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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 November 2009 by John Richards

More autumn plants from Crete. Entry 130.

Cretan crocus

Long-term readers will not be surprised to hear that after primula, and, arguably, meconopsis, my favourite genus is probably crocus. One of my reasons for an autumn visit to Crete was to look for autumn-flowering species, of which Crete has four. Two of these, C. laevigatus and C. boryi will be familiar to devotees of the Peloponnesos in autumn. I would have liked to see C. tournefortii, which occurs near the sea in the easterly half of the island, but in a visit lasting only a week we had to decide whether to go east or west of Heraklion, and chose the latter option.

However, my main target was C. oreocreticus, as this saffron crocus is endemic to the island. As it is alpine in its ecology, I thought there was a good chance that the cooler temperatures above 1000 m would cause it to be in flower during our early visit, so we planned for a night (October 21st) at Anogia and a drive to the Andron cave (at about 1400 m).

Once we were above about 1100 m, we found plenty in flower, many growing in the heart of 'pricklies' such as Astragalus creticus where they are protected from the sheep. However, they are less common than Colchicum cretense (another endemic) that also features in this picture.

Cretan crocus

Like other saffron crocuses, C. oreocreticus has big, rather lolling, red stigmas. However, walking up to the cave we did find one group with much smaller, less robust, yellowish stigmas. Had we been on the mainland we would have had no hesitation in calling these C. cancellatus, but this widespread species is not recorded from Crete. Any comments from crocus-nuts in the discussion section of the website would be very welcome!

There was a second (third?) crocus by this road too, but lower down, and even below Anogia, near Axos, and growing with Colchicum pusillum, not C. cretense. This is the familiar Crocus laevigatus, quite a large-flowered form with pretty feathering.

No doubt about the identity of C. laevigatus, but we struggled with the differences between Colchicum cretense and C. pusillum. Both are very common. The former is said to be more of an alpine, principally occurring above 1000m altitude, and should have larger flowers, with larger, darker anthers. What we consider typical C. cretense (near Andron cave) is followed by typical C. pusillum, from above the Kotsifou gorge.

However, populations of both species are extremely variable, and at any altitude it is possible to find plants matching both species. As you drive from Anogia up to Andron, you seem to pass insensibly from C. pusillum to C. cretense. Here is a population from Kotsifou, showing some of the variability.

A few other 'bulbs'
The commonest autumn bulb seemed to be Prospero (Scilla) autumnalis in unexceptionable forms. Allium callimischon is also quite often found, frequently on cliff ledges where it is protected from grazing. These are pretty forms, rather better than the stodgy plant seen in cultivation.

A few other 'bulbs'

cyclamens

The familiar Cyclamen hederifolium is very localised in Crete, confined to two valleys in the far west, and we did not bother to visit it. C. graecum subsp. graecum is equally restricted ,to north-western peninsulas, but as we wanted to visit the Rodapou we took it in. It is very common near Afrata.

cyclamens

The endemic C. graecum subsp. candicum, with its velvety leaves, is much more widespread in the west, and occurs as far east as past Heraklion. We saw quite a bit, but not many with leaves. Here is a well-marked plant near Kournas.

The final bulb I wanted to show was Narcissus serotinus. We thought we would be too early for this, and there was no sign of it in classic sites such as Afrata. However, it was flowering on a shady slope above a stream just by our hotel near Plakias (Ammouda). I am sure autumn bulbs flower first in the coolest sites!

Back home

I seem to have got no further than the bulbs, but I did want to add some notes about the garden here, so the herbaceous and shrubby Cretan subjects will have to await another week.

Not only has this autumn started early and been spectacular, but it seems set to continue for a few days yet. It is raining heavily today, which should finally wet the profile through now that many leaves  are off, but there was still some colour on Friday as these photos from the front and back show.

Back home

Covering up

I unearthed and positioned the covers during the week. These go in three areas: one of the 'D' beds (where they principally cover some species meconopsis that seem not to like the soggy autumns here); over the petiolarid primula bed; and over the primulas troughs. The frame-lights are heavy, and are held in position with roof-rack ties and tent pegs. Notice the use of fridge baskets to prop the lights above the troughs. These lights protect plants from autumn damp, leaves and blackbirds. All the plants they cover are fully cold-hardy.

Covering up

Finally, I should have been clearing leaves this week (I have done some!), but was frequently distracted by the need to prune and/or remove overenthusiastic shrubs, now that most of the leaves are off. In fact I have tackled six different subjects, and Ulmus 'Jacqueline Hillier 'has finally gone (it has taken me 20 years to decide that this is a plant with no discernable merits whatever!). There are still major jobs in hand (I have got fed-up with the Amelanchier lamarckii we inherited with the garden too), but the biggest task of all was to reduce our crinodendron to manageable size.

Now, we are very proud of our Crinodendron hookerianum, which despite its relative youth (about 18 years) is 'the biggest crinodendron in the world', certainly bigger than the one that used to be at Kilbryde, which it was bought to emulate, or its propagant at Moorbank Botanic Garden. But it is HUGE and very dark, and takes up much valuable room, so I have cut out more than half, still leaving a very sizeable plant.

Interestingly, in doing so we have found that it has self-layered quite a bit, so I now have a number of sizeable chunks in pots. Here is the plant before treatment, followed by a shot of two of the layered shoots.

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