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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 26 October 2009 by John Richards

Sternbergias in Crete. Entry 129.

Sternbergias in Crete

Last week we took a short break in Crete, October 15th-22nd (I emphasise the dates as timing is really important in the Mediterranean autumn). As usual we had booked nothing in advance, hired a car, and drove around. We had never been there as late before, although we had two August holidays with the family there many years ago, and, more recently, Sheila and I went in late September.

Knowing how late the Peloponnesos bulbs are, we would have wished to have travelled to Crete a week later, but the final Open Day for NGS at the Newcastle Botanic was held yesterday, and, being in charge, we couldn't miss it. As it was, we did fairly well. Crete in autumn is not as rich as the Peloponnesos, nowhere is, but we managed two crocuses, two colchicums, Cyclamen graecum subsp. candicum, Allium callimischon, Narcissus serotinus and an undefined number of sternbergias, the subject of this essay.

In fact, mid to late October in Crete is quite interesting. Some of the chasmophytes (the famous dittany, Origanum dictamus, and Hirtellina fruticosa) flower now, as does Clematis cirrhosa, which is common, Arbutus unedo and A.andrachne, and Erica manipuliflora which colours great areas as purple as a British heather moor. There are buttercups (Ranunculus bullatus) and daisies (Bellis sylvestris), both very handsome, and good indicators in a habitat of greater interest nearby. There is also a handsome, autumn flowering and very little known Daphne which I hope to feature in later issues, together with some of the others listed here. To whet your appetite, here is a picture of Daphne gnidioides in flower.

However, sternbergias on Crete are extremely puzzling, and the problem is complex enough to fill the rest of this contribution.

Sternbergias in Crete

Within the last 25 years, such luminaries as John Raven and George Sfikas had queried the occurrence of any sternbergias on Crete. Doubtless, this reflected the paucity of late autumn visits to an island that was already becoming renowned for its rich and unique spring flora. In fact, we were able to find sternbergias in six different sites within a week, only two of which we knew of beforehand.

Until recently, two species were listed for the island, S. lutea, and S. sicula (previously and perhaps more usefully regarded as a subspecies of S. lutea). It seems generally accepted that the large, round-petalled S. lutea, with wide and uniformly colored dark glossy leaves is not native in Crete, but as on the mainland it is a popular garden plant which sometimes escapes into the wild near habitation. We think we only saw this once; the same population that Fielding and Turland (in the monumental and magisterial 'Flowers of Crete) illustrate on p.456 as S. sicula 'Afrata, Rodopou peninsula....on an olive terrace by the taverna were quantities...with taller flower stems and longer leaves..'

In fact, this population seems to be growing on the edge of an abandoned garden, which is enough to strongly suspect that it is correctly S. lutea. It was not yet in leaf when we were there, but the stature of the plant and its large rounded flowers were enough to strongly suggest that it was S. lutea.


With regard to the smaller, wild plants, the situation became complicated in the 1990 when a new endemic species of sternbergia, S. greuteriana, was described from Crete. The genus in Greece was monographed by Kamari (she of Greek Fritillaria fame) and Artelari who considered that S. greuteriana differed from S. sicula by being smaller, the tepals not exceeding 3 cm, yet having rounded tepals like the much larger S. lutea. The most useful supposed distinctions are in the leaves which are channelled on the top surface with a distinct glaucous stripe in S. sicula, but are flat with a paler green central stripe in S. greuteriana.

Consequently, it is useful to have plants in which the leaves have developed! This was not always true for the first population we encountered, in the Gipari gorge, north-east of Asigonia, a spectacular population with hundreds of plants scattered up the steep limestone cliffs (apart from S. lutea, all the sites we found were on limestone cliffs). However, all these plants had rather small flowers with rounded tepals and in the plant figured here it is clear that the leaves are flat and the central stripe is not well-marked. Consequently, we were happy to call them all S. greuteriana.

It might be useful now to consider what appear to be typical examples of S. sicula. Fielding and Turland feature a population at the top of the Kotsifou gorge, north of Plakias. As we stayed in a remote, cheap and comfortable hotel near a delightful deserted cove at Ammouda, east of Plakias, and this is one of our favourite and easily visited localities (the road goes up the gorge), it was easy to visit this site, and we found sternbergias all the way up, growing even in the roadside gravel. Some of these were plainly S. sicula, with narrow, channelled, glaucous-striped leaves (just like Galanthus reginae-olgae!) and longer, acute tepals.

This is a distant photo of what is a rather uniform population. Here is a close-up of a similar plant growing in the neighbouring gorge Kourtaliato (which also has a main road up it!). The grey-striped, channelled leaf can be seen clearly, and the long pointed tepals. S. sicula!

So it was obviously upsetting to find plants in both gorges which clearly answered to S. greuteriana! The first one is from Kotsifou, the second from Kourtaliato. Was there a tendency for S. sicula-like plants to grow by the road, and S. greuteriana-like plants on cliff ledges? Possibly.

Lets now go to the road above the Imbros gorge, where we found one very tiny sternbergia clinging to the cliff. This was only 2 cm high and the flower less than 1 cm, in fact the size of S. colchiciflora, which does not appear to occur in Crete. Not only has this plant tiny, but it had acuminate outer tepals, a character which is said to distinguish S. minoica, an even less reliable taxon which was described in 2001 from near Ag. Galini. However, S. minoica is a much bigger plant that can probably be safely sunk within S. sicula.

So what is this tiny plant? Well, I suppose it keys does to S. greuteriana, but it does show that size is a very unreliable feature in this genus.

So where are we? Well, I would controversially suggest that there is only one native, variable Sternbergia on Crete, for which the correct name is S. sicula, although S. lutea is sometimes grown in gardens there. The more I tried to convince myself that S. greuteriana was a distinct species, the less sure I became!

I would very much welcome comments on this matter, which can be posted under on-line discussion, members diaries section. Many thanks.

John Richards

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