Albania is an ancient home of early crop domestication. The small country is strategically placed in the Mediterranean Basin, with a variety of ecological niches due to the convergence of Mediterranean and continental climates, the isolation and protection from the predominantly mountainous terrain, and many valleys and rivers. Albania contains a rich biodiversity with more than 3,200 endemic plant species. This genetic heritage, accompanied by a strong tradition in the horticultural arts, made ancient Illyria (Western Balkans) famous for influencing the economic and cultural development of that region. The change from “hunt and harvest” into “proto-domestication” that occurred after the Ice Age, continues still in some mountainous areas of Albania (Tropojë, Pukë, Has, Skrapar, Përmet, Mallakastër, Librazhd, Mokërr, Gore). Albania now possesses over 60 species and subspecies and hundreds of forms, varieties, populations and primitive landraces of endemic and sub-endemic fruit crops that constitute the heart of the natural landscape of the country. Although the area is little known to outsiders, there are enormous opportunities to preserve a great many species, sub-species, and local and Balkan landraces of temperate fruits, especially grapevine and olive.
I. Fruits of Illyria
The natural ecosystems of Albania, the center of ancient Illyria, contain spontaneous and wild forms of many fruit trees and shrubs, including apples (Malus), pears (Pyrus), quinces (Cydonia), cherries (Cerasum), almonds, plums, sloes (Prunus), pomegranates (Punica), figs (Ficus), grapevines (Vitis), olives (Olea), cornels (Cornus), rowanberries (Sorbus), chestnuts (Castanea), walnuts (Juglans), hazelnuts (Corylus), hackberries (Celtis), jujubes (Ziziphus), bearberries (Arctostaphylos), blackberries, raspberries (Rubus), strawberries (Fragaria) and vacciniums. A list of Malus, Prunus, Pyrus, and Vitis species found in Albania is shown in Table 1. From these species, many improved forms of primitive landraces were selected, which became well-known not only in all the regions around Albania but also in the territories of the Roman and Ottoman empires. The French enologist, Monnier (1995), in his book “Les vinsmets et alcohols des pays de la loire”, proposed that the famous grapes, ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’, ‘Merlot’, and ‘Gamay’, originated from Albania. In fact, many sorts of figs, olives, pears and apples that originated in ancient Illyria are well-known in Europe and elsewhere. Archeological excavations, numismatics, place names of fruits, and historical and linguistic sources demonstrate that fruit tree production was one of the earliest and most important economic activities that Illyrians undertook when they started the sedentary life and land tillage. Illyrian fruits known from antiquity were described and mentioned by ancient authors such as Democritus, Cato, Varro, Virgil, Strabo, Columella and Pliny. Many Illyrian names of fruit trees and grapevines may be still used (‘Rrush’, ‘Molla’, ‘Dardha’, ‘Gështenja’, ‘Arra’, ‘Ulliri’). An arberesh albanologist, Giuseppe Catapano, in his hypothetical works, suppposed the art of viticulture and enology of Egypt and other countries was somehow related to the related predecessors of some Illyrians, the Pelasgians. Gamvranic (1983) states that Illyrian clans and Celts in Panonia and Smedereva have developed viticulture long time before the Romans. Clearly, Illyria was a hearth where many of our fruits originated and disseminated in mid-antiquity in regions that included Butrintus, Aulona, Bylis, Apollonia, Durraku, Lissusi. Later on, fruit culture developed in interior regions of the Illyrian territory such as Dardania, Mati, Gramshi, Gora, Skrapari, Delvina, Tepelena, Berati, Elbasani.
Table 1. Indigenous fruit species of Albania by location.
M. dasyphylla Dibër, Lezhë, Malësi e Madhe, Mat, Pukë
M. fiorentina Mokërr, Pogradec
M. pumila Berat, Elbasan, Skrapar
M. sylvestris Berat, Burrel, Dibër, Librazhd, Mallakastër, Mokër, Skrapar, Tiranë
P. armeniaca Durrës, Kruja, Tirana
P. avium, P. mahaleb Berat, Elbasan, Kruja, Leskovik, Tirana
P. cerasus, P. cerasifera Devoll, Dibër, Gore, Kukës, Librazhd, Mokë, Ostrovicë, Pukë
P. domestica whole country
P. padus central mountainous areas
P. prostrata Burrel, Librazhd, Martanesh
P. spinosa Gore, Lenie, Martanesh, Mirditë, Skrapar, Tepelenë
P. communis Leksovik, Librazhd, Mokër, Opar, Përmes
P. divaricata Devoll, Librazhd, Pogradec
P. persica Elbasan, Kruja, Shkodra, Tirana
P. pyraster Berat, Elbasan, Korçë, Kukës, Librazhd, Malësi e Madhe, Pogradec, Skrapar, Tiranë
P. amygdaliformus Himarë, Kolonjë, Librazhd, Mat, Mokër
P. eleagrifolie Berat, Korçë, Tepelenë
V. sylvestris Berat, Burrel, Elbasan, Gorë, Gramsh, Skrapar, Tepelenë
V. sylvestris Divjakë, Lezhë, Vlorë
V. vinifera Divjakë, Lezhë, Vlorë
II. History of albanian horticulture
Trade and demographic movements stimulated the development of orcharding practices and processing of fruits into wine, sweet drinks, concentrated musts, dry fruits, and oil in the case of olive. Continued developments of fruits, olives and grapevine cultivation were experienced during the Byzantine period, especially in the hilly and premountainous areas, facilitated by the excellent road network built up by Romans (Egnatia Road) as well as the dissemination of Christianity, which promoted the production of wine and olive oil, necessary for the sacred celebration (Santa Cena or Mensa Eucarist). With the fall of the Roman Empire and succeeding wars with continuous military excursions, orcharding was abandoned due to the largescale devastation of plantations and traditional productions. Orcharding, as an economic activity that requests stability, knowledge and skills, tradition and continuity, could not develop under barbarian invasions. Thus, many plantations of grapes and olives were cut and burned, especially in the coastal areas and deep valleys. Since that time, fruit tree production remained concentrated in remote mountainous areas or valleys (Mat, Skrapar, Tepelena, Gramsh, Berat, Mallakastra, Dibra, Korça, Permeti, Delvina). During the centuries, fruit culture was kept alive in religious communities including churches, monasteries and mosques. The lowlands and hilly coastal areas (Himara, Vlora, Fieri, Mallakastra, Delvina, Lushnja, Durresi, Lezha, Shkodra) were distinguished for the cultivation and use of figs, pomegranates, non-native white mulberries, pears, pergolas. In vast mountainous areas (Tropoja, Puka, Dibra, Korça, Mirdita, Pogradeci, and highlands of Elbasani, Gramshi, Librazhdi), inhabitants conserved and propagated chestnuts, walnuts, apples, quinces, pears, plums. Examples of traditional Albanian cultivars are shown in Fig. 2. [(A) ‘Frakulla’ apple, (B) ‘Kumardha’ apricot, (C) ‘Kuqi i Laknasit’ fig, (D) Kallmet’ grape, (E) old olive tree, (F) ‘Qinami’ pear, (G) ‘Shengjine Tapizes’ plum, (H) ‘Deveedishe’ pomegranate, (I) ‘Ndroqi’ sweet cherry]. No significant impetus to horticulture was provided by the government of Albania after independence although Albania had favorable conditions for the cultivation of many fruit species as well as a great range of indigenous and introduced cultivars from the East (Greece, Turkey, Arabia, Egypt) and West (Italy, France, Austro-Hungary). One of the pioneers of a proper European-model orchard was established in 1891 by a Hungarian nobleman in Fier with the best introduced cultivars of apple, pear, almond, cherries and grapevine. That model was disseminated later by other owners of large properties in Vlora, Lushnja, Tirana, Durrës, Shkodra, Elbasa, Korça and Pogradec, attempting to approach the European model of orcharding. However, such orchards were only ‘oases’ in the cultural-professional ‘deserts’ as a result of the previous centuries of wars and conflicts. During the communist regime, the Government established large plantations and nurseries reaching 120,000 ha or 18% of the arable land, mostly on hillsides with introduced commercial cultivars, but some remarkable local grapevine cultivars (the famous ‘Shesh i Zi’ and ‘Shesh I Bardhë’) still constituted a large part of grape plantings. However, despite the high level of investment in human and financial resources, the development of horticultural industries was low due to improper organization and terrains, inefficiency in implementation by using underpaid, unskilled workers, improper balance between fruit tree species (50% apples, plums and figs neglecting walnuts, almonds, pears, apricots and citrus), lack of marketing, and low yields.
IV. Fruit germplas in peril
Albania’s germplasm, once typical of a wider territory of southeastern Europe, risks erosion and disappearance as has occurred in many other regions. Lack of proper awareness, lack of funding, and short-sighted governmental policy pose great threats to conservation efforts of scientists and passionate amateur growers, who for generations had preserved the unique richness of Albanian patrimony. With the recent problems of fires and global warming, the rate of extinction may be higher than in any other European country. In the face of this current danger, there is an immediate need to collect and conserve such diversity. The large collections of fruit germplasm established during the regime of Enver Hoxha were often destroyed as was much public property in an attempt to restore confiscated private property. Recently, proliferation of private dwellings has often been constructed in the sites of living genebanks. After the 1990s, projects have been carried out to identify and evaluate such germplasm but a national genebank of fruit trees or even local ones, unfortunately remain to be constructed. As signatory of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) as well as to implement the provisions of FAO Global Plan of Action (GPA) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the Government of Albania should be more committed to undertake the challenge of ensuring the long-term conservation of plant genetic resources (PGR). However, in the context of a limited budget devoted to agricultural research or even agriculture in general, the invasion of imported fruit from the neighboring countries, and much more important priorities, the issue of fruit genetic diversity is not high on the government’s agenda. Therefore, the Swedish International Development Agency has initiated a regional project (SEEDNet - South East European Development Network for Plant Genetic Resources) in order “to contribute to the long-term conservation and sustainable utilization of the diversity of PGR within the region through a well coordinated network of functional national programs”. Given the current difficulty of “in situ” preservation as well as the need for the proper evaluation and use of these resources, we have agreed to use funding allocated for national projects to establish a Fruit Gene Bank with three Regional Collections. The Gene Bank will be maintained at the Experimental and Didactical Enterprise of Agricultural University of Tirana while the Regional Collections will be managed by the Centers for Agricultural Technology Transfer (ex-agricultural research institutes, which among other research activities, have been dealing with local germplasm). Such centers will collect and maintain all the indigenous and naturalized fruit trees. Moreover, they will maintain a duplicate of all accessions kept in the National Gene Bank for several species that are appropriate to that region. Under the SEEDNet budget, there is also a provision for “on farm” conservation, awareness activities, and the preparation of a National Strategy for the Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources. In the drafting process of this National Strategy, the definition, reorganization, and preservation of the centers with a richer biodiversity in Albania must be defined. These areas can be rescued by setting up economic units of agro-forestry, managed and used by groups of licensed farmers and under mutual state-community obligations in order to make the system of germplasm preservation sustainable. Considering the lack of established collections as in most countries, the indigenous genotypes are mostly found on private property or farms. Therefore, one of the activities that we are carrying out is to trace them, describe, collect and make sure that they are conserved and well-maintained by paying to the farmer a compensation for the services of costs such as fertilization, pruning, irrigation.
V. The future
Research is required in order to save Albania’s germplasm. There need to be in-depth taxonomic studies of important genera such as Malus, Pyrus, Prunus, Vitis, Olea, Cornus, Sorbus, to define and characterize their diversity within Albania. Although the activities of characterization and evaluation financed under the SEEDNet budget for national projects as well as regional projects are an excellent start, we still have a major interest in collaborating with research institutes worldwide. The expansion of agrotourism could help the country economically. This could be aided by local use of organic products of species of Juglans, Corylus, Castanea, Juniperus, Pyrus, Rubus, Crataegus, Cornus, Arbutus, Vaccinium, Sorbus, Malus, and Prunus.