Geophytes in Crete

Jane McGary
Sat, 23 Apr 2005 08:30:24 PDT
I recently returned from a 2-week trip in Crete, my first experience with a 
group plant tour. Other than being stuffed into the back of a crowded van, 
it was not bad, and I may take another such trip to somewhere I wouldn't 
like to drive on my own. However, having seen the roads and limited traffic 
in Crete, at least in the "off season," I think I could manage there in a 
rental car.
	Many bulbs and other geophytes were in flower. I'll post photos on the 
wiki sometime soon, once I get them reduced to size and figure out the new 
protocol for adding photos. Here are some field notes on what I saw and 
their habitats. The terrain, though limestone, often reminded me of the 
Siskiyou Mountains around the Oregon/California border. Many of the plants 
discussed below grow where snow falls in winter, but the temperature is 
never very cold -- olives grow up to a considerable elevation, and oranges 
to 2000 feet or so.
	I'm not sure whether we cover Aristolochia, but it is tuberous. 
Aristolochia cretica, a species of moderate size, grows near the sea on 
rocky slopes, scrambling among the spiny shrubs for which Crete is 
notorious. I photographed its flowers, which are heavily lined with hairs 
like those of A. chilensis, and saw the butterfly which depends on it, the 
Cretan Festoon.
	Another geophytic, tuberous dicot genus is Umbilicus (Crassulaceae), the 
navelwort, which grows in shaded rock crevices and has rounded, glossy, 
succulent leaves. Like many rock gardeners, I grow U. aizoon, a large 
species, and the little U. rupestris. In Crete I saw two small ones: U. 
horizontalis growing on Mt. Ida, and U. parviflorus with attractive dark 
red new growth. Both should be reasonably hardy, and I've found the genus 
easy from seed.
	As in California, Oxalis pes-caprae is a weed found in most cultivated 
areas, probably smothering more interesting things; it's said to be 
resistant to herbicides, which are used a lot in the olive groves. I did 
see the double form, which is attractive but probably spreads as badly as 
the single -- the main method of increase being by bulblets, not seed.
	One of the most exciting plants was Paeonia clusii, growing at fairly high 
elevations in sparse conifer woodland, in clay with much limestone rock. It 
had not yet opened its flowers but even in bud it was beautiful, the 
foliage emerging dark red and deepest green. I'll certainly try to get seed 
of this species.
	Corydalis uniflora is a very small alpine scree plant, favoring vernally 
wet sites. The foliage is glaucous and the flowers pale lavender.
	Another high point was seeing masses of Cyclamen creticum in flower. This 
species has white flowers of rather thin texture but otherwise resembles C. 
repandum. The foliage is sometimes marked with white, but not as strikingly 
as in some other species of Cyclamen. It grows in shady places, mostly 
under hardwoods, and on rocky ledges, at mid elevations. It should do well 
in northern California and southern Oregon, and I wouldn't hesitate to try 
it outdoors here if I had enough stock to experiment with.
	There were many Ranunculus species of the buttercup type, and also R. 
asiaticus, the bright red ancestor of the tuberous garden Ranunculus. R. 
ficaria was frequent, and in deep gorges grew R. creticus, essentially a 
large version of the former. Anemone coronaria, the ancestor of tuberous 
anemones of gardens, was present in all the color forms offered by the 
Dutch, but these usually grew in single-color populations that seemed to 
depend partly on elevation. Even more frequent was the form of A. hortensis 
some authorities call A. heldreichiana, a small plant with white flowers, 
blue-gray on the reverse; this grew up quite high.
	Two amaryllids: Narcissus tazetta in its pretty bicolor form with deep 
gold cup, growing in very moist sites such as halfway down a streambank or 
among sedges in a coastal wetland. And Pancratium maritimum, deep in the 
sands just inland from the beach, in leaf (the flowers emerge after the 
leaves have withered).
	Aroids are a conspicuous part of the vegetation. Arisarum vulgare flowered 
in deeply shaded sites in good soil, often lining t he base of a boulder. 
The massive Arum concinnatum grew in cultivated land, but I saw no flowers. 
Also yet to bloom was the more alpine Arum idaeum -- I scrambled down the 
ravine fed by the waters from the Idaean Cave hoping to find flowers in a 
warm, sheltered spot, but to no avail. I did photograph flowering Arum 
creticum in one of the deep gorges we hiked through; the flowers were all 
white, not the yellow of the popular "F.C.C." form which I have in the bulb 
frame. Dracunculus vulgaris grew in a wide variety of sites, mostly where 
there was some good soil and often in old habitation sites; most of the 
plants had leaves well marked with dashes of white, which was a surprise to 
me since the forms I grow, from Asian sources, have plainer leaves. I'd 
like to get this well-marked form. Some of the Dracunculus clumps were over 
a meter tall. Finally, Zantedeschia aethiopica (Calla) has escaped from 
gardens in some lowland areas.
	Iridaceae: Crete has one Crocus, C. sieberi; the populations I saw were 
blooming in scree just below melting snowfields, and there were leaves in 
other places where the snow had recently gone. The flowers were white with 
yellow throats, sometimes with a little purple on the reverse. Gladiolus 
italicus was robust and colorful, often growing in great masses in 
cultivated fields, where its many bulblets are distributed by the plow; 
it's hardy here in Oregon. Gynandriris sisyrinchium, a little "iris" that 
produces a succession of ephemeral bright lavender flowers, grew as 
individuals or well-scattered colonies on fairly flat ground at mid 
elevations. Hermodactylus tuberosus was flowering on rocky uplands among 
grasses and dwarf shrubs, here mostly a gray color form. There were two 
Iris species: I. cretensis, a close relative of I. unguicularis and hardy 
in my garden, favored banks of clay and rock and reminded me of Pacific 
Coast irises with its dense foliage clumps and brilliant purple and gold 
flowers; and the tall bearded I. albicans, probably an ancient 
introduction, lifted its white flowers in old habitation sites. The form of 
Romulea bulbocodium that grows here is white, flowering right on the ground 
in vernally wet rocky clay, the kind of site where you'd find Olsynium 
douglasii or deciduous Lewisia species in the American West, and 
Calandrinia in the Andes.
	Liliaceae: Allium ampeloprasum (leek) grows wild here; the showiest onion 
was A. trifolium; also seen were A. nigrum in bud, A. roseum in flower, and 
A. rubrovittatum in leaf. I missed A. subhirsutum but it's flowering in my 
bulb frame. Asphodeline lutea and Asphodelus aestivus are among the 
commonest plants in Crete owing to the fact that they aren't eaten by the 
ubiquitous sheep and goats; both are good in temperate gardens. Also 
everywhere is Drimia (formerly Urginea) maritima, with big glossy green 
leaves; it will flower later. A thrill was seeing Fritillaria messanensis 
growing on the rocky summit of a hill near Spili; the flowers were much 
more variable in their markings than what I've grown from seed, some with 
prominent green median stripes. Gagea, a little-grown tulip relative, had 
two yellow-flowered species, G. chrysantha and G. bohemica, and the white 
G. graeca. Muscari comosum, which is dug for food (tried it, didn't like 
it), is very common in fields and uplands; M. neglectum, less common; and 
M. spreitzenhoferi, a dull-flowered little species, grows in beach sands. I 
saw two Ornithogalums, the familiar tall O. narbonense among dense grasses 
and shrubs, and miniature O. divergens in rocky flats and crevices. I was 
confused when I saw colonies of what I took to be Chionodoxa, but the group 
leader called Scilla nana. Grey-Wilson and Mathew's manual of the bulbs of 
Europe (1981) refers to these plants as Chionodoxa cretica and C. nana, the 
latter considered by some authorities "a high altitude form of C. cretica." 
Whatever the current view may be, these are respectively medium-sized and 
little plants with upfacing starry, light lavender, white-centered flowers; 
I saw them mostly emerging from dense thornbushes where the sheep couldn't 
get at them. Finally, the two or four (depending on your authority) tulips 
of Crete: endemic T. saxatilis, growing on ledges of rock outcrops; endemic 
T. cretica, mostly in crevices of a spectacular vertical seaside cliff and 
in crevices of a black rock that I was told was a form of serpentine, but 
there were outlying plants growing well in good soil and I suspect the 
rocky habitat is mostly protection from rodents; T. doerfleri, sometimes 
regarded as a form of T. orphanidea, in upland meadows; and T. bakeri, 
which Grey-Wilson and Mathew call a dark color form of T. saxatilis, 
growing especially in fields in the upland Omalos Plain where sheep and 
goats had been excluded.
	Since we've excluded orchids from our forum, I won't get into that, except 
to mention that Crete is famous for them, there are about 50 species, we 
saw 44 of them, and the Ophrys especially are very difficult to sort out. 
There was a Dutch group we encountered a couple of times who were there to 
look at NOTHING but the orchids. Most of the orchids are threatened by 
overgrazing and particularly by fertilizer application, which is subsidized 
by the EU; several former orchid sites we visited had been disked and 
fertilized and had little on them but coarse pasture grass. Of course, the 
island has been grazed for millennia, but new roads and pickup trucks have 
probably brought many more herders to formerly little-used areas. It seems 
imperative that some private organization should buy choice plant areas and 
control the grazing schedule on them.
Jane McGary
Northwestern Oregon

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