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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 November 2009 by John Richards

Autumn plants from Crete 3.

Gorge-ous plants

I am concentrating on some of the non-bulbous subjects that we saw in Crete two weeks ago (October 15th-22nd) in this issue. This is the last I intend to write about our visit, but, unlike the Peloponnesos, almost nothing has been written about Crete in the autumn, so I thought it was worth adding a few notes. By the by, we have heard horrific stories about the weather in southern Greece since we returned. Tempestuous storms, floods of rain and flattened crocuses! Once again, we seem to have been lucky.

First, I want to show a few of the wonderful gorge specialities that Crete has to offer. As ever, the late great Peter Davis (Bulletin 15: 37) got it just right....

'Look at the cliffs, cool,and shaded from the mid-day sun and you will see in the crevices plants which are not only freshly green and full of flower, but are often exceedingly rare and beautiful. They are confined, these ashen evangelical Inulas and Gothic-belled Campanulas to their selected crevices. Nowhere else are they found. They possess an indefinable charm, a grace and deportment achieved only by thousands of years of training in a hard school....an air of greatness....rests upon the chasmophytes'.

You don't have to slog down the Samaria gorge all day in the boling sun as most of the holiday companies would have you do. North of Plakias, main roads run up both the Kotsifou and Kourtaliato gorges and, with one eye on the traffic, you can saunter down the tarmac, rarities at eye-level. Or you can easily walk up the Imbros from near Chora Sfakion, or the Ag. Irini gorge above Sougia. There are lots of tempting possibilities. Here is a shot of some of the chasmophytes hanging from the Kotsifou gorge.

Gorge-ous plants

Many of the plants figured above are  the two autumn-flowering subshrubs, originally classified in Staehelina. Here they are growing together. Staehelina arborea (on the right) has very handsome, rhododendron-like foliage, and flowers earlier, usually in August. On the left is the rather foul-smelling plant now put in a different genus as Hirtellina fruticosa. This flowers later, and the second photo shows it in flower. Grown from seed, I have flowered both of these in the alpine house. They are not Show plants, but I am fond of them. They take up a lot of space, and I have them no more!

Staying in the Asteraceae, the sunnier gorge sides are often clothed with the handsome silver foliage of Inula candida. This is another subject I once grew from seed and have entered unsuccessfully in foliage classes. After a year or two, it shows its dislike for pot culture and turns up its toes! It is very beautiful in the wild.

One of the most widely distributed gorge subjects (higher up it can grow on the top of rocks too) is Linum arboreum. Unlike the foregoing subjects, this is an excellent garden plant. When we were in Crete in autumn 2006, we took some seed, and I still grow the resulting plants both in a pot in the alpine house, and outside, unprotected, in troughs. It flowers in May, and I have figured it before in these pages (entry 72).  Here it is again, in the Kotsifou gorge.

Perhaps the best known of the gorge specialities is the dittany, Origanum dictamus, especially for its medicinal properties (it is proscribed for ladies' problems and in childbirth). Once it was gravely threatened by picking, but now that it is grown commercially (and you can buy packets of dried leaves in any Cretan tourist shop), it has recovered in the wild and is quite easily found. This plant was in the Ag. Irini gorge where it is plentiful.

Finally, the Virgin's Bower', Clematis cirrhosa, is by no means confined to gorges and is quite commonly met with, but some of the best plants we saw were in the Kotsifou and Ag. Irini. We love the unmarked Cretan form, which does indeed have a maiden's purity.

Acid shrubs
Most of Crete is formed from limestone, but there are some substantial sections of sandstones and shales. These are particularly marked in the far west, to the north and east of Palaeochora, and are easily identified because the flora changes completely. Gone are most of the 'pricklies' and in their place are Ericaceae, Erica arborea, E. manipuliflora and Arbutus. These areas can be very colourful in October, and the hillsides can be as purple as a Northumberland heather moor. Here, first, is Erica manipuliflora, showing how variable it can be.

Acid shrubs

Of the Strawberry Trees, Arbutus undeo is by far the commoner, and A. andrachne, with its beautiful bark, can occur on the limestone, as for instance north of Spili. We were particularly taken with forms of A. unedo just west of Asigonia. At our Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank, we have a huge pink-flowered plant (I think it is called f. rubra) of great distinction, and some of the Asigonia plants were its equal.

One of the delights of the strawberry tree is that it fruits a year after it flowers. Maybe 'you only eat one' as the latin name 'unedo' tells us, but what a beautiful plant it can be!

A couple of pricklies
High grazing pressures from sheep and goats have caused the evolution of localised dwarf prickly shrubs in many parts of the Mediterranean. Most flower in the early summer, but it is sometimes possible to find a few autumn flowers. Here is the Andron plain, at about 1200 m in the Psoralitis, taken from the Andron cave. Here we found two lettuce relatives confined to the Cretan region, the blue Cichorium spinosum and the yellow Lactuca alpestris.

A couple of pricklies

When driving back to our base in Georgiopolis one day, we dropped down to the village of Vrysses, and were amazed to discover the road lined with plants of the familiar garden plant Euphorbia characias, in full flower! Astonished, we stopped the car and took some photographs. Returning to our room, we consulted Fielding and Turland (Flowers of Crete), only to find that this autumn-flowering population is well known. Would it be great to get into cultivation? Possibly, but it is unfortunately a very poor form of this lovely plant.

To return to where we started (entry 129), here are a few more photos of Crete's autumn Daphne, D. gnidioides. The first one shows the rocky maritime habitat around Damnoni with a distant bush, followed by two more close-ups. Finally, amazingly, it was not the only member of the Thymeleaceae flowering there then. Here is Thymelaea hirsuta, which can grow cheek-by-jowl with the Daphne.

John Richards

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