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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 May 2011 by John Richards

Back to Greece. Entry 182.

The AGS Tour to Greece

 Nearly a week has elapsed since the AGS Tour to the Gulf of Corinth area of Greece returned to the UK, but, we didn't get home until late on Tuesday, since when life has been a mad whirl. This has caused me to aggravate a knee injury initiated on the rather rough descent from Saitas the previous Saturday which has inevitably and maddeningly caused me to slow down, edit my photos, get out and plant list, and write this diary.

It is slightly more than a year since Sheila and I pre-tested the planned route of the Tour, which proved to be time well spent as we were able to avoid a number of wrong routes and poor hotels attempted on the last occasion, so that things went fairly smoothly this time. What we could not plan for was the difference between the seasons. What I did not say at the time (diary entry 146) was that we were very disappointed by last year which was very early, dry, and lacking snow, so that the flowers were correspondingly few and poorly developed. For some weeks now we have noted in the newspaper that Athens temperatures were lower than ours, and it was clear that they had enjoyed a very late, wet spring. Although we travelled almost a full fortnight later this year, the season was less advanced than in 2010, and, more importantly, the flowers were magnificent! As soon as I went for a brief stroll before breakfast on that first morning in Delphi (we had arrived in the dark), it became clear that there were masses of colourful annuals everywhere, which boded well for a flower-rich tour.

 As I say, we started in Delphi, and soon found one of the most iconic plants, which we have failed to find for a number of years now. I have known for 30 years that rough ground to the west of the town supports a small population of Tulipa undulatifolia, but had thought that the lack of cultivation there had caused its demise. However we did find a few plants in flower this year, and rather more of the distinctive oyster-grey, undulate, ground-hugging single leaves, suggesting that a population has eked out an existence in the last few dry springs, and may well thrive next year after this very wet one.

 Higher up the mountain at Livadia, squeezed in between the monstrous suburban type development of streets and streets of ski houses that have so inappropriately been developed there (and most seem to be empty), we found Delphi's second tulip just starting into flower (T. australis). Last year it was much further advanced, two weeks earlier.

 Much of the magic of Livadia has gone, but further north at Achlydokambos, just before the road turns up the mountain, the wet spring had conjured wonderful displays of flowers. Here are two of our Scholarship students who added so much to the Tour, Beth and (sitting) Kate, together with Sheila and a great mass of Iris attica.

 One afternoon we enjoyed a splendid walk up the ancient path above Delphi. This year there were masses of orchids, at least five Ophrys, O. spruneri, ferrum-equinum, argolica, lutea and the scarce O. mammosa leucophthalma. The latter, pictured here, seems to be rarely encountered. It is followed by a photo of a single hybrid between O. ferrum-equinum and O. argolica encountered in a mixed population. Not surprisingly it was a superb year for orchids. We recorded 35 species, compared to 22 last year!

 For me, the best plant up that path was the local speciality Hypericum spruneri. This is commonly encountered there and at times is a superb rock plant.

 Not surprisingly there was much less to be seen in the alpine zone of Parnassos, which was still stuck in the grips of winter in early May. However, the masses of snow suggested that a summer visit would be really rewarding this year.

 Nevertheless, the delayed season did allow us to see another plant I have missed for some years, the very local Colchicum triphyllum, in peak condition. We found it on Chelmos too, but there it had been battered by some inclement weather which drove us from the mountain on two afternoons.

 For me, and I suspect for most of the party, the highlight of the whole trip was the day spent on Saitas. Sheila and I had prospected this mountain last year, but took two wrong paths, so that we were left with insufficient time to discover whether the third path I raced up after lunch would eventually lead us to the treasures higher up.

This year we had a lovely day, found that we had indeed taken the right path, and were thrilled to find that the dolines below the path in which the very special plants of Saitas occur, were in absolutely peak condition. To reach this area you need to climb about 350 m in altitude, about a 90 minute walk, up a rough forest road. I was delighted that all 20 members of the party managed to get up to see the rarities.

 The yellow plant filling both these dolines (and several higher up) is the magnificent  Adonis cyllenea. This magnificent (but much bigger) relative of A. pyrenaica had been discovered early in the nineteenth century but had lain hidden for 150 years, so that most people considered it to have been the product of a mistake or fraud, until it was rediscovered on Oligyrtos in 1976 by George Sfikas. Since then it has been found on two more sites to the south of Killini, although it has never been rediscovered on the mountain for which it is named. The Saitas population is by far the strongest, and it has been estimated at 40,000 plants grow there. This did not seem an overestimate to us.

This is a plant I have been fortunate enough to grow for many years, for shortly after the first discovery, ripe seed was sent to Ron McBeath by a Swedish party, and he raised many young plants of which he gave me one. This was planted in thre rock garden where it has flowered regularly and set seed for nearly 20 years. I have never disturbed it! However the achenes have never germinated, and I believe that this may be a plant that sets apparently good but sterile seed unless two or more plants are present.

 Magnificent as the adonis is, it is accompanied in two of the dolines but an even rarer and more extraordinary plant. This is Biebersteinia orphanidis which was only rediscovered in Europe on Saitas in 1996. As the following photos show, it is a truly weird plant with abundant and handsome but stinking foliage, and amazing purple inflorescence spikes from which protrude orange flowers! It is otherwise only known from a few sites in eastern Anatolia and belongs to an obscure group of Asian plants which have now been placed in their own family, the Biebersteiniaceae, rather than the Geraniaceae with which they were associated formerly. Like the adonis, it appears to need deep fertile soils, and is associated with the stinging nettle. I suspect that soil from the limestone, washed by rain into the doline, and summering flocks which shelter there, have combined to provide the deep, friable, nitrogen-rich soils these plants apparently need.

 Growing in close association with the biebersteinia, as this photo shows, was a thriving population of Fritillaria mutabilis. This splendid frit was not yet in flower on Parnassos, so it was great relief when the party encountered this variable population on Saitas. Presumably the plants were soon to be overwhelmed by nettles and other coarse vegetation, and the site probably never dries out in summer, although I am sure the sheep will raze all the vegetation to the ground once they arrive for the summer. Note the broad greenish opposite leaves and the long flower bell, all quite distinct from F. graeca.

 Another distinguished plant growing in these dolines was the Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum, although it would not flower for a couple of months. Presumably the animals leave the rank mucilaginous leaves alone.

Towards the end of the Tour, one of our most successful stops was alongside the cliffs above the Lake Stymfalia. There was a most interesting population of orchids along the roadside, including a form of Ophrys reinholdii, so like the endemic Cretan O. cretica.

 I mentioned Asperula arcadiensis from Stymfalia last year, but this year it was in superb form, as this shot of part of the population shows. Quite a number of the plants grow under overhangs, sheltered from rain in this soft limestone conglomerate.

 An even more distinguished plant grows here, Diosphaera (Campanula) asperuloides, but this does not flower until July. The sites are much more limited than are those of the asperula, and are probably nearly inaccessible, but this photo with a 200 mm lens shows how it grows under overhangs on vertical conglomerate walls, which probably gives some clue as to its cultivation (strictly alpine house! and it was killed by the cold for me during last winter's freeze).

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