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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 November 2017 by John Richards

Crocus from the western Epirus, Greece in autumn.

The Parga district.

As regular readers may remember, we have resolved to eschew well-trodden paths during our overseas excursions. As the nights lengthen, we hear siren calls from Greece, ululations from the considerable wealth of autumn-flowering crocus seeming particularly plaintive to a dedicated crocophile.

Last year, you may recall, our wanderings took us to north-eastern Greece in early October. Here we encountered many fine plants and birds, but only one crocus, C. pulchellus. This year we aimed a little to the south and much further west. In our increasing dotage, we plumped, untypically, for a package holiday. We chose a Thomson holiday at the Alfa hotel, Parga, flying out of Manchester, and into Preveza, about an hours drive to the south.

Let me say immediately that, even as Hellenophiles experienced almost to the point of cynicism, we loved Parga immoderately, and we loved the Alfa hotel. We would go back, which is saying a very great deal. This little seaside town lies in a pretty bay with just the right number of unspoilt seafood restaurants. There are stunning islands just offshore, almost like the south China Sea. It is a little touristy, but not too much. And it is surrounded by stunning and little-known countryside.  We were there from October 15th-29th after a very long hot dry spell (14 weeks without rain) in what was a very late season for autumn bulbs. Normally, facing Corfu, this is quite a wet part of Greece, and the drought was considered exceptional. Most years I suspect mid-October would be good for bulbs.

Parga lies between Preveza to the south and Igoumenitsa (and the Albanian border) to the north. Inland lies the attractive Acheron valley, and the far side of this the Souli mountain range, not high, but wild and remote. Better still, travel 15 km north on the excellent fast coastal road and you encounter the newish motorway which runs, spectacularly, from Igoumenitsa to the east coast, so that Ioannina is an hour away, the Zagoria, Vikos and Aoos 80 minutes, and Metsovon and the Katara Pass 90 minutes. These days, Parga in an acceptable centre for excursions to the high mountains.

For birders, the area is paradise. Just south of Parga are the Ammoudia marshes, full of Ferruginous Ducks and Pygmy Cormorants while we were there. Further south (less than an hour) is the massive Arta inlet and the Rodia lagoon. Best of all, we found, are the marshes north of Igoumenitsa (again, only an hour), which has even more pelicans, flamingos, spoonbills and three egrets than Rodia, and where we had crippling views of Spotted Eagle. This region also has the best sandy beaches in Greece.

Back to Parga. Before we progress, a couple of shots of the town.

Crocus

Enough background. As you will have gathered, for one of us a major yardstick for the success of an autumn Greek holiday is the number of crocus species seen (for the other, more normal, partner such curious considerations as the scenery, weather, hotel, food and local culture seem to weigh more heavily!). Planning an autumn holiday to Parga, it was difficult to know which, if any, crocus species we might encounter. It did seem quite likely that we would see C. boryi. Familiar to visitors to the southern Peloponnesos, in fact this species is recorded up the west coast as far as Albania. Otherwise, silence seemed to reign. Both C. hadriaticus and C. cancellatus are mentioned for 'central Greece'. Might they occur in the west? I was particularly intrigued by the distribution of C. robertianus, a species I had never seen. Most accounts say it occurs in the Pindus between Ioannina and Trikkala, and again in the south of the mainland, near Nafpaktos. Does it really not occur in between? And then there was the discovery, reported by Janis Ruksans in his new Crocus monograph, and also in an AGS article, of a previously unknown subspecies of the Turkish and Russian C. speciosus, in the vicinity of the Vikos gorge. Eventually I decided that I would be lucky to see two crocuses, and three would be exceptional.

In the event we found five crocuses, which is not bad even by Peloponnesian standards (where a really successful trip can net up to seven). For an unsung, arguably unexplored (in autumn) region of western Greece, this was completely unexpected, and rated the holiday extremely highly! Also, two of the discoveries don't occur in the Peloponnesos and were new to me.

C. boryi

After our late evening arrival, most of our first full day was spent exploring the town, shopping, and lounging by the pool (something neither of us are very good at). I should say that this juncture that our first eight days enjoyed perfect weather, sunny and 25C during the day, and warm enough at night to eat out. Day nine was a total wash-out with at least 8 cm of torrential rain all day, and there were intermittent showers for the next two cool days. Luckily our last three days were blessed with perfect weather again.

Day two we explored Acheron springs and then drove up into Souli country. Over a period of three hours we recorded three crocuses! (and three colchicums, more on those in a second report). Predictably, the first species we found was C. boryi. We encountered this just east of Glyki on the road to Acheron springs (south side), at the junction where the road drops down to the car-park. Allium callimischon grew with it. On a first visit we found five flowers, and a dozen more a week later. Like almost all our discoveries it grew in shallow crevices on limestone on steep north-facing banks above the road. We soon found that the presence of Bellis sylvestris and various yellow composites was a good guide to crocus country.

Crocus boryi

Notice the dissected styles, white anthers, large open flower and long narrow tube. In this region the leaves seemed usually to be present at flowering (synantherous); often in the Peloponnesos the leaves appear later (hysterantherous). On our second visit we found that, unusually, one plant showed light feathering on the outer tepals

 

In the second week, coming back from Igoumenitsa, we took a short detour off the main road to the village of  Milokokia. Just before the cemetry we found quite a strong population of C. boryi, growing with C. hadriaticus (oops!, well, you know now!).

Crocus boryi

Here are the two species growing together. Note the yellow stamens and darker tube in C. hadriaticus.

C. laevigatus

This might seem a good time to progress to C. hadriaticus, but instead I want to discuss what I think is one of our major finds. On that first day we continued on the road which climbs above Glyki, signposted 'Souli'. Descending into the Souli valley, we passed a large 'goatery' on a  bend, and after the next bend found a single crocus which I felt immediately was C. laevigatus. We returned a week later to discover quite a large population on the northern side of a wood above the road (and some below the road too). These differed from C. boryi in being much smaller, invariably less than half the size, dumpy with a short stout tube and very large swollen prophylls, and with a different, narrower, shape to the open flower. One or two were slightly feathered, but as we have seen this is not exclusively an attribute of C. laevigatus (and in my experience, many Pelops C. laevigatus lack feathering).

Crocus laevigatus

Here is one with light feathering.

Crocus laevigatus is recorded from many islands, the Peloponnesos and Attica, but seems not have been recorded from western Greece. Conceivably, these plants are in fact extremely diminutive C. boryi with short fat tubes, but they are so tiny, and identical with the many thousand C. laevigatus I have seen in the Peloponnesos (where it is also easy to confuse with C. boryi) that I am convinced they are in fact C.laevigatus. It is said that the two species can be separated by corm tunic, but I can't see any difference in the plants I grow. For me, the best  discriminants between the species are overall size and the short fat corolla tube of C.laevigatus.

C. hadriaticus

So we move on, as we did on October 17th, into the deep Souliot country. Beyond the C. laevigatus site the road drops down to the Souli river and turns south. It climbs up again to Souli itself, named on my map Samonida. Just beyond the small hamlet with its regional tourist centre it forks and the right hand road climbs to a small chapel on a sensational ridge. Just back from this is a small plateau which is full of bulbs.

C. hadriaticus

Here there was a large population of Sternbergia sicula which had virtually finished flowering at this altitude, Cyclamen graecum (the only time we were sure of seeing it), Allium callimischon, Prospero autumnalis, Biarum tenuifolium and a single flower of Crocus hadriaticus, in a white-tubed form. Note the well-developed leaves and yellow anthers.

Crocus hadriaticus

Here is the Biarum.

Biarum tenuifolium

I had already mentioned the considerable population of C. hadriaticus we found a week later growing with C. boryi at Milokokia cemetry. This population was uniformly dark-tubed, with a heavy brownish-purple suffusion overlaying the yellow throat.

Crocus hadriaticus Crocus hadriaticus Crocus hadriaticus

Crocus speciosus ssp. hellenicus

The Vikos Gorge, in the western Zagoria north of Ioannina, is an old stamping ground of ours and I had visited many times, not least several visits during the MESE seed expedition in 1999. Later, we visited in April, finding Galanthus reginae-olgae, Crocus chrysanthus and other delights. We went there on October 19th, more to gather seed than in any expectation of finding any bulbs. The best area is above Monodendron, where the good road passes through excellent limestone country before dead-ending at a stupendous and alarming viewpoint. I confess at this point that I had entirely forgotten about the new subspecies of Crocus speciosus that Ruksans had named from this area.

Ruksans mentions Yaylas (which I would call dolines I think), and as we dropped down past a large population of Sternbergia angustifolia in full flower (next issue, I hope) to the grassy flat below, we found scattered crocuses at the woodland edge, mostly over flower.

Crocus speciosus ssp. hellenicus

This plant is clearly a form of C. speciosus. The divided red stigma, yellow anthers, lilac perianth with both main and cross-veining preclude any other species, and it is close to many forms that grace our autumn gardens. Quite how it differs from ssp. speciosus is less clear, and Ruksans mentions no substantive differences. Its remarkable disjunction from the main Turkish populations does not in itself provide sufficient warranty. 

As far as we could see this population is not large. We found about 20 flowers and about the same number over flower. However, this particular layla is very large and we did not have time to explore more than a small part of it and there are many similar sites round about. Here are more pictures.

Crocus speciosus ssp. hellenicus

C. robertianus

As I have said, my ultimate fantasy was that we might encounter Crocus robertianus in an unrecorded area, helping to fill in the apparent disjunction between the known sites mentioned in most literature. During the first week we paid a brief visit to an almost derelict small village lying not far to the north-east of Parga. The little road below the village has a lot of cyclamens, colchicums and Sternbergia angustifolia growing on road banks below evergreen oaks. On that first visit  we also found a single crocus. With brown staining and yellow anthers this looked like C. hadriaticus, but there was no sign of any leaves, which always appear before the flowers in the latter species. The lack of leaves suggested C. cancellatus, but that species has a complex divided stigma.

C. robertianus

Over the following days, this plant nagged away at my mind, so finally, on the morning that we flew home, I cracked and revisited the site. After a week, and abundant rain, there were still only about eight flowers to be seen, but over the intervening days my rather stunted leafless friend had transformed itself, revealing a much larger flower of a pearly, opalescent, faintest blue. Still completely leafless (I believe the leaves do not appear until the spring) and with expanded stigmas, clearly this was indeed the sought-after C. robertianus.

 

Crocus robertianus

It seems that this is not a large population, which is apparently typical of other known sites, so that I have been less than usually forthcoming about the exact location. I hope that other visitors will leave this rare plant in peace, as we did. Nevertheless, I did excavate one plant far enought to reveal details of the corm tunic and prophylls. The tunic is net-veined, and as you will see there is no hint of leaf production.

To finish with, here are two more photos of Crocus robertianus, the find of the trip.

Crocus robertianus
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