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Conservationists rush to save Georgia’s colchis boxwood trees from extinction

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By Davit Kekenadze  with Euronews Georgia
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A person carries Colchis boxwood tree saplings.
A person carries Colchis boxwood tree saplings.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

An ancient plant that survived the Ice Age and became synonymous with the forests of the Caucasus region is now facing extinction.

Colchis boxwood or boxtree -- considered to be sacred in Georgia -- has been on the decline in recent years, prompting conservationists to increase their efforts to try and save the famous tree.

In recent years, diseases and pests have significantly damaged Colchis boxwood. Pests, which feed on the leaves and bark of boxwoods as they mature from larval caterpillars into moths, have defoliated thousands of acres of these ancient trees, from Russia down to Georgia.

A single caterpillar can eat dozens of leaves during its development, with hundreds of caterpillars sometimes feeding on single bushes.

“The past couple of years were devastating for boxwood species all over the world," says Rezo Getiashvili, a Forest Programme Coordinator at the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network.

"It was kind of a pandemic, which destroyed boxwood everywhere. This includes Buxus Colchica, which is endemic to the Caucasus and only grows here natively. There are two reasons for this: the fungal disease, boxwood blight, and the parasitic boxtree moth," he says.

Symbol of eternity endangered by religious rites

In Georgia, the plant attracts the most attention during the Christian feast of Palm Sunday, a week before Easter Sunday. In the local tradition, people decorate their homes with boxwood branches as a symbol of eternity and prosperity.

However, this custom prompted the Georgian government to issue a plea in 2017 to the citizens to join its Grow Your Own Box Tree campaign.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili asked the faithful to abstain from clipping the tree for Palm Sunday or to use the clipped twigs to grow new plants.

Sandro Narsia, a student, has been working on the conservation of species since 2016. Narsia founded a boxtree nursery and has brought back young trees to forests himself.

“Evergreen Colchis boxwood has its sacral meaning because it’s a relic, ancient species, which has shown its strength and managed to survive despite many biological changes," Narsia said. "This is the reason why Georgians regard it as a symbol of eternity."

"Natural pests, diseases and harm caused by humans have completely overshadowed natural causes. Because of its ritualistic use, people harvest trees and branches from the forests. Human consumption is the main threat to the species."

"My advice to the people would be to buy potted plants, grow them at home and save the species from extinction,” he said.

This article is a joint production of Euronews & Euronews Georgia.