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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 November 2011 by John Richards

Greek autumn crocus. Entry 195.

Mea culpa

Its been a long time, over six weeks, the longest lucuna in the history of this diary, and I apologise to any regular adherents (I believe there were once a few, who have probably long since lost patience and gone away!). In truth, I have few real excuses, although we have been away several times. We went first to the south of England where we visited Wisley in mid October with my mother and were delighted to bump into Chloe Wells, who came with us to Greece on the AGS trip in the spring and now has a full-time job with the Alpine Department there. I need hardly say that her boss, Paul, does such a good job documenting the plants and projects there on the sister diary to this that I have no need to talk about our visit, except to say that we were vastly impressed.

After this we went down to the south-west for a few days, partly for a break, visiting several gardens including the really delightful 'The Garden House' where my companion on the first MESE expedition to Greece in June 1999, Matt Bishop, gave us a royal welcome and showed us round part of that lovely garden that he manages so well. Later the same day, I lectured to the Exeter Group of the AGS and our President Val and her husband Jim gave us excellent hospitality and showed us round their fascinating garden. I had planned to write an entry about those few exciting days, but after our return we only had two days before we were due to depart for Greece, and after my planned entry 'went down', I lost patience, and waited our return!

 

Off to Greece

There have been other reasons for the long silence, not least a lack of inspiration during the autumn, particularly now that I grow virtually no autumn-flowering bulbs, having lost them during the last two hard winters. I might have written about the excellent and enjoyable Show at Ponteland in early October, but all that is now long past, and I need space to refer to the more recent past.

On October 25th, greatly daring, we flew to Greece in the middle of their political and economic crises. We thought that, in the deep south of the Peloponnesos, we would be protected from these maelstroms, but hoped that wildcat strikes would not prevent us from acquiring essentials such as petrol, money, or a flight home. In the event, we had an almost perfect holiday with superb weather, virtually cloudless except for the last two days, and reaching a comfortable 22C most days, although too chilly at night to sit out. The main snag about visiting southern Greece so late in the year are the short days. The clocks changed half-way through our visit, and after that it was dark by about 5.30 at night. It makes for a long evening!

A few words about the season. When we arrived, Greece was remarkably green, and weather reports suggested that early October had been very cool, Athens not exceeding 12C on a few days. Clearly, too, there had been some substantial precipitation. As it did not rain at all during our visit, the countryside dried up considerably during the 10 days we were there, particularly in southern Attica, but there were remarkable displays of bulbs wherever we went, and we finished up seeing no less than 25 species of autumn-flowering bulbs (in the broad sense) in flower.

What was striking, compared to earlier autumn visits, was the differential effect that the early autumn had had on the flowering of different groups. As far as we could see, the flowering of crocuses and colchicums was very much the same as in other seasons, but other genera had clearly been much advanced, so that we were treated to vast displays of Narcissus serotinus almost everywhere we went, the cyclamens were universally superb, and in some areas the sternbergias were almost over (but truly magnificent elsewhere, and abundant). Allium callimischon was almost over, and we found Muscari parviflorum for the first time, largely, I suspect, because we have been too early for it in the past. Another plant that seemed to have been advanced by the early autumn was Galanthus reginae-olgae which was flowering abundantly in the Taygetos.

I say that the early season did not affect the crocus, but certainly it did seem to affect the relative abundance of various species, and that will be the theme of the remainder of this missive.

 

Karavostasi

We arrived in Athens at 00.40 am (we use Amsterdam as a hub from Newcastle, and this red-eye flight is by far the cheapest) and had a nightmare journey trying to find a pre-booked hotel on the coast just north of Rafina. After an hour driving round in circles, we found some late night revellers with their girls (in fact very polite and apparently sober) who offered to guide us to the hotel (the Mati Hotel, Mati) which we reached shortly before 3 am! It proved to be extremely comfortable, welcoming and gave us a fantastic breakfast, so almost worth the bother! Now we know where it is, we will go again.

The next day, we drove through to the Mani, southern Peloponnesos, where we had prebooked five days at the Elixirion rooms, Karavostasi, which is on the bay north of Areopolis, below Itylo. This is a well-known area for bulbs, especially Crocus goulimyi, and I had correctly predicted that migrant birds might hole-up there too (nothing very unusual in the event, but a resident Rufous Bush-Chat was a real bonus). The Elixirion is a real find, not cheap, but Maria Sotirakos who runs it is a delightful person who serves magnificent, imaginative breakfasts, and everything is decorated in her own initimitable style. It is also very comfortable, and 100 m from an excellent fish taverna were we made good friends with locals and semi-resident Dutch tourists. In fact, we felt so much at home that it was a real drag to leave.

Local fields had masses of cyclamens and narcissus, although there were no crocus in the immediate vicinity.

 

Karavostasi

As you climb up the road to Areopoli, Crocus goulimyi started to appear by the side of the road. We also found it to the east of the Areopoli road junction at the site said in my AGS book 'The Greek Mainland' to be a rubbish-tip (now removed), and to the north, on the road down to the sea from the village of Hotasia, and on each occasion it was accompanied by C. boryi. It was our impression that both species were only just starting to flower during the last few days of October. Here is C. goulimyi, and then C. boryi.

We didn't see much more C. goulimyi on the Mani (although more further to the east), but C. boryi was evident over a wide area, north to Kardamili in the west, Sparti northwards, and Lambokambos in the east. Further south in the Mani we found lots of Crocus niveus south of the road junction to Pyrichos all the way to the outskirts of Pirgos Diros. This is what I consider the typical plant with large pearly substantial flowers with a large reddish stigma branched near the top into three short lobes which are fimbriate-divided. I mention this, as I had considerable difficulty in distinguishing this species from both C. cancellatus and C. hadriaticus further east, as discussed later.

We also encountered C. niveus at the summit of the southern road over the peninsula to the east side, above Tsikalia, where it grew with C. boryi. This also I regard as typical, although smaller as befits this exposed position.

Here we see the pearly-bluish colour that is typical of many plants of the lovely C. niveus. When we went yet further south to Porto Kagio, and walked round the bay to the chapel on the headland there, we found a few more C. niveus, although in these the style branches are very short, not robust and scarcely fimbriate at all.

Lambokambos region

As this account is focusing on crocus, enough of the Mani for the time being, and we will visit, as we did, the vicinity of Lambokambos to the north of the eastern peninsula of the Peloponnesos. If you travel east from Gytheion towards Monemvasia, you pass through Molai, where you turn inland to Metamorphosi and then up onto the plateau to the east, headed for Richia. The top of the plateau has some C. boryi, (and we have seen C. laevigatus there on other occasions) but as you start to go down the slope to Richia, and then northwards from the junction, there are large populations of an imposing crocus which bears a startling resemblance to C. niveus, and which several other authors, some well-known to me, have named as this. When I wrote 'Mountain Flower Walks, the Greek Mainland', it was questioned whether C. cancellatus grows hereabouts, so that I added C. niveus to the list from here, although I had not seen it. Here are two images of this plant.

 

Lambokambos region

As you can see, in these plants the styles branch near the base, and each branch has many long filiform branches. I can't see that, however varied the style architecture of C. niveus is reported to be (and it is said to be very variable), that these plants can possibly be referred to C. niveus. Presumably, they can be referred to C. cancellatus. However, early on this journey, as you first climb onto the plateau, there are some pearly blue plants which is a colour very rarely encountered in C. cancellatus subsp. mazzaricus (the Greek form of this widespread species). These were only just starting to flower and the stigmas were insufficiently mature to be conclusive.

 

There is yet another complication in this area. As you drive north from Richia and approach Lambokambos, populations become extremely varied in stigma morphology. If you examine the three open flowers towards the right of centre of the next photo, you will see that two have has many stigma branches, typical of C. cancellatus, but the flower above them has three narrow red undivided branches exactly as in C. hadriaticus. There are also flowers towards the base of this photo in which the styles are heavy and branch towards the end as in C. niveus. Is it possible that we have in fact a hybrid swarm here? Could, even, three species be involved?

 

Certainly, once you are in the stunning little village of Lambokambos, there are a very few individuals which do seem, fairly unequivocally, to be C. niveus, and the most convincing example follows.

Yes, I know the style branch fimbriae and rather long, but the style (which is unusually short but may elongate) was divided close to the apex. This plant grew close to another individual which was quite unlike any other plant in the village, and which in my view was almost certainly a hybrid with C. goulimyi (this village has, famously, huge populations of the eastern form of C. goulimyi, subsp. leucanthus, which is figured here after the putative hybrid).

There is yet another complication in the wonderful village of Lambokambos, teeming with crocuses. It is a reliable location for C. laevigatus, which on previous visits we had seen in reasonable quantity. This is a late species (and C. goulimyi was only just starting to reach its full splendour on October 31st), and this year we struggled to find convincing individuals of the former, very dwarf, usually with external feathering). However, we did find reasonable quantities of what was undoubtedly C. boryi, which we have not seen there before, similar to C. laevigatus but larger and without feathering (although a feathered variety has been recorded from further north which must be very difficult to separate from C. laevigatus). In Lambokambos, we found it very difficult to assign smallish unfeathered indioviduals to either species, and I would not be surprised if these two species, too, hybridise here. Here are pictures from this year of undoubted C. laevigatus, followed by C. boryi, both in the village, which as far as I can see plays host to at least five, possibly six (if C. hadriaticus is really present) crocus species.

Crocus melantherus and Manthirea

This tortuous crocus tale has one more visit to pay, to the village of Manthirea, situated rather perilously beside the main road south from Tripoli in the central Peloponnesos. This is well-known as the best site for C. biflorus subsp, melantherus (hereafter C. melantherus). There was no sign of this late-flowering species as we journeyed south on October 26th, although there was plenty of C. hadriaticus evident.

Crocus melantherus and Manthirea

However, when we travelled north again on November 2nd, we stopped about a kilometre short of the village and immediately found flowers with abundant feathering. Few were yet open, but on investigation, most were found to have black anthers and there thus C. melantherus.

 

However, there was at least one interesting plant which resembled C. melantherus in many ways, but had yellow anthers and different styles. This intrigued me to much that I unearthed it to investigate the corm tunic, as this differs markedly between C. hadiaticus (fibrous) and C. melantherus (annulate). As is clear from the second photograph, the tunic appears to be intermediate between these conditions, being fairly entire, but not splitting into annulate rings. As a consequence, I think a good case could be made for this to represent the hybrid between these two species, both of which co-occurred in quantity.

So, in summary, we managed to find eight crocus taxa, and it seems likely that we may have found at least three hybrids in a genus in which hybrids are rarely reported. Also, I think that the distinctive features of Crocus niveus have not been well described in most relevant literature. It now seems to be that the best way of distinguishing poorly developed individuals of C. niveus from C. cancellatus and C. hadriaticus, both of which species can probably occur in the same areas as C. niveus south of Parnon, is that the style is divided close to the apex, whereas that of the other species is divided much lower down, into three single narrow branches in C. hadriaticus and into a number of filament-like threads in C. cancellatus.

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