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Several years have passed since we had treated ourselves to a spring holiday in Greece. So it was that we took advantage of a ‘missing’ week in the northern AGS show calendar and booked a ten-day holiday based on Nafplio.
We love Nafplio and have stayed there several times before, sometimes while leading AGS tours. It sits on a rocky peninsula on the southern edge of the Argolid, a much larger peninsula that protrudes from the north-east part of the Peloponnesos. The old town is Venetian, and very lovely, with extensive marble squares. It can also be very popular and, unbeknown to us, our holiday bracketed the Greek National Independence day (also their Feast of the Annunciation, the start of Lent). That weekend the place was solid and parking impossible to find but the atmosphere was amazing, with processions and costumes. We stayed right on the harbour with a fine view of the castle-bound islet in the bay.
High above the town are two separate massive castellated fortifications which were brimming with spring flowers, mostly annuals. More interesting subjects included abundant Campanula topaliana, and the White Henbane, Hyoscyamus albus.
Here is a view of the peninsula from the top.
It was a curious season, plant-wise. Although we enjoyed ten days of unbroken sunshine (until the drive back to the airport, when it bucketed down), it was not particularly warm and the weather prior to our visit had been cold and wet, with some snow even at low levels. The displays of annuals were often breathtaking with sheets of colour to the horizon. We had never seen finer displays of anemones or irises, or of the common bulbs, ornithogalums, muscaris, gageas etc. However, orchids were remarkably scarce and most days the only finds were a few specimens in the Ophrys lutea group. We thought this might be due to the late spring but when we visited a small hill just outside Athens while waiting for our flight, we found ten species in as many minutes, rather tending to reject that hypothesis (see later!).
In the part of eastern Peloponnesos, the Anemone pavonina were nearly all scarlet and were abundant and lovely.
Anemone blanda was also common at all altitudes, ranging from deep blue to white. As is usual, Anemone coronaria was a much more local plant and when we found it on the uplands near Agios Petros, not far from the Juniperus drupacea forests, it was invariably blue.
The parts of the east-central Pelopnnesos that we chiefly explored, west from Nemea, Astros, Agios Andreas and Leonidio, all essentially foothills of Parnon, were notable for the quantity of Iris unguicularis. This is a venerable clump near Kastanitsa. Primroses (yellow) grew nearby.
We also found Iris (Hermodactylus) tuberosus and Iris (Gynandriris) sisyrinchium several times.
To our considerable surprise, Cyclamen peloponnesiacum in a variety of forms proved to be widespread, and if not abundant, we found it several times on most days. I am familar with the large forest populations in the Chelmos region, much further to the NW, and also to the south of Gytheion in the Mani, and I am an admirer of the southern, Lakonian subsp. vividum. Unlike the shade-loving subsp. peloponnesiacum, which grows with the autumn, C. hederifolium, the latter, is a plant of hot rocky spots where its congeners include Cyclamen graecum. Unexpectedly, the majority of the plants we found seemed to conform more to subsp.vividum, with brilliant dark red unicoloured flowers, plain leaves and an open habitat. These grew as far north as Tripoli and Astros, far to the north of Parnon and we found similar plants south to Leonidion. This is far to the north of my concept of the range of vividum but I am probably out of date.
For me, the typical subsp. peloponnesiacum from woodland with heavily marked leaves and bicoloured flowers looks like this.
Of course, correctly, these are only subspecies and many intermediates can be found. The second picture was taken not far from the first but in a quite different habitat.
Perhaps the most exciting day we spent was in the southern Argolid, around the small village of Didyma. We discovered this wonderful tulip site many years ago and had little compunction of publicising it in my AGS book Mountain Flower Holidays, the Greek Mainland. When we first found it, we were told that the fields were lovingly tended for the benefit of the tulips, which were used to decorate the local church at Easter and clearly were carefully guarded.
Since then, good friends have suggested that the small mountain of the same name to the north of the village has sites for the endemic and quite recently published Fritillaria argolica. On 23 March, in a late season, we could find no sign of the frit. on the mountain. So, we repaired to the village to see if the tulips were up. They were! About 25% were already in flower. It is probably nearly 30 years since we last went there and the site seems much more extensive than formerly. Tulip fields now stretch for at least 1km on two axes and there must be, at the very least, millions of plants. This is Tulipa undulatifolia.
Interestingly, in one place at least, the tulip had been joined by another rare ‘bulbous’ subject of cultivated sites (which also grows with it at Delphi), the Berberid Leontice leontopetalum, not yet in flower.
And, yet more remarkably, in one small area (and I am not being at all precise about this), the tulips had been joined by about 100 Fritillaria argolica in flower! Although this species is reputedly common on the island of Portos, this must be by far the most accessible site for it.
We could scarcely visit the Peloponnesos so early and avoid a crocus pilgrimage, so we spent one day on Menalo, west of Tripoli, which I publicised in the Mountain Flower Walks book. As I say, this had been a late season with a lot of snow, and it was good to see the, rather beleaguered, Greek ski industry busy and happy.
Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis seems to be scarce on this mountain and I had never seen it there, although it is recorded. We found one small population around a snow patch low on the mountain. Magnificent forms though!
As I had previously reported, Crocus olivieri is much more common on Menalo; it is probbly the best site for this rather local crocus. We found thousands, but mostly spoilt by the weather. Here is a good form still in good nick. Incidentally, most plants had a purple or brown tube and many a dark brown throat as well, which I had not seen before.
In many ways, the most exciting area we visited was the furthest. Leonidio is about 100 minutes by car from Nafplio but the gorges inland are a well-known plant location, with many endemics. I was bowled over by the commonness of Thalictrum orientale, one of my favourite alpines, particularly below the monastery Eloni.
Several plants are named for this region. The local endemic Asperula elonaea was not yet in flower but still attractive.
The attractive annual Silene laconica is locally abundant. Here it is providing nectar for a Wood White butterfly (we say 26 butterflies in March!).
Alkanna is one of many unsung genera in Greece and we saw five species, all attractive. Alkanna sfkasianum is endemic to the Parnon range and not common.
Finally, just a few of the Ophrys we found during a very brief stop in light rain on the last day. As we approached the airport road, we had about an hour to spare, so we took an earlier turn off the Attic Highway, signposted Peania. We turned immediately left, parallel with the motorway and took a small road which climbed a small hill still clothed in mostly unmodified phrygana. Orchids immediately appeared in abundance. The commonest was the lovely Ophrys ferrum-equinum.
Ophrys argolica is closely related.
There was quite a bit of Ophrys mammosa.
And a great patch of the large-flowered Ophrys iricolor.
This remarkable, tall plant, a singleton, must be the hybrid O. iricolor x mammosa.
I was rather unfamiliar with the distinctive O. attica, one of the Ophrys umbilicata group.
Other Ophrys present at this small site were O. melaena, O. phrygana, O. sicula (these O. lutea agg. are oversplit!) and O. speculum, so at least 10 Ophrys were present (and two other species of orchid). A good place to stop I guess.
John Richards has lived in south Northumberland for 50 years and has been a keen grower of alpines, and visitor to the mountains, throughout the half-century. He and his wife Sheila have been in their present garden 30 years and John has been writing this diary about the garden since 2006.
John is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle, where his research interests centre on the evolution and genetics of plant breeding systems. He is an authority on the genera Primula and Taraxacum (dandelions!). John is an AGS judge, exhibitor and Vice-President and previous President (2003-6).