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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 April 2017 by John Richards

Some frits from eastern Greece. Entry 335.

What is Fritillaria rixii?

Sheila and I have just returned from a whistle-stop trip to Evia, that very long and narrow island which slides up the east coast of Greece. We spent the first night in Porto Rafti, handy for the airport (but almost completely without signposts) and then drove up to Chalkida via the Cape Marathon area where we failed to find Fritillaria obliqua despite good directions. We were probably too late on March 24th. We made the mistake of crossing to the island by the bridge, as we had booked what proved to be a super hotel at Ilia in the far north. The mountainous road northwards is exceptionally slow and overburdened with heavy tankers and the 100km drive on the island took three hours.

My main quarry was the yellow-flowered Fritillaria rixii, that rather enigmatic relative of F. euboeica that has been described from serpentine sites at relatively low levels (down to 700 m) in the north of the island. In particular, the far north seems not often to be visited by botanists, and we thought we might make some discoveries there.

Fritillaria rixii differs from F. euboeica in being taller with more numerous much narrower lower leaves which are alternate, and in the habitat. Classic F. euboeica is an alpine from limestone sites and is best known from about 1500 m on Mt. Dirphys. We had hoped to seek it there but Mt. Dirphys had snow down to 1000m! Accounts differ as to the relationship between the two. The AGS Encyclopedia has F. rixii related to the northern brown-flowered F. drenovskyi. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem as F. euboeica is recorded from Athos, and flower colour is notoriously variable in frits. Several accounts consider F. rixii to be little more than a low-level serpentine ecotype of F. euboeica, most authoritatively Georgia Kamari in the WWF Red Data Book of threatened plants of Greece (1995). She considers F. euboeica in all its forms to be rare and threatened in Evia. The Fritillaria Group's AGS website considers the two species to be distinct, but notes that this is not the universal opinion.

 

We had been given details of several sites in the northern half of Evia, particularly on Kandyli. These involved rough drives on forest roads (we only had a little hired Micra) and longish walks. Some of the locations were for populations said to be hybrid between F. rixii and euboeica. This is a nonsense of course; such populations may be intermediate, but this only serves to suggest that the two taxa are not clearly separate. We kept these possible sites as a resort. First I decided to check out the type locality, between the villages of Kokkinomilia and Kerasia. The geolocation given is deep in the forest (said both in the type description and by Kamari to be Pinus halepensis, but in fact P. nigra ssp. nigra v. caramanica, growing with Abies cephalonica) and could only be reached by forest roads. Instead, on the first morning we drove along the excellent main road through Kokkinomilia, stopped at the first promising site and found F. rixii in the first five minutes!

Characteristically, as it turned out, the plant was growing on a bank in partial shade amongst Juniperus oxycedrus, on serpentine but close to where it juxtaposed with limestone (this is a very complex area geologically; sandstones, mudstones and flysch also occur nearby). The altitude is about 650 m. Morphologically the plants were typical F. rixii and some were quite tall, at least 25 cm.

Fritillaria rixii

One individual had double flowers; I think at least some of the anthers were missing and had presumably become petaloid.

Fritillaria rixii with double flower

Here is a study inside the bell of a normal flower, showing the quite large nectaries.

Fritillaria rixii

Another individual.

Fritillaria rixii

And a final one.

Fritillaria rixii

In that last photo you will see the leaf of an autumn-flowering crocus, probably C. cancellatus. The locality was rich in bulbs, with Romulea bulbocodium, R. linaresii, Ornithogalum atticum, O. oligophyllum, Gagea chrysantha, G. minima, G. peduncularis, Iris tuberosa and the orchids Ophrys omegifera and Dactylorhiza romana. Here are Gagea chrysantha, Romulea linaresii and Ophrys omegifera.

Gagea chrysantha Romulea linaresii Ophrys omegifera

Further along the road was a large limestone outcrop which was full of interest. Helleborus cyclophyllus, Anemone blanda, Doronicum columnae, Lathyrus digitatus, Thlaspi ochroleucum, Viola chelmea and many other flowers created much colour and the crown of the hill was solid with a Sternbergia which must be a stunning sight in autumn. It was too early for most of the many orchid rosettes to flower, but Barlia robertiana was in full bloom.

On the opposite side of the road, the substrate was dominated by serpentine again, and here was a second colony of Fritillaria rixii, once again close to the juxtaposition with the limestone.

Fritillaria rixii

It will be evident from the last photo that some of these individuals more closely resembled F. euboeica, having only 3-4 leaves which are broad, spathulate and subopposite below, and being much shorter (not more than 15 cm high).

Others however resembled plants in the first population, being taller with narrow alternate leaves. Notice the leaves of Cyclamen graecum (on serpentine!). In shady places on the neighbouring limestone were great swathers of C. hederifolium.

 

Fritillaria rixii

We move now to the area north of Papadhes, north of Kerasia. We only spent an hour here and rapidly found three populations of yellow frits (although two close together) on pure unmodified serpentine, much more toxic in appearence than the previous sites with a poor ground flora and few other bulbs. All were within 100m of a main road. Consequently, I suspect yellow frits are quite common in this district. These plants were much less variable, and although occurring at only about 600m altitude on serpentine, they seemed to be typical of F. euboeica.

Fritillaria euboeica Fritillaria euboeica

In conclusion

So, what do I conclude about the yellow frits of northern Evia? Firstly, they seem not that uncommon and on our evidence certainly not threatened. We saw plenty of seedlings and two populations had in excess of 50 individuals. All our sites were within 100m of a metalled road.

Second, there are striking morphological differences between plants considered typical of F. rixii and of F. euboeica which are probably worthy of recognition, certainly in the context of Greek Fritillaria where several species have been described on less striking criteria. As the great Peter Davis (of Turkish Flora fame) once wrote 'pretty plants, like pretty girls, attract a lot of attention', meaning that taxonomists tend to 'split' them more, and this is certainly true of Aegean frits. Having said that, intermediates do occur, and some populations tend to contain an admixture of morphotypes. Furthermore, the supposed ecological distinction does not hold up, for unquestionable F. euboeica certainly occurs on pure unadulterated serpentine at a low altitude. There may be a tendency for F. rixii types to predominate in the wetter western sites, and this might repay further investigation. Possibly, rixii might be better considered as a distinctive subspecies of F. euboeica.

A puzzling population of Attican frits.

After five sybaritic nights at Ilia, we took a ferry from Aedipsou to the mainland (one hour, 20 euros for the car which is excellent value!) and bombed down the motorway to Athens (motorway tolls cost more than the ferry!), thus escaping the tedious drive down Evia. Before our last night at Porto Rafti, we had a full half day spare and before a touristy visit to Sounion spent a couple of hours up a hill above Keratea, south of Markopoulou and the airport. We have been on this hill in the autumn (supposedly, it is a site for Crocus cartwrightianus), and we found it very rewarding. I soon stumbled upon a small population of frits, some of which were undoubted F. graeca with the short square tessellated bells, marked green fascia, elongated nectary and broad crowded alternate glaucous lower leaves

Fritillaria graeca Fritillaria graeca

Amongst these were at least three individuals which did not match any F. graeca I have seen before (or indeed any of the 20 photos of this species on the Frit Group website). As will be seen these had dark brown shiny bells lacking much of a fascia or tessellation, a much shorter nectary, and narrower rather less glaucous leaves. Possibly, these are extreme F. graeca, but I do wonder if they might have introgressed with F. obliqua? The latter very rare species is not recorded from here now, but it used to occur on neighbouring hills and all these characters seem to trend in the direction of F. obliqua? Maybe this is just wishful thinking.

This was a good site for orchids, with lovely (photographs in this order) Ophrys cornuta, O. ferrum-equinum, O. delphinensis and O. tentrhedinifera.

Ophrys cornuta Ophrys ferrum-equinum Ophrys delphinensis Ophrys tenthredinifera
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