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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 14 October 2016 by John Richards

North-eastern Greece in autumn. Entry 326.

As regular readers will know, health problems have prevented any foreign travel since our trip to Tenerife in mid-winter.  Since late summer,  I have been sufficiently confident about the prognosis on my bad eye to plan an autumn trip to Greece. This time, instead of treading well-worn paths to The Peloponnese or Crete, we elected to visit the far north-east of the country, hard against the (now freely accessible) Bulgarian border. I have heard extremely little about the autumn bulbs of this remote region. Usually there is a good reason for this, namely, there ain't none. Anyway, we knew from a spring visit in 2008 that the very accessible limestone mountains Falakron and Pangeion should yield interesting seed, and that at Kerkini, and in the Nestos Delta and Porto Lagos areas there is excellent birding, so we flew to Thessaloniki from Stanstead on September 26th. (Note in parenthesis, if Thessaloniki is a 'third-world airport', then Stanstead is a hell-hole and incomparably worse. If you fly Ryanair, you arrive, on schedule, after midnight, simultaneously with 25 other flights and take more than an hour to clear passport control and baggage).

We had prebooked three excellent hotels (as well as one night near the airport), and would unreservedly recommend all of them, despite the fact that we were the only guests at each for all 10 days. This is a wonderful area, folks, and despite the poor exchange rate, super value, and if you can find another way of getting there, go! The hotels were Hotel Belles, north of Lake Kerkini; the Grand Chalet, Granitis; the Akontisma 'village', Nea Kavali. The latter in particular is totally amazing and just like living at Portmeirion in north Wales.

So, did we see any bulbs? Well, yes. Reading up beforehand, we only expected one crocus, and indeed only found that one, C. pulchellus, both on Falakron, where is is local, and on Pangeion where it is abundant in grassy clearings from about 1000m altitude to about 1700m.

On the whole there was not a great deal of variation, at least within the population. The best forms resembled the clump shown below. Note the yellow throat, lined petals and characteristic white anthers. Usually, the leaves had not yet appeared (hysterantherous).

Some of the plants had particularly large, bowl-shaped flowers.

Crocus pulchellus

Low-level forms, in fairly dense woodland, mostly on tracks, tended to have deeper colored flowers and rather resembled C. speciosus.

Crocus pulchellus

And I thought this plant particularly resembled the Cycladian C. tournefortii, which also has white anthers.

Crocus pulchellus

This final picture, from Falakron rather than Pangeion, shows the maximum degree of variation observed.

Crocus pulchellus

Moving on to Colchicum, as expected, we saw a good deal of the magnificent C. bivonae in many sites, both lowland and montane, limestone and sandstone/shale (the latter otherwise generally very unproductive). It is an extremely variable species, but mostly within sites, and unlike my comments about the Olimbos population (Bulletin, March 2000), hybridisation was not suspected. Here, first, it is growing with Crocus pulchellus on Pangeion. 

Colchicum bivonae Colchicum bivonae

I could fill the AGS server with pictures of the variable C. bivonae! Here are just a couple more to emphasise the variability. Here is a delicate form from the Elatia forest which resembles the flowers of C. lingulatum.

Colchicum bivonae slender form

And this little plant from Pangeion could almost be a crocus, were it not for the tesselated flowers.

Colchicum bivonae small form

I noted a tendency for colchicums and crocus to cohabit, and the only population of Crocus pulchellus we found on Falakron shared its habitat (site 1 in 'Mountain Flower Walks: The Greek Mainland') with a little colchicum which I think must be Colchicum macedonicum, although without leaves it is difficult to be sure.

Colchicum macedonicum Colchicum macedonicum

The third colchicum we found (or rather Sheila did) by serendipity. One day, from Kerkini we took the very pretty drive north-east towards Orvilos (Slavianka on the Bulgarian side, also previously called Ali Botusch). This famous mountain is pretty inaccessible from the Greek side, but you can drive past the remote village of Achladochori to Karydochori through limestone gorge country with lots of Trachelium jacquinii, Linum tenuifolium and other goodies. On the way back, stopping by the river at a site with lots of Cyclamen hederifolium (common throughout the region), Sheila drew my attention to a single clump-forming Colchicum which I am fairly sure is C. haynaldiana. This species grows from Albania and Macedonia to the area north of Thessaloniki, and I think our site must be near its eastern limit.

Colchicum haynaldiana

Otherwise, early October is not a good time for flowering plants in northern Greece, or indeed most other places. I suppose that the biggest surprise came from, first Falakron, and then the Elatia forest, where I stumbled across several populations of the pretty, short-lived, Gentianella ciliata, which is greatly superior to most gentianellas and competes well with Gentiana verna for the colour and size of flowers.

Gentianella ciliata

I was rather taken with a local endemic from Falakron, Satureja pilosa, which still carried a few flowers.

Satureja pilosa

Here is a late flower of Dianthus gracilis on Falakron, growing with Draba lasiocarpa.

Dianthus gracilis

We encountered some wonderful autumn colour. Here is a view of the Elatia forest. The bursts of red come from  cherries and Acer monspessulanum. (This reminds me to post my annual reminder about my website www.autumncolour.co.uk which has several hundred accurately-named photos of trees and shrubs in fall colour).

Acer monspessulanum on Pangeion.

There were many wonderful displays of berries of course. Here near Achladochori is Rosa heckeliana, introduced by MESE in 1999 and best grown for its hips. My 16-year old plant is only 1.2 m high.

Rosa heckeliana

On Falakron, I was delighted to find the rare fern Asplenium fissum, growing here with Saxifraga sempervivum (abundant on the mountain) and Sedum magellense.

Asplenium fissum

We collected seed of four Porophyllum saxifrages, which will appear on the AGS seed list, together with some other goodies. The rarest, I suppose, is Saxifraga sancta from its only European site on Pangeion.

Saxifraga sancta

I was also able to refind a site for Saxifraga stribrnyi on Falakron which yielded some seed.

Saxifraga stribrnyi

I had intended to show a few of the 38 butterflies and 102 birds we saw (lots of pelicans, flamingos, spoonbills, cranes and storks) but this is after all an alpine plant site/blog and I seem to have gone on quite enough!

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