magnificent species, up to 20 meters high and with a trunk diameter at chest level of up to one meter!
Trees were naturally planted not only in gardens, parks and squares. A huge number of them grew along all city streets. Since the greening of the urban space was a necessary condition for life in the hot climate, the authorities literally obliged townsfolk to plant deciduous trees in front of their houses and in their yards. Fines were imposed on homeowners who ignored this regulation. Photographs, postcards dating the beginning of the last century show how densely the trees were planted in the Ashgabat streets. They are also beautiful at the end of the year, when the foliage turns yellow, reddens and finally falls, opening the sky through a branched lace. Is it possible not to love a golden autumn? It is possible, according to the workers of communal services, who prefer evergreen conifers to deciduous trees.
And at the end of the 19th century, one of the most pressing problems facing them was the problem of water supply. Initially, the city took water from kariz, but their flow was small, and the Ashgabat river provided very little water for street irrigation, as most of it went for irrigation of fields of the eastern part of the city. It was only after the laying of the second large kariz and a water pipe later on, in 1911, that landscaping of Ashgabat gained pace. The amount of planting material also increased.
It was not easy for old-timer trees throughout the 20th century. Part of the urban plantings was cut down during the civil war. This led not only to their decrease but also to impoverishment of the species composition. According to well-known botanist Baky Kerbabaev, the composition of trees and shrubs decreased by 22 species in that harsh time. Many trees were cut down during the expansion and straightening of the streets in the course of several reconstructions of the capital city. Despite this, at least ten species of old-timers have survived to this day, including pine, thuja, plane tree, carcass, oak, mulberry, honey locust, sophora, paulownia, ailanthus.
The establishment of the Ashgabat Botanical Garden in 1929 played an exceptionally important role in greening the city. It occupies 20 hectares and boasts a rich gene pool of plants exceeding thousand species, forms and varieties. From the very beginning, it was a scientific institute that studied the flora of Turkmenistan and neighboring countries. Rich collections of herbariums, collected by Ashgabat botanists-taxonomists are now kept at the Botanical Institute named after V.L. Komarov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. By the way, this is one of the oldest scientific institutions in Russia founded by Peter the Great as an Apothecary Garden, which bears the name of the great Russian botanist, who studied the flora of the Karakum desert in 1893.
A walk through the Botanical Garden today is not only a pleasant recreation in a cool microclimate, where one can feel comfortable even in the July heat, but also an educational excursion. Where else can one see so many rare trees of very different origins and ages at once? Another important thing is that the territory of the Botanical Garden features relics that grew there long before its foundation! Such, for example, are giant thuja, whose age is about 120 years, and a strong yellowwood with a spreading crown.
Black locust with small openwork leaves and large beans in the form of brown pods, growing on the edge of a small square on Shevchenko Street, directly opposite the large building of the clinic, is one of the oldest centenarians of Ashgabat. This is a huge, truly immense tree, whose crown, like a giant tent, covers part of the square and the sidewalk. The diameter of the trunk is one and a half meters, the girth is three and a half meters, and the height is about twenty meters, which is higher than the neighboring three-story house. Based on its dimensions biologists concluded that this tree is one of the Ashgabat first-born. North America is the homeland of the black locust, and these giants came to the Transcaspian region thanks to the activities of the botanists of the First City Garden.
In the next block, in front of the Institute of History and Archeology, there is an equally old sycamore, or, as it is more commonly called, plane tree. This is a tree of exceptional longevity. There are plane trees that have been living for several centuries in the Kopetdag mountains, forming the whole groves along the rivers in the gorges. And with proper care, they take root well even in urban condition. 40 years ago, on the 100 anniversary of Ashgabat, an almost kilometer long alley of plane trees was planted along the Hundred Fountains Boulevard, between the Gaudan residential area and the ninth microdistrict. They have grown strong by now, forming a shady pedestrian corridor.
Some types of oak have adapted well to the local climate. In the already mentioned 1890, English oak was planted not far from the First Park. It was brought as a seedling from Tbilisi. At first, it was in a private courtyard, and now it lives in the territory of the Institute of Manuscripts named after Magtymguly. Its height is about 12 meters, the diameter of the trunk at the base is 120 centimeters. There are many younger oaks in the old part of the city, but much taller than this old-timer, which is dying judging by the number of withered branches.
A very old paulownia, or Adam’s tree, rises above all neighboring trees in the central esplanade of Ashgabat, at the cross with Navoi Street. Every spring, it blooms with incredibly fragrant and large flowers in the form of lilac-white bells. They bloom for six to seven weeks. Paulownia leaves produce a huge amount of oxygen which is released into the atmosphere during photosynthesis. This foliage acts as a barrier against dust and noise, and the accelerated metabolism that supports the rapid growth makes paulownia a true oxygen factory. Paulownia is an indisputable adornment of the urban landscape, and on April days it pleases the passers-by with its unique aroma.
White mulberry is the most common species in Ashgabat. This is not surprising, as the mulberry has been cultivated in Central Asia for centuries. Its leaves are the main food source for silkworm larvae, the cocoon of which is used to produce silk. Dense, resilient and heavy mulberry wood is used to make national musical instruments, and its sweet berries are not only a delicacy but also an important ingredient in folk cooking. The fruits are dried and ground into flour for pancakes, oatmeal, flat cakes that taste like candied fruits and for boiled syrup.
Mulberry grew in almost every Ashgabat yard. Those yards are long gone, several generations of people have changed, and lonely mulberry trees can still be found among modern avenues and marble high-rise buildings.
For decades and even centuries, trees have been producing oxygen by absorbing carbon dioxide, providing shade and blissful coolness, extinguishing the force of wind and noise of cars, reducing the dustiness of air on the streets, and simply decorating the city, making it cozy and elegant. The green patriarchs of Ashgabat can be confidently ranked among the living natural monuments of Turkmenistan, requiring defense and protection.