In the high valleys of Georgia
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by Michael J B Almond


THIS ARTICLE is concerned with four high valleys in the central and eastern Caucasus, all of which lie within the boundaries of the Republic of Georgia but three of which lie on the northern side of the main Caucasus watershed and drain northwards and then eastwards into the Caspian Sea. Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus (5642 m) and Kazbek (Georgian Mtkinvari) (5033 m) are both volcanoes that have not been active in historical times, and both lie north of the main watershed. Whereas Elbrus is firmly in the Russian Federation, with the Georgian border running along the main watershed ridge, Kazbek is traversed by the border and the headwaters of the river Terek (Georgian Tergi) lie in the Republic of Georgia. The whole of the Terek valley above the famous Dariel Gorge (the Caspian Gates of the ancients, which Pompey the Great’s army is said to have reached in 65 BC) lies within Georgia and constitutes the Georgian province of Khevi. In the Dariel Gorge the river Terek crosses the border of the Russian Federation into Ingushetia. Eastwards from Kazbek, the boundary between Georgia and Chechnya continues along the highest peaks in the area, which again lie north of the watershed ridge. This means that the headwaters of the rivers Argun, which flows out north through the Chechnyan capital Groznii, and Andikoysu, which flows to the Caspian through Daghestan, lie in Georgia; the two valleys comprise the Georgian provinces of Khevsureti and Tusheti, respectively. My fourth valley is that of the river Inguri, which flows down from the central Caucasus into the Black Sea. The high valley of the Inguri, above the gorges through which a road was finally driven in the 1930s, is known as Svaneti.

In July 1998, my wife Lynn and I joined a trek through Tusheti and Khevsureti. In 1999 and 2000 I visited Khevi and Svaneti as leader of a group organised by the Field Studies Council Overseas.


Vehicular access to Tusheti is via a rough track over the Abanos Pass (different maps give different names). The southern approaches to the Abanos Pass are first through thick forest and then across steep grassy slopes. We saw Campanula of various types cascading over rocks above the road and Rhododendron luteum and, on distant hillsides, Rhododendron caucasicum. Just below the pass was a fine stand of Primula luteola, but the lorry could not stop. We also had fleeting glimpses of Lilium monadelphum, a multi-headed Silene sp. and what appeared to be Primula auriculata. From the top of the pass (just below 3000 m) there is a good panorama north; there was little flowering in the turf apart from Corydalis conorhiza. Two or three hundred metres below the pass on the north side is an area of alpine meadow carpeted with campanula of the Campanula tridentata/aucheri type (fig. 91) and also Gentiana pyrenaica, Primula algida and Corydalis conorhiza (which usually has blue-purple flowers but occasionally, as here, includes some with pale yellow flowers). The steep hillside beyond was covered with Rhododendron caucasicum.

We did not find Tusheti very interesting as far as flowers were concerned, but it is possible that our impressions may have been unduly influenced by the fact that we had to trek for up to ten hours a day over difficult terrain, mostly without good paths – often without any path – and mostly in torrential rain, carrying heavy packs. These conditions are not conducive to a full appreciation of the native flora. Much of the valley sides was composed of what appeared to be a decomposed shale which tended to be unstable, its critical angle being somewhere around 45° ; where it had not slipped recently it was covered in tussock grass.

The rocky citadel of the Tushetian settlement of Omalo had a Sempervivum similar to S. soboliferum scrambling over it (possibly S. caucasicum or S. globiferum). In the woods below could be found Daphne caucasica, Linnaea borealis, Moneses uniflora, Platanthera chlorantha, Polygonatum ?multiflorum and Pyrola minor; on the margins of the woods were Aquilegia olympica, Echium russicum, Gymnadenia conopsea, Heracleum mantegazzianum (the giant hogweed, very impressive in its native habitat), Primula veris ssp. macrocalyx and Tanacetum coccineum; and in the wet flushes Caltha palustris, Dactylorhiza euxina, Geum rivale and Primula luteola (fig. 93). This last is a robust, tall (up to about 45 cm) plant, related to the pink P. auriculata, but with a loose umbel of bright, rich yellow flowers. It is endemic to this area on the borders of Georgia, Daghestan and Chechnya. In the meadows beside the village of Diklo there was a mass of bloom, including Aster caucasicus, Gymnadenia conopsea, Platanthera chlorantha and Stachys macrantha. On the Diklo Pass, to the west of the village, campanulas including, probably, Campanula bellidifolia, scrambled over the rocks and, as we walked down from the pass into the valley of the Pirikita Alazani (the name the Andikoysu river is given during that part of its course which lies within Georgia), we passed masses of Stachys macrantha and Echium russicum, together with more campanulas. At the village of Chigho there was yet more campanula and, west of the village, a wet flush above the path was ablaze with yellow Primula luteola.

Probably the highlight of our walk up the Pirikita Alazani valley was the day we spent at the village of Dartlo. It remained fine while we were there and we were able to walk up without our packs through the steep meadows to the hilltop village of Dano. The slope just above Dartlo was thick with burdock and a rose tumbled over the rocks. Higher up, the meadow was a mass of pink Linum hypericifolium, Dianthus and Geranium, red Echium russicum, white Scabiosa (S. ochroleuca?) and yellow Pedicularis, together with a great many Gymnadenia conopsea and a few Orchis ustulata. The rocks below Dano had on them yellow Potentilla and more Campanula. In the wet flushes to the west of Dartlo there was more Primula luteola and on the rocks around the village of Parsma, in addition to the various campanulas and the wild roses, there was a clump of Doronicum.

On the banks of the river beside our last campsite in Tusheti (at about 2500 m altitude), where the rain relented only briefly between the arrival of our exhausted and bedraggled band in the evening and our departure after a night under wet canvas, was a mass of Primula luteola, together with Dactylorhiza euxina, Polygonum bistorta, and the white Silene lacera (similar to S. multifida but found on glacial moraines and scree). The hillsides above the river on the opposite (north-facing) side of the valley were covered in Rhododendron caucasicum. As we trudged up to the Atsunta Pass (3430 m), we passed the usual various campanulas, Aster caucasicus, what appeared to be Dryas on cliffs, one solitary fritillary with an unripe seed capsule (possibly Fritillaria latifolia), Gentiana pyrenaica, Lloydia serotina, Primula algida, P. luteola, Saxifraga flagellaris, S. juniperifolia or similar on cliffs and Veronica spp., both tall and small. On the final steep scree below the pass there was a small white crucifer with fleshy leaves and red stems which we have been unable to identify, a small orange-red Ranunculus, Lamium tomentosum and a small yellow, sweet-scented Viola which occurred in greater numbers on the much looser scree below the west side of the pass, where there appeared to be virtually nothing else growing.


The Atsunta Pass marks the boundary between Tusheti and Khevsureti. We camped below the pass on the west side at about 2900 m in an alpine meadow which had a multitude of flowers in it but which unfortunately we were unable to explore properly, arriving just before dusk and leaving again early the next morning. As we passed through we noticed two species of Androsace (A. albana and a tall, pink one), Anemone speciosa, Aster alpinus, Gentiana pyrenaica and G. verna, Lloydia serotina, two Pedicularis spp. (one yellow, and one small and red), Primula algida and P. elatior ssp. meyeri. The ridge above us was covered in Rhododendron caucasicum as was also the ridge to the west of our camp, along which we walked towards the Andaki Gorge. Also on this ridge we passed a lot of Anemone speciosa, Aster alpinus, a pale blue Campanula., a lot of Coeloglossum viride, Fritillaria sp. (plentiful, but all with unripe seed), Gymnadenia conopsea (lower down than the Coeloglossum) and the same two Pedicularis spp. we had seen at the campsite. As the hillside became steeper and we made our way down towards the gorge, we passed Anemone fasciculata, Dianthus spp. (white and pink), a short dark purple iris with white centres to its falls, which may have been Iris graminea, Traunsteinera sphaerica (all white), the startlingly scarlet parasite Phelypaea coccinea (fig. 98) and, almost down into the gorge, some Lilium monodelphum.

In the Andaki Gorge itself, and in its tributary the Chanchakhi Gorge, there was a profusion of roses, varying from white to deep carmine (this last possibly Rosa oxiodon), and many different campanulas, including Campanula glomerata, a pale C. latifolia and some other tall, statuesque plants of the steel-blue Campanula ossetica, in addition to the rock-growing species which more closely resembled those we had seen at higher altitudes. We also saw pink and white Centaurea spp., Asyneuma campanuloides, Aconitum ?cymbulatum (light blue), Aquilegia olympica, a white Dianthus with an unpleasant scent, Gymnadenia conopsea, Papaver caucasicum, Rhinanthus ?major, Saxifraga juniperifolia, and Stachys macrantha. Below the village of Mutso, clustered round a spring at the base of the cliffs, was a mass of Primula luteola, which had unfortunately finished flowering.

At our final stopping place in Khevsureti, the village of Shatili, the only flowers of interest we saw were a delicate purple Verbascum sp. and another campanula scrambling over a cliff, one which certainly looked different from any we had previously seen. Vehicular access to Khevsureti is by a rough road, scarcely better than the track into Tusheti, over the Datvis Jvari Pass; there is also a footpath up the Argun gorge from Chechnya. Our brief stop at the top of the Datvis Jvari Pass (about 2600 m) did not reveal any interesting flora near at hand.


Khevi, and its administrative centre Qazbegi, lie on the Georgian Military Highway, constructed by the Imperial Russian army to facilitate the incorporation of Georgia into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. It remains the only all-weather road over the Caucasus (although its maintenance has been sadly neglected in recent years) and, as such, the main route between Russia and Georgia. This means, of course, that Khevi is much more frequently visited than any of the other three valleys referred to in this article. It also means, however, that livestock and their products can be more easily moved in and out, and so much of the province suffers from overgrazing. In particular, the Truso gorge (the upper valley of the Terek), with its fascinating geology, is reputed to be very overgrazed and not worth visiting to look at flowers.

At the Jvari (in Russian Krestovy) Pass itself (2379 m), where the Georgian Military Highway crosses the main watershed, the grassy hillsides are dotted with clumps of Veratrum album. The marshy stream banks at the top of the pass are a mass of Primula auriculata (fig. 95) in early June, together with Caltha palustris and Gentiana angulosa. According to the Flora of the USSR, G. angulosa is larger, with larger flowers, than G. verna ssp. pontica: the dimensions given, however, are not very helpful (G. angulosa: stems up to 6cm; flowers 42-45 mm but occasionally 38-55 mm; G. verna ssp. pontica: smaller plants; flowers 31-40 mm but up to 45 mm on occasion. Arnebia pulchra, Pedicularis spp., Primula algida and P. veris, Rhododendron caucasicum and R. luteum can also be found just below the pass. Beside the roadside travertine outcrop a kilometre or so to the north of the pass can be seen Arnebia pulchra, Primula algida, P. elatior ssp. meyeri and Rhododendron caucasicum.

The Sno valley (a tributary valley of the main Terek valley which it joins from the east, a few kilometres above the town of Qazbegi), though generally overgrazed, has some small fenced areas very rich in flowers. In particular, one small patch of hillside a few hundred metres above the village of Sno, provided a spectacular display of Anemone fasciculata (fig. 96). This anemone is closely related to Anemone narcissiflora, but a proportion (in my experience probably varying between one and five percent) of the plants have pink, rather than white, flowers. The pink flowers vary between light and dark (a few very dark) pink, and the colour is not necessarily distributed evenly across the petals, with extremely attractive results. The floor of the valley was also, in places, a mass of marsh orchids (probably Dactylorhiza euxina), as also was the floor of the main Terek valley here and there. Some of the orchids had very bold leaf markings. Small amounts of Daphne glomerata, Echium russicum, Gentiana septemfida (leaves only in June), Heracleum ?sosnewskyii, Pedicularis foliosa and P. ?oederi (with brown-tipped petals), Primula veris ssp. macrocalyx, Saxifraga juniperifolia and Veronica gentianoides as well as undetermined species of a number of other genera had also managed to survive the attentions of the grazing animals.

A short walk up the hill to the east of the town of Qazbegi, to the Shrine of Elia, provides a good introduction to what can be seen in the area. At the beginning of June we saw Alchemilla ?alpina, Androsace villosa, Anemone fasciculata and A. speciosa which is similar but with lemon-yellow flowers, Arnebia pulchra, two Astragalus spp. (one small purple; one large white/mauve), Campanula ?bellidifolia and C. aff. tridentata/aucheri, Centaurea ?cheiranthifolia, Cerastium undulatifolium, Chamaesciadium acaule, Echium russicum, Erysimum ibericum, Gentiana angulosa, Gymnadenia conopsea (in bud), a yellow Linaria, the pink Linum hypericifolium, Lotus ?caucasica, Pedicularis coorincha (with yellow flowers and big leaves), four Pedicularis species (pure cream; cream & red – P. oederi aff.; small yellow; and very leafy – P. foliosa aff.), Polygonatum bistorta, Potentilla ruprechti and another unidentified sp., Primula algida and P. elatior ssp. meyeri, Pulsatilla violacea (fig. 97) which is described as Anemone albana in the Flora of Turkey, Rhinanthus major, Saxifraga juniperifolia as well as S. kolenatiana and three other Saxifraga species (encrusted white; large-flowered white; yellow), Silene ?daghestanica, Silene nutans aff., Stachys macrantha, Trollius patulus, Veronica ?gentianoides and another unidentified sp., Viola caucasica and another Viola – a wood violet.

On the opposite (western) side of the Terek valley from Qazbegi lies the village of Gergeti, above which looms the mass of Mt Kazbek (5033 m). Along the alleys and on the walls of Gergeti are masses of a small Symphytum sp. and the henbane Hyoscyamus niger. On the lower slopes of Kazbek, immediately above Gergeti, is the 13th century Holy Trinity (Sameba Tsminda) church. The walk up through the woods (largely of the local "crooked birch", Betula litwinowii) from Gergeti to the church is very pleasant, and along the way you can see Aconitum orientalis, Androsace villosa, Anemone fasciculata, Aquilegia caucasica, Arnebia pulchra, Caltha palustris, Coeloglossum viride, Corallorhiza trifida, Dactylorhiza ?euxina, Fritillaria collina (previously F. lutea), Gentiana pyrenaica and G. angulosa, Geranium sylvaticum, Gymnadenia conopsea, Polygonatum verticillatum, Primula veris ssp. macrocalyx, Rhododendron caucasicum, Traunsteinera sphaerica, Trollius patulus and Veratrum album.

On the steep banks and small cliffs of the rocky outcrop on which the church itself stands there are Astragalus ?kazbeki, Daphne glomerata, Draba bryoides, Gentiana angulosa, Primula algida and P. elatior ssp. meyeri including one or two with white flowers instead of the usual purple-pink.

Above the church one can continue to walk up the mountain ridge towards the Kazbek glacier. The north side of the ridge, which drops away steeply to a valley below, is largely covered in Betula litwinowii and above that Rhododendron caucasicum. The south side of the ridge, however, dips far more gently to another valley and consists of mountain pasture. In the grass in various places can be found Androsace villosa, Anemone fasciculata and A. speciosa, Antennaria dioecia, Astragalus sp. (with tiny leaves and white or blush violet flowers), Campanula tridentata/aucheri aff., Cerastium sp., Daphne glomerata, Eritrichium caucasicum, Fritillaria collina, Gagea sp., Gentiana angulosa, G. pyrenaica and G. verna, Lloydia serotina, a Pedicularis with small, lemon-yellow flowers (apparently a different species from any noted above), Pushkinia scilloides, Veratrum album and a prostrate Veronica.

North of Qazbegi, the Georgian Military Highway continues down the Terek valley for some kilometres before entering the defile of the Dariel Gorge, where the Russian border is situated. In early June the cliffs above the road were festooned with large numbers of hogweed flowers (Heracleum) and there was a mass of Campanula cascading down the rocks.

The last side valley coming down to the Terek within Georgia from the flanks of Kazbek (on the west) is the Devdoraki valley. There is a good track up the valley towards the Devdoraki glacier, but the valley floor is heavily grazed. Here, in spite of the low cloud and driving rain which accompanied us, we managed to identify Androsace villosa, Anthemis marschaliana, ?Astragalus sp. (mauve), Campanula tridentata/aucheri aff., Chamaesciadium acaule, a tall Draba sp., Echium russicum, Linaria meyeri, ?Lotus sp. (yellow/orange), Orchis ustulata, Primula algida, a white Silene, a small Symphytum, Tanacetum coccineum, Veratrum album, and Veronica ?gentianoides.


Svaneti proper comprises the upper valley of the river Inguri, which flows into the Black Sea below the town of Zugdidi and which forms, for part of its lower course, the boundary of the breakaway province of Abkhazia, travel into which is not possible at present. During our drive up the Inguri gorge to reach Svaneti we passed Campanula, Erysimum, Euphorbia, Heracleum¸ Salvia, Stachys, as well as Helleborus orientalis, ?Lychnis/Silene sp. (multi-headed), and Vincetoxicum nigrum. We also found Cyclamen coum leaves under the trees among the leaf litter. Eventually the valley widens out and the gorges give way to upland pastures. In the meadows that are being kept for winter fodder and have not been opened up to the cattle and the foraging pigs there is a mass of flowers, among them Dactylorhiza ?iberica, and Orchis coriophora.

For an account of a brief visit to Svaneti in July 1991, walking over the Mestia pass from the Baksan valley on the northern side of the Caucasus and returning there over the Becho pass, see my article in The Rock Garden, XXIII(2), no 91(Jan 1993). In 1999, we visited the woods in the lower part of the Becho valley and, among the hazel and beech we found ?Aconitum/Ligularia sp. (white), Aquilegia olympica, Centaurea sp. (with large, cream flowers and finely divided leaves), Echium russicum, Fragraria vesca, dwarf Genista sp., Galium odoratum, two Geranium species neither G. sylvaticum, Lilium monadelphum, Neottia nidus-avis, Omphalodes lojkae, Orobanche sp. (white with orange tips), Paris incompleta, Pedicularis atropurpurea, Platanthera chlorantha, Polygonum bistorta, Silene ?vulgaris, and Vicia sp. (with big, pendulous, yellow-orange flowers).

More or less at the centre of the upper valley system of Svaneti is its administrative centre, Mestia, a small town of about three and a half thousand inhabitants. It lies at a height of about 1300 m and is surrounded on both north and south by peaks rising to over 4000 m in height. In Mestia and in the other villages of Svaneti there are preserved many traditional tower houses, which served as both dwellings and strongholds in more lawless times (which lasted until only a little over one hundred years ago). The lush green landscape and the villages dotted over it, framed by the soaring snow-capped mountains, form a picture of unforgettable beauty. The whole of the town seems to be surrounded with yellow azalea (Rhododendron luteum) which, however, is past its best by early June at this height.

Directly above Mestia is Mestia mountain, rising to about 2300 m. It is, in fact the ridge between the main Inguri valley and the tributary on which Mestia itself stands. The views from the top are stupendous. To the north lies the main ridge of the Caucasus, dominated by the twin peaks of Ushba (4700 m) (fig. 90); to the east lies the soaring peak of Tetnuld (4858 m) and, in the distance at the head of the Inguri valley, Mt Shkhara, at 5201 m the highest mountain in Georgia; to the south lies the Laila range, rising to 4008 m, an offshoot of the Caucasus which seals Svaneti off from the rest of Georgia; and to the west the Inguri valley drops away into its precipitous gorges, with the ridges of the western Caucasus as a backdrop. Here, on top of the ridge, we saw Corydalis emanueli var. pallidiflora (fig. 99) which is similar in form to C. alpestris, which we have found growing in the high screes of the Caucasus and the Pontic Alps, but the variety pallidiflora has attractive, lemon-yellow, flowers instead of sky-blue. Other species included Ajuga ?pyramidalis, Anemone caucasica, A. fasciculata, Aquilegia caucasica (in bud), Campanula lactiflora (in bud), Coeloglossum viride, Dactylorhiza ?euxina and D. flavescens in both red and yellow forms, Daphne glomerata and D. mezereum, Gentiana angulosa, Lilium monadelphum (in bud), Omphalodes lojkae, Orchis pinetorum, a large yellow Pedicularis, Polygonatum verticillatum, Primula pseudoelatior, Pulsatilla aurea, Pyrola sp. (in leaf, with last year’s seedhead), Rhododendron caucasicum and R. luteum, Salix sp. (with very distinctive catkins up to 10 cm in length), Trollius patulus and Veronica gentianoides.

From Mestia a very rough road leads eastwards, first up the Zanner valley and then the upper Inguri valley, to Ushguli, the highest village in Svaneti – indeed, at over 2000 m, the highest year-round habitation in the Caucasus and higher than any permanently inhabited village in Europe. The road east of Mestia, below the towing pyramid of Tetnuld is lined with Berberis chinensis, Lonicera sp. and Rhododendron luteum. At the Ugyr Pass, where the track crosses from the Zanner to the Inguri valley, the pasture round the picturesque tarn is hemmed in with Rhododendron luteum and the water’s edge is dotted with Primula auriculata. High on the ridge above Ushguli towers Tamara’s castle, surrounded by Pulsatilla violacea and Trollius patulus. From the castle there is a fine view of the village itself and also of the two valleys which meet there.

The more southerly of the two valleys leads up to the Zagar Pass (2643 m), over which the map shows a road (now seemingly permanently closed to vehicular traffic) leading south down to a tributary of the river Rioni. The road is quite adequate, however, as a footpath or bridle track. It looks across to the north-facing side of the valley, much of which is covered in Rhododendron caucasicum. The south-facing slope, up which the road winds, is mainly covered in herbage of various kinds, including a wealth of flowers: Ajuga pyramidalis, Anemone caucasica and A. fasciculata, Arnebia pulchra, Caltha palustris, Dactylorhiza ?euxina, Euphorbia ?macroceris and E. ?stricta, Gentiana angulosa, Helianthemum caucasicum, Tussilago farfara, Polygonum bistorta, Primula algida and P. pseudoelatior, Rhododendron caucasicum, small Stachys macrantha and Trollius patulus. The slopes near the top of the pass (fig. 94), near the melting snow and above the drifts of bright pink Primula auriculata and bright yellow Pulsatilla aurea, were dotted with the dark purple bells of Fritillaria latifolia for as far as the eye could see. Later (in July) the statuesque Sredinskaya grandis can be found here, a relation of the Primula, with yellow onosma-like flowers on tall stems with farina, displayed in a primula-like inflorescence, and with large leaves.

The more northerly of the two valleys which meet at Ushguli ends at the spectacular south wall of Shkhara. After a narrow stretch above Ushguli, the valley widens out and becomes broad and flat bottomed. Growing here and there on the banks of the torrent are large patches of the low-growing Daphne glomerata, its cream (sometimes pink-tinged), sweetly-scented flowers forming globular inflorescences (hence the specific name) about the size of a golf ball (fig. 100).

In the shingle of the valley floor and on the lower slopes can be found Achillea ptarmica aff., Ajuga pyramidalis, Androsace villosa, Anemone caucasica and A. fasciculata, Anthemis ?rudolfiana, Arnebia pulchra, Aster alpinus, Caltha palustris, Campanula ?bellidifolia, Coeloglossum viride, Corydalis emanueli ssp. pallidiflora, Crepis aurea, Dactylorhiza ?euxina and D. flavescens, Gentiana angulosa and the leaves of G. septemfida, Geranium sylvaticum, Geum rivale, Lilium monadelphum, Orchis ustulata, Polygonum bistorta, Potentilla ?agrinthioides and P. ruprechtii, Primula. algida, P. auriculata and P. pseudoelatior, Rhinanthus ?angustifolius, Rhododendron caucasicum, Stachys macrantha, Tanacetum coccineum, and Trollius patulus. Later in the year, the hillsides up towards the Shkhara glacier are ablaze with the large yellow flowers of Lilium monadelphum.

Communications with the high valleys of Georgia are often difficult but the effort is more than repaid by the wealth of flowers and the magnificence of the scenery. They are places to which, once you have been, you long to return. I myself hope to lead another party to Khevi and Svaneti in June 2002 and, if there is sufficient demand, in subsequent years. For further information contact Field Studies Council Overseas, Montford Bridge, Shrewsbury, SY4 1HW:     (e-mail) : -

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