Driving Mrs. Dracunculus


April 4 – April 11, 2010

A Horticultural Exploration of the summer-dry Mediterranean island.

Group members: Tony Avent and Alan Galloway, Raleigh NC, and
Tom Mitchell, Evolution Plants, UK.

About Crete

Despite the fact that Crete is a summer-dry Mediterranean climate, there are many plants from there that have surprisingly adapted well to our summer-wet region of North Carolina. Some of these include Phlomis cretica, Phlomis fruticosa, Dracunculus vulgaris, Cyclamen graecum, Ruscus aculeatus, Primula vulgaris, Acanthus spinosus, Arum creticum, Arum concinnatum, Arum cyrenaicum, Arum purpureospathum, Arisarum vulgare, Asphodelus ramosus, Arbutus unedo, Lavandula stoechas, and Clematis cirrhosa. Our trip goal was to look for new plants as well as better and more unique forms of those which we already grow.

For those unfamiliar with Crete, it is a 161 mile long Greek island off the main coast that separated from the mainland over 5 million years ago. Consequently, its flora, which contains over 1700 native species, has evolved with many endemic (occur nowhere else in the world) plants and even a few endemic genera. While some of the plants on Crete developed after Crete separated from the mainland, older species such as Ruscus aculeatus are amazingly similar to what you would find on the mainland. Crete is divided into three floristically different regions: Western Crete, which encompasses the Chania area; Central Crete around Rethymno and Heraklion; and Eastern Crete, including Sitia. Crete is a winter rainfall climate, getting most of its precipitation in December and January. Of the three regions, Western Crete is dry, Central Crete is drier, and Eastern Crete is the driest. Subsequently, Eastern Crete has the most depauperate or poorly developed flora of the three regions.

This year, Crete had suffered through a very dry winter and the normally snow covered peaks on both Mt. Dikti and Lefka Ori were bare, leaving plants that depend on moisture from snow melt nowhere to be seen.
After May 1, when the tourist season kicks in to full swing, Crete is a huge tourist destination in addition to over 600,000 residents. So, if you want to visit when the crowds are low, April is just fantastic. Although tourists come from around the world to visit, the top visitors are residents of Athens looking for a getaway, followed by Germans, and then English. All other nationalities make up a far smaller percentage of the visitors. During our travels we didn’t find any language barriers that weren’t easily overcome. The smaller towns had fewer English speaking folks, but even there, communications weren’t a problem.

Our expedition group consisted of myself, Alan Galloway, a world renowned aroid expert from North Carolina who had previously explored a small region of Crete in 2004, and Tom Mitchell of the UK’s Evolution Plants. Tom is a former JP Morgan investment banker, whose mid-life crises sent him into the nursery and plant exploration business. Although Tom’s business isn’t officially open yet, he is determined to have a good stock of interesting plants when he opens in 2013. In the meantime, he has botanized worldwide with a special focus on the Balkans.

Fiat Scudo van
The beginning

Sunday April 4, 2010

Our North Carolina to NY- JFK flight almost arrived too late for our connection, but fortunately all ended well, and we were shocked that our luggage actually got on our flight as well. Our next stop was Athens for a 3+ hour layover in anticipation of long immigration lines. When we arrived, not only were the lines non-existent, but we had no immigration forms to fill out when we landed…a first in all my travels. The airport restaurants in Athens were poor at best…unless, you like bread and coffee. The best lunch choices we had were ham and cheese flaky rolls, which had virtually no meat and no taste. For a country that prides itself on good cooking, this was a surprising disappointment, but probably the only culinary one of the entire trip. Other than the poor food choices, the airport was quite nice, being very light and modern with an array of fancy shops waiting to separate you from your money. Just before 1pm, we boarded our Olympic Airline flight for the short 1 hour flight into Chania. We opted for Chania instead of the more popular Heraklion to avoid traffic. We touched down in Crete without ever seeing the runway (never a reassuring thing), with the nearly 8,000′ tall Mt. Lefka staring us in the face.

It didn’t take us long to claim our luggage, rendevous with Tom, and meet our Auto-Club rental car representative at the airport…an English chap who had retired to Crete. We picked up our rental vehicle, a roomy Fiat Scudo Van, then headed off to the Splanzia hotel in Chania to drop off our bags. We knew navigating through Crete would be difficult since virtually none of the roads are named or signed once you get out of the large cities, so we opted to rent a GPS with the vehicle. To complicate things further, each town can have many different spellings. Chania, for example is also spelled Hania, Havia, Xavia…that’s really great for tourism! We quickly learned that Tom is a master navigator…a veritable horticultural homing pigeon. That ability earned him the position of front seat navigator for the trip.

Samaria Gorge

We arrived at our hotel around 3pm, dropped off our bags, then were off for some afternoon botanizing. Driving out of town, it was hard to miss the fact that Cretan’s are really into tree mutilation. I know they call it pollarding, but no matter what you call it, they had simply ruined the appearance of most of the town’s trees.

We first headed south toward the town of Omalos, located south of Chania, but at the top of Crete’s famous Samaria Gorge. Samaria Gorge…a really big canyon, is rumored to be the largest in Europe. As we drove, it didn’t take us long to abandon our rental car navigation device, after it kept complaining that we were driving too fast…despite getting passed by everyone else on the road. After all, who needs a Tom Tom, when you have a Tom Mitchell?

Once we rose just above the tropical orange and olive growing region at 500′ elevation, we made our first stop to photograph Cistus parviflorus in both the pink and white flower form, which would be ubiquitous below 2500′ elevation on the entire island. Another plant at this stop that we would see abundantly throughout the island at all elevations below 4000′ was Drimia (formerly Urginea) maritima or sea squill. Sea Squill makes a huge amaryllis-sized bulb that sits just at the soil surface, anywhere the soil is hot and dry. The foliage resembles a eucomis on steroids. The Drimias in the highest elevations were already beginning to go dormant, while those at lower altitudes still looked great. Two other plants that we saw here but rarely again were two of my favorite shrubs, Arbutus unedo and Lavandula stoechas.

Our second stop at 1400′ was near the town of Lakki. At a moist roadside seep, we saw our first plants of the aroid, Arisarum vulgare, in flower. This would be a plant we would see throughout the island in almost all shaded habitats below 3500′ elevation. If you’re not familiar with arisarum, just imagine a dwarf arisaema and you will get the idea. Growing all around the arisarum was an unidentified sedum, the groundcover Selaginella denticulata, and the ubiquitous bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum …the later two plants we would see alongside the arisarum throughout the island.

Another fern that we found here, but would see less often elsewhere is Anogramma leptophylla, a 3″ tall delicate gem growing on a vertical rock, that seemed to enjoy the slightly moist site.(61885) Growing among the ferns was our first sighting of Cyclamen creticum…one of the cyclamen species that I haven’t mastered in my own garden. All around us were flowering clumps of Euphorbia characias…another familiar plant from our home garden that would stay with us throughout the entire island. Did I mention familiar plants? How about Hedera helix…English ivy in it’s native habitat…very cool!

From here, we continued to climb to 2600′ elevation, where we stopped in the curve of the road to check out an interesting, but obviously very dry site. I was thrilled to step out into a field of Acanthus spinosus…the real thing…not the misnamed plant of cultivation. I’ll admit that most folks wouldn’t find stepping into anything this spiny would be fun, but then I’ve never claimed to be normal. Once you’ve seen true Acanthus spinosus, you’ll never mistake it for any of the other acanthus species. Growing alongside the acanthus were both Cyclamen graecum and Cyclamen creticum…mostly in rocks, or hiding at the base of naturally bonsaied leguminous shrubs. Did I mention that most plants here are spiny…probably an adaptation to the heavy browse pressure from both goats and sheep. A continuing theme during our trip was that if it could be eaten, it had been eaten.

This would also be the first time to see one of our target plants, Dracunculus vulgaris, the Viagra lily. Dracunculus occurs throughout most of the island, but was surprisingly absent in some very large areas, where the habitat indicated that it should occur. Most gardens grow the typical…if any dracunculus is typical, red-flowered form, but in a few areas of Crete, white and marbled-spathe forms can be found…we’re on the case. Growing alongside the dracunculus were large flowering clumps of Phlomis creticaPhlomis cretica forms a 3-4′ wide clump that is similar to Phlomis fruticosa, except for a smaller leaf and a flower that tends to be more toward the orange end of yellow. The other shrub that excited me was Daphne sericea, a 1′ tall compact plant covered in light pink flowers…perhaps we could grow this. The only thing that approached a tree here were ancient gnarled specimens of what appeared to be the oak, Quercus ilex, which had obviously lived a really tortured life.

Two other plants that we found here and again throughout our travels were Asphodelus ramosus, which we grow and love at home and Asphodeline lutea, which we have killed several times. Since these grow together here, perhaps the Cretan forms of Asphodeline lutea will survive better in NC than the material currently in cultivation. Both of these plants are unpalatable to livestock, resulting in their proliferation around the entire island, with the asphodelus being the most prolific.

Surprisingly to me, there were also many small bulbs scattered among the scrub which were nearly invisible without closer inspection. The tiny white flowers of Gagea graeca exemplified one of these. Also scattered in this seemingly inhospitable area was a wide range of terrestrial orchids, including the lovely Ophrys heldreichii and Orchis pauciflora. The only reptile that we encountered during the trip was a splendid 18″ long green Lacerta that we would see again and again throughout the trip at the higher elevations.

We continued to ascend higher and stopped next at 2700′ elevation, where we found more dracunculus and another fern, the 4″ tall Asplenium onopteris – both growing nearby along a dry stream, among masses of Arisarum vulgare and Cyclamen creticum. We made it to the 2900′ elevation mark before we had to stop for the day, but here we found our first arum, the widespread Arum concinnatum

 It had become evident during our first half-day how much plant mimicry was at work in Crete. In addition to the Acanthus spinosus, which is in the Acanthaceae family, a number of thistles (Asteraceae) grew alongside and looked nearly identical. One particularly wonderful thistle that we would see throughout the island was the stunning Galactites tomentosa…unfortunately an annual, but a darn fine one. Also growing here was a stunning reddish-flowered Euphorbia characias as well as a dwarf rounded-leaf form. It would be easy to make an entire trip just selecting unique forms of Euphorbia characias. Evening had quietly crept up on us, so just short of our goal of Omalos, we turned around and backtracked our route to the hotel in Chania, where we arrived just as dark settled on the bustling city.

Parking near the hotel was horrible since it is located on a narrow city street, but the hotel owners were able to move a vehicle to open up a spot for our van. We were greeted by Nicholas, a delightful young man and one of the proprietors family, who would be at our beck and call during our four days there. The Splanzia is advertised as a boutique hotel…not sure what that actually means, but it has only 8 rooms, all equipped with an excellent wireless internet service. I didn’t check out the other rooms, but ours was wonderfully spacious, although it could have used much better lighting…it would probably have been fine if you were there for a romantic occasion. www.splanzia.com

Being tired and hungry, we walked to dinner at a nearby restaurant. The Splanzia hotel is located about 2 blocks from the Chania waterfront…think Baltimore Inner Harbor or Capetown Harbor and you get the image. The entire Chania city center is lined with both restaurants and boutique shops. We plopped ourselves down at the bustling Mixaahs Restaurant for dinner, and since there was a chill in the air (50s F), we opted for a table near one of many outdoor gas heaters. Pretty much all the restaurant menus in Crete have translations for English, French, and German. Once our meal arrived, we were finally able to enjoy real Greek food, which was some of the finest seasoned food that I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. We also quickly learned that speedy meals are not the norm in Crete. Even after we thought we were finished, complimentary deserts and desert drinks kept appearing…we put Tom in charge of these. Now, the challenge was to stay awake long enough to process plants, photos, and notes…a task that would routinely take till 1am.

Omalos Plateau

Breakfast at the Splanzia Boutique Hotel was superb! If you like scrambled eggs and bacon, the Splanzia version is to die for…this along with real fresh squeezed orange juice. Breakfast was so good…it was hard to leave for what would be our first full day in the field, but we finally headed southwest out of Chania again, back toward the Omalos Plateau. We retraced our route from the first day, winding our way up the paved mountainous switchbacks, finally making our first stop when we reached 3100′ elevation. Here I found two more ferns, the 4″ tall notholaena-like rock fern, Asplenium ceterach (Ceterach officinarum), and the Cretan version of our NC native lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina.

Also growing here in the shade were many arums, probably Arum concinnatum, along with tons of Cyclamen creticum and C. graecum. In the sunny areas, there were a number of wonderfully fragrant Labiatae family members including a fabulous little groundcover germander and stunning clumps of the lavender-flowered Salvia pomiferaDracunculus were everywhere in the flat areas, including some amazing stem-patterned forms, and trying not to step on them reminded me of the cow-pie dodging days of my youth.

Back in the van, we climbed further in elevation, where we stopped at 3500′. As we scrambled up the cliff, I stumbled onto one of Tom’s goals of the trip, the magnificent Cretan Paeonia clusii, whose rich red stems and white flowers resemble the Japanese P. japonica. The peony was growing in a rich moist seep above the road. Meanwhile below the road, Tom found a patch of discoid-tubered arums that he believes are the little-grown Arum alpinum.

Also here were our first find of the delightful little Muscari neglecta, flowering at 2″ tall, in and around the large rocks. This certainly isn’t a plant for normal gardeners, but for alpine enthusiasts, this should be a real gem. Not far away on a dry ledge was our only sighting of the lovely yellow-flowered Onosma erecta…a lovely member of the borage family.

By this time, we were getting hungry, so we stopped at the Neos Omalos Hotel and Restaurant in Omalos, for what would be one of our favorite meals of the trip. With fabulous food and superb service (we were the only customers), this would be a great place to stay in the future if we visit Omalos again. You can find them at www.neos-omalos.gr. While we ate lunch at one of the outdoor tables, we also admired the large clump of flowering Paeonia clusii growing nearby.

We drove higher after lunch, stopping only when the road suddenly ended at 3700′ elevation at the top of the Samara Gorge. Nearby were fields of Anemone coronaria in colors of lavenders and blues, often alongside Tulipa saxatilis, which could be found in masses in every fenced in pasture in the area. Because the tulip is loved by livestock, it only grows in areas protected from goat and sheep grazing. Nearby in the dry rocks was another lovely dwarf terrestrial orchid, Orchis tridentata.

We turned around since this was the end of the road and began to retrace our steps, when we noticed a small side road to the east into the dry, rocky mountains, so off we went. The narrow, winding, loose gravel road, made our attempt to travel higher look like a comedy spoof of The Duke’s of Hazard. After spinning a handful of rubber from the tires and losing more and more traction, we finally abandoned our attempt around 4000′ elevation, then barely managed to get turned around to head back down the mountain. Have you ever attempted a 3-point turn at the edge of a 4,000′ cliff? There’s a whole added degree of difficulty that’s simply hard to describe.

 We stopped to catch our breath, stepping out of the van into a huge colony of flowering Arum idaeum…what an amazing site, since none of us had ever flowered that species. Not only did we find Arum idaeum, but the colony also contained the rare yellow-spadix hybrid of Arum idaeum and Arum creticum. What is reportedly a rare species is certainly quite abundant in this and the surrounding area. Also, there were a number of small crocus and possibly a colchicum, although they were not in flower and most folks would have certainly walked by their insignificant foliage. This was exciting for me, being the first time to see either of these genera in the wild.

Back in the van, we continued to drop in elevation as we headed south from the Omalos plateau, until we spotted a creek lined with old Platanus orientalis (plane tree) at 2500′ elevation. Platanus are usually a good indication of moisture, which in a dry climate usually translates into some interesting plants. Indeed, it didn’t take us long to realize that we had hit a horticultural mother lode. Arisarum vulgare was in flower everywhere here, alongside masses of flowering Cyclamen creticum. The diversity in the Cyclamen creticum was truly amazing…every imaginable leaf form was here from speckled leaves to patterned leaves, to speckled and patterned leaves, to solid pewter leaves, and some with dark purple backs. The cyclamen grew everywhere, moist, dry, in rock, but always in a bit of shade. Even though we couldn’t dig cyclamen to bring back, I learned that Cyclamen creticum is anything but rare, and that cyclamen tubers can be planted as much as 1′ deep without any adverse effects. I simply must try this species again.

Also, along the creek were huge patches of Arum concinnatum, some with very nice purple stems. These grew nearby amazing masses of the white-flowered Saxifraga rotundifolia var. chrysospleniifolia, which we caught in full flower. Quite a ways up the creek, Alan slipped and fell, hobbling back to the truck, looking more like a blood-soaked extra from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre film. Fortunately, the injury proved to appear worse than it actually was. Before falling, he had discovered masses of yellow-flowered Primula vulgaris in full flower…another first to see this in the wild.

This site allowed me to check two more ferns off my list and both were found growing on rocks near the stream, Cystopteris fragilis and Asplenium trichomanes. Nearby were also clumps of Muscari comosum, growing beside the impressive Lamium bifaria…which unfortunately turned out to be an annual. Above the creek were a number of amazing succulents including the bizarre umbilicustwo sedum, and one of the many sedum relatives that grow here. We could have easily spent our entire day at this wonderful site, but our schedule simply wouldn’t allow that luxury.

We actually spent so long at the creek site, that we had to abandon our plans for taking the longer, more interesting route back to Chania, so we turned around and headed for a side road that would connect us back to the main route on which we arrived. It wasn’t long before a patch of arums caught our eye around 2100′ elevation.

When we stopped to investigate, it turned out to be a particularly large 3′ tall patch of Arum concinnatum, but nearby was our first sighting of the Cretan form of Blechnum spicant…another fern off the list. On the way back to Chania, we continued to drop in elevation, when at 1600′, one of my target plants caught my eye, just as we rounded a sharp corner…it was Adiantum capillus-veneris (Southern Maidenhair fern). This is a species native to North Carolina as well as around the world. I have been fortunate to have found this in virtually every country that I’ve visited, and now I can check off Crete.

We hadn’t planned to stop any more since it was approaching dusk, but a creek site at 1300′ was just too good to resist. Not only did we find more Adiantum capillus-veneris, but a cousin of our North Carolina native American Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis, grew here in the creek…the only time that we would see this during the rest of the trip.

It turned out that this site also yielded a number of interesting plants including our first find of Ruscus aculeatusAsparagus aphyllus var. orientalis, and a delightful black-striped fern, that I think is Asplenium onopteris. Since we have grown Ruscus aculeatus for years, it was great to finally see it in the wild…think dry shade. We would love to have had more time here, but the diminishing daylight wouldn’t allow such, so we were quickly off, heading back to the hotel. After getting cleaned up and getting Alan bandaged, we walked and Alan limped back to the waterfront, where we enjoyed another marvelous dinner. If you go, and you like cheese, the flambéed “Cheese in Oven” is to die for.

Hora Sfakion

After another short night, and wonderful breakfast, we checked out of the Splanzia, picked up our van that was parked several blocks away, and headed out of Chania to the east. The hotel had confirmed that the Samaria Gorge was still closed and would not open until early May, so we headed East on Highway 90 toward our next nights hotel in the southern coastal town of Hora Sfakion. Our first stop of the day was at 500′ elevation when we spotted a giant euphorbia in full flower along the roadside.

It turns out this was the aptly named Euphorbia dendroides (tree like), which tops out at 6-7′ in height. This would be a real gem if it would grow back home and had any winter hardiness. Growing nearby was also the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that you simply must see to believe…imagine several dozen giant balls of bright yellow flowers on a 7′ tall stalk. This was also our first sighting of the Cretan endemic genus and campanula relative, Petromarula pinnata, which was in full flower along the rocky road cuts.

We continued along this Highway 90, turning south at Vrises on the main north-south road, but not making another stop until we had risen to 1200′ elevation. This region was awash with giant drifts of Phlomis fruticosa, all in full flower. Growing among the phlomis’ was what appeared to be a pink flowered species, but turned out to be a close relative, Salvia pomifera, with deliciously fragrant foliage. We had seen goat-eaten Salvia pomifera earlier in the trip, but didn’t recognize it full grown and flowering. We were also getting into verbascum territory, with several different species at this site, including Verbascum sinuatum with wonderfully wavy foliage.

Here we also discovered a short, but sturdy version of asparagus fern, probably another Asparagus aphyllus var. orientalis, along with our first sighting of the giant colchicum, C. macrophyllum. The pleated green leaves would make this a great garden plant even without flowers. This site also yielded two sun rock ferns on a nearby roadside bank, more Asplenium ceterach (Ceterach officinarum) and our first sighting of Cheilanthes acrostichoides.

From here we continued south, crossing over the mountains and eventually into Hora Sfakion. Along the route we stopped for lunch in a one-horse…or should I say, one-dog town of Armoudan. The dog welcomed us…well, actually his bark didn’t sound that welcoming, but at least he was well-chained. Alan had become emboldened ordering Nescafe coffee and decided he was broken in enough to try Greek Coffee…big mistake. It turned out that Greek Coffee refers to the leftover coffee grounds that most of us throw out and combined with a couple of tablespoons of hot water. Tom and I watched as Alan’s hair grew 2″ while he drank it…or at least tried to.

After lunch, we took off on one of the side roads into the mountains to the east. By the time we reached 3300′, the combination of winding gravel roads and nerves gave us cause to stop our ascent. After managing another five-point turn near the cliff’s edge, we got out to survey the area. To our disappointment, this mountain top was very dry…even for Crete. The only shrub of any height that grew here was Cupressus sempervirens, all architecturally tortured by the climate…a combination of wind, altitude, and drought. Small spiny shrublets such as Euphorbia acanthothamnos covered the ground with more Daphne sericea, an abundance of Urginea maritima, more of the tiny Muscari neglectum, and only an occasional dracunculus.

We made our way back down the mountain, only to find that as we passed a north-facing cliff, there were different plants that we’d not seen on the southern slopes. Here we found high elevation forms of both the Ceterach officinarum and the Cheilanthes acrosticha. Also nearby, tucked in a rock crack, was a sedum-like plant that I believe to be Rosularia serrata. This was a truly deserted section of mountaintop, as we saw the first vehicle in over 2 hours as we descended.

Finally back on the north-south highway, our next stop was around 2500′ elevation, where we found our second plant of Ruscus aculeatus, growing on a steep hillside, but not much else of interest. We arrived at Hora Sfakion around 5pm to find our first dracunculus in flower along the roadside…a great surprise since we feared that we were too early in April to see open flowers. Since we still had a bit of daylight, we skirted Hora Sfakion and headed into the mountains toward Anopoli…the lower end of the Lefki Ori mountains overlooking the Samara Gorge.

At 2500′ elevation, the road ended at the village of Ag Ioannis, and the hiking trail began. We botanized around this very dry area for nearly an hour and found a few huge dracunculus, but none in flower. It’s pretty bad when the most interesting thing you see are pine trees infested with both pine tip moths and coated with mealybugs.

Did I mention the bridge over the gorge just before Ag Ioannis? Probably not, because I’m still having nightmares about it. We’re just driving along and ahead of us is a narrow…no, make that very narrow bridge, made out of something that looked like old 2×10’s. I’m not a bridge fan to begin with, but I took on the challenge anyway. Only after we made it across, did I find out that we’d driven over a damn gorge that would make the Grand Canyon proud…twice. If you don’t like heights or rickety bridges…skip this area. If you do give it a try, don’t look down…don’t ever look down! FYI, just before the bridge is the most stunning patch of Asphodeline lutea that I’ve ever seen…in full flower!

As dusk drew near we retreated back down the mountain to look for our evening destination, The Hotel Stavris. We pulled into the town looking for someone to ask and spotted a man standing in the middle of the road. He greeted us with, “You must be Mr. Avent.” Now that’s a small town to have the hotel owner waiting for you in the middle of the street. The gentleman navigated our van down the back alleys that were barely passable, before finally arriving at our hotel…you would never find this on your own. Again we were shown to our rooms in a hotel that had only a few guests. For dinner, we wandered down a few hundred feet into this lovely small town, and sat down at one of the few restaurants that were open. 

What a restaurant it was…a superb menu, superb folks, with tables situated to enjoy the cool evening breeze while listening to the waves of the Mediterranean Sea lapping at the base of the restaurant…enough to briefly make you forget how much work this is. As it turned out, our server has a brother with a Greek Restaurant in Lexington, North Carolina…a truly small world. Then it was back to reality, and back to the hotel for another very late night of work. Although they don’t have wireless internet in the hotel, they were glad to provide a wired connection in the rooms, which worked just fine.

Kotsifou Gorge

After a wonderful breakfast dining at the tables in front of the hotel, we departed around 9am to retrace our route north to Holaro, then opting for the slower, winding E-4 mountain road to the east, which would take us through much higher elevations. We rose toward the first peak, dodging the fallen rocks which had almost rendered the inside lane unusable for several miles. We wondered how often they send crews up to scrape the debris from the road…what a mess. We descended from the peak, only making our first stop when we dropped to 2500′ elevation near Asfendos. The site was a moderate rocky slope, rocky with few wet seeps, which always attracted our attention.

The area was filled with masses of Asphodelus ramosus, many of which had nice pink buds…with one clone in particular that I found outstanding in terms of numbers of flower stalks and great form. There was also a large population of Acanthus spinosus, including one with variegated tips growing alongside many of the superficially similar looking thistles, making you question your own identification skills. One particularly nice slope was filled with huge Cyclamen creticum, more Arisarum vulgare, and Asparagus aphyllus. Tom climbed higher than Alan or me and managed to find a small piece of yet another fern, Polypodium cambricum var. australe, growing on a large rock outcrop…one of the few Cretan ferns that had eluded us.

We continued descending further along the same road and for the first time into Central Crete, when Tom yelled for us to stop…he had seen arum foliage. Upon disembarking the van, we realized the foliage to be more Arum concinnatum, but when we looked above us on the cliff, we saw huge clumps of the previously unseen Arum creticum in full flower. This is truly one of the most elegant plants in the genus arum, and to catch them in perfect flower was a true “hortgasm” moment. The cliff on which the arums grew was very steep, but the goats that we had cursed earlier in the trip, had worn out just enough of a walking path to allow us to climb up for a closer look.

Walking down the path, after having our way with the Arum creticums, I discovered another of my target plants…Iris cretensis, growing just below a large clump of Ruscus aculeatus. Looking more like a dwarf mondo grass, the heavily grazed plants were tightly tucked in a rock crack. Growing nearby was another orchid, the very cute Orchis quadripunctata.

I could have stopped at this point and been quite satisfied with the day, but we continued on…the things we do for plants.

For several miles, we passed fields of Arum creticum as far as the eye could see…a truly amazing site. After rising a few hundred feet in elevation, we stopped again at an interesting rock outcrop, only to find more Paeonia clusii along with more Iris cretensis, and more Arum creticum. As we wandered around admiring the arums, we also soaked in the deliciously sweet aroma of the yellow-flowering Calicotome villosa…one of the many yellow-flowered legumes that grew abundantly in the mountains.

Worn out and dragging from the morning’s climbing and excitement, we stopped for lunch at a small café in Agios Iaonnis…(the Cretans really like this town name). The café was mostly desolate except for us and a table of four Greek Orthodox priests. I couldn’t help but notice the prominently displayed bong, perched just above the roaring fireplace…hmmm. Did I mention that it was a bit on the cool side? Unlike most cafes, where we ordered off the menu, here, the proprietor showed us what was available…already cooked, and we chose from that…sort of a Greek buffet.

After lunch, we headed south a few miles south of town to visit the nearby Katsifu Gorge (i.e. a really big canyon) at 1200′ elevation.

Here we found large masses of the wonderful winter-blooming Clematis cirrhosa, a plantago, that resembled the delightful P. maritima that I grew for years, and one of Tom’s goal plants, Coronilla vallentiana var. glauca, a wonderful 18″ tall clumping non-weedy coronilla. Iris cretensis was also abundant here, but these plants reached 10-12″, compared by the 1-2″ tall plants we had seen earlier. The iris was either a taller form or simply didn’t get browsed…time will tell. There was also a very cool plant at this site that we never saw again, Leontice leontopetalum. The glaucous, thick rubbery leaves resembled that of a sedum or euphorbia, while the flowers said hypericum…I’ll have to become more familiar with leontice.

We backtracked the short distance north to Ag Ioannis, where we joined up with the better road, then headed off to the west toward Mt. Kedron, just past the town of Spilli. Our next stop was when we spotted a nice creek in the corner of the road around 2400′ elevation. This stop revealed huge clumps of Arum concinnatum, one with huge leaves and another with black spotted leaves, which I’d never heard of on this species before. Also growing along the creek were ferns that I believe to be Athyrium filix-femina, but the wow moment of this stop was from a huge patch of Colchicum macrophyllum that looked more like a mass of veratrum foliage. One would have to be very determined to dig these up since the bulbs go more than 1′ deep. Tom also found our first plants of the native Narcissus tazetta here, although flowering had finished. Did I mention the Lupinus pilosus in flower here…not bad!

From here, we headed southeast on Highway 77 toward the southern coastal town of Agia Galonis to look for white-flowered dracunculus that Alan had seen in 2004. We made a quick stop around 1000′ elevation after spotting several nice patches of flowering Gladiolus italicus, (a slightly taller version of G. communis var. byzantinus), only to discover a fascinating glaucous foliage Urginea maritima at the site.

We continued south toward Agia Galonis, then on to Timbaki without seeing any dracunculus, which were formerly plentiful throughout the entire region during Alan’s trip in 2004. It seemed almost like someone had instituted a dracunculus eradication program as there were none to be found. Timbaki is a highly agricultural region. If the ground isn’t covered with olive groves, it’s covered with plastic greenhouses, which house an array of crops from tomatoes to bananas.

Finally, just outside Timbaki at a staggering 83′ elevation, we spotted one flowering clump of marbled-flower dracunculus growing at the end of an olive orchard…a 5.5′ tall flowering dracunculus is hard to miss…on many levels. It was very interesting to note that this form was a prolific producer of offsets, something that most dracunculus don’t do well. That night, we christened our giant find, Dracunculus vulgaris ‘Miss Marble’. We darted in an out of olive orchards looking for more, but without any luck…something had obviously happened to the plants since 2004.

Since it was nearly dark, we abandoned our search and wound our way along the south coast to our hotel for the night in the coastal village of Matala. We did make one more quick stop in the fading light to examine another solid green-leaf giant dracunculus growing along the roadside, but the highlight of the stop was another plant…an annual. Now before you fall off your chair at my getting excited over an annual…just imagine finding dark pink-flowered Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace)…growing among the white ones. Oh, my!

We arrived at our hotel just after 8pm as dusk settled on the sleepy coastal town. We were able to easily find our hotel, the Hotel Zafiria, and like other areas we visited, we seemed to be the only ones at the hotel. The desk clerk, in broken Gree-glish, let us know that the Labyrinth Restaurant across the street was our best bet for dinner…and we should hurry since it closed between 9 and 10pm. We quickly unloaded our gear in our third floor room…thank goodness they actually had an elevator, and then rushed off to dinner.

We were greeted by a delightful young man, who informed us that he was from Oklahoma…in perfect English. It turned out to be a joke, but this was one Cretan, who had truly mastered the American dialect and enjoyed trying it out on Americans. Once again, we enjoyed a fabulous meal with the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop for dinner. I had my first taste of seafood on the trip, with a combination meal that included swordfish, barracuda, and several other new seafood items for me. Unfortunately, our hotel had no Internet Service, so we had to go across the street to the Zafiria Internet Café and Bar, which fortunately was open into the wee hours of the night, albeit a bit smoky. We forgot to ask how to use the heat in the room, which we found was sorely needed as the nighttime temperatures dropped into the chilly range.


We were up early to have our complimentary breakfast at Zafiria Internet Café across the street from hotel, obviously owned by the same family that owns the hotel. Alan arrived a bit early than their 8am opening, only to be scolded by the woman cleaning the restaurant, who barked louder than most of the dogs we’d seen on the trip. After a light breakfast (they won’t serve their full menu until tourist season picks up) and a check of email, we were off for another day of botanizing. Matala was a quaint small coastal town with quite a bit of character…and characters…especially those carved into an old tree trunk that welcomed you into town.

Since we’d struck out in our quest for white-flowered dracunculus the day before, we headed back north along a different route to see if we would have more luck. After an hour of driving and not seeing a single dracunculus of any description, Alan finally spotted a few near a creek around 1300′ elevation, so we pulled off the road to investigate. What we found was the virtual motherlode of white-flowered dracunculus, all giants for the species at 3-5′ in height, and growing near a lightly shaded creek. None were fully open, but unfurling the spathe allowed us to check the developing spathe and spadix color. Not only did the site have great dracunculus, but I found a huge-leaf form of Arum concinnatum…my second one with black spots. Did I mention that the area was littered with flowering ground orchids including the wild Orchis simia? Simply amazing!

After several hours of botanizing and photographing, we were ready to move on, still hoping to find fully open plants to photograph. From our moist site, we quickly moved back into drier habits as we headed west toward Kamares. As we approached 1700′ elevation, Alan let out a blood-curdling yell when he spotted a fully open white dracunculus. As we climbed the very loose gravelly slopes, we discovered hundreds of dracunculus in every shape, size, and color imaginable…growing in baking full sun and covered in rocks. Because the rocks absorbed so much heat, this population was further advanced, making it perfect for photography…the overcast skies didn’t hurt either.

There were only a few of the common red-flowered dracunculus here, as most were either white with black spadices, rarely white with yellow spadices, or occasionally mottled white and red staining. One particularly nice white spathe clone with a black spadix we christened Dracunculus vulgaris ‘White Dragon’. It is truly amazing to witness such floral diversity in a single species at a single site. This site also proved a great opportunity to photograph Arum concinnatum, which was in full flower, although the leaves had already begun to go dormant.

Near where we parked the van, there was a huge rock cliff with two recognizable Cretan natives growing from the rock, the native Ficus carica (fig), and yet another population of the southern maidenhair fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris. On a nearby turn in the road was a magnificent clump of Euphorbia characias with bright yellow bracts…a unique form unlike anything we had seen so far. Also growing nearby was a patch of phlomis that included what appeared to be a hybrid of Phlomis cretica and Phlomis fruticosa, along with other small-leaf plants of P. cretica that seemed to show some influence of Phlomis lanata. As was the case with most of the island, the sheep population here was enormous and only plants that were non-palatable remained.

We stopped for lunch in Kamares, at a very tiny roadside stand, where we interrupted the owner who was staining the deck of his restaurant…and I use the term “restaurant” loosely. When asked if he was open, the reply was a resounding yes. Well, it wasn’t a resounding yes…actually it wasn’t even a yes, but more of a…follow me to the refrigerator and see what leftovers I have to cook for you. Inside the 1950s era home refrigerator were a small variety of foodstuffs….hopefully not left over from last years tourist season. We settled on rabbit as the least scary of the options…figuring with enough heat and flavoring anything is edible. The bread, which made it to the table first was most certainly a hit during last years tourist season, as it was so old, the penicillin had even died. Before long, our lunch of rabbit and potatoes was served, and we were off again.

From here, we then headed north into Mt. Idi on one of the small winding mountain roads. We stopped when the roads got so poor that our Scudo could no longer get traction around 3300′ elevation, and parked to see what we could find. Not far from our car was a wonderful population of Arum creticum, which yielded several interesting forms…one with a purple petiole and another with very ruffled leaves.

Wandering around just below the arum site, trying not to step in too much sheep poop, I noticed what appeared to be a narrow leaf epiphytic fern, hiding inside one of the dense shrubby, prickly oaks. As I wriggled my way inside the tangled mass of branches (imagine stepping inside a heavily pruned Japanese holly), I suddenly remembered that there weren’t any such ferns in Crete. Suddenly, it hit me…I had found Biarum tenuifolium! Biarums or half arums, are tiny dwarf arum relatives, this one with narrow 6″ wavy leaves…very cute!

The drive down the mountain was far more scenic and rich from a horticultural perspective than many of the other high mountain roads that we had driven, so we made one more stop at 2200′ elevation. Right near where we parked was the mother of all dracunculus…a 6′ tall beauty that was taller than Alan! Nearby this was our first sighting of the wonderfully ornamental Aristolochia cretica…a delightfully macabre 1′ tall perennial in full flower. This should make a great garden perennial.

With the afternoon light disappearing, we had time for only one more jaunt into the mountains, so we found a side road into Mt. Idi from the south at Gregori (near Zaros), and headed up. As we hit 3000′ feet, the area looked like a moonscape with only the toughest plants surviving. We didn’t see much new, but enjoyed walking around some now familiar plants such as Iris cretensis and splendid clumps of Phlomis lanata, although not yet in flower at this elevation. Surely Phlomis lanata must be the hardiest of the woody phlomis. As we headed back down toward the main highway, we only paused briefly to photograph a wonderful patch of the lovely Ranunculus asiaticus, growing with Gladiolus italicus.

From here, we rejoined the main highway at Ag Vavara and headed north on highway 97 to Heraklion, then east on highway 90 for the two hour drive to the town of Northern coastal town of Malia. Most of the hotels we reserved had been easy to find, but this night proved different than all the rest. Despite the best efforts of our map guru, Tom, roads on the ground weren’t matching up to roads on the map or Tom’s GPS. After stopping to ask directions, we got even more confused, with the directions taking us up several dead end mountain roads in the dark…not my favorite pastime. Most frustratingly, we could see the hotel perched high above the city, but despite our best efforts, we couldn’t reach it. Finally, after nearly 90 frustrating minutes, Tom figured out the correct route and off we went…first through a poor, older neighborhood, then through a half built overpass, then across a stretched of unpaved mountain road, then onto a halfway decent drive, finally arriving up at an amazing 5-star resort…the Royal Heights Hotel and Conference Center! This was truly out of the Twilight Zone! Who in their right mind would build such a resort that was so difficult to reach, and with absolutely no signage in the town. It was obvious the money had run out before completion, either by the contractor, the government, or both, but I would have been sure to get it signed better before stopping on the road construction.

We entered the lobby and were immediately visually dressed down by the desk clerk, who intimated that he never seen such filthy guests. This was without question the most anal desk clerk that I’d ever encountered in any of my travels. First, we all had to provide our passports for check in…a first in Crete. We had to provide more information on the forms than I did to buy my first house. Then our busy body desk clerk insisted on escorting us to our rooms, showing us how to properly unlock the door, work all of the appliances, and before you knew it, he had sat down in the room to chat. I’m sure he was a really nice guy, but after a full day in the field and being lost for 90 minutes, we weren’t in the mood for making nice with a nosy, overly friendly desk clerk.

Royal Heights Hotel pool

The Royal Heights Resort is really a must see…a high end, ultra-modern European resort, complete with spa, wedding chapel, kids play space, and who knows what else. The rooms have everything you could want from couches and chairs to stoves and refrigerators, and those annoyingly idiotic glass plated showers that prevent you from adjusting the water before you step into the shower. I think the person who thought those up either never takes a shower or simply deserves the Nobel Prize for Idiocy. Did I mention that there is no lock or even a latch on the bathroom door…must have been designed by the same idiot…perhaps a voyeur at heart. www.rhr.gr

Despite it being very late, we took his advice and got cleaned up before dinner, not wanting to get kicked out of the restaurant before our appetizers arrived.

The dinner and service was wonderful, as for the third night in a row, we stared out over the Mediterranean Sea as we ate. After dinner, it was back to the room for a very long night of work. Despite the promise of Internet service in the room the signal wasn’t strong enough for a connection, so I ventured back to the lobby, where the signal was generated. Guess what…the desk clerk dude had gone home and locked the hotel lobby. After wandering around for a while, I finally located a workable signal near the swimming pool…a pool that you really must see…a very artistic mix of blue and purple lighting that created a most interesting effect, with the Mediterranean Sea as the background.

Mt. Dikta

We awoke in Malia for our final day in the field and our first foray into Eastern Crete. The cool morning air was invigorating as we walked into the adjacent restaurant for breakfast, stopping in the daylight to admire the amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea, just beyond the elegant pool that everyone but me missed the night before. After a breakfast in the same restaurant that we had enjoyed the night before, we had to wait for our favorite OCD-endowed front desk clerk to arrive…some time after 9am, so we could send some faxes. Just after 10am, we were finally on our way to the south into the Selena Oros region of Mt. Dikti.

We first stopped just past the hotel at a fairly low elevation to examine more flowering dracunculus, only to find only red-flowered specimens and most not quite fully opened.

Dracunculus vulgaris dwarf Mt. Dikta
Dracunculus vulgaris dwarf Mt. Dikta

Our next stop at 2000′ elevation looked very familiar to the last few days…tufts of Iris unguicularis var. cretensis hugged the ground near the large boulders in between the spiny scrub growth, and a few stalks of the lovely Orchis quadripunctata dotted the otherwise brown ground. The small patch of dracunculus that we found here, were quite unique in that they flowered at only 12-18″ tall…a far cry from the 3-6′ flowering specimens that we had seen in earlier days. Genetically, these appear to be a dwarf population that mature and flower at a much smaller size. From here, we were off to climb higher up the mountain.

As we were heading up the mountain, we spotted a must stop site…the Homo sapiens Museum…I’m not making this up. Yes, Virginia, kitsch is alive and well in Eastern Crete. The Homo sapiens Museum was right out of 1960s South of the Border style, just without the thousands of road signs.

Next, we ducked into the Lasithi Plateau, since we had so much luck in the Omalos Plateau, only to find fields of agricultural production and not a single interesting plant in site. After driving down several uninteresting roads, we headed back up the mountain. One of the interesting plants that we did find on the outskirts of this area were wonderful flowering specimens of Styrax officinalis in full bloom…a dead ringer for our US native Styrax americana.

Our next plant stop was at 3344′ elevation, where due to the steep roadside cuts, it took a good bit of scrambling to make our way up the cut face and into the natural vegetation. Here we found much an abundant population of Iris cretensis along with what appeared to be small unopened tulips, and a few flowering plants of the vining Convolvulus althaeoides. Alan even found a few plants of Clematis cirrhosa, which we had only seen days earlier in much lower elevations back in Central Crete and is not supposed to grow above 2200′. One of the more unusual plants that we saw during the entire trip occurred here… the legume, Medicago orbicularis, with its strange seed heads. We also found more Orchis pauciflora here, which we hadn’t seen since the beginning of our trip in Western Crete. With our time running out, we cut our stop short and headed further along the road, which would take us back down the mountain.

We were getting hungry, and without a large town in site, we pulled into the small town of Potami along the route. We opted for one of two competing roadside stands…both sporting equally butchered trees…we had no other options since I typically refuse to patronize establishments who abuse plants. Lunch was fine, although nothing to compare with the quality of the meals in the larger cities.

Time only permitted one final stop on Mt. Dikta around 1100′ elevation, but that stop revealed patches of tulips going dormant in the olive groves…possibly the same Tulipa saxatilis that we had seen in the Western Crete town of Omalos, alongside Malva sylvestrisSerapias orchids and the orchid-like parasitic perennial, Orobanche ramosa. The prize of the stop, which couldn’t be extracted was an asparagus fern with bright yellow new growth…the darn plant unfortunately chose to grow right beside a giant tree stump into which it had become hopelessly melded. I almost forgot to mentioned the amazing specimen of Quercus coccifera beside our van, in full flower with amazing red new growth…alas, no acorns.

This mountain road took us back to the main highway around the town of Neapoli, and from there, it was 3 hours of fast-paced driving on the E-75 highway back toward Chania. Due to our trekking on the winding mountain roads, this was our first opportunity to try out the 5th gear of our Fiat Scudo. Although the speed limit was 90km/hour (aka 58 mph), it felt like we were going much faster.

Of course, our speed paled in comparison with the deranged drivers that would fly past us like Jimmy Johnson on a Daytona straight away. We really hadn’t encountered aggressive drivers until we got on the E-75, but trust me, this is where all of the maniac drivers were concentrated.

Our only other stop on the return trip was at Lake Kournas, about 25 miles (40 km) before we returned to Chania. Lake Kournas is the only natural lake on Crete, and the site of great social activity…they have 3 paddle boat stands and some eating joints. We arrived just before dusk, and didn’t exactly find the main entrance in a timely manner, so this will be added to a future return trip agenda. Although the lake is very low elevation…my GPS said we were at 2′ elevation. Amazingly, there were quite a number of hardy plants here, obviously dropped from the nearby mountain…including a nice clump of purple-petioled Arum concinnatum and several clones of Phlomis fruticosa with a white-edged flowers.

From here, it was back to the west on highway 90 to Chania, arriving again, just before dark. Being a Friday night, folks had already started to congregate near the waterfront, so that meant another night of parking several blocks from our hotel. Dinner at the waterfront was great as always, then back to the room for another night of playing catch-up with record keeping.

Last day


I always like to reserve one day at the end of the trip to get all of our records in order and process the necessary paperwork for import of plants into the US. In most cases, this indeed takes the better part of the day…at least for those of us who keep what is probably far too many notes. Our final day in the Splanzia was as wonderful as the first three. The Splanzia hotel is one that I would highly recommend assuming you are not driving by yourself, as it would be a nightmare to navigate these towns alone.

Although Crete has suffered through a very dry winter, it was still a superb trip and I return home with a much better understanding of the plants from this region and a list of many more plants to try. If you are interested in learning more about Crete and it’s flora, there is a fabulous book, Flowers of Crete by John Fielding and our friend Nick Turland, that I can’t recommend highly enough. My only wish is there would be a book this good for the flora of every country.

First rain

Sunday morning was an up and gone by 5am morning in order to get to the airport for our 7am flight back to Athens. We awoke to realize that we had missed our first rain of the trip, which happened sometime during the night…I’m sure the farmers were glad. If this sounds interesting to you, I can strongly recommend Crete as a marvelous vacation spot, and most certainly a great botanizing spot…although take a good road atlas!

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