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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 02 May 2013 by John Richards

Some Cretan orchids

A fortnight in Crete

We are newly back from a trip to Crete. We had to fly from Manchester as flights from Newcastle don't start until about now. Even so, we went at least three weeks later than optimal dates for lowland bulbs, orchids etc (end of March is best), but we didn't want to miss the AGS show season (not realising that two would be cancelled!). Also, we were looking for a bit of sun on our backs after a particularly long and hard winter. As it happened the British spring continued cold and late, so we didn't miss that much in the garden, which is presently looking wonderful.

When we arrived, on April 16th, we wondered what we had let outselves in for. It was grey and drizzly with a gale force wind and a temperature of 8C! We had booked three nights in a studio in Mochlas on the north-east coast to start with, and were frozen, particularly when we had to walk a mile to the village for a meal every night, muffled up as for a trip to the arctic. After three nights we moved central south to Plakias and the weather changed abruptly and became hotter and drier day by day so that it was 28C by the time we left. During our last few days the lowland vegetation was drying up fast and we had to head for the mountains to see fresh flowers.

Nevertheless we did very well for such late dates, seeing 32 different orchids for instance, and it was interesting to encounter a rather different range of species from those seen on March visits. In this contribution I shall concentrate entirely on the orchids, and hope to come back to some of the many other wonderful flowers in later episodes.

Starting at Mochlos, we were pleased to find our isolated cottage surrounded by thousands of the familiar British pyramidal orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis. As is usual in Greece, the colours were much more varied than in the UK.

A fortnight in Crete

Despite the ferocious weather, our rather remote cottage boasted a simply superb view of the village, Mochlos and harbour below, and was surrounded by populations of the magnificent endemic biennial bellflower, Campanula pelviformis.

Other orchids present in rather fewer numbers included rather faded individuals of the big fat serapias of southern Greece, S. orientalis, and its narrower relative, S. bergonii (formerly known on Crete as S. vomeracea which is a western Mediterranean species)..

We were also delighted to find large numbers of a fairly uniform Ophrys, which was clearly one of the relatives of O. mammosa. Taxonomic treatments in ophrys vary wildly, accounts varying from 28 species in total, to over 300 species enumerated by Pierre Delforge. There is a sensible account in Lanfranchis and Sfikas, 'Flowers of Greece', although here near relatives are often treated at subspecific rank. Our plant is called there O. mammosa subsp. gortynia, but I prefer O. gortynia, as differences between species themselves are often so slight that is seems unnecessary to use another rank.

O. gortynia differs from O. mammosa in having less coloured and wider petals, and also by being, how shall we put this?, rather less well-endowed than its relative.Unlike the latter, it is a Cretan endemic.

There were other ophrys present, including th familiar O. bombylifera and O. cretensis, but these had largely finished flowering and are not featured here. However there were a few individuals in the Ophrys bornmuelleri complex, lovely plants that gave me problems throughout the trip. Most of them are relatively late to flower and were a feature of this particular holiday. I believe that these plants are perhaps best referred to O. episcopalis.


Don't you just love its little face? VERY self-satisfied!!

One day we drove west to Prina, hoping to find peonies still in flower (they were over), and encountered a roadside population of Anacamptis fragrans, one of the bug orchid complex. (By the way, I have finally fully 'gone over' to the new orchid classification; this was once Orchis fragrans of course).

The following day we decided to find if was possible to drive up onto the Katharo Plain above the charming large village of Kritsa, which is well-worth a visit (as is the nearby ancient site of Lato). The road to Katharo is long, but surprisingly good, and we would have enjoyed our visit had there not been an absolutely freezing wind (on a second visit we very nearly ran out of petrol, so this is an area I still need to explore more thoroughly; it is spoken well of in the Fielding and Turland 'Flowers of Crete'). However we did find a nice population of Orchis pauciflora, growing amongst Cyclamen creticum.

Kedros, Gerakari road from Spili.

This particular site has become one of the best known plant localities in Crete,and justly so. You stop opposite an abandoned taverna, cross a small stream on a log, and walk up a small hill. On our visit we logged 17 species of orchid, which is pretty phenomenal anywhere. There were several other orchid hunters on the hill including a very knowledgeable Cretan botanist Albertis Antonis nwho took the opportunity to sell me and most of the others copies of his two excellent books. 'The orchids of Crete and Karpathos' was only 5 Euros and really good value. Slightly later we also ran into John and Kate Page, who had come principally to see the millions of Tulipa doerfleri in the fields thereabouts.

Having been to the locality before, my first surprise was in the field on the other side of the road where a reasonable population of Anacamptis laxiflora flourished. I had no idea it grew there, but Albertis said that most of the population has been ploughed up by the farmer.

Kedros, Gerakari road from Spili.

However, the outstanding sight on the hill itself were the many thousands of the rare Anacamptis boryi, which is distinguished, like the monkey orchid, by flowering from the top down, rather than the more normal reversed sequence. I had seen this here before in small quantity, but obviously it is a rather late-flowering species. We also saw it a week later near Margoula on the Lassithi plateau where we shared its delights with Philip Cribb and a Swann's Hellenic Cruise (!). We felt sorry for them when they decamped in a coach for their luxury liner while we stayed behind to enjoy a lovely evening in a rather cramped room above a wonderful taverna.

Here are some of the other orchids we saw on the hill. First, what is now Orchis anthropophora (formerly Aceras).

Orchis italica occurred in great swathes,containing many thousands of spikes.

We were delighted to find several patches of the very rare and local endemic Orchis sitiaca.

We also found several spikes of this distinctive plant, which may be Orchis prisca (another rare endemic, usually occurring in pine woods), but I suspect is O. sitiaca x quadripunctata (which is also present).

No less than seven species of ophrys were present, including the early-flowering O. heldreichii, the only time we saw it.

This was the first time we saw the later-flowering O. minoa, which proved to be common on Lassiti the following week.

Albertis disappeared down the road to look for Ophrys candica. We met him later and he had not found it, but we did manage to dicover one group. This was not as typical as plants we saw later at Lassiti.

It retrospect, I do wonder if this was just the British bee orchid, O. apifera. Here are what we believe to be the real O. candica from Lassiti.

Apart from the hill above Spili, I think the most rewarding of all our locations was the Lassiti plateau. This is high (above 1000 m) and so late, so we did well to visit it for three nights at the end of our holiday. Indeed, we were told while we were staying at Mochlos, while it was still cold, that it was 1C on Lassiti with a gale force wind! By the time we got there it was a temperate 20C and very pleasant.

Although popular with tourists and bus trips, Lassiti is still very unspoilt and remote. There are still no proper hotels there (we stayed above a good taverna in Magoula), and it is much easier to find donkeys and mules here than elsewhere in the island.

It is also very beautiful in spring, and we enjoyed several idyllic walks, full of flowers and orchids.


One of the best orchid locations on Lassiti proved to be the walk up the hill from the car-park to the Psychro cave (yet another place where Zeus is said to have been born). There is a rather spooky descent into the cave, where the stalagmites etc are interesting, but not as stunning as the really remarkable cave we visited earlier on at Melidoni, near Perama. However the orchids on the hill are excellent and include not only Anacamptis boryi again, but Orchis anatolica and Neotinea tridentata, as well as several ophrys, some of which were detailed earlier (O. episcopalis and O. minoa for instance). Here is O. anatolica, followed by N. tridentata (and N. maculata was there too).

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