There is nothing quite like seeing garden plants growing in their own natural habitats in the wild. You can get a far better understanding of why a particular plant prefers certain conditions and also appreciate the other plants they would like to associate with. The bonus here is that these plants, all growing together in a particular area will like the same climate, the same altitude and the same type of soil. To these factors you can also add the same aspect and they will also be influenced by what I term ‘history’ but more of that later.
A group of Plant School students visiting Crete this year for the first time were therefore in for a long and exciting learning curve on plant knowledge. Crete as and Island in the eastern Mediterranean has a multitude of growing conditions, making many of their plants suitable for our gardens back here in England. There are a myriad of interesting habitats ranging form sea level to high mountain ranges and variations in the soils from acidic to alkaline. At sea-level the winds are salt laden but the many different aspects at low altitudes slightly away from the coast allow for hidden pockets of protected habitats where even the most delicate of plants can find a home. High up on the mountain ranges where the choughs circle there are open exposed icy ledges just below the snow line where even the most intrepid of plants have difficulty in surviving the strong winds and plummeting winter temperatures.
The Crete spring was late this year, Low temperatures and rain had persisted well beyond the normal Mediterranean winter and in the last few weeks the thermometers had only just started to climb to normal seasonal temperatures.
The tour began with the group travelling high into the hills. Blankets of snow could be easily seen on the Psiloritis Mountain range as the flight had landed, unusual but not not unknown for this time of year.The winding road and hairpin bends leading up to the Omalos Plain provided enticing glimpses of deep gorges filled with plants as you passed by but the aim was to see the plants at high altitudes first.
At this high altitude fields of green and black flowered Iris tuberosa were interspersed with the still tight buds of Tulipa saxatilis. Over the time we were in this area these buds opened to show these beautiful delicate flowers crowding the edges of the fields in the rich alluvial soils. Where cultivation had occurred the plants had dispersed across the whole field. Historically this must have occurred so many times and, as Ernst van Jarsvelt explained on the Cape Floral Kingdom Plant Tour, this helps us to understand what makes a plant suitable from growing in our gardens. These plants are expert survivors and can cope with endless disturbance to their growth patterns.
The low growing plants in this area, Romulea bulbocidium,the blue flush of Anemone coronaria, Anthemis chia, Gagea chrysantha,were huddled in between bushes of Berberis cretica and the slightly taller Pyrus spinosa. Dotted above these over the hills were Acer sempervirens, their paired buds swelling as they started into leaf . At lower levels this tree is ‘semper’ , or evergreen, but leaf loss occurs at these high levels. Evergreen Cupressus sempervirens var. sempervirens provided alternative shelter of some sort and there were excellent majestic examples of Zelcova abelica. All these plants were seen just on the first morning, providing a great ‘taster’ for the rest of the tour.
The tour continued in this area with further walks and then the group gradually made a slow descent to sea level with numerous bus stops and plant expeditions along the way.
Crete is a joy for all plant lovers. The diversity of habitat at different altitudes means that if a species has not come into flower at higher altitudes then it can probably be found lower down nearer the sea. It is also interesting to see how a plant of the same species will vary in habit to cope with the different conditions but essentially remain the same species. Orchids growing on the high altitude plain were growing at only five to ten centimetres in plant height and with compact tight flower heads. At lower altitudes the flowers were twice the size and with looser, larger flowers. Not only is the visible part of the plant able to adapt, so too is the physiological make up of the plant. An ability to cope with cold at high altitudes forms part of the provenance of the plant, Those high altitude plants would be suitable for growing in England while those from the coastal area in Crete would not be sufficiently hardy. A knowledge and understanding of of plant provenance is useful in successful gardening.
A week after being on Crete we went to see the garden at Howick in Northumberland where the long grass is dotted with tulip plants. You should all go. It reminded me of our visit to Crete where Tulipa doefleri was achieving exactly the same effect but totally in a wild situation. It is a wonderful display showing how effective a garden is when mirroring nature.
But back to Crete! One last combination that will remain with me for ever was an orchard of Juglans regia , the ends of the stems turning a pale purple/maroon hue from the emerging leaves and flowers. Tall grasses were growing up beneath the trees, waving gently in the breeze. Emerging from amongst this grassy sward were tall thin unfurling flowers of pink Allium subhirsutum and rounded mounds of electric green Smyrnium perfoliatum. A memorable sight.
This Plant School Tour was completely made by a wonderful group of students all keen to learn and understand the plants they were finding. As with all Plant School Tours there was an expert botanist on hand to help with plant identification. John Fielding,an excellent and patient guide has written the definitive book on Cretan flora. He took the students along the inspiring road to identifying and understanding these plants.