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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 November 2011 by John Richards

Sternbergias and cyclamen from southern Greece. Entry 197.

Sternbergias from the Peloponnesos.

So here is my final contribution arising from our trip to the southern Peloponnesos, from October 25th to November 4th. I am concluding with two highly controversial (and very beautiful) genera, so I am hoping to generate more discussion and dissent. Please add your views!

First of all, Sternbergia. I had already aired my views about these lovely autumn-flowering daffodil-cousins after our visit to Crete two autumns ago (entry 129). Briefly, I thought then that S. lutea was probably only a garden escape in Crete, and that there were two natives there; S. sicula, and the endemic and very dubiously distinct S. greuteriana. S. greuteriana does not entire the present picture as it is supposedly confined to Crete and nearby islands. I was also of the opinion, mentioned more than once in 'Mountain flower walks, the Greek Mainland' (AGS publications, adv.), that many populations in the Peloponnesos are hybrid between S. lutea and S. sicula, and that the so-called S. lutea 'angustifolia' of gardens probably represents one of these hybrids.

This year was early, and a wonderful one for sternbergias which appeared in great quantities by the roadside once we had reached south of Tripoli. In fact, we briefly took the new road to Kalamata west of Tripoli, and once we had left the motorway, magnificent sheets of yellow occurred on many roadside banks.

These plants were all S. sicula, almost stemless and with narrow recurved leaves with a pale central stripe.

In fact we did not see S. lutea, or any suggestion of its genetic influence, at all in the central Peloponnesos. This contrasts with the situation north-west of Tripoli which we have visited on other years and where populations near villages seem to be S. lutea or hybrid.

On our return north, we stopped on the bend south of Alepochori, well-known for its sternbergias. By then they were starting to fade, but once again I thought they were purely S. sicula, which differed from an earlier assessment I had made.

Once we were in the Mani, sternbergias more frequently occurred near villages, and were mostly S. lutea. However, plants growing beside the track that lead from Stavros down to Cape Tigana seemed to be S. sicula, as shown here.


In contrast, populations by the road near Pirgos Diros, and in the lovely little fishing village of Gerolimeni were S. lutea, and almost certainly remnants of former cultivation.

So, why do I call these S. lutea? They are much taller plants than the nearly stemless S. sicula, with stems that equal or exceed the size of the flower. Also, the leaves are erect, rounded at the apex, wider and lack the pale central stripe. I do wonder if they are typically rather paler in colour than S. sicula, too, but I am sure that the suggestion that S. lutea has more rounded petals is untrue. In the last two photographs, the first has rounded petals and the second photo shows acute petals.

Another village where the plants seem to be uniformly S. lutea (and not hybrid as I have suggested elsewhere) is the famous Lambokambos south of Parnon. With the season well advanced, it was clear that these spectacular displays were typical of S. lutea.

One more sternbergia. On our trips to southern Greece we have usually spent the last night in Nafplio, driving east to the airport the next morning. We allow more than three hours for this journey, anticipating hold-ups, but in truth the new motorway system is so good that it takes less than two hours and we generally have time on our hands once we are in the vicinity of the airport. This year we took off at junction 18 and drove a short distance west through the small town of Peania. If you turn left in the town and then first right, a signposted road takes you onto the slopes of Imittos. As soon as we had left civilisation, both S. sicula and the tiny S. colchiciflora became apparent. This site is not so far from the southern cape of Sounion where the latter species is well-known.


It is impossible to ignore Cyclamen in Greece in the autumn, and this year they were exceptionally abundant almost everywhere, making for a great spectacle. Here for instance is the display of C. graecum in the field next to our hotel at Karavostassi (Neo Itylo).


Here, as in most localities, C. graecum was very variable, both in flower size and colour and in the leaf patterns, where the latter were visible. Here are two colour forms from the Karavostassi population.

In the south of the Mani, in particular, some forms have very long narrow petals which resemble those of the Turkish subsp. mindleri. This plant is from Vathia.


It can be difficult to separate C. graecum from the C. hederifolium aggregate. If leaves have emerged, the neat, vividly patterned, almost entire, toothed, velvety-textured leaves of C. graecum are usually unmistakeable, but without digging up the tuber, it is not always easy to assign plant bearing flowers alone. Habitat is one guide, as true C. hederifolium is usually a woodland plant in the deep south, but as we shall see, in the southern Peloponnesos the situation is confused by two other relatives which more frequently grow in the open. However, the tubers are quite different. In C. graecum, the tuber is more spherical and the roots only grow from the base, as is clear in this plant where a wall collapse had exposed the tuber. In C. hederifolium the tuber is much flatter in shape and roots from the top surface.



C. graecum is an incredibly tough plant, which can often be seen growing through tarmac or splitting rocks. It also seems to be remarkably fire resistant. On a terrace in the remote and abandoned village of Moudanistika, part of which had been ravaged by a bush fire about 18 months previously, magnificent plants flowered on an exposed terrace where they must have been subjected to extreme heat.

We now come to the controversial bit. In recent years, it has become apparent that the C. hederifolium complex in southern Greece is represented by three chromosome races. The familiar C. hederifolium, such a vigorous garden plant in Britain, is diploid with 34 chromosomes. In southern Greece it seems primarily to be a woodland plant from cooler areas, often subalpine, and it can certainly flourish at an altitude of more than 1000m.

The other two chromosome races have recently been given specific rank, and the only accessible source I know which details these as yet is Chris Grey-Wilson's 'A Field Guide to the bulbs of Greece' (AGS). It seems that C. hederifolium is distinguished by its shorter 'petals', which do not exceed 24 mm in length, and by leaves of a thin texture. Plants with thick-textured leaves which are no longer than wide and longer 'petals' are either the tetraploid C. crassifolium (68 chromosomes) or the hexaploid C. confusum (102 chromosomes). It seems likely that the latter is an allohexaploid resulting from the hybridisation of the other two 'species'. Both of these occur in the southern Peloponnesos.

Now, lots of species-complexes have different chromosome races. In some cases these are ignored, or they may be given subspecific rank, or separated as species, depending on how morphologically distinct each is. It is sometimes argued that specific rank can be defended for chromosome races in all examples, because hybrids between the races with different chromosome numbers are usually inviable or sterile, so that each race is reproductively isolated. However, species are also designed to be useful, linguistic tools, and if one cannot distinguish between 'species' without counting chromosomes, their usefulness becomes seriously limited.

In the present instance, it does seem that it is usually possible to distinguish between C. hederifolium and the two polyploids, but as yet there does not seem to be a safe way of differentiating between C. confusum and C. crassifolium, at least when they are in flower.






It is said that C. confusum has glossy, lobed leaves, while the leaves of C. crassifolium are larger, circular and unlobed, and can reach 20 cm across. Probably, this distinction is much easier in the spring, when leaves are fully developed, and in this characteristic these cyclamen seem to resemble various colchicums which are also more easily told apart when in leaf.

As for the present trip, I was fairly convinced that plants growing with the autumn snowdrop at Krioneri were C. confusum, as the noticeably thick-textured waxy, shiny leaves were strongly five-lobed.


I do know that many plants in the country south of Gytheion have huge circular leaves in spring, for instance above Marathea and at Vathy, and I suspect that some plants on the Marathonisi island at Gytheion (where C. graecum is  abundant too) are also this. Presumably these plants can be assigned to the hexaploid C. crassifolium, but when they flower, in the autumn, there is little to distinguish them apart from their large flowers.


In conclusion, I would suggest that it might be better if subspecific status was retained for all these taxa, which are clearly very closely related to C. hederifolium, to which they would become subordinate taxa.

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