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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Other Grecian Formula

This is the first of a series about Jim's three-week tour of Greece and Crete.

Reseda lutea, red poppies, and Byzantine ruins create a seamless tapestry in Monemvasia.

By Jim Bishop.

This past March, I was able to join a tour of Greece and Crete with a group, mostly from the San Francisco Bay area, known as the Hortisexuals. I had known the local plant guide, Liberto Dario, from the wonderful photos he posts of Grecian wildflowers on Facebook. I was considering contacting him for a private tour when I received an email about Liberto's Hortisexuals tour. So, I entered the lottery for a space and was able to be one of the twenty people on the tour. The twenty-two-day tour started and ended in Athens and included visits to many remote places in Greece and Crete. This involved many long days in two small vans, often arriving at our hotels around sunset, but we did see a lot of wildflowers . . .

A field of wild tulips stretches to an olive and pear orchard in the distance.

Since it would take me a year’s worth of articles to scratch the surface of what we saw, I’ll just hit a few of the highlights here. The peak wildflower season in Greece is the month of March and the weather is similar to our March weather. This is well before the main tourist season and the excellent roads and towns of rural Greece were mostly deserted since many of the homes are second homes of Athenians used only in the summer. It turns out Greece, Crete, and Turkey form one of the hot spots in the world for terrestrial orchids and the trip coincided with their peak bloom. You would likely be familiar with many of the other wildflowers since so many of them are used in gardens around the world, however, you might not be familiar with the exact species you are looking at…species of oregano, Salvia, Muscari (grape hyacinth), Phlomis, Dianthus, Verbascum, Silene, Euphorbia, Morea iris, Anemone, Cistus, lavender, Cyclamen, poppies, plus hundreds more, are native to this area. Most of Greece is limestone with slightly basic, often rocky soil. The weather is classic Mediterranean (no surprise there!) with wet, cool winters and hot, dry summers. However, most of Greece is slightly colder than San Diego in the winter, hotter and more humid in the summer, and receives more rain. It seems that almost anywhere possible, and in a few impossible places, olives have been planted. Five-hundred-year-old trees are not unusual; we even saw a few that were over a thousand years old.

The bright yellow pompoms of giant fennel add interest and texture to a Byzantine backdrop.

The best wildflower viewing was often in abandoned fields and among ancient ruins. One of these places is on the small rock island of Monemvasia, just off the Peloponnesian coast on the Myrotoan Sea. The island is connected to the mainland by a small bridge, but cars and motorized vehicles must park outside the city gate. Most of the buildings in town are remnants of medieval Byzantine rule with some later Venetian and Ottoman influence. Above the town, the rock island forms a large plateau with many castle and church ruins. The lower parts of the town, near the water, have been heavily restored in classical Byzantine style with cobblestone streets (really paved paths) and limestone buildings, many with domed and vaulted roofs. Unfortunately, we arrived in Monemvasia late in the day, just before sunset, and got lost looking for our accommodations on foot. Still, I was able to take a quick evening stroll through town and see some of the beautiful buildings, wildflowers, and sun setting into the sea. That night, we could see the Milky Way clearly under the dark night sky.

We were leaving early the next morning, so some of us got up before sunrise and headed up to the top of the island to seek out the wildflowers (and to discover the island's many resident cats!). We weren’t disappointed. The ruins with wildflowers and sun rising over the Myrtoan Sea created an almost an impossibly romantic setting. Some of the more outstanding plants were:

  • Yellow Phlomis: A classic Mediterranean plant.

  • Ferula communis (giant fennel): There were several of these in full bloom and skeletons of previous years' plants. All looked as though they were posing to have their picture taken against the backdrop of ruins.

  • Several species of Euphorbia: Seen in full bloom from small E. acanthothamnos (Greek spiny spurge) and E. rigida (gopher plant), to medium-sized E. characias (Mediterranean spurge), to the colorful, small tree E. dendroides.

  • Glebionis segetum (syn. Chrysanthemum segetum): This is the same plant (corn daisy) that is invasive in Southern California and grows with abandon in Mission Bay Park.

  • Papaver rhoeas: These bright red annual poppies show up all over Greece, adding a deep red punctuation to flower fields.

  • Reseda lutea (yellow mignonette): Characterized by wispy pale-yellow spikes and a fragrant scent.

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