Crete Expedition Log
Driving Mrs. Dracunculus
April 4-11, 2010
Alan Galloway, Raleigh NC
Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery, Raleigh, NC
Tom Mitchell, Evolution Plants, UK
(left) T. Mitchell; (right) A. Galloway
View the entire photo gallery here.
Despite the fact that Crete is a summer-dry Mediterranean climate, there are many plants from there that have surprisingly adapted well to our summer-wet region of North Carolina. Some of these include Phlomis cretica, Phlomis fruticosa, Dracunculus vulgaris, Cyclamen graecum, Ruscus aculeatus, Primula vulgaris, Acanthus spinosus, Arum creticum, Arum concinnatum, Arum cyrenaicum, Arum purpureospathum, Arisarum vulgare, Asphodelus ramosus, Arbutus unedo, Lavandula stoechas, and Clematis cirrhosa. Our trip goal was to look for new plants as well as better and more unique forms of those which we already grow.
For those unfamiliar with Crete, it is a 161 mile long Greek island off the main coast that separated from the mainland over 5 million years ago. Consequently, its flora, which contains over 1700 native species, has evolved with many endemic (occur nowhere else in the world) plants and even a few endemic genera. While some of the plants on Crete developed after Crete separated from the mainland, older species such as Ruscus aculeatus are amazingly similar to what you would find on the mainland. Crete is divided into three floristically different regions: Western Crete, which encompasses the Chania area; Central Crete around Rethymno and Heraklion; and Eastern Crete, including Sitia. Crete is a winter rainfall climate, getting most of its precipitation in December and January. Of the three regions, Western Crete is dry, Central Crete is drier, and Eastern Crete is the driest. Subsequently, Eastern Crete has the most depauperate or poorly developed flora of the three regions. A good on-line expandable Crete map is available at http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/crete-map
This year, Crete had suffered through a very dry winter and the normally snow covered peaks on both Mt. Dikti and Lefka Ori were bare, leaving plants that depend on moisture from snow melt nowhere to be seen.
After May 1, when the tourist season kicks in to full swing, Crete is a huge tourist destination in addition to over 600,000 residents. So, if you want to visit when the crowds are low, April is just fantastic. Although tourists come from around the world to visit, the top visitors are residents of Athens looking for a getaway, followed by Germans, and then English. All other nationalities make up a far smaller percentage of the visitors. During our travels we didn't find any language barriers that weren't easily overcome. The smaller towns had fewer English speaking folks, but even there, communications weren't a problem.
Our expedition group consisted of myself, Alan Galloway, a world renowned aroid expert from North Carolina who had previously explored a small region of Crete in 2004, and Tom Mitchell of the UK's Evolution Plants. Tom is a former JP Morgan investment banker, whose mid-life crises sent him into the nursery and plant exploration business. Although Tom's business isn't officially open yet, he is determined to have a good stock of interesting plants when he opens in 2013. In the meantime, he has botanized worldwide with a special focus on the Balkans.
Day 1 - Sunday April 4, 2010
Our North Carolina to NY- JFK flight almost arrived too late for our connection, but fortunately all ended well, and we were shocked that our luggage actually got on our flight as well. Our next stop was Athens for a 3+ hour layover in anticipation of long immigration lines. When we arrived, not only were the lines non-existent, but we had no immigration forms to fill out when we landed...a first in all my travels. The airport restaurants in Athens were poor at best...unless, you like bread and coffee. The best lunch choices we had were ham and cheese flaky rolls, which had virtually no meat and no taste. For a country that prides itself on good cooking, this was a surprising disappointment, but probably the only culinary one of the entire trip. Other than the poor food choices, the airport was quite nice, being very light and modern with an array of fancy shops waiting to separate you from your money. Just before 1pm, we boarded our Olympic Airline flight for the short 1 hour flight into Chania. We opted for Chania instead of the more popular Heraklion to avoid traffic. We touched down in Crete without ever seeing the runway (never a reassuring thing), with the nearly 8,000' tall Mt. Lefka staring us in the face.
It didn't take us long to claim our luggage, rendevous with Tom, and meet our Auto-Club rental car representative at the airport...an English chap who had retired to Crete. We picked up our rental vehicle, a roomy Fiat Scudo Van, then headed off to the Splanzia hotel in Chania to drop off our bags. We knew navigating through Crete would be difficult since virtually none of the roads are named or signed once you get out of the large cities, so we opted to rent a GPS with the vehicle. To complicate things further, each town can have many different spellings. Chania, for example is also spelled Hania, Havia, Xavia...that's really great for tourism! We quickly learned that Tom is a master navigator...a veritable horticultural homing pigeon. That ability earned him the position of front seat navigator for the trip.
We arrived at our hotel around 3pm, dropped off our bags, then were off for some afternoon botanizing. Driving out of town, it was hard to miss the fact that Cretan's are really into tree mutilation. I know they call it pollarding, but no matter what you call it, they had simply ruined the appearance of most of the town's trees.
We first headed south toward the town of Omalos, located south of Chania, but at the top of Crete's famous Samaria Gorge. Samaria Gorge...a really big canyon, is rumored to be the largest in Europe. As we drove, it didn't take us long to abandon our rental car navigation device, after it kept complaining that we were driving too fast...despite getting passed by everyone else on the road. After all, who needs a Tom Tom, when you have a Tom Mitchell?
Once we rose just above the tropical orange and olive growing region at 500' elevation, we made our first stop to photograph Cistus parviflorus in both the pink and white flower form, which would be ubiquitous below 2500' elevation on the entire island. Another plant at this stop that we would see abundantly throughout the island at all elevations below 4000' was Urginea maritima or sea squill. Urginea makes a huge amaryllis-sized bulb that sits just at the soil surface, anywhere the soil is hot and dry. The foliage resembles a eucomis on steroids. The urgineas in the highest elevations were already beginning to go dormant, while those at lower altitudes still looked great. Two other plants that we saw here but rarely again were two of my favorite shrubs, Arbutus unedo and Lavandula stoechas.
Our second stop at 1400' was near the town of Lakki. At a moist roadside seep, we saw our first plants of the aroid, Arisarum vulgare, in flower. This would be a plant we would see throughout the island in almost all shaded habitats below 3500' elevation. If you're not familiar with arisarum, just imagine a dwarf arisaema and you will get the idea. Growing all around the arisarum was an unidentified sedum, the groundcover Selaginella denticulata, and the ubiquitous bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum ...the later two plants we would see alongside the arisarum throughout the island. Another fern that we found here, but would see less often elsewhere is Anogramma leptophylla, a 3" tall delicate gem growing on a vertical rock, that seemed to enjoy the slightly moist site.(61885) Growing among the ferns was our first sighting of Cyclamen creticum...one of the cyclamen species that I haven't mastered in my own garden. All around us were flowering clumps of Euphorbia characias...another familiar plant from our home garden that would stay with us throughout the entire island. Did I mention familiar plants? How about Hedera helix...English ivy in it's native habitat...very cool!
From here, we continued to climb to 2600' elevation, where we stopped in the curve of the road to check out an interesting, but obviously very dry site. I was thrilled to step out into a field of Acanthus spinosus...the real thing...not the misnamed plant of cultivation. I'll admit that most folks wouldn't find stepping into anything this spiny would be fun, but then I've never claimed to be normal. Once you've seen true Acanthus spinosus, you'll never mistake it for any of the other acanthus species. Growing alongside the acanthus were both Cyclamen graecum and Cyclamen creticum...mostly in rocks, or hiding at the base of naturally bonsaied leguminous shrubs. Did I mention that most plants here are spiny...probably an adaptation to the heavy browse pressure from both goats and sheep. A continuing theme during our trip was that if it could be eaten, it had been eaten.
This would also be the first time to see one of our target plants, Dracunculus vulgaris, the Viagra lily. Dracunculus occurs throughout most of the island, but was surprisingly absent in some very large areas, where the habitat indicated that it should occur. Most gardens grow the typical...if any dracunculus is typical, red-flowered form, but in a few areas of Crete, white and marbled-spathe forms can be found...we're on the case. Growing alongside the dracunculus were large flowering clumps of Phlomis cretica. Phlomis cretica forms a 3-4' wide clump that is similar to Phlomis fruticosa, except for a smaller leaf and a flower that tends to be more toward the orange end of yellow. The other shrub that excited me was Daphne sericea, a 1' tall compact plant covered in light pink flowers...perhaps we could grow this. The only thing that approached a tree here were ancient gnarled specimens of what appeared to be the oak, Quercus ilex, which had obviously lived a really tortured life.
Two other plants that we found here and again throughout our travels were Asphodelus ramosus, which we grow and love at home and Asphodeline lutea, which we have killed several times. Since these grow together here, perhaps the Cretan forms of Asphodeline lutea will survive better in NC than the material currently in cultivation. Both of these plants are unpalatable to livestock, resulting in their proliferation around the entire island, with the asphodelus being the most prolific.
Surprisingly to me, there were also many small bulbs scattered among the scrub which were nearly invisible without closer inspection. The tiny white flowers of Gagea graeca exemplified one of these. Also scattered in this seemingly inhospitable area was a wide range of terrestrial orchids, including the lovely Ophrys heldreichii and Orchis pauciflora. The only reptile that we encountered during the trip was a splendid 18" long green gecko-like creature that we would see again and again throughout the trip at the higher elevations.
We continued to ascend higher and stopped next at 2700' elevation, where we found more dracunculus and another fern, the 4" tall Asplenium onopteris - both growing nearby along a dry stream, among masses of Arisarum vulgare and Cyclamen creticum. We made it to the 2900' elevation mark before we had to stop for the day, but here we found our first arum, the widespread Arum concinnatum. It had become evident during our first half-day how much plant mimicry was at work in Crete. In addition to the Acanthus spinosus, which is in the Acanthaceae family, a number of thistles (Composite family) grew alongside and looked nearly identical. One particularly wonderful thistle that we would see throughout the island was the stunning Galactites tomentosa...unfortunately an annual, but a darn fine one. Also growing here was a stunning reddish-flowered Euphorbia characias as well as a dwarf rounded-leaf form. It would be easy to make an entire trip just selecting unique forms of Euphorbia characias. Evening had quietly crept up on us, so just short of our goal of Omalos, we turned around and backtracked our route to the hotel in Chania, where we arrived just as dark settled on the bustling city.
Parking near the hotel was horrible since it is located on a narrow city street, but the hotel owners were able to move a vehicle to open up a spot for our van. We were greeted by Nicholas, a delightful young man and one of the proprietors family, who would be at our beckon call during our four days there. The Splanzia is advertised as a boutique hotel...not sure what that actually means, but it has only 8 rooms, all equipped with an excellent wireless internet service. I didn't check out the other rooms, but ours was wonderfully spacious, although it could have used much better lighting...it would probably have been fine if you were there for a romantic occasion. www.splanzia.com
Being tired and hungry, we walked to dinner at a nearby restaurant. The Splanzia hotel is located about 2 blocks from the Chania waterfront...think Baltimore Inner Harbor or Capetown Harbor and you get the image. The entire Chania city center is lined with both restaurants and boutique shops. We plopped ourselves down at the bustling Mixaahs Restaurant for dinner, and since there was a chill in the air (50s F), we opted for a table near one of many outdoor gas heaters. Pretty much all the restaurant menus in Crete have translations for English, French, and German. Once our meal arrived, we were finally able to enjoy real Greek food, which was some of the finest seasoned food that I've eaten anywhere in the world. We also quickly learned that speedy meals are not the norm in Crete. Even after we thought we were finished, complimentary deserts and desert drinks kept appearing...we put Tom in charge of these. Now, the challenge was to stay awake long enough to process plants, photos, and notes...a task that would routinely take till 1am.