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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Crete's Unusual Plants and Wildflowers

By Jim Bishop.

This is the second of a series about Jim's three-week wildflower tour of Greece and Crete. You can read the first article here. Jim's Facebook albums with photos from this trip can be viewed by following the links in these articles.

After viewing the romantic sunrise over the Myrtoan Sea among the ruins and wildflowers of Monemvasia, we spent the last week of the tour on the Greek Island of Crete. Crete is largest and most populous of the Greek Islands and is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The island runs approximately 160 miles east to west, but is only sixty miles wide at its widest point. It has several mountain ranges with the highest peaks over 8000 feet! The island is also known for its very narrow and deep gorges that mostly run south to north.

Historically, Crete is famous for having had Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoans (c. 2700–1420 BC). By the time of Homer, Cretan history was fully imbedded in Greek legend with tales of the Minotaur, King Midas, and Theseus. Ancient Greeks made religious pilgrimages to the island to visit its many religious shrines, including the birthplace of Zeus.

While the history is fascinating, we were there to seek out Crete's unusual plants and wildflowers and we weren’t disappointed. We started our tour in Heraklion, Crete's capital and largest city. From there, we took very long road trips, stopping along the way at floral hotspots. We headed all the way to the Mediterranean bay on the eastern tip of Crete, where there is a large grove of Phoenix theophrasti, the Cretan date palm. It has a very limited distribution, with this being the largest stand in the world.

On the way, our Greek guide, Liberto Dario, led us to see a few Aristolochia cretica, Cretan birthwort, in an isolated valley. It produces very strange-looking flowers of deep magenta, saxophone-shaped pitchers lined with white hairs. Flies are attracted to the odor of the short-lived flowers and once they crawl in, they can’t escape. The next day, the flower withers, releasing the pollen-covered fly where it will fall for the deception again and pollinate another flower. If this strange plant weren’t enough, growing near the Cretan birthwort was dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris). I really love that fitting Latin name. It describes the plant, with its large palmate leaves with white dots topped by an almost black calla lily-like spathe with a slender, evil-looking, long, pointed spadix rising above it. Like the Cretan birthwort, it too has a foul smell and is pollinated by flies.

The third day on Crete, we moved to a boutique hotel in Chania, the second largest town in Crete. The town is situated on a charming harbor and surrounded by many ruins from the Venetians (1205-1669) and Ottoman Turks (1669-1898), though it was also ruled prior to that by the Byzantines and Arabs. Again, from there, we set out to explore more remote areas of Crete. In the hills, we encountered fields of wildflowers: ranunculus, lupines, bulbous anemones, blue irises, red and pink species tulips, fragrant daphne, Echium species, Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears), Linaria species, and many more.

But the most impressive for me were the many different species of wild terrestrial orchids. Over 200 species grow on Crete, though we saw just a handful of species. The largest find was on one rocky hill beside a long, winding mountainous road. (Actually, most of the roads in Crete are long, winding, and mountainous.)

The next day, I played hooky from the tour and stayed in town to check out the village and the ruins. I had a wonderful dinner overlooking the harbor, lighthouse, and Mediterranean Sea. There was a gorgeous sunset with very large clouds to the west that threatened approaching thunderstorms. That night, it rained heavily with lots of thunder and lightning. The following morning, the mountains to the south were white, donning a new coat of snow.

Chania sunset on the harbor.

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