Gallery forests, narrow strips of forest along river banks, are one of the Volga delta’s outstanding features. Such forests are found only under unique conditions, one of which is sufficient hydration. In Astrakhan Reserve gallery forests are comprised of white willows growing along the reserve’s streams. This is the reserve’s most common tree species.
Traveling along narrow waterways creates a feeling of exploring a mysterious jungle. During excursions by boat visitors discover new secrets of the Volga delta at every turn of the winding river.
Although the total area of willow forests in the reserve is small, such forests are very important for the environment. Many species of birds (cormorants, eagles, herons) nest on large willow branches. Minks and raccoon dogs make their homes in root hollows and old stumps. Islands of herbaceous plants on trees that have fallen into the water are inhabited by water voles. Birds rest on drifting dead tree limbs. The gallery forests are also of great importance for water conservation, preventing soil erosion, coastal collapse and shrinking of channels and oxbows. The shaded gallery forests create an almost mystical atmosphere, as they are comfortable to walk through even in hot weather.
The bright yellow flowers seen near the water lilies are nymphaeum of the thyroid, a typical inhabitant of low-flow reservoirs of the reserve. Unusual rounded leaves emerge on the water surface, resembling a shield in appearance. Bright yellow flowers bloom on long stems. The large flowering glades of nymphaeum serve as a refuge for fish fry, which feed on the plant.
Persian nightshade intermingles with willow and other near-water plants. This has led to the reserve’s gallery forests’ being known as the “Caspian jungle.” Nightshade stalks can grow to a height of five meters, blooming with bright purple flowers followed by ripening berries, which persist until mid-December. The nightshade’s vivid colors adorn the forests. Under the willows blackberry bushes grow in profusion, forming dense thickets which can be penetrated only by wild boars. The blackberry blooms all summer; its juicy, dark purple berries linger until mid-November.
Gallery forests conceal many secrets. They are a favorite place for mammals. Rare and even medicinal plants grow in the shade of the trees. Birds perch on their welcoming branches. But the forest’s secrets will be revealed only to those visitors who take the time to explore them.