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Latvia's got personality: Botanist Jānis Rukšāns

Whatever the occasion, Latvians find it easiest to express their feelings by giving flowers. Meet a man whose research into beautiful things has made a world-class contribution to science.

From snowdrops in spring to chrysanthemums in the fall, Latvians love to fill their gardens with vivid blooms. Perhaps the ultimate splash of natural hues is at “Jaunrūjas” farm 80 kilometres northeast of Riga, where veteran botanist Jānis Rukšāns has amassed the world’s largest collection of ornamental bulbous plants.

Some 5,000 examples are concentrated in just a couple of greenhouses, about a third of which are crocuses. After personally discovering and describing over 50 species of these, Jānis is a world authority on the early bloomers.

But unlike many of the visitors who flock to admire his work every spring, Jānis is driven more driven by science than beauty.

“All flowers are lovely, but I’m interested in discovering something new,” he says. “And the newness can be in other things besides the blossoms, like the leaves or the bulb structure.”

On the scent

Born in Riga to parents who were both journalists, Jānis was destined for an urban life. Then, to alleviate his brother’s asthma, the family moved to Murjāņi, where Jānis loved to wander in the forest, collecting oddities like hepatica with red flowers to plant in the garden at home.

From age five, he devoured books on natural history and many other subjects in both Latvian and Russian. This led to Bulduri Horticultural High School where he learned beekeeping, followed by university studies in botany, though he never earned a doctorate, as he couldn’t stomach the mandatory Marxism-Leninism course. Regardless, he went on to manage the garden of the Academy of Science and spent 20 years as editor of the magazine Dārzs un drava (Garden and Apiary).

Realising there was a gap in the Latvian literature regarding crocuses, Jānis and a few colleagues began gathering specimens around the USSR. As the political landscape shifted, this led to some comical situations. In Uzbekistan, Jānis was friends with the chief gardener to the local KGB chief, who transitioned to serving the president, so the Latvians got the red-carpet treatment. But after the regime grew more paranoid, they were detained at the border with Tajikistan for allegedly being “Islamist mercenaries from the Baltic.” But the colonel in charge insisted they were “invited, not arrested,” and for three days plied them with good food and even beer, since he knew that “Balts like that.”

From the mid-1990s, Jānis began hunting crocuses in the wider world. Focusing on less-visited places, he discovered five new ones in Iran, at a stroke doubling the number of known species in that country.

The Greek Archipelago is a particularly rich area. After sea levels in the Mediterranean rose 14,000 years ago, the crocuses on each island evolved separately, and there can even be a number of unique species on the same island, separated by rugged mountains and valleys. Seeking a particular exemplar, Jānis made three visits to a particular isle but came away empty handed due to unfavourable weather. Then a Ukrainian colleague found the elusive gem, which he named Crocus ruksansii.

There’s also Cordyalis ruksansii. Jānis found this yellow plant in Tajikistan in 1982 but didn’t think it was unique. But he persuaded some foreign tourists to smuggle it out of the USSR, who sent it to the Gothenburg Botanical Garden in Sweden, where it was declared an entirely new species. The specimens aren’t always in flower when he gathers them, so he only discovers their secrets after planting them at home. One that he found in the Caucuses stands out for having little branches underneath instead of a bulb, so the differences can be obscure.

Jānis and his wife Guna have tended this unique trove at “Jaunrūjas” fpr more than 20 years. And crocuses are just part of the show. In May, 250 varieties of peonies will start blooming, followed by Siberian irises, decorative perennials, lilies and water lilies on the ponds.

Jānis is also the author of two definitive books in English on crocuses, as well as “Buried Treasures,” a memoir of his travels. All of this has prompted scholars from far and wide to drop in.

“Experts from Kew Gardens in the UK, Gothenburg and the other major centres have all been to visit, and they say they’ve never seen anything like it in terms of quality,” says Jānis. “They say it’s the finest collection in the world.”

Still smiling

Sadly, progressive pulmonary fibrosis is slowing Jānis down. Whereas he used to comfortably hike 50 kilometres a day on expeditions, shortness of breath means he’s now restricted to brief walks from the car.

“I’ve never smoked, but the doctors tell me it looks like I’ve been having two packs a day my whole life,” he says. “I think it’s from Soviet agricultural chemicals. They didn’t give a damn what happened to people.”

Because of his lung condition, 75-year-old Jānis is in a high-risk group for Covid-19, and he says he feels relieved after having his vaccination. But he longs to travel again. Last year, five expeditions were cancelled, and his trips for this year hinge on one thing.

“The future depends on Covid,” he says.

Still, he is clearly happy to receive the annual flock of flower-lovers and media looking for a good-news story. And neither group leaves disappointed, even in these trying times.

This feature was originally published on the website of the Latvian Institute and is reproduced here with permission.

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