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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 May 2013 by John Richards

More on Crete. Tulips and things.

Some Cretan tulips

In a bit of a rush here, as its the height of the (very brief) dandelion season, when I hurry around, photographing, leading walks, pressing dandelions, making records, and even leading residential weekends. Yes, all this is true, I am due to go to Starthardle, east of Pitlochry, tomorrow, to lead a dandelion weekend. I am told the Scottish spring has been so late, there are no dandelions there yet. We shall see!

In the meantime, the garden is very lovely, also in its best week, and I have been taking lots of photos there, as well as watering, repotting, mowing the lawn (for the first time this year! on May 5th!). However, it is still only a week since we returned from Crete, and you will not be surprised to learn that we saw many marvellous things there that were not orchids (see the last entry for those!). So the garden has had to wait, and even the dandelions (at least until tomorrow) while I try to finish editing and labelling the Cretan photos. Still some to go, but here is the pick of the bunch.

Famously, Crete boasts five different tulips. One of those, T. goulimyi, has only one locality, on the west coast (it is predominantly a plant of the southern Peloponnesos), where it is vanishingly rare and may even have become extinct. Also, it flowers early in mid to late March and we did not look for it this time. Another early endemic is the little T. cretica, a popular exhibition plant. It too is early and predominantly lowland in its distribution, so it was well over for our visit in late April.

We did however see lots of the other three species. First, back to the orchid hill above Spili which is surrounded by wheat fields full of Tulipa doerfleri. This local endemic to the Kedros massif in the centre of the island is a close relative of T. hageri, and also T. whitallii and the Greek T. orphanidea and the Cypriot T. cypria. I believe there is a move to unite it with T. orphanidea which I would oppose as it looks different to me. It is probably closest to the Turkish T. hageri but I would like to see it left separate. Despite concerns for its conservation, it still occcurs in the Kedros fields in countless millions.


Some Cretan tulips

On to the Omalos plain in the western Lefka Ori, at about 1000 m altitude. Famously, this is the best known locality for a very dodgy taxon, Tulipa bakeri. In theory, T. bakeri is an endemic of high-level cultivated areas in Crete, where it is predominantly sterile, multiplying by bulb division and cultivation. It is probably triploid. Typically, it has darker flowers with narrower petals than T. saxatilis. Supposedly, the latter is a seed-forming diploid of crevices in limestone rocks, and is the original native progenitor of this anthropophilic descendant. However, it is by no means as easy as this, as many of the plants in the wheat fields of Omalo look much more like T. saxatilis than T. bakeri, and at least some are fertile and so presumably diploid.

We had never been to Omalo so late (April 24th), and were not only pleased to see many millions of tulips, far more than we had seen on earlier visits, but amazed and surprised to discover that they ranged right across the plain as far as the entry to the Samaria gorge, where they were in fact most plentiful. In some areas they were typical of T. bakeri.

In other areas, plants seemed to be inseparable from 'classic' T. saxatilis.

On the whole, large patches, or even fields, were mostly of one type or the other. Here is a fairly pure stand of T. saxatilis.

In one area we were very surprised and pleased to find a small ground of white flowered plants. I had never heard of these!


However, we did find many apparent intermediates, and I do wonder if specific rank is suitable for what do appear to be separate taxa. Nearby were lovely populations of Anemone coronaria.






We climbed rather exhaustingly in what became rather a warm day up the track to the lip at 1600 m, just below the Katafyglion. Our main target was the famous Anchusa caespitosa, one of the great alpines from Crete or anywhere else, and it was at its very best. Before I had only seen it in early spring or late summer. The bad news however was all the crocuses and chiondoxas were long finished.

Nearby grew Lysimachia serpyllifolia, a nice little alpine localised to the southern Greek mountains which is sometimes offered in cultivation.

Back towards the edge of the plateau, where there were extensive roadworks, we stopped to admire Daphne sericea and Arum idaeum.

Some arums

Crete has a rich collection of Araceae, including several endemics. The spring flowering species were at their best while we were there. I particularly admired the little Arum idaeum which we saw quite commonly on all the main mountain groups.

Some arums

Supposedly, A. idaeum is closely related to the much more spectacular, but predominantly lowland A. creticum, which is much more popular in cultivation, but is unlikely to be as hardy. We saw a lot of the latter as we drove into the Katharo plain in the east of the island on an unexpectedly good road above Kritsa.

In the lowalnds, not far from Iraklion, we found a large population of the spectacular Arum concinnatum, a species I grow (from seed many years ago) but have rarely flowered.

Some had the spathes suffused purple.

Finally, amongst the aroids, one could scarcely avoid the massive odorous spathes of the dragon arum, Dracunculus, wherever we went!

Perhaps it was mimicking the smell of the dead Griffon Vulture we found apparently drowned in the Kotsifou gorge, a spectacular tragedy! The wings are nearly 3 m across!

So much more to report on, especially the four campanula species we found, but I shall end on an  ubiquitous spring flower in Crete, the little Cyclamen creticum. It is usually white, but some are a lovely pink!

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