AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Sometimes humble, sometimes astonishing, they bestow special character on country

storks.jpg

In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs. Many of these are plants, and some are animals. Here is a list of our favourite little Bulgarian wonders of nature.

Haberlea rhodopensis

A small, evergreen perennial plant with tiny bluish flowers: Haberlea rhodopensis, or Silivryak, as it is called in Bulgarian, is so rare that in the entire world it can be found only in the shady crevices of carbonate rocks of two Bulgarian mountain ranges, the Rhodope and the Stara Planina, and in pockets of northern Greece.

The only representative of the genus Haberlea, it was already in existence by the end of the Oligocene period, about 23 million years ago. The small plant proved well-suited to survive the fast (geologically speaking) climate change that started 2 million years ago and consisted of constant oscillation between glacial and interglacial periods. As Europe's landscape was changing beyond recognition, Haberlea rhodopensis survived in the Rhodope and the Stara Planina. Today, it is one of the few living remnants of Ice Age Europe.

The plant's resilience was the secret of its survival. Significantly, it can survive without water for months or even years. According to anecdotal evidence, dried plants that have spent years in herbaria can return to life after a few drops of water.

That is why one of the plant's names in Bulgaria is Bezsmartniche, or Immortal Flower, and why the legend of its origin is connected to one of the few people who travelled to the kingdom of death and returned alive, Orpheus. According to one version, the flower blossomed from the tears he shed when he realised that he had lost his dead wife, Eurydice, for good. Another story says that the plant was born of Orpheus's blood, after he was torn by the Maenads. Such legends are probably recent, as no ancient Greek or Roman account mentions flowers blossoming from Orpheus's tears or blood. These stories nevertheless are popular in Bulgaria, which prides itself on being the supposed birthplace of the mythical singer. That is why Bulgarians also call Haberlea rhodopensis Orpheus's Flower.

Dancing fireflies

Little if anything is known to outsiders about a remarkable if not so obvious (for obvious reasons, pun unintended) treasure that the Strandzha and the Tundzha forests, meadows and riversides hide: an abundance of fireflies. In fact, if you know where to go – and how to go about it – a firefly show in Bulgaria will likely be a stunning experience.

Fireflies love standing water. They live near ponds, streams and marshes, but they do not need a lot of water to get by. Many live on the boundaries of meadows and forests, especially if there is water around. They also love long grass. As they are nocturnal animals, they spend their days hiding under leaves and blades of grass, and when darkness descends fly up onto branches to signal for mates.

Scientists agree that only male fireflies glow, and the main reason for this is to make themselves visible to females. Literally, they court each other with light.

In Bulgaria there are about 10 species of fireflies. One of the top locations to see them is the Ropotamo Nature Reserve where Begliktash, the Thracian rock sanctuary, is located.

Next to the Begliktash boulders lives one of Ropotamo's biggest populations of fireflies. If you linger on after dark, you will be treated to a magical firefly show. Fireflies tend to appear just after sunset, which in June is around 9 pm. They will dance in their unique flying patters for about an hour and a half at most, and will disappear around 10.30 pm.

A word of (obvious) caution. You will be in a nature reserve forest full of wildlife. While snakes, hornets and gadflies usually sleep at night, plenty of nocturnal animals will make their presence felt immediately. Deer are innocuous and easily scared, but boars are not. There is nothing more dangerous than a wild boar, especially if its cubs are around. Never confront a boar and if you do see one, never even think of trying to approach it.

Rhododendron ponticum

Rhododendron ponticum, or Strandzhanska Zelenika, is a rare and rewarding sight when you are exploring the Strandzha mountains. Growing up to 5m tall, the shrub has dark, evergreen leaves and violet-purple flowers. It blossoms in May, adding vivid splashes of colour to the thick foliage of the pristine Strandzha forests. Its preferred habitat is the shady and damp cover of tall trees such as beech and oak.

The Strandzha is one of only two places in southern Europe where Rhododendron ponticum grows naturally. The other is in the Caucasus, in Georgia. Fossil records shows that this was not always so. Before the last Ice Age hit the planet 20,000 years ago, covering Europe with a thick layer of snow and ice, Rhododendron ponticum was common on the continent.

Today, all that remains are the pockets of Rhododendron ponticum in the Strandzha and the Caucasus, and of Rhododendron ponticum baeticum subspecies in Spain and Portugal. In Asia, the plant faired better and can be found in Turkey, Lebanon, the Himalayas, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The rarity and beauty of Rhododendron ponticum is why it is an emblematic plant of the Strandzha, which is a haven for rare species owing to its centuries-long isolation. A special festival is dedicated to the plant, in Malko Tarnovo, in May.

The Zelenika is also a good case in point to illustrate that one man's mascot is another man's curse. The plant is invasive in northern Europe. The government of Ireland, for example, spends thousands of euros every year to limit its uncontrolled dispersion as it prevents the natural growth of local plants and is harmful to the ecosystem.

Brown bears

He who is afraid of bears should not go into the forest – this is just one of the many bear-related phrases that Bulgarians still use in everyday conversations, obviously metaphorically. 

Brown bears, the largest land animal native to the Bulgarian lands, used to be ubiquitous. Today, there are between 300 and 1,000 bears in the country. They live in two regions: the Stara Planina mountain range and the Rhodope, the Rila, the Pirin and the southern Vitosha mountains, and belong to a larger bear "community" that spreads to Italy to the west and Greece to the south.  Brown bears are endangered species protected by law in Bulgaria. 

Until the late 1990s, itinerant musicians would entertain people with tamed bears trained to dance and obey simple commands after a hard and brutal training. In 1998 bear dancing was outlawed, and in 2000 a charity foundation, founded by French actress Brigitte Bardot, opened a sanctuary for rescued former dancing bears near Belitsa, in the Rila. Currently, 17 bears live in the sanctuary.

Ursus arctos, a species spread from Siberia to Alaska, is nothing short of spectacular. When standing on its hind legs, it looks uncannily like a human. The largest males' height and weight can exceed 2.3 m and 600 kg respectively. The largest bears in Bulgaria were recorded at around 400 kg. Despite their size, brown bears are excellent runners and can charge up to 40 km per hour. Bulgarian brown bears are omnivores, and most of the time subsist on a diet of fruit, roots, acorns, ant, insects and honey. However, once a bear has developed the habit of killing and eating farm animals, or attacking people, it will become dangerous.

Bulgarian bears are among the least aggressive and most reclusive of their brethren, because the Balkans have been densely inhabited by people for millennia and the animal has learnt to keep its distance. However, the decimation of forests and the expansion of towns and villages have forced more bears to get close to human communities in search of food. Climate change is another reason for increased close encounters with bears. Warmer winters make it hard for bears to hibernate properly, many wake up too early, or do not fall asleep at all, and roam around the mountains hungry and irritable, ready to eat whatever they can, resulting in attacks on farm animals and even people. The most recent case was this winter. After killing half a dozen cows in a couple of Rhodope villages, the offending bear was legally neutralised.

You should be careful when visiting areas with known bear presence. Making noise is essential – the bear will usually make anything possible to avoid a meeting. If you see a cub, leave it alone – mama bear is around. If you encounter a bear, DO NOT RUN. The bear is faster than you. Instead, keep eye contact, talk monotonously and slowly back up. In case of attack, lay on your stomach, put your arms on your neck to protect it and spread your legs wide so that the bear cannot turn you on your back.

Sounds scary. Now you know why "He who is afraid of bears should not go into the forest."

Wild peonies

Endangered, rare and ephemeral – wild peonies can be found in just a few locations in Bulgaria. These rare plants that bloom in May make up just a fraction of the variety of wildlife that you will encounter on Yaylata plateau at the northern Black Sea coast. This corner of Bulgaria is a protected area where wildlife thrives in harmony with ancient ruins, and the last remnants of the great Eurasian steppes reach a rugged seacoast full of coves and caves.

Yaylata is a place of extremes, of beauty and danger combined. Covering about 75 acres, the rocky terrace rises about 50-60 m above the sea. Shaped by the wind, the sea and the occasional earthquake, its red rocks have become home to a diverse habitat, combining the characteristics of the steppe and the sea. Over 178 bird species use it as a port-of-call during their annual migration to and from Africa, and other endangered species make their home here, including the European shag, the great and the little bustard.

Yaylata was settled by humans, according to some claims, as early as the 4th millennium BC. Graves from the 2nd-6th centuries AD, dug directly into the rock, pockmark the highest part of the plateau. About a hundred natural caves were shaped into homes, temples and churches. On a lower terrace stand the remains of a late-Antiquity fortress. Its walls with four towers protected it until the 11th century, when the Pecheneg raids brought about its ultimate destruction and abandonment. People continued to sail by though, and as a result the waters around Yaylata are full of shipwrecks.

Sadly, a lot of animals have been lost since the advance of industrial fishing in the region. An example are the monk seals that used to live on the coast, hunted to extinction by local fishermen because they used to steal their catch.

Storks migrations

Bulgaria is on the route of one of Europe's largest bird migratory routes, Via Pontica, which goes along the Danube and the Black Sea coast. However, for most people, the annual bird migrations in the country are connected to one particular species that is present all over, the white storks.

In spring, they arrive in their thousands from their winter homes in faraway central and south Africa. Most of these continue further north. According to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, about 80 percent of the storks on the planet arrive through Bulgaria. This makes about about 260,000 birds.

In spring and summer, storks are everywhere in Bulgaria. They traverse the fields and the fringes of rivers, dams and swamps, looking for food. They fill the sky, floating over villages and towns, and turn tall trees, lamp posts and electricity poles, chimneys and even the domes of rural churches into the foundations of their giant nests.

Their autumn migration is a wondrous event. At the end of August, the storks' numerous flocks heading from Central and Eastern Europe meet in southeastern Bulgaria. Prompted by their mysterious sense of direction and time, musters numbering tens of thousands of birds fill the skies, before beginning their long journey to Africa.

According to the 2014-2015 international census of stork population, 5,825 stork couples nested in Bulgaria – an increase of 20% compared to the previous census from 2004/2005.

These results are encouraging. More storks are indicative of a cleaner environment and undisturbed habitats for wildlife.

For Bulgarians, the bird is laden with symbolism and is central to many legends which do not have anything to do with bringing babies. According to them, when the storks leave Bulgaria, they arrive in a faraway land and there they turn into people. They have houses and villages, they can talk and plough the fields.

That is why, traditionally, killing a stork has been seen as a sin.

Redwoods

If you know where to look you will discover in Bulgaria a number of trees that belong to a non-native species, yet which make a stunning addition to local nature: redwoods.

The Boyana Church

The curious case of Bulgaria's sequoias started in the late 19th century when a few enthusiasts imported redwood seeds and planted them in various locations, mainly for aesthetic purposes.

The sequoias, or Sequoioideae, are a subfamily of coniferous trees native to coastal California and Oregon, where the world's oldest and biggest redwoods can be found. Sequoias are generally thought of as the world's largest living organisms, next to whales. But, unlike whales, they can live for over 2,000 years.

Through the centuries redwoods have been exported and can now be found grown horticulturally in China, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK and elsewhere.

In Bulgaria, they can be seen at both popular tourist sites and in little known places. The best known is the UNESCO listed Boyana Church, that has preserved 13th century murals. The redwoods growing in its yard appeared in the 1910s. How come? In 1912 the residents of Boyana, then a village, decided to demolish their old church and build a new one. The then wife of the Bulgarian King Ferdinand, Eleonora, pleaded with them not to, and donated a significant amount of money to buy a new plot of land and erect a modern church on it. The old Boyana church was then restored. Ferdinand, who was a keen botanist and entomologist, planted several sequoias at Boyana church, and they stand there to this day. Queen Eleonora was buried in the yard when she died in 1917. Her modest tomb is still there, though it was vandalised after the Communists took over in 1944.

King Ferdinand is responsible for other sequoias still standing in Bulgaria. German, a village near Sofia, has had a monastery since the 10th century. It has never been particularly large or particularly remarkable except for the several redwood trees planted by King Ferdinand when his sons, Boris and Kiril, were born respectively in 1894 and 1895. Ferdinand and his then wife, Princess Maria Louisa of Bourbon-Parma, promptly named the trees Boris and Kiril.

Sequoias grow in other Bulgarian monasteries unrelated to the royal family. Usually they were planted by pilgrims who wanted to leave a mark after their visit. A tall redwood stands in front of the main church of the Seven Thrones Monastery near the River Iskar Gorge. And a sequoia 6m in diameter used to stand just by the church of the Lopushanski Monastery in the northwest. It was planted there by an overzealous pilgrim who never thought the tree would grow to such dimensions that its root system would endanger the foundations of the church. It did, and the sequoia was chopped down in 2017. Its 2 meter tall stump was recently sculpted into a rather eccentric figure of an Orthodox saint.

A peculiar collection of several sequoias was planted in the 1930s in front of the railway station in Pirdop, east of Sofia. The redwoods are still there, and the sign announcing "Pirdop" is nailed to one of them. In recent years some railway employees decided to "beautify" them by chopping some branches off the huge trees.

Lone sequoias can be found all over Bulgaria: in Veliko Tarnovo's central square, called Mother Bulgaria, and in Burgas's maritime park and so on.

Sequoia grove by Bogoslov village, near Kyustendil

If you want to see this country's only genuine arboretum of sequoias you have to head west of Sofia, to the town of Kyustendil on the way to the border with North Macedonia. By a village curiously named Bogoslov, meaning Theologian, there is a redwood grove that could easily be placed on the western slopes of the Sierras rather than in Ücbunar, Bulgaria. The trees, some of which are now over 30 m tall, were planted 130 years ago by a local forester, Yordan Mitrev. Mitrev, who died in 1938, was a dedicated environmentalist whose work in planting groves to ward off erosion was known all over Bulgaria. The grateful citizens of Kyustendil honoured him with a bust, which can still be seen in front of the local (over-restored) medieval fort.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.

CITY OF EAGLES
As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos.

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

SHIPS OF ROCK
Sinemorets, at Bulgaria's southern Black Sea coast, remains one of the most idyllic and calmly beautiful spots around.

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.