by Tatevik Sargsyan
In her white lab coat, tiny Eleonora Gabrielian is dwarfed by the large Sorbus Hajastana Gabrieljan next to her office in the Botanical Garden, a rare white mountain ash tree indigenous to the Sevan region. But she looks upon the tree affectionately, patting it, as if it were a small child.
“I planted it in 1952,” she says. “In the autumn, it will get scarlet and white flowers, and then red fruits you can eat. It’s a beautiful tree.”
Sorbus Hajastana Gabrieljan, in a way, is her child.
Dr. Gabrielian, one of the Caucasus’s foremost and leading botanists, discovered this tree, which is why it bears both the names Hajastana (which means Armenia) and her own name. Over the span of her nearly 60-year career, 11 plant species have been named after her, either because she discovered them, or created the classification/taxonomy system that helps botanists differentiate the species in the Sorbus family by comparing various features of the trees, such as the bark and the seeds. A scientific monograph she wrote on the Sorbus was awarded the Komarovian Prize, the highest award from the All Union Academy of Sciences, in 1984.
Currently, she holds the substantive moniker Head of the Department of Plant Taxonomy and Geography of the Institute of Botany at the National Academy of Sciences in Armenia. Her office, tucked away in Yerevan’s Botanical Garden, contains an extensive library and cataloguing system for all Armenia’s flora, as well as samples from her travels around the globe.
Much of this physical evidence Dr. Gabrielian has gathered herself, plant by plant, finding, recording and photographing the 3,600 plant species in Armenia. Though she is 80 years old, she still spends the spring and summer in the field, collecting and documenting plants, trees and grasses.
“There are 6,500 plant species in the Caucasus,” she says. “And more than half are in Armenia. It’s really an amazing place for flora.”
And an amazing dedication of recording it has been Eleonora Gabrielian’s life ambition.
By the age of four, the future professor had already made a book with flowers pressed between the pages and the names written as best she could, but mostly wrong. Her earliest memories are of her grandfather’s garden, where she spent much of her childhood nurturing an interest that would become her lifelong pursuit.
Many members of her family are botanists (as was her husband, who died in 1994). One daughter is a botanist working in France, who also does work for the Armenia Tree Project. Another daughter in Israel is a paleontologist.
Eleonora studied botany in Moscow, followed by post-graduate work in St. Petersburg, Russia. In independent Armenia, she founded the National Botanists of Armenia, a Non Governmental Organization that encourages protection of the environment.
“We have many good scientists and academicians among us,” she says. “So when we raise an issue, the authorities usually take our opinion into account.”
Armenia’s variety of plant life is due to its geography, surrounded on all sides by gorges, each creating its own micro-climate with different conditions, she says. It allows for an amazing range of species, despite the country’s small size.
“You can go from semi-desert to alpine forest in half an hour,” she explains.
Rick Ney, an American who has lived and worked in Armenia since the early 1990s, has escorted the botanist on some of her treks “from semi-desert to alpine.” Ney says one of the challenges of traveling with “Nora” is being prepared to make sudden stops.
“Often, a plant will catch her eye from the car window and she immediately says ‘stop, stop!’, as if the plant will run away before she gets a chance to study it up close,” Ney says in admiration of his friend. “I’ve seen Nora slow down a bit over the recent years, but it seems that her love of Armenian nature is a sustaining source of youth for her.”
One of the botanist’s latest projects was helping Ney and his organization, Armenian Monuments Awareness Project (AMAP), create a nature trail for hikers that leads trekkers to Amberd Castle in the foothills of Mount Aragats. Dr. Gabrielian identified plants along the trail and used the data on information panels erected by AMAP.
Her work has been published in several books in Russian, and in many English journals. But for the first time, English speakers will be able to view the world through Eleonora Gabrielian’s eyes with her latest book, Flowers of the Transcaucasus and Adjacent Areas, co-authored with Israeli botanist Ori Fragman-Sapir in 2008. The glossy hard-cover book contains detailed descriptions and photographs of much of Armenia’s flora—a helpful guide for hikers, walkers and flower lovers who want to know what they are looking at as Armenia’s spring, summer and autumn blooms unfurl.
“Did you know, for example, that there are 16 species of wild iris growing here?” she muses, pointing at the book cover, which sports a purple, pin-striped Iris. “There is so much to see here, and I want people to see Armenia’s beauty.”
It’s impossible to be uncaring about the environment when talking to Dr. Gabrielian.
“I have worked all my life for the sake of my country and its environment. My heart sinks every time a tree is cut,” she says.
The Institute of Botany, where she works, houses many devoted professionals like Dr. Gabrielian. Due to her and her staff’s efforts, the institute has finished the last, eleventh volume of Armenian Flora, which is believed to be the hardest one of all. But while devoted, Dr. Gabrielian is frustrated and angry that their achievements have not been recognized and supported by the state. Her last efforts have been funded by the Acopian Center and the Armenian Tree Project, but the funds that used to be plentiful during Soviet times are no longer available.
“In some ways, it was better then, for our research, at least,” she said. “I was sent many places to discover new plant species.”
However, she is still full of plans; she is currently working on making one combined volume of Armenian flora with key descriptions of all 3,600 species derived from the 11 volumes of Armenian flora editions, the first volumes of which date back to the 1950s and need a lot of revision.
“I need to finish that before I stop working. There are two botanists in Armenia who are able to do this and we are both old; we need to put what’s in our heads into the heads of future generations.”
She stopped, then added dreamily:
“Armenia is a fairyland; you can always find species of flowers and plants new not only to Armenia but to science in general.”