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BRANCH HEAD

Nikos Vlachakis
(Biography)



Peloponnese Group
Local group leader
s
Katerina Georgi

Sandra Panting



Information and resources for Greece

Ελληνικό ιστότοπος του MGS



The Greek Branch of the MGS

Past Events

May 2016
Visit to a pair of gardens in Peania

In early May we made a second visit to see what was growing in Lefteris Dariotis’ two gardens in Peania (see entry for November 2015 for report of our visit to learn about propagation of bulbous plants from seed; see also Fleur Pavlidis’ article in TMG 85). We met first at the xeric garden he started planting last year in the yard of a house owned by his uncle who lives outside Greece for most of the year. The garden has flourished since our last visit. Lefteris has planted a huge variety of phlomis and Mediterranean salvias that are now well established. We saw the pink Phlomis purpurea and P. italica, yellow P. lanata, P. bourgaei, P. lychnitis and the quite different orange P. leucophracta. Salvia species in flower included the Turkish species S. huberi and the Greek native biennials S. argentea and S. aethiopis, as well as the Californian hybrid Salvia 'Vicky Romo'. We also saw a range of other Lamiaceae species in the genera Teucrium, Nepeta, and Stachys. As you may have guessed, Lefteris is a connoisseur of plants in the mint family and he showed us two rarely seen species, Dorystaechas hastata and Scutellaria salviifolia, both originating in Turkey. The penstemons are also well established in their second year. We saw Penstemon pseudospectabilis, P. parryi and P. eatonii, and P. palmeri, which was just about to flower.


The tall purple Salvia 'Vicky Romo' with greenish Ballota pseudodictamnus,
orange Sphaeralcea parvifolia and purple Salvia cyanescens in front


Salvia argentea going to seed


Phlomis lychnitis from Spain


Nepeta curviflora, Syrian catnip


Sideritis syriaca


Salvia interrupta


Lefteris and Nikos Vlachakis between Glaucium flavum,
Hypericum empetrifolium and Salvia 'Montagne de l'Hortus'

After inspecting almost every plant in the dry garden, we formed a caravan of cars and drove to the other garden Lefteris maintains in Peania where he propagates his plants and seeds and maintains his nursery. Here we saw sages of temperate and Mediterranean origin including: Salvia heldreichiana, S. desoleana, S. moorcroftiana, S. atropatana, S. chamelaegnea, S. barrelieri, and different S. sclarea subspecies. We also saw some early-flowering Mexican and South American sages: S. blepharophylla, S. stolonifera, several S. coerulea hybrids, a range of different colours in the microphylla/greggii/jamensis complex as well the fashionable hybrids 'Amistad', 'Wendy's Wish', 'Love and Wishes' and 'Ember's Wish'. The beautiful Greek natives Nepeta nuda and Stachys parolinii were also flowering. Apart from the Lamiaceae family, other highlights of the watered garden included Erythrina crista-galli and Erythrina bidwillii, a couple of Beschorneria species, and the ethereal snow-in-summer Melaleuca linariifolia. In the bulb section of the nursery most of the winter-growing species had entered their dormant stage, but some species of Ornithogalum and Allium were still in flower.


The grey palm Chamaerops humilis var. argentea (syn.
Chamaerops humilis var. cerifera), with purple
Allium
'Ambassador' and reddish Puya dyckioides


Dietes 'Lemon Drop'


Salvia 'Amistad'

It was a real pleasure to visit the gardens a second time in a different season. We look forward to seeing the gardens again and thank Lefteris for sharing his plants and knowledge.

Text and photos by Robin McGrew

May 2016
Weekend on North Evia with a visit to a walnut farm and other sights

Enough cars to constitute a large caravan met 24 members at the ferry boat dock at Edipsos in northern Evia on a Saturday morning to begin our weekend exploration. We started out by visiting the monastery of Osiou David, founded in 1540, where we found many pilgrims paying homage to the bones of David and other relics housed in the monastery’s beautifully painted church.

Outside the monastery gates it felt as if not much had changed since medieval times, with local farmers and craftsmen selling oil and olives, soaps, honey, nuts, dried fruit, herbs and teas, all produced nearby. We passed the tour buses and loaded into our cars for a short drive on small, winding roads to the waterfalls of Drimona. Despina Moschos and I had made a scouting trip for this walk along the course of the waterfalls in March. We were happy to see that in late May, the river was still high and the falls as impressive. The town or some organizing body has created very tidy paths and rails along the route past two dramatic falls with benches and even labels on many of the trees and shrubs along the path. It was a nice opportunity to stretch our legs and relax after a long drive from Athens that morning. Some of our group, two gentlemen who surprised me only slightly, could not resist goading each other into jumping into the clear cool pool of water under one of the falls.


Swimming in waterfall pool

After the waterfalls visit we drove to the north coast and enjoyed a large and bountiful meal at the seaside in Pefki. Then it was time to check into our hotels and have a brief rest.

At seven in the evening we reassembled for the drive to the walnut farm which was the highlight of our trip. The farm was established in 2004 by Despina and Michael Moschos at the urging of a friend with land nearby that they join him in north Evia. Researching walnut production in the Périgord region of France, Despina and Michael eventually imported 1,300 young walnut trees from France to start their orchard. Today, with the help of the farm manager, Yianna Mouridi, they produce around 60 tons of organically-cultivated walnuts a year from trees which have yet to reach their full productivity. The farm also produces wonderful nut and fruit bars and nuts flavored with rosemary, honey and figs, as well as a spoon treat of candied young walnuts. We were treated additionally with walnut cake as we gathered to learn about farm operations before touring the site. The farm employs up to 15 locals in an area of high unemployment and Michael is tireless in his efforts to assist others who are interested in learning about increasing walnut production in the region. Our group took up a collection at the end of our visit and Michael and Despina donated the proceeds from the walnut products we purchased at the farm so that we raised 420 euros. Despina and Michael offered this money to a local school for the purchase of a computer monitor that will be used for interactive projections in the classroom.

Read more about this walnut farm below


Michael Moschos describes the operations of the Artemision walnut farm

That night we had another memorable seaside dinner in the town of Pyrgos. The only drawback, for some, was that the television which we had been assured would broadcast that night’s European Football Championship was inoperative until the very last minutes of the game. I can’t remember who won. The next day we met in the morning to make our way back to Athens. Our first stop was for a walk in the Dasiko Horio, a series of paths through the lush forest of beech trees and ferns.


The beech forest in the Dasiko Horio


The group on a walk through the Dasiko Horio

The next stop was in the traditional village of Agia Ana where we walked around and probably doubled the population during our stay and may well have matched the week’s coffee purchases. Evia is a long island and it was looking as if we would not have time to fit in our last planned visit before lunch. Sadly, we eliminated the visit to the lakes near Spathari created by magnesium mining on the island and went instead to another debilitatingly large but tasty lunch before continuing home at the close of the weekend. This trip was the last I organized in my role as Greek Branch Head of the MGS and it reinforced for me the value of the MGS in bringing together different people with shared values as regards the importance of the preservation of native landscapes and local traditions and the pleasure that can be derived from travelling together and sharing good meals in beautiful settings. I look forward to rejoining this group for more adventures together in the future.


The purple smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, was at
peak flowering throughout the north of Evia

Text by Robin McGrew

Artemision walnut farm

This is an organic walnut farm that we started, having driven through France and seen some similar farms in the Midi. The seed, so to speak, was planted and it was 2004.

Some twelve years ago we started thinking of the project and trying to locate the suitable varieties of walnut for this area. Although the slightly alkaline soil here, with a pH of 7.5, is quite fertile, and there is plenty of water which we extract from an artesian well, 75 metres deep, it is not usual to grow walnut trees at sea level and so some research and preparation had to go into the planting.

A French Périgord-based walnut expert visited here and advised us. We imported three cultivars of the Mediterranean walnut (Juglans regia) that would suit the climate and the environment. They are ‘Chandler’, ‘Franquette’ and ‘Fernor’. ‘Fernor’ is a relatively new Californian cultivar, particularly productive. ‘Franquette’ also serves as a pollinator and ‘Chandler’ is popular for the quality and size of its walnuts.

They were planted as one-year-old trees, and our first planting was 800 trees. We continued planting for the following two years until we reached the present number of 1300.

Walnut trees are planted in January, at a depth of about 60 cm, and seven and a half metres apart. The ideal productive walnut tree we have in mind is about nine metres high, with a maximum spread of seven metres, so it can be looked after and kept healthy.

We keep the trees with a longish trunk between 1.2-1.4 metres in height because this allows the branches better growth and it also increases the value of the tree itself as wood. After that we do very little pruning.
Not all trees do as you tell them, so you respect the growth of the tree and the direction it might insist on taking. In Greece walnut trees generally have very short trunks; the way we have grown ours follows the well-tried traditional French method.

We water as often as the weather requires. We divided the farm into four sections and we water with the drip method every four days. The trees get a lot of water in the hot weather.

 Our walnut farm is cultivated organically. All nutrients and diseases are treated organically. This is tricky as it requires early detection, immediate action and substantial extra cost. Throughout the farm you will notice little white boxes hanging from the trees. These contain a hormonal block that acts as an early signal to us. We monitor these very closely and spring into action as soon as we detect something we do not like. For example carpocapsa (codling moth, Cydia pomonella): the larvae attack fruit trees (apples and walnuts). It is difficult to detect and effective control depends on identifying the moment when adults are emerging from pupae from overwintering spaces and mate and begin laying eggs; this migration can take place within a few hours. Larvae of other insect species bore into the branches of the new shoots; these can only be traced through the trail they leave behind. Having spotted their presence, Yianna will then either remove the affected branch/shoot or try and spray if it is at an early stage.

Walnut trees do not like humidity and heat. They like to be dry, cold and well-aired and we are blessed that we get a northerly wind coming from the direction of Mt Olympus. The humidity directly affects the health and quality of the walnuts, and begins by creating black spots on the green husks.

The walnut flowers in May and cross-pollination starts almost immediately, producing the small walnuts from June onwards. The walnut harvest is in late October/early November and there are three harvests.
The trees are shaken by hand and some rods are occasionally used to move the tall branches. Huge sheets are spread out between the rows and the walnuts are collected there. They are moved by tractor straight to the drying beds.

Although everywhere else the walnuts at this stage are dried either indoors or in a controlled oven, we are extremely fortunate to be able to let them dry out in the sunshine and with a gentle breeze. This improves the taste of the walnuts and adds to their organic nature. We believe this enhances their natural flavor and extends their life. We have noticed that the walnuts produced from the trees nearer the sea are slightly smaller in size, and slightly saltier. This is due to a poorer soil and the proximity of the sea.

Depending on the weather we dry them out on the beds for between ten days and two weeks. Then they go through a selector that sorts them by size. The larger ones are sold in the shell. The smaller ones are crushed and the walnut is extracted by hand. The walnuts are sold in three grades according to universal standards.

Once they have been cleaned, they are packed in airtight bags and put in the refrigerator room at a temperature of 7-10 degrees C, depending on the environment; from here they are dispatched, almost immediately as the orders come in.

Walnut shells are bagged, put through a mild crusher and fed into a specially built boiler which provides heat for the whole building throughout the colder months and hot water throughout the year. This is a totally environmentally-friendly solution to the energy requirements of the farm and to the whole walnut production. We are very happy with it, as far as we know we are the only walnut farm in Greece employing this method. Michael together with a local engineer improvised this and perfected it by trial and error.

The help and productivity of this farm depends to a very large extent on Yianna Mouridis. Originally, her husband rented this land from us and cultivated his own produce; then he unfortunately suddenly passed away - in fact in the year he had planted the first 800 trees. Yianna, asked to step in, has become dedicated to the farm and the farm has rewarded her with positive experience. Her daughter also works here, as do another 15 ladies from nearby villages. We greatly appreciate their contribution, their hard work and dedication.

The area suffers from an unemployment rate of 63%. This farm is one of the few local employers. The farm is certified organic by TUV Austria, and it is inspected regularly and without warning. The management and quality standards are ISO-certified* and the production line is HACCP-certified**.

Greece imports 5500 tons of walnuts a year, mostly from the Balkan countries, and mostly of an inferior quality. Greece produces about 1,200 tons of walnuts a year, in isolated smallholdings, and not in an organized fashion.

As far as we know, there is only one other organic walnut farm in Grevena, Northern Greece. So there is a huge scope for anyone wanting to start producing walnuts, and in fact several farmers in the area have planted their land with walnuts and have come to us for advice. (So we are a little bit of a Johnny Appleseed for this area.)

*ISO= International Organization for Standardization
**HACCP=Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point

Text by Despina Moschos

May 2016
Visit to Ioannis Gryllis’ Water Plant Nursery in Marathon

Around 25 members met on a Wednesday morning to visit the plant nursery of Ioannis Gryllis in Marathon. This was our second visit to Ioannis’ operation and we were hoping this time to see the irises and water-lilies in bloom. Due the mild winter and early spring, we missed the irises but found many lovely water-lilies blooming in the various ponds Ioannis has constructed on his site. The ponds demonstrate which plants do well at different depths and which plants and animals may inhabit the same ponds. Several of Ioannis’ ponds are covered with strong netting. We learned that this is to prevent migrating herons, cranes and other birds from devouring his stock of ornamental fish. An interesting construction on the property is a wetland trench that Ioannis has created to mitigate flooding and erosion on the site. This constructed wetland collects excess seasonal rainwater and filters and purifies the water using plants and microorganisms that thrive in the marshy environment. In addition to building wetlands like this, Ioannis has also built swimming ponds, in other words natural swimming pools, for clients using plants to filter and purify the water. He plans to install one of these pools at his nursey in the future. Ioannis is also constructing a botanical garden with sections showcasing plants from Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia and Australia.


Constructed wetlands for water filtration on site
with Phragmites australis (syn. P. communis) 

We toured the nursery beds and were again impressed by the quantity of plants Ioannis is propagating in his nursery: for wet environments, in shade or sun.

Three different plants in the nursery:


Festuca glauca 'Intense Blue’


Ophiopogon japonicus 'Minor'


Equisetum hyemale

At the end of our visit many members were pleased to have some plants to take home with them. We ended our outing with a lavish lunch at a nearby seaside taverna.


Collecting selected plants


Lunch at Ο Βράχος taverna after the visit

May 2016
Exploring the Northern Taygetos Mountains

The purpose of this excursion, meticulously organized by Kay-Elvina Sutton of the Peloponnese Group, was to explore three gorges leading from Kastori to Georgitsi, some 20 km north of Sparta in the Peloponnese. We had a lot of help from local officials, but the weather was beyond Kay’s control: it was cold and wet for late May.

The party assembled on 20 May at the excellent Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta. First we visited the Sainopoulio Park west of the town to examine the many tree plantings and to picnic at the modern open-air theatre, against the magnificent backdrop of Mystras and the Taygetos massif.

We moved to ancient Sparta with its once impressive Roman theatre, which seated 16,000 spectators, i.e. a little less than the population of the modern town. British archaeologists have shown that the theatre included movable scenery, perhaps an innovation for the first century AD.


Roman theatre in ancient Sparta

Kay then took us to the town’s externally modest repository of mosaics. This is rarely open to the public and is about to undergo a long period of renovation. The energetic curator showed us a Roman mosaic (AD 200) of the rape of Europa which has been used at the model for the Greece’s two-Euro coin. Even more extraordinary – and frightening – was a Hellenistic (BC 300) head of Medusa, made from crudely-cut black, white and brown stones. Over 2000 square metres of Roman mosaics have been uncovered in Sparta in recent years: it was a wealthy town.


The rape of Europa


Head of Medusa

Then we drove to our overnight accommodation in Kastori, at 500m altitude. It is an enchanting small town, perhaps a market-town in English terms: the regional centre. The quiet main street has nothing of the 21st century – no banks, no supermarket chains, no fast-food outlets and no dispensers of electronic gadgets, only old shops and cafés which may have changed little in 50 years.

On Saturday 21st we divided into two groups to tackle the Myli gorge leading up to Georgitsi. One group, led by intrepid walkers Barbara and Dennis Balfour, took us upwards through dense vegetation and under threatening skies. At the halfway point, where the path narrows to a few inches and where you have to cling to a wire to avoid falling off, we turned round. The heavens opened. We descended and ate sodden sandwiches with the wiser group who had decided to explore the lower and flatter part of the gorge.


Walking in the gorge


The stream

In the afternoon, after a change into drier clothes, we inspected the small church of Panagia Mesosporitissa cut into the mountainside, and we enjoyed fine views of Kastori. The evening was spent exploring Georgitsi at 1000 m: a magnificent stone-built village, once one of the largest and richest in Laconia. Its many levels are connected by steep flights of steps and kalderimia (stone paths). It’s known locally as the ‘Balcony of the Taygetus’: with good reason - the view is breathtaking, extending from Tripolis in the north to the Gulf of Laconia in the south. We had a splendid – wild boar-heavy – supper in the Platanos tavern in main square. We were grateful for the heat of open fires. We did not sample another local specialty – volvoi (bulbs), the pickled roots of the tassel hyacinth. Georgitsi is also famed for the quality of its tsipouro (eau de vie).

On Sunday 22nd we visited the important Mycenean site at Pellana. It is a mystery why this is so little known: there are five impressive beehive tombs cut into the sandstone. The largest, over 10 m in diameter, is second in size to the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae. A sixth has yet to be explored. The tombs appear to have been ransacked in classical times and little is known about their contents or the society that produced them. Pellana is mentioned by the traveler Pausanias in the 2nd century AD. It was clearly once a much more important place than it is now. A local archaeologist has argued that this was the site of Menelaios’s palace, from which Paris abducted Helen, thus launching the Trojan War. However, most experts agree that the palace is likely to have been on a small hill, now called the Menelaion, overlooking Sparta.


Doorway to the Mycenaean tomb, the largest one at Pellana

We enjoyed an excellent lunch in the small square of the village and swapped plants, before going our separate ways.


Lunch and plant exchange

This was MissIon Unaccomplished because we failed to do the full walk from Kastori to Georgitsi. Another time perhaps. Unusually for an MGS event, it was light on wild plants: we saw orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis and Orchis italica), Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) and many wild flowers around Pellana.


Madonna lilies


Greece’s largest wasp - Scolia flavifrons

There were neat gardens and orchards in Kastori and Georgitsi. This an area which gets little attention from outsiders. It has dense forests (especially chestnut), dramatic cliffs and ravines, and churches and monasteries perched on impossible crags. Many of the villages have a charm lacking in more modern parts of Greece. A recently completed Sparta-Tripolis motorway, with an exit at Pellana, makes the region more accessible. Whether this will bring social and economic change remains to be seen.

Text by Christopher Hulse

November 2015
Workshop on propagation of bulbous plants from seed

In late November, 15 of us visited the nursery of MGS member Lefteris Dariotis, in Peania, where Lefteris demonstrated several techniques for the propagation of bulbs from seed. Below are my notes from the demonstration and photographs of his beautifully designed and maintained garden and nursery. Before we left Peania, Lefteris took us to see another garden in the neighborhood where he has begun installing drought-tolerant, mediterranean climate-adapted plants. In this garden, Lefteris did nothing to amend the hard-packed clay soils before he began planting and only waters enough to assist the plants in getting established. After a few years, he plans to stop watering. In addition to his expertise with bulbous plants, Lefteris also cultivates a large number of salvias. We’ll see if we can convince him to provide another workshop to share his knowledge of these plants in the spring.


Miscanthus and Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' grasses,
a number of salvias (pink S. involucrata, purple S. leucantha,
wine burgundy S. 'Wendy's Wish' and S. splendens ‘Peach’),
orange Tithonia rotundifolia


Pink Salvia 'La Siesta', purple Salvia leucantha
and two ground-hugging Teucrium species,
T. pyrenaicum
from the Pyrenees and T. aroanium
from the Aroania Mountains of Greece. Agapanthus
and Spanish lavender in the background

Notes on bulb propagation from seed:

Use fresh seeds. Depending on the species, bulbous plant seeds stay viable for more than a month or two (as in the case of the family Amaryllidaceae), or sometimes less, once they are taken from the seedpod. Other families, like Iridaceae and Asparagaceae (which includes genera such as Hyacinthus), produce seeds that remain viable for a number of years, but always give the best germination results when planted in the first year.

Collect the seeds when the pod starts to split in order to replicate the natural cycle of the plant.

Potting mix for bulb seeds: 50% peat (without weeds), very fine (Lefteris uses a German brand), and 50% very coarse river sand. Small bulbs are hard to find one or two years later if you have a coarse organic component in your mix. Lefteris has stopped using perlite in his potting mix because many young bulbs are the same colour and size as perlite, making them hard to pick out when it is time to re-pot them.

Drainage is very important for the seeds as they germinate and for the bulbs as they grow. Put a good five cm of perlite in the bottom of the pot.

Water the soil mix well before planting and wet heavily again well after planting, with a fine mist for small seeds. Take care to avoid rot with summer bulbs. Winter bulbs do not rot.

Bulbs grow best if planted densely. Lefteris sprinkles his seeds heavily on top of the potting mix and covers them lightly with the soil mix; bulb seeds do not need sunlight to germinate.


Planting Tritonia deusta seeds

Most bulb seeds germinate and sprout in one month. You must have a ten degrees C temperature difference between night and day. Bulbs stay outside in this climate (Athens). If there is no rain in winter, water the seedlings. Seedlings have better cold tolerance than big plants, in Athens Lefteris has never found the seedlings hurt by exposure to a short, light frost.

If planting in November, start to fertilize in February every 20-30 days until April with a fertilizer designed for tomatoes, but use half as much as you would for tomatoes.

Lefteris recommends using slug pellets, but he has never needed to use other pesticides.

Do not water bulbs in the summer, let them go dormant. Put most bulbs in shade in summer.

In one year you can harvest the bulbs. Dump pot into sieve and sift out the bulbs.

Small bulb species can stay in the original pot. Bulbs that grow into large plants need to be potted on.


Transplanting bulbs

Use a soil depth above the bulb 3 times the size of the bulb. Don’t worry about the direction of the bulbs, if you don’t have the patience to plant them the correct way, they will orient themselves. Lefteris puts a top cover of sand, 2-3 cm deep, to control weeds and to keep leaves that touch the surface from rotting (sand dries very quickly). Also the plants look nice and neat with a sand topping.


Ornithogalum dubium 'Yellow Custard' and 'Coconut Cream', illustrating
plants that like a sand topping to protect the leaves from rot

For planting sea lily (Pancratium maritimum) seeds, use mainly river sand with hardly any peat and double the depth of perlite drainage at the bottom of the pot. Leave these bulbs in same pot for two years.


Tour of the nursery section of the garden


Lachenalias and tritonias behind and Greek native drought-tolerant
seedlings in the front


Scabiosa crenata ssp. dallaportae, a very short
subspecies from the coasts of the Ionian islands
(centre),Salvia tingitana (upper left) and an unknown
mat-forming Stachys sp. from Turkey (lower right),
from the drought-tolerant garden

June 2015
The olive groves of Lambros Vlachos, near Vrondamas, Laconia

Labros Vlachos, an enthusiastic olive grower with an obvious sense of fun and a love of life, made us very welcome at his olive farm. He holds strong principles which he combines with a passion for his land and his olive trees. ‘He cares about every leaf,’ says his friend Ina. It would appear that for over 40 years he has viewed the development of his olive farm as a challenge, a big adventure, and an indulgence of his passion. Economic factors and profitability may be secondary considerations but he suggested more than once that Anna, his partner, might be bringing some order and rigour to that aspect of the business.

In 1970, Labros returned to Lakonia from Chicago, where he had run a Greek restaurant with his cousin and uncle. He joined forces with his brothers to farm their family olive groves in the vicinity of Vrondamas, in the gently rolling hill country adjoining the lower valleys of the Evrotas River and its tributaries. The hot, dry summers and warm, wet winters are ideal for olive farming, but Labros does irrigate his trees throughout the year and productivity can be impaired by frosts which affect some pockets of land. In these parts of the farm he allows some top branches to grow longer to give some protection from the frost. The soil on his farm consists mainly of a sandy clay which is prone to bake hard and form deep cracks if not irrigated during high summer.

Labros has gradually bought out his brothers and acquired new parcels of land. He now farms 300 stremmata (30 hectares) which contain 10,000 olive trees. Most of these are 40 years old and of the Kalamon variety, which are farmed for their eating olives. There are also Koroneika trees grown for olives which are pressed to make oil, and some wild olive trees which are also farmed for their oil. Seven thousand trees were lost in the wildfires of 2008, most of which have been revived through controlled re-growth or grafting. In some cases, replanting has taken place with a spacing of seven metres being the desired norm. The Kalamon olive trees are kept large with a spread of six metres and a similar height. Labros adopts an empirical approach to improving yields of olives, combining close observation of regularly productive trees with scientific analysis of soil and geology, and with an open-minded attitude to opinion and advice from employees.

Irrigation is mainly during dry summer months. In September/October, when the olive fruit is maturing, irrigation is at the rate of three cubic metres of water every ten days. Limited watering also takes place in the winter months, primarily to ensure that fertiliser applied on the surface (a recycled mulch/compost obtained from shredding the pruned branches, plus poultry manure) reaches the roots. Initially, water was obtained by pumping it from the Evrotas River or one of its tributaries. Now it is obtained from a 200m-deep borehole on the property. The irrigation water is distributed by a network of plastic pipes suspended above ground level. The nozzles have to be checked regularly to clear any blockages caused by silt in the water.

The main pests (dakos or olive fly, mildew etc.) are controlled by spraying. Copper sulphate solution and ‘Surround’ are two of the sprays Labros uses. He sprays mainly in July, but also earlier, when the flowers set.

Harvesting of the Kalamon trees begins in October and involves an army (60 or so) of casual labourers (mainly Afghanis). The branches of the trees are shaken by machinery to release the ripe olives. Note: eating-olive trees can rarely be picked all in one go. Like plum and cherry trees, they have to be revisited several times to harvest only the ripe fruit. The olive harvest for oil starts in mid-November.

Pruning is done mainly in the spring, following the harvest. Labros prefers not to prune in the summer or at harvest time. He admitted to a conservative attitude to pruning, although this has softened in recent years. The next season’s fruit develops on new growth or on one-year-old growth that has not fruited, so branches that have borne fruit are pruned. New growth is thinned to open up the tree, allowing the sun in to ripen the olives. Small, wispy branches are also removed. The aim is to provide a microenvironment where conditions favour the formation of ripe olives of a good size which can be picked safely and efficiently, and to minimise the effect of a year of low yield following a high yield year (the norm for olive trees, which are like apple trees in this respect).

Thanks go to Ada Kopitopoulou for arranging the visit, and to Martin and Jeswyn Jones for helping her. Thanks also to Anna and her helpers (especially Ada and Ina) for the tremendous picnic in the shade of the trees outside the little church of Agia Elessa, to Yiannis for his energetic display of pruning, and for the gifts of jars of Kalamata olives. Most of all a debt of gratitude is owed to Labros Vlachos for his warm hospitality and the sharing of his knowledge and experience.

John Hayes (with a few additions from Martin and Jeswyn Jones)

May 2015
Visit to home of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, Kardamyli

A perfect spring day welcomed the MGS Peloponnese branch to the late Patrick Leigh Fermor's legendary home near the Mani village of Kardamyli, in the Peloponnese. Irini Geroulanou, deputy director of the house's new owner, the Benaki Museum, kindly offered us the opportunity to wander around the beautiful house and grounds, set among olive groves on a promontory facing west over the Messinian Gulf.

The museum is currently raising funds to restore the site so it can be used, in accordance with Leigh Fermor's wishes, as a writers' retreat. All the contents of the house, including the 6,000-volume library, have been catalogued and photographed, while the more valuable items have been put in storage until the project is complete.

The house, which has stood empty since the author's death in 2011, was designed by the owner and his wife Joan in collaboration with the architect Nikos Hadjimichalis. In the living room, where French windows let in light and overlook the sea, there are bookcases spread around the walls and comfortable armchairs and sofas nearby. The stone archways of the loggia, the spacious living areas and the terrace (the location for scenes in the recent film ‘Before Midnight’) were instantly recognisable to those of us familiar with his writing, and particularly with the recent biography of Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper.


The loggia


The terrace and fountain

The grounds, enclosed by a stone wall and overlooking the sea through a vista of cypresses and olive trees, are composed of separate areas providing private corners in which to read, sit and chat or simply enjoy the views. A hedge of rosemary separates the main house from a studio that houses Paddy's study.


A quiet place to read


Areas of pebble mosaic add visual interest and charm

For landscape architect Elli Pangalou, a Benaki Museum volunteer involved in the restoration of the garden, the most interesting thing about it is the way that the different levels are arranged to make the most of the views. ‘As far as the softscape, or planting, is concerned, there isn't much variety or biodiversity’, explained Pangalou. ‘The guidelines set for the layout of this garden were mainly to try to use indigenous species. Above all, Leigh Fermor tried to have the vistas outside the house viewed through very interesting frames. For example, as you enter the house, what you see is a view towards the sea and a typical Mediterranean landscape with a hillside of cypresses. But I think the most interesting thing here is the genius loci of the place and the power of the person who made it’, added Pangalou, ‘so this is what we are working on, the legacy that he left.’


The view to the Messinian Gulf

When the project is completed, there will be plenty of opportunities for visitors to enjoy the atmosphere. According to Geroulanou, apart from the residential programmes for writers, there will be guided tours and open days for the general public. Worth waiting for indeed!

Text by Yvette Varvaressou
Photos by Katerina Georgi

April 2015
Visit to the Valley of the Muses

According to its most famous son, the poet Hesiod, his native village of Askri at the foot of Mt Helikon was ‘a cursed town, bad in winter, unbearable in summer, pleasant at no time.’ But on the last Saturday in April, the area around it, dedicated to the Muses, could not have been more agreeable for our band of explorers. Although slightly overcast, no cruel winds disturbed the darling buds, and the brief shower that had muddied our cars on the drive up to Thebes from Athens went elsewhere. In fact, it was perfect walking weather.

We met our local member Christine Easthope at a spot off the National Road, and then followed her to a most unexpected idyllic new café, Limni Mouson, by a pond at Askri, midway between Aliartos and Thebes. There she gave us a wonderful hand-drawn map of the landmarks we’d be visiting or glimpsing in the Valley of the Muses, along with a description of the Muses’ attributes to refresh our memories and a list of some of the plants in English and in Latin that we’d be encountering. She then introduced us to our guide, Yannis Peppas, a retired army officer with an infectious passion for the rich history of his birthplace. We looked at the map together and then took off for our first stop, the ancient theatre on the slopes of Helikon.

Nothing remains of the theatre (3rd century BC) except for the hollowed cavea, but we arranged ourselves in what would have been the upper tiers while Yannis stood way below and gave us a talk on the mythical and factual background of the area. Even though the French excavators in the 1890s had either destroyed or removed most of the antiquities, the acoustics and atmosphere had survived intact.


View from the upper tier of the ancient theatre with Yannis Peppas 

We learned about Hesiod, a slightly younger contemporary of Homer and the first person to refer to his countrymen as Hellenes rather than Myrmidons or residents of a particular region. His father had migrated here from Asia Minor, attracted by the promise of rich soil, and Hesiod wrote of practical matters in his Works and Days and of the birth of the gods and myths in his Theogony. Apparently the Thracian shepherds who founded Askri had brought the worship of the Muses from Olympus to Boeotia, but it was Hesiod who expanded their number from three (History, Memory and Song) to nine, and he said that they appeared to him while he was tending his flocks. Both the theatre and the barely distinguishable sanctuary below it were used for the Mouseia, contests devoted to music and poetry, as well as Erotica, games in celebration of love, held every five years, and organized, appropriately, by the Thespians (denizens of the nearby village of Thespies).

Yannis’s talk was sprinkled with evocative references to mythical and historical figures from Narcissus and Teiresias to Sylla and Constantine the Great, both of whom plundered the area. The spring on top of Helikon, Keats’s Hippocrene, was so named because Pegasus had created it with the tip of his hoof. It and a second spring, Aganippe, were sacred to the Muses, and the whole area, fertile and well-watered, must have been glorious. Temples to Zeus and other gods abounded, as did statues of the nine goddesses by famous sculptors, as we know from Pausanias and inscriptions on the bases now in museums. In time churches replaced the temples, and the Frankish conquerors also left their mark in the form of stone towers. Of Ottoman rule, nothing is visible, and today’s village is pretty, but humble, with a bust of Hesiod and a replica of his famous plough in the main square and lilacs blooming in small gardens.

A full history can be read online in Greek on the Askri society’s website.

Our heads full of information, we picked our way down the hillside to the sanctuary proper, stopping to photograph or admire the rock roses (Halimium halimifolium), purple salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), yellow bee orchids (Ophrys lutea) – once we’d seen one, we saw a dozen – a sole Ophrys speculum, not to mention lots of purple vetch, broom, gorse, wild pear, yellow patches of buttercups, a few borages, and many clumps of Euphorbia acanthothamnos, E. characias and E. helioscopia, among the most notable flora. Down by the vestigial sanctuary foundations, a smattering of slender crimson orchids, Dactylorhiza sambucina, aroused cries of glee.


Ophrys lutea


Dactylorhiza sambucina

Back on the road, we piled back into our cars and drove to a 9th-century church dedicated to the resurrection of Christ, passing field after field of beautifully tended vines studded with pale shoots, and wooded hillsides that had us marvelling at their fifty shades of green. The church had been lovingly restored, but we were even more impressed by the mighty oaks near it.


Askri is famous for its vineyards and its Frankish towers


Oak trees
(Photo by Olof Kargsten)

From there we moved on to a place where two small rivers met, the Episkopi and Permessos, whose banks were thickly sprinkled with horsetails (Equisetum), looking remarkably like pine seedlings. Wild cherry trees formed a curtain of white on one side, while two pink and black sweetpea flowers managed to avoid being squashed on the other. The trill of nightingales bade us goodbye.


Horsetails (Equisetum)


The beautiful sweetpea, Pisum sativum ssp. elatius

By the time we arrived at Askri for our taverna lunch, we were ready for sustenance, of course, but also hungry for more adventures. Yannis and Christine kept telling us of other walks and sites that will be just as interesting and attractive in autumn, so although our morning’s exertions were agreeably rewarded by our salads, chops and cheeses, our appetites remained whetted for the next excursion.

With many, many thanks to Christine Easthope and Yannis Peppas and hopes that we shall be visiting again before too long.

Text and photos by Diana Farr Louis, except for one noted by Olof Kargsten.

March 2015
Tour of a Private Garden by the Sea

Fifteen of us travelled to Rafina on a Saturday morning to visit the garden of Diane Katsiaficas and Norman Gilbertson. To our pleasant surprise, the visit also included a tour of the house and Diane's studio. The weather that day was a bit overcast with light rain, but I had made a preliminary visit a few days earlier with Sally Razelou and former branch heads Diana Farr Louis and Frosso Vassiliades, when it was sunny. You will see photos taken on both days, including a photo of Sally in a vacant lot near the house where she was delighted to find so many native plants thriving, including Thymelaea hirsuta, Thymelaea tartonraira and Convolvulus oleifolius. Diana and Frosso made the initial contact with Diane in the autumn of 2014 and laid the groundwork for our visit in March.


A brief stop in a vacant lot to check the variety of native plants growing wild

When we arrived, we were treated to fresh muffins, coffee and tea in the living room with a double height ceiling full of light, artwork and books. A fire was lit to take off the chill from the light drizzle outside. We all wanted to know about the beautiful pottery on the table and Diane, a professor of art at the University of Minnesota, told us about her multi-year collaboration with potters on the island of Sifnos that began when she participated in a collaboration between artists from Athens and traditional Sifniot potters. That experience has led to an enduring friendship between Diane and Norman and three generations of potters of the Lembesis family. 


View of the living room

Diane told us the story of acquiring the land and starting the garden. Norman and his first wife, Doreen Arditti, a Greek from Thessaloniki, bought the property in 1960 when Norman was working in Athens. It was at that time an abandoned vineyard with little else in the area. Subsequently, they moved to work in France, then Belgium, then, after Doreen passed away, Norman volunteered in management at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki. As a result, they did not develop the land. The idea of what to do rested for many years in Norman's mind. After Diane and Norman married in 1989, he showed Diane the land and shared his long-term dream of creating a little paradise on this acre of special ground. Garth Rockcastle, an American architect and colleague of Diane's at the University of Minnesota, designed the house with every respect for its location, legality and as a locus around which the garden could develop. They began in 1991, moved in in 1992 and the garden continues to evolve and mature.


View of the house from the edge of the bluff


View of the garden from the ground floor terrace


View of the ground floor terrace with salvaged chandelier

Before we moved outside, Vangelis, Norman and Diane's long-time gardener and friend, told us about their collaborative work in the garden. Not only has Vangelis helped with plant selection and care of the garden, he is also responsible for all the stonework, including retaining walls, paths, raised beds and a pavilion for the outdoor fireplace. The garden has many different areas and many types of plants including fruit trees, succulents and natives, many self-introduced. Throughout the garden you find the addition of sculptures and objects related to Diane and Norman's travels or items given to them by friends. For example, there is a bed of large, smooth white marble stones that were once inside the foyer of a friend's home. They were transferred to the garden when those friends redesigned their foyer.


Vangelis tells us about the design and maintenance of the garden


All three trees (Punica granatum, apricot and Cercis siliquastrum) are self-seeded


Many of the cistuses are self-seeded


Raised vegetable beds in the citrus grove

Before we left, Diane gave us a tour of her studio where she showed us works she has done in paper, etched on plexiglass and laser-cut in silk fabric. Diane is a 'visual storyteller'. Her works reflect a progression through a variety of media using photography, sketching, painting and laser cutting with highly sophisticated machines. Diane is represented in Athens by Ekfrasi-Yianna Grammatopoulou Gallery. She also has her own website.


Diane showing us her artwork

After we had spent about three hours at the house and garden, most of us, including Diane, Norman and their friend Phaidon, who was visiting from Thessaloniki, moved on to share a delicious meal at the taverna Kalo Kathoumena in the plateia of Rafina. After this visit, everyone agreed that spending time with Norman and Diane in their house and garden was a wonderfully warm and touching experience.

Text and photo by Robin McGrew

March 2015
A walk on Mt. Hymettos from Koropi

On Monday, 16 March, twelve of us went for a walk on Mt. Hymettos led by Nikos Pavlidis. Nikos has been working for several years in this part of Hymettos to improve and install paths that trace the ancient way people crossed from one side of the mountain to the other. The day was partly sunny and only slightly windy - perfect for walking. We met outside the village of Koropi and drove a short way up into the mountain.

The area showed signs of use by motorbikes but, fortunately for the tranquillity of our walk, there were none in sight on a Monday morning.


At the start of the walk: the area just outside Koropi is quite untouched

Before we started up the path, Nikos gave us a brief history of the area and described the project undertaken on behalf of the town of Koropi to reopen the path tracing the Sfittia Way. The ancient road took its name from the settlement of Sfittos, which was located to the west of Koropi. It connected the Mesogeia plain, starting at Thorikos where an ancient theatre can be seen today, with the coastal road called the Asti Way which led on into Athens. It is mentioned in mythology/history as the road taken by Pallas and his sons when they went to attack Theseus who had just become king of Athens. Over the years, many parts of the road on the plain were incorporated into the paved road system, but the track over Hymettos via the Stavros pass was too steep for this. Nevertheless, within living memory the route was used by farmers with fields on the slopes and by some traders, most notably fig-growers from the Vravrona area, who carried their high-value crop by mule over the mountain track to the coastal suburbs.

In order to reopen the road, Nikos, together with the professional path builder Fivos Tsaravopoulos and residents of Koropi, first searched for signs of where the old path had passed. One obvious place on the route was a well/cistern which had been dug to collect the rainwater running down a gully so that passers-by could be refreshed. The aim of restoring the path was to open the eastern side of Hymettos to hikers, and indeed a whole network of paths has now been restored. You can find the paths here.

The way was steep but the footing was solid. No one had any trouble making it to the saddle where we stopped to have a look around and eat some tiropita, generously provided by Fleur and carried by Nikos.


Starting up to the saddle: note the naturalistic creation of the path 


A break for water and tiropita at the saddle

We descended the other side of the saddle, again steep but without difficulty. As we went down and around, we could glimpse Athens in the distance. On the mountain it was quiet except for the call of birds and insects. One of our group spotted a bird's nest on the ground and a large tortoise starting to move about in the sun. Several times we stopped to look at wild flowers.


The path back to the saddle, not a soul in sight
yet surrounded by metropolitan Athens


Alkanna tinctoria


Descending steps created by Fivos, we stopped to look at
Helianthemum hymettium growing out of the rock face


Centaurea, unknown species

We then walked up another small path to look at an extremely deep hole in the ground, which we learned is the Thrakia sinkhole. Peering from the edge of the 30 m deep hole, it is impossible to see the glories concealed at the bottom. Cavers descending into it have found on the downward side a gallery leading into a chamber the size of a small concert hall. This part of Hymettos is very rich in caves because of the geology of the mountains – mainly marble and dolomite. Needless to say, we did not descend into the sinkhole on this outing.


A very deep natural hole in the ground: the photographer
did not dare lean over to photograph it adequately 

The return to the cars was done at a slightly slower pace, but the weather held and all arrived back at our starting point very happy and with many thanks to Nikos and Fleur for arranging this outing. As a side trip, on the way to Kostas’ taverna in Paiania for lunch, Nikos took some of us to a field where the day before he had discovered a large number of orchids flowering under the olive trees. The experienced botanists in our group were excited to see so many specimens in one place. I was delighted by everything we saw that day and happy to find such a place just on the other side the mountain from the Athenian metropolis.


Himantoglossum robertianum under the olive trees

Text by Robin McGrew, Fleur and Nikos Pavlidis
Photos by Robin McGrew

February 2015
Composting Workshop in Paleo Psychiko

With the EU imposing fines on Greece’s illegal landfills and at the same time mandating huge reductions in organic waste throughout Europe this year, it seems all the more urgent for the MGS to do its part to encourage composting among Greek members. Of course, many members already compost and have been doing so for years, so we are broadening our efforts to increase awareness among non-members as well.

Composting is pretty easy if you can do it outside. Almost every garden has some corner where you can hide a pile of kitchen waste or dig a hole for it, combine it with leaves, dead heads, stems and stalks, and leave it to turn back into rich soil.

Using a fellow member’s garden, Robin McGrew told us about outdoor methods before handing the lawn over to Cornelius Vekkos, a composting guru who has a shop in Melissia, but is willing to give advice free of charge. Before showing us a bin, so completely concealed that you would never suspect its existence, Robin demonstrated the use of a small shredder that is just the ticket for cutting up thin branches and tough stalks before adding them to the pile.


Robin demonstrating the use of the shredder

She said that almost any organic matter can be composted, apart from a few aggressive weeds like oxalis that ‘should be strictly isolated’. Our hostess noted that she never adds the grass from cutting the lawn since it has a tendency to turn slimy.

Because her garden is relatively small, she puts all the waste, from both garden and kitchen, into a plastic bin with an open bottom to allow worms and other beneficial organisms to enter and help decompose the waste. The ready compost is collected via a removable panel at the bottom of the bin. She does include some citrus peels, because although they are acidic and slow the process down, the addition of leaves compensates, raising the temperature while masking the unpleasant smell and keeping the fruit flies away.


Almost any organic matter can be composted

Once we had all inspected the bin, Robin showed us a long metal ‘corkscrew’, which can be used to stir/mix up the contents. Ideally, a pile or bin should be watered if it gets dry and forked over to introduce air and hasten the process. You can also sieve the harvested compost to remove sticks and other large pieces before adding it to your soil.

As Cornelius Vekkos said, ‘composting is all about water, air and patience. In a garden, you need air, but if all you have is a balcony and kitchen waste, then you need a wormery. Worms aren’t necessary in an outside bin/heap – they’ll come on their own, along with chafer beetle larvae’ (which our hostess removes and leaves for the birds – in the ground or pots they may eat plant roots). As for water, you can keep your outside pit compost moist by covering it with wet cardboard in summer or an old rug or towel.

A wormery is ideal for apartment dwellers, especially if you can keep it in a place with a constant temperature, like a garage or basement, because the worms do not appreciate the heat, cold or rain. Using a 100-litre bin to show us, Vekkos said it can process 300 kilograms of food waste. As an experiment, he has had his for well over a year now without emptying it. But he does extract the ‘tea’ from a spigot at the bottom, which, diluted with water, makes excellent fertiliser. Although under ideal conditions each worm will produce 200 offspring, there are certain foods they don’t like, such as high acidity citrus and tomatoes. To combat acidity, you can either add lye or eggshells. And to cope with excess moisture, add some shredded newspaper.

After describing what’s needed to get a wormery started – Vekkos sells a complete kit, container, worms, lye for 120 euros with a discount for MGS members – he moved on to bokashi. An anaerobic system using microorganisms, bokashi can break down meat, fish, citrus, banana peels… anything at all in just 20 days. It does not produce compost; instead, the contents should then be added to a wormery or compost bin before putting it in the soil.


Vekko and his wormery kit

The demonstrations were accompanied by lively conversation, questions and answers, as well as luscious refreshments. You can find lots of information about composting on this website, but there is nothing like seeing the different methods in practice and talking to an expert.

We plan to hold other workshops later in the year, in the centre of Athens and in the southern suburbs. Please contact Robin McGrew if you are interested in hosting or attending a workshop

For more information on bins and equipment, you can view Cornelius Vekkos’s website, or contact him.

Text and photos by Diana Farr Louis

February 2015
Walk through the Philodassiki Botanic Garden

Twenty members were met by our guide and garden custodian, Sophia Stathatou, and given an introduction to the history and philosophy of the garden which was established in 1947 on a site overlooking the Monastery of Kaisariani. There is an excellent website here with information about the garden, its physical data, plant collections, conservation and educational programmes etc. and another here with additional historical information about the forest, the garden and the monastery.


At the entrance of the garden

The garden exists for education and pleasure and to preserve 400 plant species from the
Peloponnese, the Aegean and Crete.


Hyacintoides sp.

Walking through this botanic garden is a unique experience as the planting, the altitude and the terrain take you along a hillside path on a beautifully constructed stone stairway, not through a carefully laid-out garden. There is something special to look at every step of the way and we were impressed by the carefully chosen plantings and the work done by so few people to create this very unique treasure of a garden.


A gentle path with spring greenery


The well-stocked nursery of plants for sale


A glimpse of the Byzantine chapel at the Monastery of Kaiseriani

Text by Vina Michaelides, photos by Loukia Konari.

February 2015
Walk through the Ancient Agora of Athens

On Sunday, February 1, 34 members met for a tour through the Ancient Agora led by landscape architect and MGS member, Simon Rackham. We assembled near the small church of the Holy Apostles inside the Agora archaeological site on a rather warm but misty morning.


Gathering for the walk
(Photo by Christa Vayanos)

As we started off, Simon gave some background information on the archaeological excavations. When the American School of Classical Studies was carrying out the excavations from 1931 to 1957, the decision was made to dig back as far as possible to classical antiquity – 5th to 4th centuries BC - and, with a few exceptions, to remove buildings and structures from later periods.


View of the Agora site before excavations began
(Photo from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)

The higher ground on which we were walking reflected what was found during the excavations: that the ancient levels of the Agora varied from one to two metres below present ground levels on the south and west of the site (slopes of the Acropolis and mound of the Thisseion temple, to a maximum of 12 metres below present ground level on the north side of the site – the level of Apostolou Pavlou road. From this higher ground along the southern boundary, we had a very pleasant overview northwards of the whole site towards the road/​railway line cutting. We turned downwards to our right, crossing the Great Drain that traverses the Agora, and then starting upwards again on the slope of the little hill crowned by the beautiful Thisseion (correctly, Hephaisteion) temple.


View from the south to the Temple of Hephaistos
(Photo by Christa Vayanos)

The original planting plan for the Agora excavations, drawn up by a very eminent landscape architect Ralph E. Griswold, was to plant vegetation known or reasonably assumed to be known and used in classical antiquity. This vegetation – trees, shrubs, etc. - was to be planted along the perimeters of the site, as ‘framing’ for the exposed foundations of the ancient buildings and along paths constructed by the archaeological team for the convenience of visitors who were expected to visit once the excavation work was completed. The trees and shrubs were planted partly to beautify the area and partly to remind the visitors of an essential, though not often remembered, element in the ancient setting, which was not a desert. The intention was that the foundations and known perimeters of the ancient buildings that had been exposed by the digs should be kept clear of vegetation or covered only by mown grass, so that their outlines and layout were clear and comprehensible.

On the higher ground – south perimeter, hill of the temple of Hephaistos - were planted carobs, pines (Pinus halepensis and P. pinea) and cypresses. The lower-lying areas were to be planted with willows (Salix caprea and possibly other species), planes and poplars, especially around the Great Drain. One of the few exceptions to the rule that the plants should date from classical antiquity in Greece was the planting of a palm tree near the little church of the Holy Apostles (now sadly lost to the depredations of the red palm weevil). There were also olives and various small oaks.

Along the sides of the temple of Hephaistos were found double rows of ancient planting holes and pot bases from two periods of antiquity – the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. These lines of planting are now echoed in double rows of low hedges of clipped (dwarf?) pomegranates and Viburnum tinus, now intertwined with convolvulus and other hedgerow plants. On the sides of the temple mound and the paths leading down into the lower part of the site are big masses of viburnum, medicago, lentisc, some columnar pines and, when we were there, airy waterfalls of white weeping broom (Retama raetam).

We walked down towards the site of the monument to the Eponymous Heroes and the altar of Zeus Agoraios. In this flat central area are olives, planes (P. orientalis), oaks and big bushes of lentisc and oleander, among others. Nearer the railway line there are big stands of acanthus. We paid very little attention to the area round the Stoa of Attalos, although there is a lot of vegetation there. Probably because our visit was very early in the year, we saw few small, flowering herbaceous plants or bulbs, although Simon mentioned that he has seen small scattered groups of blue Muscari, usually in March, over the rocky slopes below the temple of Hephaistos and in the gully running up to the Acropolis entrance.

During the walk, Simon described the course of the excavations and the intention of the planting plans, pointing out plants of interest. Simon’s comments and observations were most interestingly fleshed out by Jim Wright, the current head of the American School of Classical Studies, who was walking with us. At the end of the tour – and actually on the other side of the railway line outside the site that is open to the public –Dr. Wright showed us where excavation work is progressing (slowly, because of delays in enforcing the demolition of two remaining modern buildings) on the famous Painted Stoa (Stoa Poikile).

From our overview of the Agora site, it is obvious that the originally planned perimeter and ‘framing’ vegetation has been allowed to grow too exuberantly and has, to a considerable extent, obliterated the careful plans of Ralph Griswold. Although on blazing summer days the extra shade is appreciated by visitors, the fact that the vegetation has expanded so much and grown so tall means that it no longer frames the ruins as intended, but actually obscures their outlines. This makes it more difficult for the non-specialist to comprehend what was already a diverse and confusing assemblage of public buildings from different periods of time.

After the tour of the Agora we reconvened in a meeting room above a tavern in the Thisseo area, where Simon gave us a slide presentation illustrating the course of the excavations and plantings at the site. The original planting plans – beautifully hand-drawn and painted by Griswold - made the layout of the Agora site more comprehensible. Regrettably, a fair bit of imagination is now required to visualize the site as it was originally intended to be presented to the public. Griswold's projected graceful lines of columnar pines, etc. are now hard to spot.


Photograph before plantings were installed
(Photo from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)
 

Griswald’s watercolour rendering of his design
(Image from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)


Photograph before plantings were installed
Photo from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)


Griswald’s watercolour rendering of his design
(Image from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)


Photograph before plantings were installed
(Photo from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)


Griswald’s watercolour rendering of his design
(Image from Agora Excavations 1931-2006, CA Mauzy, ASCSA courtesy of Simon Rackham)

The planting up of the Agora site was a great exercise in promoting civic and national pride. Enthusiastic teams of boy scouts and girl guides in full uniform were involved, especially in planting the area round the temple of Hephaistos, the royal family was roped in to plant a symbolic tree and finance was provided for the project by philanthropic American millionaires.

In 1957, when the excavations and landscaping were completed, the American School handed over the maintenance of the site to the Greek Archaeological Service. There is obviously some considerable regret among archaeologists that the careful planting plans, intended to present the excavations to their best effect, have unfortunately fallen by the wayside over the intervening years.


View of the agora today
(Photo courtesy of Simon Rackham)

Text: Margaret and Alexander Zafiropulo

November 2014
Visit to a garden in Varnava, Attica

Varnava lies between Kapandriti and the Gulf of Evia in a hilly area north of Athens and beyond its northern suburbs. When the owner bought her property in the late 1970s, she acquired a 4500 square metres field sloping toward a seasonal stream lined with plane trees and looking beyond to more sloping hillsides and small ravines covered with pines. Extensive stretches of arbutus and schinia or lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) cover the side facing Evia around the main gate. It feels remote and wild even today despite the fact the village itself has grown considerably since then.


The view to the main gate
Photo by Robin McGrew

The owner’s first thought was to plant trees in the lower half of the plot, in order to give them a head start before building. She chose fruit trees of all kinds, from walnut trees near the stream to almond, olive, apricot, apple, pear, plum and fig trees on the slope. She also planted Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ on the southern boundary line to cut off the field next door (from the prying eyes of potential neighbours). In the process of watering and caring for these trees, paths formed naturally and the plot became domesticated. Yet, several years later, when the bulldozer moved in to clear the site for building in the upper section, the owner found herself in what suddenly felt like ‘alien territory’.

After the house was built in the mid-1980s, the owner set about slowly reshaping the sloping land with more plants and paths, following her own instincts rather than a professional’s advice or design. The planting had a logic. It was important to mould the house into the terrain, but the owner preferred to shore up the soil with large boulders found on the plot rather than resorting to retaining walls. She pointed out that the real work of soil retention is done by the plants themselves: lots of rosemary, sage, and lavender, which all grew from cuttings or sprigs. ‘I very rarely buy plants, instead I grow them from seed or from cuttings. And of course I have many volunteers that I just leave where they sprout.’ As she says, the emphasis was on the practical: ‘Because I didn’t have much help in the garden, the plants had to be easy, to look after themselves. And it also seemed to me that hardier, wilder-looking plants would not only be happier here, they would also fit into the landscape.’


Dense greenery with yellowing autumn leaves and a typical stone wall
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

What our hostess has accomplished is a harmonious, informal garden on several levels that flow into each other, linked by unpaved paths. There is no strict hierarchy: a cabbage patch flourishes in front of a shed, a circle of cherry tomatoes provided summer colour next to the gate, while artichokes poke up their spiky leaves in places ‘where I had space to put them’. The levels parallel with and above the house and its spacious main bricked terrace contain more ornamental plants – magnificent irises in spring preceded by a row of agapanthus grown from seeds sown one by one by the owner’s mother, a red-leafed berberis ‘placed against the light so its colours will glow in the sun’, a gorgeous cotoneaster with its ruby ‘fruit’, some Nandina domestica, but also some very decorative Myrtus communis with dark berries, and behind them an arbutus with its red/yellow ‘furry’ fruit.


A red-leafed berberis placed against the light
Photo by Diana Farr Louis


Some very decorative Myrtus communis
Photo by Robin McGrew


Nandina domestica grows near the berberis, forming a patch of red
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

She told us that she aims for soothing blues and lavenders in spring and soft reds and yellows in autumn, but relegates bright colours that she fears will clash with the muted greens of the shrubs to pots on the terrace. There attractive stone and terracotta pots spilled over with autumnal chrysanthemums, reddish ivies and some pink snapdragons confused by the warm weather. And beyond that, to the right of some yellowing pomegranate trees and hidden away behind some evergreens, was a rock-lined ‘pool’ filled with spinach seedlings and a compost heap. We had to watch where we walked for fear of treading on cyclamen that spread in impromptu ‘rivers’ and ‘ponds’ throughout the garden.


Autumnal chrysanthemums decorate the patio
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

What makes this garden even more special is the dialogue the almost tamed property maintains with the still wild, completely unspoilt mountainside around it. A white limestone outcropping, stands of tall dark pines, young bright green pine bushes (recovering from the fire in 2007), and the yellowing foliage of deciduous trees kept drawing our eyes beyond the planted areas. It felt like such a treat, such a luxury to have the comfort of a casually imposed order enhanced by the views of the ‘great outdoors’.


Wild and planted blend happily when you don't know where one starts and the other begins
Photo by Robin McGrew

Hats off to RB for having created another very special garden on a Greek hillside.
Diana Farr Louis

May 2014
Trip to South Pelion or ‘How the other half gardens’

Waterwise is not an expression one encounters in Pelion. Not one of the eleven gardens we visited during our sojourn on the peninsula bore any resemblance to the dry, sometimes austere, drought-resistant plots we nurture in Attica and the Peloponnese. Instead, they were lush, sporting an extravagant array of flowers and trees more often enjoyed in northern climes like southern England and the eastern United States. Streams coursed through them, most of them possessed fountains, natural springs or pools, and every single owner had installed elaborate watering systems as well. All were exceptional in different ways. Quirky works of art and found objects, standing proud or waiting to be discovered among the greenery, were featured in many of the gardens.

Our polyglot group of about 26 members from four foreign countries as well as us locals from various corners of Greece was splendidly catered for by MGS member Sue Wake and her partner Christian Lefaucheux at their newly-opened country hotel, Lagou Raxi (www.lagouraxi.com), near the village of Lafkos. We owe Sue a triple vote of thanks, since not only was she our gracious hostess but she had also planned the entire programme and acted as our guide throughout. Sue fell for this relatively remote area of Greece in 1988 and she and Christian have a vision to introduce other discerning travellers to the area. They are creating gardens for pleasure and to supply organic produce for the hotel restaurant. We especially admired her peony.

After lunch at a tsipouradiko in Volos harbour, we set off for Ano Lehonia to see one of the only three gardens that were not arranged on terraces on a steep slope. Owned by a Franco-Greek couple who had recently retired there, it definitely belonged to what we think of as the French tradition: orderly with clear divisions between types of plants, all in impeccable condition. For a garden that was only four years old it seemed remarkably mature, partly thanks to the presence of 80 venerable olive trees. The owners had not been able to resist the temptation of a lawn, but were in the process of segregating the centuries-old trees from the watering system that threatens to give them more than they need. Among the 250 species flourishing in beds in this paradise were multicoloured verbena, amazing irises, ceanothus, lobelia, fuchsias, papyrus, as well as more ‘Mediterranean’ shrubs like plumbago, rosemaries, echiums, and a thriving vegetable area with a strawberry patch some of us found too alluring to pass without a taste.


A rose gateway leading to beds of luxuriant verbena
welcomed us to the first garden at Ano Lehonia
Photo by Diana Farr Louis


One by one, the old olives are being 'segregated'
from the lawn's watering system
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Day 2 began with most of us piling into a minibus embellished with a kitschy but charming portrait of a centaur for a breathtaking drive above the south-east coast to our first garden at the end of nowhere. Created by an Austrian summer resident who ‘bought the house 13 years ago for nothing because it was worth nothing’, this was our most vertical garden and certainly one of the most spectacular ones, in terms of both views and plants. We entered through a tunnel-like gate draped with creeping rosemary and filed down paths flanked by walls of ‘golden’ stone and shrubs sculpted into smooth curves. The garden itself was a study in bringing order out of the chaos of the surrounding rocks and precipices, stunningly complemented by nature’s spontaneous growth in their crevices and seemingly inhospitable surfaces, and by some striking sculptures. Our host astonished us by saying that he uses 7 cubic metres of water daily in summer, that his lemon trees prefer ‘dry heads and wet feet’, and that even his cactus beds are attached to a hose.


A lemon tree and neatly trimmed shrubs and trees frame a spectacular view
Photo by Linda Reynolds


Winding stone paths lead to a shady spot overlooking the sea
Photo by Linda Reynolds

The steep hill was too much for our minibus’s small engine, so we got out to lighten its load, and we were rewarded by closer looks at the pink orchids (Anacamptis laxiflora, syn. Orchis laxiflora), gladioli, hypericum and dark blue salvias on the roadside, where fragrant broom and both pink and white cistuses also abounded.

In the next, six-year-old, garden, owned by British residents, the distinction between planned cultivation and nature’s ebullience was blurred. Magenta valerian erupted from rocky areas, while white roses shared space with pale blue Globularia and exotic bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) snuggled next to hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi). A delightful informality prevailed thanks in part to our hostess’s collection of stray cats and dogs awaiting adoption; she and two friends started PAWS (Pelion Animal Welfare Society) which last year found homes abroad for 50 abandoned dogs. Amidst this menagerie stood a life-sized heifer left over from the famous Cow Parade that toured Europe a few years back.


The distinction between cultivated and wild was deliciously blurred
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

By this point, tummies were signalling that it was time for lunch and we pulled into the tiny bay of Katigiorgi, where Stamoulis served us a 20-course feast by a sparkling sea, fortifying us for our next garden. This was a work in progress, owned by a British couple who had been coming for seven years on holidays and had arrived ‘with a one-way ticket’ only four weeks before we descended on them. Their gardeners, Spyros – also a master tiler, who had designed and laid attractive paths – and his son, Alekos, showed us around the steep plot. Old olives, red geraniums, ice plant, cistus, rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), amaryllis and irises were already in place, but a large swathe of hillside had been denuded of all vegetation as far as the vegetable patch at its bottom. Spyros told us he’d wanted to lay bare the interesting rock formations and was open to suggestions of what to plant. We offered a few ideas and knew the couple would be happy filling in the blanks and gazing at the serene, grey-green blanket of pines and olives on the hill opposite.
 
From there we drove to another beach, Theotokou, where we spied remains of an early Christian church and a bit of mosaic flooring, which led one of the archaeologists in our group to speculate on the presence of older antiquities on the outcropping above it. The next day he clambered to the acropolis and found ruins and shards dating back to the Geometric period.

Day 3 got off to a hearty start as the walkers among us hiked down the kalderimi – traditional cobbled path – from Lafkos to Milina. Along the way we were rewarded by sightings of ophrys and serapias. From there we drove to a waterfront garden being created by an indefatigable 70-something woman named Kyria Katya. After her architect husband bought the land in 1968, they installed a protective, north-facing boundary of stone walls, terraces and a jetty. These were bordered with and hardy evergreen shrubs like lentisc (Pistacia lentiscus), oleanders, limoniastrum and rosemary as well as evergreen trees which are now fully mature. The couple moved from Athens to Pelion three years ago and she’s been making up for lost time by gardening long hours: 6 am to 9 pm! Her beds and groupings featured enchantingly eclectic combinations of plants. Yuccas or figs intertwined with olives, cacti cosied up to daisies, and everywhere we looked we saw evidence of Katya’s green thumb – boxes of baby succulents ready to enter the ground. We also pored over her nursery, for she grows all her plants from seeds and cuttings. We marvelled at her energy and passion.


Kyria Katya's mix of succulents and evergreens, colours and textures
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Thoroughly inspired but daunted by her example, we moved on to Trikeri, the large village at the southern tip of Pelion, and lunch at To Agnadi, a place with a stellar view as its name implies. Then we bobbed down to the coast at Agia Kyriaki for a glimpse of the Folk and Maritime museums before returning to Lafkos where we visited the Radio Museum, the only one of its kind in Greece.

On Day 4 we kept close to home initially, visiting an ‘urban’ garden in Lafkos village and the Sixth Plant and Crafts Fair in the square. The garden, owned by a Greek geologist and his South African wife, was a perfect example of how to manage a small space, with an artful mixture of mini beds, large pots and wall niches under a towering lime/linden tree (Tilia sp.). A huge angelica welcomed us with its perfume; irises, salvias, solanums and lavenders displayed various shades of mauve and blue; while red roses climbing on the wall of an abandoned house next door added a big splash of colour. Our hostess had done a splendid job of camouflaging other, less attractive features on adjacent properties.

As for the Fair, it was lively and well attended, presided over by the largest cypress tree any of us had ever seen.

Then on to a garden facing the Pagasitic Gulf owned by German residents, a botanist and a chemical engineer/soil scientist. Mr B gave us a talk on his philosophy regarding soils and fertilisers, urging us to measure the pH of the soil in our gardens and add nutrients accordingly. He told us that he shreds everything – including olive leaves and branches – to make mulch and then spreads a layer of manure under it to make up for the loss of nitrogen caused by the decomposing mulch. As a result, his beds were springy enough to bounce on. He also waters a little every day, believing that deep watering will increase salinity and drain essential minerals. He must be doing something right; every plant looked blissfully happy. Among his prizes were a couple of magnificent Bauhinia variegata var. candida (syn. B. alba) that took us a few minutes to identify, Tecoma stans, a pepper tree, jacaranda grown from seed, some small lily ponds, as well as 30 old olive trees, which produced 3 tonnes of fruit last harvest. But his triplet toddler grandchildren drew as many cries of pleasure and surprise as his horticultural wonders.


A lily pond in a shady corner contrasts beautifully with the stone paving
Photo by Linda Reynolds

Lunchtime found us at the restored early eighteenth-century Paou monastery, enjoying a gourmet picnic in its peaceful cloisters, which provided the pause that refreshes before we headed on to two more gardens. The first had been bought 12 years ago by a British non-resident from a German couple, whose presence was still felt in the terracing and imaginatively tiled fountains. J told us that he had given the garden a more ‘Mediterranean’ feel that was more ‘him’, planting plumbagos, wisteria, echiums, nasturtiums under a vine-covered pergola and a melia tree with gorgeous white flowers. He had transplanted two palms introduced by his predecessors, which had thanked him by shooting skywards, and arranged several delightful corners to sit and admire the views of the sea and of the enormous ‘Ali Baba’ jars placed to complement the rocks and plants.


Terraces, Ali Baba jars and a Mediterranean 'feel'
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

From there we paid a visit to the new Milea winery owned by Lazaros and Suzanna Karipidis, whose Merlot and Chardonnay we’d been enjoying at dinners at the hotel. Their vineyard had the added bonus of being next to a field of pink orchids (more Orchis laxiflora). Our final garden belonged to a German couple and displayed a pleasing combination of the wife’s art and mosaics, amber stone walls and sense of colour. As if she were ‘painting’ with flowers, she had juxtaposed different shades of orange blooms that blended beautifully with the walls. Like the other gardeners, she also had a soft spot for succulents, and a fondness for pots, some of which held lovely crimson-speckled white orchids. All of the South Pelion properties had been carved out of olive groves, each tree of which was a natural wonder. The last three gardens, facing west, had been designed to use foliage to combat the extreme heat of early evening in the summer months.

On our final day we left the land of the olive and drove north along the ridge of Pelion through dense forests of chestnuts, planes and other enormous deciduous trees that turned to dark beech as we got higher. Somewhere close to Tsangarada, we stopped at Doris Schlepper’s Serpentin garden (http://www.serpentin-garden.com/welcome.html), a fairy tale place of snake motifs, old metal gates, small pools, ‘English-type’ plants, sculptures and beach finds, barnyard fowls and an atmosphere of pure enchantment. Following the overgrown paths to the many levels, we felt like children discovering a new world. There was something unexpected at every turn – fat pink foxgloves, a mannequin’s lower half filled with drooping ivy, exquisite irises, extravagant clematis, a tiled fountain, a duck pond, a raspberry patch, more than 50 types of rose, even a ‘bee and beetle hotel’ made of cleverly stacked perforated logs. We could not get enough of it or our hostess, who is contemplating retiring to Frankfurt. All we can say is Bravo to Ms Schlepper for having created such a horticultural/artistic masterpiece, and we urge any of you who can to contact her via the website and make an appointment to visit before she departs.


Foxgloves, irises, columbine - are we in England or in Greece?
Photo by Linda Reynolds


Doris’s wonderful clematis
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

The Serpentin was a hard act to follow but we had one more stop – on the other side of the mountain – at Drakeia about 700 metres above sea level overlooking the Pagasitic Gulf. There a British, Greek-trained plastic surgeon has created a charming, casual garden 50 steps below the road into town on a steep slope with a river gushing at the bottom. Besides four donkeys, we spotted more colourful irises and clematis amidst abundant greenery, and congratulated her on her agility in this near vertical environment. With tiny glasses of tsipouro we toasted the success of our marvellous five days but we all had miles to drive before we slept and so we reluctantly remained sober, though enormously grateful to Sue Wake and all the garden owners who had so generously allowed us to invade their very special precincts.

As one member wrote, and most of us felt, ‘I came away with two slightly contradictory thoughts. First, so far as gardening successfully is concerned, there is no right way; there are several routes towards a wonderful garden. Second – and less optimistically – I have a great way to go before I could invite the MGS to visit!’  

Diana Farr Louis

March 2014
Visit to a member’s garden near Keratea, Attica

This garden in the dry and stony hills of south-east Attica is such a showpiece of waterwise principles that we featured it in our AGM programme in November. Wanting to give local members a chance to see how these principles have been implemented, we asked the owner if she would open her gates again. Not only did she accept, she even repeated her generous spread of delicious home-made cakes, biscuits and juices that had some gardeners begging for recipes.

Originally, the property consisted of attractive old olive trees, to which a newer grove was added about twenty years ago, along with fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs near the house for shade, and terraces made especially for vegetable patches. After working as a regular volunteer at Sparoza, however, the owner decided she’d like to apply the concepts of waterwise gardening at home. Four years ago she enlisted the help of Jennifer Gay and Piers Goldson and a new phase of garden development began.


A more established part of the garden near the entrance
Photo by Robin McGrew

They envisaged the introduction of a new layer of drought-resistant shrubs and perennials that would create a new dimension and structure within the garden. To ensure success, they have sourced all the plants from Olivier Filippi’s nursery near Montpellier in the south of France. Filippi’s seedlings are grown to withstand a life without summer water. Even before ordering them, the team prepared the soil to improve drainage, incorporating river sand where necessary. The Keratea plants receive approximately 15-30 litres of water per month during their first summer according to species, and thereafter a regimen of trial and error is applied towards reducing the need for watering, the ultimate aim being no irrigation except for infrequent but deep watering for selected plants only.


The view of the Mesogeia plain and a newly dug bed
Photo by Robin McGrew

Diana Farr Louis from Jennifer Gay’s notes

One member’s reaction to the Keratea garden

Along with around 40 other horticultural enthusiasts, I had the opportunity to visit the garden of a fellow MGS member located near Keratea, about 40 kilometres south-east of the centre of Athens. The first thing that struck me when I entered the property was how easily the garden harmonized with the surrounding landscape, visible from three sides of the grounds. This is a garden that fits in well with the adjacent olive groves and vineyards. As I began to look closely at the garden, however, I could appreciate how carefully arranged the trees, shrubs and perennials were to provide variety in colour, texture and shape.


A typical example of the mingling of textures, colours and shapes in the Keratea garden
Photo by Robin McGrew

I love the columnar forms of cypress trees. Here they are deployed to punctuate different areas and help move the eye (and entice the body to follow) through the garden. I also love spiky shapes. Here I see a yucca-like plant with delicate thin spikes and a perfectly round shape that appears in several places to great effect. What is this specimen? Throughout the garden, various plants were in flower and I can imagine this is typical through much of the year. The scent of a yellow flowering shrub was delicious. I describe myself as a horticultural enthusiast; unfortunately, this does not mean I know the names of many plants found in this part of the world.


Filippi's plants are surrounded by a gravel mulch and look at home under
one of the original olive trees
Photo by Robin McGrew

A notable feature of this garden is the gravel mulch. The stone walls and the colour of the house blend nicely into the surrounding environment. The tan- and brown-coloured gravel mulch ties the house and walls to the ground plane and gives the planted beds a soothing, tidy appearance. In addition to the attractive aesthetics of the mulch, I learned that by reducing surface evaporation, the gravel mulch plays an important part in the waterwise approach to planting that has been deployed very carefully. The garden is being developed over time according to a master plan. I was very interested to see the latest addition of plants that were installed a month before our visit. In this part of the garden, the quite small plants are spaced about a metre apart with substantial watering basins. These plants will not receive a layer of gravel mulch until after their first year in the ground.


These tiny plants will be watered in their first year and then expected
to survive on what nature provides
Photo by Robin McGrew

Our visit and the lovely tea that followed was a real treat. I would like to thank the owners and the designers for creating and sharing with us such a beautiful and well-maintained garden that demonstrates so very well the principles of climate-appropriate and waterwise planting.

Robin McGrew

We encourage all participants in our events to follow Robin’s example and send us their comments.

January 2014
A day trip to Aegina

We had visited Aegina’s ancient olive grove before not too many years ago, but before the economic crisis and the high cost of fuel oil placed forests, even irreplaceable ones with age-old trees, at risk of being felled for firewood. Concern for the fate of Aegina’s magnificent olives was the initial motive for our January 25th trip, but when a friend, Eleni Zachariou, who lives on the island, pronounced them intact, we decided at her suggestion to broaden our excursion to include some other points of interest.

Eleni, who also happens to be a professional archaeological guide, was waiting for us near the beach of Marathonas, where a very washed-out, steep path leads up to the olive grove. We paused for breath before the final ascent, where she gave us a brief history of the island and told us that the grove, about 12,000 stremmata/12 square kilometres in area, is the property of a local monastery and that no one knows the age of the trees.


Photos by Frosso Vassiliades

Moving upward to the crest of the hill, those of us who hadn’t been there before were taken by surprise. This was not your usual olive grove with neatly spaced rows of trees. Instead, a wide valley stretched before us, dotted with gnarled ancient trees at irregular intervals and studded with red volcanic boulders. Among the trees, the land was rocky and cloaked in classic phrygana vegetation. In places there were large piles of boulders with trees growing on top of the rocks. Probably the soil had washed away over the centuries leaving their roots exposed, whereas once roots and rocks were both underground. These trees are so old their trunks are completely hollow, making it impossible to tell their age by counting the rings. Photographers were in heaven here, entranced by the intricate shapes in the old wood.


Photos by Frosso Vassiliades

After a few hours’ circular walk that took in a large number of spectacular Methuselahs, we quelled our hunger pangs on the terrace of a waterfront taverna, Stratigos, that served a variety of delicious dishes, and, to the delight of some old timers, excellent old-fashioned retsina. The forecast bad weather arrived with impeccable timing just as we were leaving for our next destination, Eleni Kypraiou’s pistachio farm. Ms Kypraiou, a well-known journalist in a former life, greeted us at the entrance of her grove and led us into her workplace, where she not only dries her pistachios, but also makes oil and ‘butter’ from them. Then we squeezed into an anteroom in her home, where she treated us to scrumptious cake. While we nibbled, out of the rain, Eleni Zachariou had arranged for another interesting woman, Vasso Kanellopoulou, to speak to us.

Vasso is the local representative of Peliti (www.peliti.gr), a Greek non-profit organisation involved in the protection, collection and dissemination of traditional or “farmers’” seeds. These are under grave threat, to a large extent because EU legislation promotes standardised and uniform commercial varieties based on criteria that are not suitable for non-commercial, traditional seeds. She painted a grim picture of unenforced guidelines being reworded as strict regulations due to pressures from ten multinational companies, despite the opposition of the populations of 28 member states. Peliti, which has 200 volunteers who keep the purity of locally adapted landraces and operates on a shoestring, attempts to educate children and communities in ecofriendly principles and seed seed saving and promotes the use of public domain seeds which are free of intellectual property rights or patents. Peliti also maintains a seedbank with 2000 accessions as well as 12 ‘lively local chapters’ around the country. Vasso raised concerns about the limited funding of the precious National Seed Bank in Thessaloniki, which keeps 15,000 accessions of crop seeds and wild relatives of these seeds; the bank needs funds for the maintenance of the refrigerating equipment and for reproduction of its seeds at specific time intervals depending on the species, as seed ability for reproduction diminishes with time. Our speaker questioned the logic of reducing biodiversity just to satisfy the greed of certain giant corporations. We could have listened to her for hours, but time was running short and we had one more place to visit.


A glimpse of the historic Voulgaris mansion, built in 1860,
surrounded by lush greenery
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Virtually around the corner from Eleni Kypraiou’s farm, the historic estate of the Voulgaris family awaited us. Here our hosts not only had a fabulous garden to show us, they also shared their art. Theodora (Theo) Chorafa, a descendant of the original owners who built the first house 150 or so years ago, is a skilled potter, and her husband, Aspe Coulon, is a brilliant photographer who had made a series of dramatic portraits of the very olive trees we’d seen earlier. But before entering their studios we took a tour of the garden with its old, healthy palm trees, enormous ficus, galloping bougainvillea and a cactus/succulent zone that surrounded the buildings, a windmill dating from 1791, a ‘cottage’ where Capodistrias, the first Greek president, slept, and the imposing main house, built in 1860, for Demetrios Voulgaris, who served as prime minister no less than eight times.

Arriving back at the port, we had barely enough time to stock up on more pistachios before boarding the ferry. But all agreed it had been a wonderful day, especially thanks to Eleni Zachariou and the inspiring Aegina residents she introduced us to.

Frosso Vassiliades and Diana Farr Louis

December 2013
Following an Ancient Road

On Sunday December 15, 2013, a group of MGS members set off in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks. The ancient road called Sfittia odos ran from Thorikos (near modern-day Lavrion) to Athens, passed through Keratea and Kalyvia, which is now the modern town of Koropi, past the ancient town of Sfittos, up the slopes of Mount Hymettus, and by way of the saddle between Mount Profitis Elias and Mount Mavrovouni, down the other side to Glyfada and along the coast to Athens.

The part of the route that was a track over the mountain was in use until the 1950s by farmers carrying their produce to the Athens markets by donkey, but in more recent times it had become overgrown and difficult to navigate.

Recently, the municipality of Koropi hired a young path-maker, Fivos Tsaravopoulos, to clear a stretch of the track in order to give nature lovers and hikers better access to the beauty of their mountainside. You can read more about his work on his website.

We gathered by the roadside at about 10 a.m., and piling into as few cars as possible, we followed our intrepid leaders up a dirt track and around the large pile of dirt and plastic that used to be the Koropi rubbish tip. We were happy to hear this is no longer used and is being properly restored. It will become a new hill, planted with shrubs to blend in with the countryside.

After a bit of trouble tracking down some lost MGS members, we all gathered at the start of the path and began to make our way up the mountainside.

Accompanying our group were Professor Spyros Lekkas, a geologist and seasoned mountaineer, and Professor Aris Tsaravopoulos, an archaeologist with years of experience exploring the Greek countryside for interesting traces of the past. Their combined knowledge furnished us with many fascinating titbits of information as we climbed uphill, keeping our eyes open for winter bulbs and flowering shrubs. When we stopped and turned around to look at the view, the beauty of our surroundings enthralled us.


The view
(Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)

Stopping at an ancient well (Pigadi Doukas) tucked into the ravine by the side of the path, we learned that the water came only from the seasonal rain, as Mount Hymettus has no springs. In fact, the well was really a reservoir dug into the non-permeable rock in that location. If it had been dug any deeper, the water would have drained away as the diggers would have struck the permeable limestone below. Obviously, the ancients knew what they were doing.


Doukas well
(Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)

After about half an hour of uphill walking, we reached the pass called Stavros, and we were able to look over to the other side towards Terpsithea, Glyfada and the ancient way to Athens.


Erica manipuliflora
(Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)


Crocus laevigatus
(Photo by Nikos Lymperopoulos)

Nearby were clear traces of the foundations of what may have been a 4th-century BC military watchtower. Several similar towers existed along the coasts of Attica to transmit signals to the Acropolis.


Ruined watch tower
(Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)

After a short rest, we took a path to the south, passing alongside the hill and up a steep, newly created path to Tripia Spilia. When the roof of this large cave collapsed, a bridge of rock remained over the entrance, so there is a big hole in the roof. Intrepid climbers like to walk over the bridge, but none of us attempted this, although some scrambled over boulders into the depths of the cave. On the walls, stalactites from when the cave was still underground were visible.


Tripia Spilia
(Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)

From here you can follow a path down to Glyfada, but we retraced our steps back to Koropi and a delicious lunch at a new taverna called Agora.

This path has already attracted some new hikers to Koropi, so congratulations to everyone involved in its making.

Text by Frosso Vassiliades

November 2013
MGS Peloponnese group – 3-day event 

Day one - Wild flower tour of the western Taygetos
Following a substantial buffet meal and registration the previous evening, 29 intrepid MGS members, from Greece and beyond, gathered in the sun outside Stoupa school at 9am to embark on a ‘mystery’ tour of sites in the western Taygetos mountains, led by Melvyn Jope and John Fielding.

Having passed through Neochori and Pyrgos, we noted many Crocus boryi growing along the roadside and in some cases seeming to force their way up through the tarmac. In the rocky terraces of olives there were colourful patches of Cyclamen graecum, and, coming into Kastania, there was evidence of the effect of Seiridium cardinale, the microscopic fungal parasite that is the pathogenous agent of a disease commonly called cypress canker. Unfortunately, this disease can be seen affecting Cupressus sempervirens all over the Mani.

After taking a wrong turn at Kastania, we were able to admire the skills of our imperturbable driver as he reversed and squeezed the coach through narrow village roads with overhanging balconies. We were on our way to Saidona when the wonderfully coloured Iris unguicularis was spotted from the coach. Out came the cameras, and several minutes were spent trying to get just the right shot.  Among other species in evidence here were Clinopodium nepeta (syn. Calamintha nepeta), Leontodon taraxacoides, Verbena officinalis  and Teucrium polium.


Iris unguicularis at Saidona
(Photo Graham Aveyard)

Our organisers urged us back on to the coach and we continued to our first destination - Agios Samouil monastery. Getting to the monastery itself involved a climb up a stony path, slippery from recent rains, but MGS members are nothing if not determined and we all made it to the site. There Melvyn demonstrated the differences between Cyclamen species (the subject of a talk he gave to the group last year), and there were many around to photograph. A fine old Ficus carica was growing near the monastery, and, as we were walking near the tree, a wonderful aroma from Clinopodium nepeta was released. 


Melvyn Jope talking about Cyclamen
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

We returned to the road and walked along it to the next site, Vaidenitsa monastery. There was a well-defined path to this monastery with Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage)and Thymbra capitata (syn. Coridothymus capitatus)among the rocks above the path. The monastery has a very special atmosphere, partly due to the deep shade cast by the many mature walnut trees planted in the grounds. We eventually returned to the coach and journeyed on to Milia, where we stopped for a picnic lunch in the plateia. On the way, we were able to view the glorious colours of the Mani in the autumn, with golden yellows and oranges mingled with the fresh green of Euphorbia, while John Fielding described the local vegetation for us. Phrygana (the eastern Mediterranean version of garrigue) consists of low, cushion-shaped thorny shrubs, such as the endemic Euphorbia acanthothamnos (Greek spiny spurge) and Phlomis,while maquis, a vegetation of the Mediterranean region, occurs mainly on the lower slopes of mountains bordering the sea. Many of the shrubs are aromatic, such as mint, laurel, lentisc and myrtle. Olive, fig, buckthorn, kermes oak, and other small trees are found throughout the maquis, and they may grow into larger specimens.


View from Vaidenitsa monastery
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

After our picnic lunch, which again included delicious chocolate and lemon drizzle cakes provided by Sandra, we made our way to the church of Agios Ioannis Prodromos and from there further down into the Stepeni gorge.  Unlike last year, we did find Galanthus in flower and this provided more opportunities for wonderful photographs before we wandered slowly back to the square in Milia to board the coach back to Stoupa and prepare ourselves for the evening meal.

Day 2 – Four gardens and a picnic
Our second day was spent visiting four gardens, each with its own distinct character, illustrating a variety of approaches to the challenge of gardening in the Mediterranean.

Hillside garden


Hillside garden
(Photo Sandra Panting)

This garden was established on a relatively bare rocky hillside after the building of the owners’ house. The garden had originally been a series of terraces on which cereal crops were grown, and consequently had very little in the way of trees or other plants, though there are some enviably huge Capparis spinosa at the entrance to the garden.  The predominant feature was the large rocks which are now a distinctive part of the landscaping behind the house.

There are several distinct areas, each with its own character – formal rose terraces, village-like orchard terraces with a mix of vegetables, fruit trees and flowers and, possibly the most striking feature, the ‘stairway to heaven’. This consists of a flight of steep stone steps, leading up the slope through naturalistic mediterranean planting. Selective weeding of this area allows a huge variety of wild flowers to thrive amongst the trees and shrubs – a stunning feature in spring.

In the future, a nursery area is planned, and this will facilitate the propagation of plants to supplement what is already a vast variety. The garden is irrigated - different areas receiving varying amounts of water - but the amounts are being reduced as the garden matures.  

Village garden


Village garden
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

The second garden was established on the site of an old mule-powered flour mill. Abandoned in the 1950s, it had become a dump for the locals' rubbish, which had to be cleared before work could begin. 

The garden is enclosed by high stone walls, and a substantial buttressed stone arch, part of the original building, now forms the entrance to the garden. The area where the mill stones were now forms the central feature, and together these architectural remnants provide shelter and shade, enabling a variety of plants to thrive and giving the garden a unique character. Herbaceous plants surround the millstones, Trachelospermum jasminoides thrives on a warm stone wall, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus basks in a sheltered corner and, beyond the walled garden, is a small orchard.
                   
Seaside garden


Seaside garden
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

The third garden is set on a plot next to the sea, in what was an old olive grove, though little evidence survived the building of the house. The garden is built on underlying rock and, though soil was imported, it is very sandy. Consequently, a great deal of effort goes into making compost, and this is gradually being added to the soil to improve the quality.

A network of paved paths weave around the garden and link the different areas. The canopy covering a large seating area, strategically positioned to take advantage of the stunning sea view, provides an ideal framework for the striking mauve/blue trumpet flowers of Thunbergia grandiflora whichscrambles over the pergola and up the back wall of the house, mingling with Bougainvillea and jasmine. A striking specimen of Solandra grandiflora cloaks a sunny side wall, its glossy leaves contrasting handsomely with the stone walls of the house.

There is an extensive watering system, but the intention is to reduce the amount of watering drastically, not least because the mains water is slightly saline.

At the lowest point of the garden is a natural swimming pond - these have been common in Austria and Germany for over a quarter of a century but have been hitherto unknown in Greece. The water is kept clear by mineral filters and oxygenating plants established in planting zones around the swimming area, and the pool is a haven for birds and insects.

Garden on a promontory


Promontory garden
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

The final garden is set on a rocky promontory, 200m above sea level, overlooking the coast. It consists of a series of flat terraces enclosed by drystone walls. Exposed bedrock predominated on the upper levels, around the house, so excavated sandstone spoil was distributed on top of this. A further layer of gravel was spread on top to create new terraces and planting areas, while keeping some of the original rock exposed.

Formal paved areas are juxtaposed with informal Mediterranean planting in gravel, and a stepped ramp leads down to the vegetable garden. From the entrance, a series of amphitheatrical steps lead to the swimming pool which, though resembling a conventional pool, is nevertheless filtered naturally, without the use of chemicals, and  is possibly the first of its kind in Greece. The lowest terrace, planted with olive trees, has an old threshing floor, hewn out of solid bedrock. This was restored, stone steps were constructed on either side and wild flowers allowed to establish in the rock fissures.

The planting consists of a limited palette of Mediterranean plants. The emphasis is on structural planting, with key plants repeated throughout the garden to give continuity. An important criterion is growth habit – specifically the plants’ ability to spread and soften the edges of the hard landscaping. On the western side of the house the original terraces have been planted naturalistically to create a wild area blending with the view beyond.

Rainwater is collected from the roof of the house by means of guttering and stored in an underground cistern equipped with a pump, providing a back-up supply for occasional deep watering during the summer months.

Sadly, the weather was not very conducive to a picnic lunch, having rained heavily during the course of the morning, but we re-convened later that evening at a local taverna for illustrated talks by John Fielding and Melvyn Jope, followed by another excellent meal.

Day 3 – Trip south to Areopoli and Harouda
The day started early with a violent thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain and hail - not the ideal start for a day’s botanising! But by 9 o’clock it was dry and, together with our visiting experts, John Fielding and Melvyn Jope, we were all on the coach heading south from Stoupa.

The first stop was near Saxoneika, on the border of Messinia and Lakonia, just south of Agios Nikon. We scrambled up a loose stony track heading east towards Agios Nikon monastery, 850m above us. Fortunately, the main plant we had come to see, Crocus goulimyi, was only 50m above the road. In spite of the storm, there were masses of C. goulimyi in its lilac form, but the scent was faint, perhaps because of the weak sun. Remarkably, the bulb of this crocus can be half a metre below ground level, finding its way up through stone walls. The more enterprising of the party found a fine example of Arum maculatum (syn. A. vulgare) with a 7 cm flower, and clumps of Teucrium polium.

After passing Oitylo, on the descent to the coast, we stopped to take in the impressive view of Limeni bay and across to Kelefa castle, but the sea lacked its usual turquoise colour, and the dramatic waves were clear evidence of the previous night’s storm. 

We continued to Areopoli, where we stopped for coffee and a chance to explore the old town. Areopoli has many fine examples of the local stone-built architecture, much of it recently restored, and a little curiosity reveals fascinating shop interiors (of a type rapidly disappearing), courtyard gardens brimming with foliage, a good bookshop specialising in local literature and several superb bakeries selling local produce - ideal for our picnic lunch.


Bougainvillea
at Areopoli
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

The rain started again in Areopoli, but had ceased by the time we arrived at our next stop. Here we saw good examples of Crocus niveus in both its blue and white forms and Colchicum pusillum. A seedling of Astragalus made a lovely composition with a clump of C. niveus. John pointed out how to distinguish Euphorbia acanthothamnos from Sarcopoterium spinosum (thorny burnet), simple when the plants are in leaf following the autumn rains, but not so easy during their summer dormancy. In spring, Lilium candidum and Serapias species can also be found in this area.

From our next stop, Triandafilia, we set off on a 2km walk to see Sternbergia lutea in the village of Harouda, the road being too narrow for our coach. The wiser members of the group looked at the approaching squall and stayed with the coach; our gung-ho leaders led us into a torrential downpour which drenched trousers and filled boots - one member was tempted to put on her bikini.  Having battled with the elements, we made it to the beautiful 11th/12th-century church of the Taxiarch, by which time the sun had emerged, and we were able to dry out over picnic lunch in the walled churchyard, which now resembled a Chinese laundry – damp, steaming clothes draped everywhere.


Prostrate photographer and Sternbergia lutea
(
Photo Katerina Georgi)


Church of the Taxiarch, Harouda
(Photo Katerina Georgi)

The Sternbergia around the church were astounding in their quantity; their glorious yellow colour led to covetous thoughts of returning in April to collect seed, which germinates readily and quickly produces flowering plants. In some parts the Sternbergia were accompanied by an Iris species not in flower: probably garden escapees of Iris x germanica (also called I. florentina). In the centre of the village was an interesting walled garden with superb mulberry trees, pruned into a spreading habit to provide shade in summer and, flourishing beneath them, a surprising emerald green alternative lawn.  Sadly, the surrounding olive groves had been devastated by fire in May, but nevertheless the Cyclamen were flourishing in the bare fields.

Harouda marked the end of our journey south, and from there we headed back to warm showers and dry clothing, followed by the group’s last meal together at a Kardamyli taverna. The drive was accompanied by wonderful views of late afternoon light, with clouds over the mountains and a spectacular rainbow below us, comprising almost two thirds of a circle. A truly splendid day.

Text contributed by Chris and Graham Aveyard, Katerina Georgi and Richard Robinson

November 2013
The Greek Branch hosts the 19th AGM in Attica

With torrential rains making this November the wettest in years, we were extremely lucky that glorious sunshine and warm temperatures blessed our days in the Athens area. Those who went to on the optional trip to the Peloponnese afterwards were not so fortunate, but good company and good food, not to mention good wine, made up for two-and-a-half days of monsoon.

A gala inaugural buffet dinner launched the events after registration at the Goulandris Museum of Natural History in Kifissia. It was held in the basement’s attractive mineral exhibition area, where fossils and precious ores decorated the walls. The rooms buzzed with happy talk as old friends recognized each other and as new connections were made. The food was delectable – one could call it creative Greek traditional.

On the morning of day two, we split up into two groups, one choosing a walk in Parnitha, the other a tour of the little-visited site of Eleusis. The Parnitha group was surprised to see that the burned area between the Casino and the Bafi Refuge still looked barren, especially in view of the fact that the fire occurred in 2007. After arriving at the refuge, we were taken on a walk in surviving forest land, accompanied by a band of charming and knowledgeable guides from Trekking Hellas. There weren’t many flowers to see, but the views were stunning, the weather amazing and our guides delightful, so we had a wonderful time. After the walk the bus took us back to the refuge, where botanist/biologist Tikki Athanasiou gave us a slide show on the flora and fauna of Parnitha. This was followed by an appropriately rustic lunch – a choice of the traditional bean soup or vegetable soup with salads and other mezedes.


Parnitha
Photo by George Brumder

Two excellent guides initiated the second group into the mysteries of Eleusis – at least the gist of what went on there in commemoration of Demeter’s loss of Persephone. We know that its message concerned the afterlife and rebirth, and, fittingly, both the site and the industrial suburb of Elefsina that surrounds it have undergone a renaissance. Pedestrianised cobbled streets, plantings and restored neoclassical buildings have transformed this formerly sooty, dusty place, making it a treat all the more delightful for being unexpected. Many guests seemed pleased to be introduced to the famous place, saying they ‘never would have thought of coming’ on their own.


View of Eleusis from the entrance, with Pluto’s cave at the back left
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

That afternoon we were allowed a short nap before departing for Athens and a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. Here too our guides were so enthusiastic that they held our interest – no mean trick – for the whole visit. From there, we repaired to the Strophi taverna nearby, which has an enclosed roof terrace with a fine view of the Parthenon, all lit up.

On day three, bright and early, we set out from Kifissia to visit Sparoza and two members’ gardens in the vicinity. The first of these two gardens, in Keratea, can be considered a work in progress, an experimental, drought-tolerant garden, as the owners and the designers Jennifer Gay and Piers Goldson wish to see just how much water plants can be denied and still thrive. All shrubs and perennials are sourced from Olivier Filippi’s nursery in the south of France, so it was an added pleasure to have him and his wife with us, as well as Jennifer and Piers, who explained the philosophy as well as such innovations as gravel beds to provide good drainage and cut down on weeds. For local members who would like to see this wonderful garden, which fits so well into its phrygana surroundings, we are planning a visit in the spring.


Plants from Filippi’s nursery thriving in gravel beds
and blending nicely with the native phrygana
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

After a copious, but healthy – mostly vegetables and salad – lunch at the Elaionas taverna near Sparoza, we boarded our buses and both groups descended on the magnificent garden on a southern slope of Mount Pendeli. As the owner explained, her 8.5-acre garden was begun 22 years ago, on a scale rare in Greece. Stately and formal, with many ‘built’ features, such as monumental staircases, fountains and pools, it was designed by the gifted American landscape architect Charles Shoup. But the profuse planting and carefully used grass ‘softens’ the stonework, which also divides the garden into smaller or larger areas, each with its own atmosphere. Because of the recent need to cut expenses, the owner felt that ‘it lacks the detail that makes a place truly special and many beloved treasures have been lost’. That said, it still looked very special to us and the owner has plans to make it more productive, cultivating the existing fruit and olive trees and expanding the vegetable and herb garden.

Both hostesses offered us sublime refreshments – home-made cakes and biscuits, juices and coffee/tea.


Rosemary of various types was a recurring theme in the formal garden
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

On the morning of day four we all met again at the Goulandris Museum for the General Assembly, and then again in the afternoon to hear our keynote speaker, Olivier Filippi, tell us about ‘Alternatives to lawns’. A born story teller/actor as well as plant collector, nursery owner and expert in waterwise gardening, Filippi drew a full house and had our full attention, hooking us from the first slide with an account of a trip to Sounion with his wife. We saw the famous temple and the plants around it with his eyes and then explored a bit further where something green gleamed brightly against the sea and bare rocks. He teased us and kept us in suspense while he slowly revealed his find: not a lawn, but a magnificent expanse of emerald plastic. No maintenance, no watering, it was definitely an alternative but not among those he had in mind.

What followed were slides of ten of his ideas, which included grasses, groundcovers like thyme and even a mix of ‘weeds’, steps and steppes, gravel, pavement/flagstones, phrygana and mediterranean meadow. He also showed how to divide our gardens into hydrozones of varying degrees of watering, and explained the pros and cons of different approaches. A full account of his talk will be available on this website.


One of Olivier Filippi’s alternatives to a lawn
Photo by Olivier Filippi

Exhilarated and full of enthusiasm, we walked from the Museum to the final dinner at the Semiramis Hotel nearby. There amid toasts to Alisdair Aird, our new president, Jean Vaché, our outgoing president, and many others who contributed to making the AGM such a success, we ended the festivities on a note of optimism and co-operation for the new Administrative Committee.

Optional trip to Messinia

It was already overcast when some fifty of us left Kifissia on the morning of day five, drizzling by the Corinth canal, pouring cats, dogs, chairs and tables by the time we pulled up to the Semeli winery in Nemea (in Greek ‘raining cats and dogs’ is described as ‘raining chair legs’). So heavy was the rain that we could not see the ‘Tuscan’ beauty of the rolling, vine-covered hills and thick stands of cypresses through our fogged bus windows. And although we were indoors, we did not get more than a hazy image of the scale and technology of this ultra-modern winery. However, the tasting sessions were a tremendous success and more wines accompanied a fine lunch in their spacious dining room. So, by the time we re-joined our bus, most of us were either too sleepy or too bubbly to mind getting stuck on one of Nemea’s spaghetti-thin roads, where cars and pickups were parked higgledy-piggledy by locals rushing to a funeral.

Finally, after a wait of more than an hour, we set off again into the dusk and much later reached our destination, the Costa Navarino resort at Pylos that in just three short years since its opening has won dozens of awards and hundreds of rave reviews. Able to sleep 1500 people, it employs 1000 and has brought employment to another 2000 in the Messinia area. It is also pledged to high eco standards and we were impressed to learn, when the rain eventually paused on Tuesday afternoon, that the complex irrigates its grounds and golf courses primarily with its own reservoirs and recycled water, that almost all foods prepared in its kitchens are locally sourced, and most of the plants on the 2,500-acre estate are from the Mediterranean. They are also justly famous for their programme to save the venerable olive and citrus trees that were on site before construction began. Of the 6,000 olive trees that were dug up, kept in ‘transit’ and replanted, only four have died. Of course, there are lawns, and some of us wondered whether the olives that were replanted in their midst would be compatible with the watering and fertilizers needed to keep the grass green.


A view of the Costa Navarino grounds
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Next morning, with the rain still pelting down, we were magically consoled with a slide show/talk by Andrea Bonetti, an Italian-Swiss biologist-photographer who has spent years in the Gialova lagoon near Pylos, but has travelled all over Greece as well. He kept us enthralled with his images and his knowledge, and some of us were reluctant to stop for lunch. You can see some of his work here, and we have invited him to give a similar show to the Greek branch this winter.

Mercifully, the rain petered out, the sun glimmered from behind the grey and we had a pleasant stroll round Pylos town, lunch, and then a guided walk through the wetlands of Gialova, with Bonetti showing us distant flamingos with his giant telescope, as we admired hardy, pink marsh grasses and lichen-covered shrubs. The tour of the hotel grounds followed and then we crowded into the Natura Hall, an interactive, educational display of photographs (many by Bonetti) and ecofacts, primarily designed for young people but interesting to adults as well.

Our sojourn over, we piled into the bus again on the morning of day seven, looking forward to a tour of Ancient Messene on our way back. The city, founded in 369 BC by the Theban general Epaminondas as a buffer against Sparta, has only recently been excavated, and new buildings come to light regularly. Alas, the rain god was travelling in the same direction, so we only managed to see the small museum and had a brief walk with umbrellas to survey the ancient theatre, which is so well preserved that performances took place there last summer. Again our guides were exemplary.


The theatre of Ancient Messene in the rain
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Lunch at the Ithome taverna restored our spirits and our ride to Athens was uneventful. We may not have seen as much nature and horticulture as was intended, but we cemented relationships and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. For this, an enormous amount of credit is due to Katie Papadimitriou, director of Symvoli Conference and Cultural Management, who was constantly on the phone re-arranging our schedule and shepherding us with grace and humour, and to our heroic driver Yiannis, who never stopped smiling as he steered us in awful conditions to our destinations. Credit is also due to our resilient members, who were appreciative of everything we did manage to see and kept their kefi or spirits high.

Diana Farr Louis and Frosso Vassiliades

October 2013
Visit to Theologos and the ancient site of Halai

When you schedule a botanical trip in mid-October in Greece, there’s always a risk that plant life will be minimal to non-existent owing to a delay in the autumn rains. And that was exactly the fate of our visit to Theologos, a village in Fthiotida on the gulf of Evia, where MGS members Laura Purdy and John Coleman have been living and gardening for half the year since the late 1980s. John, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Cornell University, has been responsible for the excavations at the Neolithic/Greco-Roman site of Halai there for almost 20 years.

So, despite the lack of horticulture, we had an insider’s guide to the site, followed by a pleasant walk in the nearby pinewoods and a delectable lunch at a seaside taverna. After a marvellous welcome with ‘the best bougatsa in the region’ ordered specially for us, we walked the few metres to the antiquities. A wonderful speaker, John made us see the area as it would have been, first in 6000 BC, when the earliest settlers lived there, and later from 600 BC to AD 600, when there were three more periods of occupancy.


John Coleman by the rising sea - much of ancient Halai is under water now

The gulf, which looks so placid and stable, was (and is still) in constant movement. With a fault line running parallel to the National Road, earthquakes have occurred frequently, causing the water level to rise 120 metres in 5000 years and push Evia away from the mainland. As the sea rushed in, the gulf deepened, creating one of the most important shipping lanes in ancient Greece, with perhaps 300 ships a day plying the straits. Fortifications and small towns sprang up at close intervals to protect the ships and benefit from the trade. Halai’s salt flats – covered now – were a source of wealth, used to preserve the abundant fish that formed a major dietary staple.


Plenty of remnants of ancient walls, but not an autumn flower to be seen

As for the site, there are no temples or glorious marbles to delight the photographer, but John pointed out the different layers of Neolithic settlements, an Archaic altar, a Hellenistic gate and an Early Christian basilica, boosting our imaginations with diagrams of the site at various periods and colour photos of the pottery, figurines, mosaics and other finds. We also received a mini lesson in paleobotany, learning what plants those earliest inhabitants dined on: emmer wheat and einkorn, barley, lentils and vetch, figs, pistachios, pomegranates and wild grapes, plus tuna, and meat from the usual cloven-hoofed animals.

With the sea level still rising – parts of the site are only 90 cm above the water – and the coast road only two metres away, the challenge now is to preserve as much as possible. There are no easy solutions and we thought back to the days when the Halai excavations were begun in 1911, by two of the first women archaeologists to work in Greece, Alice Walker-Cosmopoulos and Hetty Goldman, whose father was an investment banker. We wondered whether Goldman-Sachs could help in any way for old times’ sake.


Beautiful views and companionable exercise but very little new growth

Having explored the bare site, we longed for a walk and Laura led us to a hillside on the opposite side of the bay, which in a wetter October would have been dotted with crocuses and cyclamen. We had to content ourselves with gorgeous views and pine trees, until the very end, when someone stumbled upon a tiny clump of our favourite pink flowers.


Our only cyclamen

What was lacking in botany, we more than made up for in camaraderie, good talk, free-flowing wine and delicious food. And for dessert, we polished off that memorable bougatsa.


The ethereal bougatsa that began and ended a lovely outing

Text and photographs by Diana Farr Louis

May 2013
Exploring the Parnon mountains

Twenty members of the Peloponnese group took part in a three-day trip to the Parnon mountains at the end of May, staying in the remote village of Tsintzina (also known as Polydroso).

Day 1
The group met in Skala and drove in convoy to Paleomonastiro, near Vrondomas, enjoying vistas of both the Taygetos and Parnon mountains en route. Built into the cliff face of a gorge on the river Evrotas, the monastery is dedicated to the Panagia (Holy Virgin) and Saint Nicetas. It was the site of a tragic occurrence in 1825 when local villagers, sheltering there from persecution by Ibrahim Pasha, were betrayed and martyred when the building was set alight. However, many beautiful frescoes, some dating back to the late 12th century, have survived. On the opposite side of the gorge, the caves that previously served as a leper colony were visible. Beside the path leading down to the monastery, bright yellow broom, cistus, pale pink bindweed, scabious, thyme, and blue cupidone (Catananche caerulea) were all in flower.


The Evrotas river

We picnicked bedside the fast-flowing waters of the Evrotas, the river that some believe was used by Paris in his abduction of Helen of Troy from Sparta. From there we moved on to the village of Kalithea, with its two huge Platanus orientalis trees shading the square. After liquid refreshment, some drove and others walked to the nearby ruined Frankish/Venetian castle. Euphorbia rigida, several shades of cistus, and many blue larkspurs edged the route. Abundant clumps of thyme were frequented by bees from nearby hives. Despite the hazy atmosphere, the views from the castle were breathtaking, particularly looking towards the Taygetos mountains.

Our journey continued northwards, climbing through what had been a vast area of pine forest, now sadly depleted by extensive fire damage in 2007. The vegetation was mostly scrub until walnut trees appeared as we approached Tsintzina. From our hotel on the upper outskirts we had delightful views of the village nestling in the forest below us. The day was rounded off with an excellent group meal in the hotel.


Tsintzina in the early morning

Day 2
On the second day the party split into two – one group undertaking a challenging climb up through the pine forests to a height of 1600m, and the second group taking the gentler option of exploring the mountains by car.

The ‘challenging’ option
The tougher option took us on a circular walk along a well-marked route through forest consisting predominantly of Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) and Greek fir (Abies cephalonica). We climbed about 400 metres through very different terrains including dirt tracks and a dry river-bed leading to a plateau and meadow land, finally descending on a steep goat track.


Dactylorhiza saccifera


Limodorum abortivum (violet bird’s-nest orchid)
Photo by Sandra Panting

There was plenty to see during our ascent, including Hypericum olympicum, Sedum laconicum, Centaurea raphanina, Astragalus angustifolius, and several (tentatively identified) species of orchid. Our most exotic find was a daisy-like yellow flower with an almost globular calyx, identified as Hymenonema laconicum, which is endemic to the Peloponnese. We picnicked on the plateau, and were rewarded for our climb by finding and picking from a plentiful supply of mountain tea, most probably Sideritis clandestina (again endemic to the Peloponnese), which grows above 1000m. There were also a few remaining cyclamen and some thrift in both pink and white (Armeria canescens?). The main meadow on the plateau had been mown recently and was occupied by a large number of beehives – the drone of the bees was almost deafening – but some bright pink sweet peas had survived.


Cephalanthera rubra (red helleborine)


Sideritis clandestina
Photo by Sandra Panting

The ‘easy’ option
Meanwhile, the ‘gentle folk’ set off by car to explore the heights of the Parnon mountain range. Climbing to a height of 1610m through the forest, our first stop was at the ‘top of the world’, the small church of Agios Ioannis. From there, on a clear day, one can see the bay of Nafplion as well as the Laconian gulf and the ever-beautiful Profitis Ilias in Taygetos. Nearby there was an abundance of Euphorbia rigida with its orange/rust-coloured bracts. We also saw aubretia, and an interesting cluster of Astragalus tragacantha (syn. A. massiliensis). Aside from the lovely white blossoms, it was full of butterflies. Along the way we passed many thistle-type plants, probably Onopordum laconicum.


Euphorbia rigida

Our second stop, where we ate our picnic, was at a refuge at 1420m, called in Greek Katafigio ‘gamma’, Papatheodorou. On the shady side of the refuge was a lovely cluster of snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). In an alpine meadow nearby we found two types of poppies still blooming: the orange-coloured Papaver argemone and the larger, deep red Papaver apulum. Scattered along the way were star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) and Potentilla hirta with its attractive yellow flower and furry leaves.

Early evening
We were fortunate to be invited into the village home and garden of N and his wife G. N showed us around his steeply terraced garden, describing his approach to growing vegetables. Everything possible from the house and garden is composted and used to feed the soil each spring before N plants his tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers. He uses a combination of weed-suppressing membrane and a drip irrigation system to reduce the workload. G then showed us around the inside of their beautifully restored but still very traditional village house.

While we enjoyed refreshments, N told us about his childhood in Tsintzina and about the movement of villagers between the ‘binary’ villages of Tsintzina and Goritsa. Tsintzina is the higher village and was occupied in the summer, but winter temperatures there are generally ten degrees lower than in Sparta, so the villagers withdrew to Goritsa. However, Goritsa became almost uninhabitable during the summer due to mosquitoes and malaria, so the villagers, at that time numbering some 1000, walked the 30km trail between the two villages across the mountains twice a year. As there was no shade along the kalderimi, they travelled at night by the light of the full moon, taking with them all their animals and possessions. The smaller children were tied to the backs of the mules to prevent them from falling off when they inevitably fell asleep.

Tsintzina is still largely uninhabited from October to June, which became obvious to us when we walked down into the quiet village for a group meal in a traditional and very hospitable taverna.

Day 3
Once again there were two options. A small group set out to walk to the remote village of Kaloni where local member Kjeld lives. Meanwhile, the larger group went on a gentler walk in the upper meadows.

The ‘challenging’ option
We were to walk about a third of the trail linking Tsintzina and Goritsa, heading mostly downhill towards Goritsa along a former kalderimi and then striking off towards Kaloni. The local landscape was interesting for what it told us about its past and its evolution. About 10,000 years ago this area, in common with much of Greece, was clad predominantly in Quercus ilex, the holm oak. Due to deforestation and over-grazing, it now supports only steppe-like vegetation – a shrub layer at the maquis level, giving way to phrygana species, chiefly Quercus coccifera, the evergreen kermes oak. Here the oak has not been able to regenerate following damage by fire and grazing goats, so now it can only form a shrub. Interspersed were some other small trees, notably Acer sempervirens and a couple of beautiful Arbutus andrachne. Lower down were spurges and then the cultivated belt of olive.


Peeling bark of arbutus

Some five weeks previously, when this route was waymarked, there were, in glorious flower, Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), Cistus incanus and the more plentiful Cistus salviifolius, Trifolium brutium (syn. T. aurantiacum), many sedums and rock-clinging plants, and the beautiful, but highly toxic, Globularia alypum. Now, sadly, little remained but shattered seed heads, desiccated thistles, tall silvery grasses and Thymbra capitata (syn. Thymus capitatus).

When we eventually left the kalderimi and crossed the valley to Kaloni, Kjeld's stone house was a cool haven and his cold refreshments very much appreciated.


The kalderimi, with Kaloni just visible in the centre of the picture

The ‘easy’ option
The gentle walk began with a quick uphill march, to put distance between us and the bees that were foraging close to the road. The slope flattened out into a meadow where we gathered plant specimens to examine later in the day. There was a good variety of plants still in flower. Growing in the shade of trees were clumps of snow-in-summer, Cerastium tomentosum, familiar to many of us from our rockeries in northern climes. We spotted three different types of convolvulus, the pink bindweed Convolvulus cantabricus, the mallow-leaved bindweed, C. altheoides, and a pretty pink and white striped bindweed, C. arvensis. We were delighted to find Hymenonema laconicum, which, although rare, was plentiful in the meadow.

Some of the surrounding Greek firs had perished in a fire, but those that survived were sprouting bright green candle-like growth at the ends of their branches. There was a bush heavy with blossom that exuded a scent reminiscent of hawthorn, but the flowers were a creamy colour and the leaves were much smaller than those of the English hedgerow tree.

Back in our vehicles, we made for Kaloni where we cooled down on Kjeld’s veranda with cold beers and enjoyed our picnics. In the garden we admired the hard landscaping and pergolas, which made a harmonious and practical framework for the plants, including stunning purple clematis in full bloom. In Kjeld’s sitting-room was a continuous slide show of his photographs of wild flowers, butterflies, and fascinating close-ups of greenfly.

Illustrated talk by Kjeld Kjeldsen on plant physiology
When the hardier group had arrived and been refreshed, Kjeld gave a talk on plant physiology. He began by illustrating the ratio between the various gases that constitute the air, and showed how these proportions have varied through the millennia. Volcanic activity was and is an important factor in these shifts, increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and causing changes in climate. These changes have radically affected life on Earth, at one time instigating an era of trees forty metres high and centipedes two metres long, and at others at least five instances of mass extinction. Life forms adapted to changed atmospheric conditions and survived; if they did not adapt, they perished. With carbon particles in the atmosphere now reaching more than 400 parts per million, exceeding the amount that experts in climate change consider safe, what will happen next?

It was against this ecological background that Kjeld focused on the physiology of plants, especially the leaves and their stomata. These are microscopic openings through which gases are exchanged, allowing carbon dioxide to be absorbed from the atmosphere and oxygen and water vapour to escape. The role of the stomata is thus crucial to plants – and to the air we breathe. Via a powerful microscope connected to a large screen, Kjeld displayed a blade of grass. At a magnification of 50x, the dumbbell-shaped stomata became visible. The kidney-shaped openings of a basil leaf were detectable at much lower magnification and it was apparent that the density of stomata in basil is much greater than in grass. Now we know why basil is a much thirstier plant than grass.

The group was then invited to use Kjeld’s microscopes to examine the plant specimens collected earlier that day. Gasps of wonder were audible from those not accustomed to seeing living things in such minute detail. Examining the Hymenonema laconicum was particularly rewarding. The contours and shapes of the constituent parts of the flower were clear and the colours sensational. Portrayed in golden yellow and drab brown in the reference books, in real life there was more than one shade of yellow in the petals, the base of the corolla was bright magenta, and the ends of the stamens were a contrasting sulphurous yellow.


Using Kjeld’s microscopes

It was a unique and spectacular ending to a well-planned, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable three days. A warm vote of thanks was given to the organisers, Kay Elvina-Sutton assisted by Kjeld Kjeldsen and Dennis and Barbara Balfour; Kjeld was also thanked for his generous hospitality and for passing on to us his enthusiasm for the fascinating world of the very small.

Text contributed by Mary Hayes, John Karaiossifoglou, Tracy Kyriakeas, Barbara Balfour and Lilian Munby.

Photographs by Linda Reynolds except where indicated.

May 2013
Three gardens in Kifissia

So close and yet so different, all three gardens were wonderful examples of MGS principles, using (mostly) local plants, little water and a flexible approach to nature or what some might call weeds.

The first garden represented Old Kifissia – a listed house built in 1910, containing towering cypresses and other trees that pre-dated it by 50 years. But when the owners bought the property in 2001, they wanted to do away with its expanse of lawn and turn it into a Greek garden. RK, who happens to be a civil engineer, craved structure and commissioned Marina Adams, MGS member and well known landscape  architect, to come up with solutions. A path, lined with a ‘fluffy’ rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Punta di Canelle’) on one side and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) on the other, led to the former lawn.


The entrance to RK's garden. Rosemary and lavender border the path.
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

This open space was fascinating as a partially successful experiment. As R told us, ‘We planted it with seven types of creeping thymes: Thymus roegneri (syn. T. hirsutus), T. mastichina (syn. T. ciliates), T. serpyllum, T. linearis var. album (syn. T. serpyllum var. albus), T. ‘Lemon Curd’, T. herba-barona, Thymbra capitata (syn.Thymus capitatus), and Frankenia laevis, but if I had to do it all over again, I would only plant the last one. Frankenia laevis is an alternative tothyme, doesn’t dry out and in winter it has a pretty reddish-brown colour. Because these varieties were difficult to find here, we ordered them from Olivier Filippi’s nursery in France. To avoid weeds creeping in, we placed a glass-fleece under the soil, then punctured it with holes for 2000 pots and topped it with gravel. This proved to be a problem, as the thyme couldn’t spread freely and nature rushed in to fill the gaps - she doesn’t take to utopian idealism and regimentation. Ironically, the most successful ground cover is the Phyla nodiflora (syn. Lippia nodiflora) patch nearer the house; it grows so densely that the weeds don’t get through, and it makes a soft pink carpet in spring even though we pay practically no attention to it.’


A thyme lawn as an alternative to grass
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades

Between the white house and the thyme lawn, Marina had planted Rosa ‘Glamis Castle’and Rosa banksiae (common name baxevanis in Greece) in creams and whites, to repeat the pale colours of the house. Next to them stood a dwarf ginkgo on steroids, and next we passed under a grape/wisteria arbour to get to the vegetable patches. There were several patches, arranged south and east of the boundary wall, in every stage of growth from tomato seedlings to red-fruited fraises des bois to bolting cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), plus a bed with lilacs and other flowering shrubs (Philadelphus coronarius, Phlomis italica) used exclusively for cutting. Fruit trees for all seasons stood here and there, while in the front of the house was an empty area where R told us she grows horta (greens) from her native island of Crete that she collects all winter.

We were in awe of the careful thought that had gone into this garden and thrilled to find a space so atypical and productive so close to the central shopping district. There was even an area covered by Jaborosa integrifola, which helps stabilize the soil in steep corners of the plot.


Jaborosa integrifolia
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades)

The next garden, owned by LK, a Sparoza volunteer, higher up and close to where Kifissia ends and Mount Pendeli begins, was more similar in spirit and soil to Sparoza. The garden consisted of a very gentle slope under tall pine trees, sculpted into terraces with stones by Kyrios Thomas, the ‘artist’ gardener. Like our first hostess, L did not want a lawn, but what would grow under the pines? To start with, we found an acanthus border that would be green for a few more weeks at most, standing next to plenty of pink-flowered gaura, which flowers all year. There was tradescantia, whose pink blooms last all summer, cistus, and plenty of the usual suspects – rosemaries, lavenders, silver-leaved artemisia lookalikes, various species of iris, salvias, yellow-blossomed Bulbine frutescens, a member of the asphodel family – and many more native plants (Myrtus communis, rhamnus, arbutus, Laurus nobilis), that made for a varied mix of creepers, bushes and trees that was very restful to the eye.


LK's garden with a hazy Mount Pendeli in the background
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

L explained that five years ago, MGS member and garden designer Jennifer Gay had come in like an ‘angel’ and made a path to join the various areas in the garden as well as an oval patio. At the same time, the pines had become a disaster, full of cottony fluff and all but succumbing to the panhellenic plague induced by the pine pest Marchalina hellenica. Wrapping the trunks in plastic tape to keep the insects away and washing them with organic mineral soap eventually produced results, and the trees looked healthy again.


Rosemary tumbles over the wall into a seating area in L’s garden
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades

L spoke movingly about how her work at Sparoza as a volunteer has formed her ideas about gardening: ‘Everything you see here is due to Sparoza, and especially to Sally Razelou. I try to have a waterwise garden, with plants mainly native to Kifissia, but I also experiment with plants from other mediterranean countries.’

We left in a cloud of thyme and oregano, ground-huggers that spill on to the path from the gate into the garden proper.

While L’s garden seemed an idealized extension of an Attica hillside, NC’s garden, just a few blocks away, was almost a jungle. Entering it through a ‘hole in a wall’, many guests were heard to exclaim, ‘Why, this is a secret garden!’ Again we saw acanthus, leafy and floppy this time, rather than erect, and Bulbine frutescens, with orange rather than yellow blooms, irises and bright yellow phlomis, but the effect was very different. Tall trees provided so much shade one wondered whether the sun ever penetrated, but all the plants looked happy and certainly not starved for light. Rambling roses looped around some of the branches, but all that was left of the April peonies was their leaves. Much of our attention focused on the presence of two lily ponds.


In NC's garden, statuary is hidden in the 'jungle' of acanthus
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

N said that the garden was transformed when the lily ponds were added as a new, damper microclimate was created. As she told us, ‘The trees and shrubs benefited from the additional moisture in the atmosphere. From then on, the garden, not the gardener, took the upper hand; many new plants appeared on their own, some naturalized and became seasonal familiars like the masses of borage in March and the acanthus in May, while some needed coaxing and begging like the peonies. Overall, this is a garden where nature works much harder than the gardener.’


The lily pond
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades

N’s garden had a playful atmosphere, contributed to by small solar-powered yellow and orange lanterns near the ponds and dangling from the trees, and by the surprise of coming across pieces of sculpture half hidden in the greenery. Of course, tadpoles, goldfish and glowing water-lilies bring smiles even to grown-up faces. Another star was her elder tree (Sambucus nigra), from whose flowers N had made wine for our delectation.

Each garden was very special, with intimate corners for sitting alone and larger spaces for company, and each hostess treated us intruders with the hospitality for which Greece is famous. We were thoroughly spoiled.

Diana Farr Louis

April 2013
Visit to northern Evia

This year’s three-day trip took us to the northern part of Greece’s second largest island, Evia (ancient Euboea), an area with rivers and mountains, waterfalls and thick forests, so green it looked like a travel poster for Switzerland.

Our first stop was Rovies, halfway up the coast opposite the mainland. There we stayed at the Eleonas Agrotourism Hotel, which couldn’t have been more helpful in arranging our walks as well as two superlative taverna meals. Eleonas means olive grove, and in the afternoon we were given a tour of a very small part of the ocean of olive trees viewed from our rooms. Owned by the Papadopoulos family, the property once stretched from Limni in the south and over the mountains to the Noel-Baker estate in the centre of the island, our destination for the following day.


The view of the olive grove from the hotel named after it, Eleonas
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

The ecofriendly Eleonas grove is cleared in strips, leaving ‘corridors’ of uncut ‘weeds’ between the trees which serve as habitats and food sources for insects and birds. They also camouflage the irrigation pipes which carry water from a spring underground. Our guide, Alexandra Valli, cousin of our host, Stephanos Vallis, told us that her grandfather had cleared the dense forest of holm oak (Quercus ilex), kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), Pistacia lentiscus and clinging vines, including winter clematis, and grafted new stock on to the old trees. The olives, most of which are processed for eating, are picked by hand – preferably by women. (Did you know that in ancient times only virgins were allowed to pick from the olive trees near the Acropolis? Their sensitive touch prevented the fruit from bruising.)

After a short detour to view rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) growing by the sea, we wandered in the grove, more and more amazed at the size and shapes of the trees, no two the same, until we reached Methuselah, the oldest and most stunning of them all.


The largest and oldest tree in the grove, which may possibly date back
to when Strabo described an olive grove at Orobiae in the first century AD
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

The hotel itself has its own cheerful garden – no lawns and palms, as our hostess, Marina Valli, told us. It was originally landscaped and symmetrical, but Stephanos and Marina disobeyed their designer and allowed it to grow wild and merge with the nearby forest. The effect is so charming, with different flowers planted for each season, who could complain? Among other plants, we noticed bamboo, wild gladioli, a giant geranium, sage and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), poppies, alliums, creeping rosemary, fruit trees, a slope full of white African daisies, and a yellow Banksia rose that galloped all over one hillside. In addition, there were lots of poplar trees, for once upon a time they were used in making toothpicks.

The next day, after a gourmet dinner cooked by Stephanos and a breakfast that included home-made breads, jams and kiwi-orange juice, the Vallis led us in convoy up to the Drymonas waterfalls and then on foot to the top of Xiron Oros (Dry Mountain). The falls were suitably dramatic and most of the mountain much greener than its name implies. On the way up the nicely marked path, strategically placed signs identified some of the trees and shrubs, including black pine (Pinus nigra), Greek fir (Abies cephalonica) and other firs, pear, cistus (not yet in bloom), hellebores by the dozen, blue and white Anemone blanda, primrose lookalikes, leopards’ bane (Doronicum orientale), yellow alkanets and an orchid or two. Some of us who knew our limits, stopped at the picnic plateau, but those who reached the summit were rewarded by spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and the Sporades islands. Alas, the peonies that had lured them there were frustratingly just about to pop.

A shot of smooth tsipouro accompanied by one or two dried figs gave us the jolt needed to complete the descent and ignore the complaints of our knees.


The Drymonas falls half way up Xiron Oros
Photo by Olia Jakovides


Paeonia sp., possibly Paeonia clusii
Photo by Marina Valli

After lunching on wild boar stifado in a rustic mountain taverna, we decided to forego the Galataki nunnery/garden at Limni and proceed straight to Candili, the Noel-Baker estate at Prokopi. No sooner did we sort out our rooms in the granary or stables (nicely converted, of course), than we found ourselves having drinks and mezedes on the lawn (a type of kikuyu grass, an African grass that doesn’t need much water, although water is plentiful in the area) while listening to Philip Noel-Baker’s lively and humorous account of the property’s history. This began when Annabelle Byron sent her cousin, Edward Noel, to find out the circumstances of her mad, bad husband’s death at Missolonghi. Edward, like his illustrious in-law, fell in love with Greece and bought the estate, then named Achmetaga, from the Ottoman pasha, and his descendants have held on to most of it, despite many ups and downs, since then.

In the morning, Philip gave us a tour of Candili’s serene gardens, which were designed by his grandmother and still have the structure she intended if not all the plants. In addition to a large vegetable patch, which feeds guests who come for weekends, workshops or retreats, the area around the house is divided into zones: a round garden demarcated with stones that once held wild strawberries and now has purple irises; a Japanese garden; a white garden; and Philip’s mother’s rockery. We were struck by the ginkgo tree – equivalent to the shark in the evolutionary ladder – an Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) with red, feathery leaves; English cherry trees (which prompted a spontaneous recitation of A E Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ by one member), sculpted bay trees, a magnolia, medlars and various pools, one enclosed by bamboo, the other inhabited by vociferous frogs.

That day we set out from the house for walks into the adjacent forest and later to a picnic site, which involved crossing a river by Land Rover or wading. The following day, we had a cliff walk along the Aegean coast, with the crashing sea on one hand and masses of flowers on the other. The ground cover here and in the woods included orchids (Ophrys scolopax), Crepis rubra, stock (Malcolmia flexuosa), birthwort (Aristolochia rotunda), various members of the genus Anthemis, knapweed (Centaurea montana), broomrape (Orobanche sp.) and yellow and blue alkanets (Alkanna sartoriana and A. tinctoria, or dyers’ alkanet, named for the dye produced from its roots).


From our walk along the Aegean coast near Mantoudi,
carpets of flowers and the sea crashing beneath us
Photo by Olia Jakovides


An orchid, probably Ophrys scolopax
Photo by Olia Jakovides


Alkanna sartoriana, endemic to southern Greece
Photo by Diana Farr Louis


Crepis rubra and an echium
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

But quite apart from flowers, the presence of so many different types of magnificent trees all over this part of Evia gave a lift to our spirits. Their colours, ranging from nearly black to the lightest of greens and even reds, gladdened our eyes; their shade cooled our walks; their rustling leaves calmed our ears and minds. We left completely refreshed, blessed by the weather and the company of new and old friends.
Diana Farr Louis

March 2013
Visit to Tatoi, the former royal estate

On a warm sunny day in early March, dozens of Greek Branch members met at a back gate of what we used to call ‘The King’s Estate’ at Varibombi in the foothills of Mt Parnis. Although many of us know the property, this time we were treated to a guided tour given by Vassilis Koutsavlis, president of the Tatoi Friends Association, the NGO dedicated to protecting and restoring the 40 historic buildings and grounds.

Our four-hour ramble took us from the shell of the gardener’s cottage and other staff quarters in a state of advanced dilapidation to the royal ‘palace’ and overgrown gardens, the model farm buildings and, finally, the royal chapel and tombs. Along the way, Mr Koutsavlis told us the fascinating story of this huge – 41-square-kilometre - estate, whose sad neglect reflects successive Greek governments’ conflicting attitudes toward the monarchy’s role in the country’s history.

He made it very clear that the land never belonged to the State and that it was bought in 1872 by King George I, a Danish prince who assumed the throne in 1864, using his wife’s money. Grand Duchess Olga was a Romanov after all. After the referendum in 1974, in which the Greek people voted to abolish the monarchy, ownership of Tatoi was disputed for decades until 2002, when the European Court for Human Rights at Strasbourg declared the State should pay the ex-king (a minimum) compensation for taking it over. Since then, the royals have the right to visit their family graves, but the property belongs to ‘the Greek people’. (More history can be viewed at the Friends’ website in Greek and in English.)

So many years of abandonment have taken their toll on both the buildings and the surroundings. But Mr Koutsavlis painted a vivid picture of what the place must have been like. We were astonished to learn, for example, that what we thought was a venerable old forest, had in fact been planted – and landscaped – by George I, who had a precise plan (since lost) of trees chosen for their aesthetic, wind- or fire-protection qualities. He wanted above all to create a corner of Greece that would remind him of Denmark, and he was far more interested in nature than in architecture, rejecting Ernst Ziller’s original designs for an imposing palace.


View of the ‘palace’ through the overgrown south garden

Indeed, the royal residence today, called a palace by the Greeks, resembles a modest Northern European country mansion. Built after fire destroyed the first one in 1916, it is an exact model of the Peterhof palace in St Petersburg, and the management of this Russian palace are currently advising the Friends on restoration, which is about to begin (a previous restoration attempt having strayed far from the original). On the other hand, the farm buildings, many of them in good repair, look as though lifted straight from Denmark and are certainly more grandiose than any stables complex here.


Some of the restored farm buildings, lifted straight from Denmark

Of the gardens little remains; we know that the one behind the residence was used for al fresco lunches and dinners – the palace being too small to accommodate grand parties – and you can still see outlines of the beds. The one in front, which faces south, consisted of three levels, the first two joined by graceful, curved staircases that lead to a pool and a grotto embellished with a lion’s head. We were told that all the plants were Greek, but nothing has been pruned since 1967 and the vegetation is a thick jungle by now, all but concealing the oldest tennis court in this country.


The still graceful staircase from the main residence to the
lower garden, fountain and tennis court

The trees, though, are magnificent: a circle of giant cypresses still exudes energy, others form a maze (now semi-obliterated by tree trunks and fallen branches). In addition to some heroic palms, we also noted bay, arbutus, photinia with its reddish leaves, an alley of sadly truncated poplars, Judas trees, lime and fruit trees, pines of all sorts, and enormous plane trees, many coping valiantly with vines. Wisteria, not yet in bloom, covered the north side of the palace almost completely. Olive trees abound, for the estate was self-supporting; besides oil and olives, it also produced resin from the pines, eggs and milk, and public funds were never used for its upkeep. The open, gently undulating hills to the northeast once supported vineyards that produced the royal wine, Château Dekelia, named after the Spartan fortress built here in the last phase of the Peloponnesian Wars in the 5th century BC.

Disappointingly, flowers were few and far between, but we did spy some earthstar fungus (Astraeus hygrometricus), looking eerily like Cyclops’ eye.


The cypress circle from below


An earthstar fungus

We finished our tour at the chapel and royal cemetery, which was moving in its simplicity: unadorned marble slabs under the pines, carved with their occupants’ name and dates, in Greek and sometimes in Cyrillic, Danish, French, German, or English, if the prince or princess had been foreign-born.


Shaded by pines, all the graves in the royal cemetery are very simple

Vassilis Koutsavlis gave this part of his talk in Greek, bringing to each life the same sympathy and deep historical knowledge that he had given the estate buildings and grounds. While our tour might have been of more cultural than horticultural interest, we felt privileged to have Mr Koutsavlis as our guide to this fascinating, extraordinary property. And when the Tatoi Friends are in a position to restore the gardens, we look forward to collaborating with them. We raised a small donation from our outing and thanks were posted on their website.

Text and photos by Diana Farr Louis

February 2013
Plant division and potting workshop

Seated in a circle on deck chairs, enjoying the perfect weather, a group of MGS members and some friends had gathered on the “threshing floor” at Sparoza for a workshop on dividing and potting plants conducted by Isabel Sanders. Isabel is studying Horticulture and Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, and she has taken a year off to gain practical experience working as a student gardener at Sparoza.


Isabel’s recommended mix for potting soil

Various plants had been brought by members, and others were from the Sparoza garden. Isabel had already prepared potting soil and she began by demonstrating how it was made. She noted that when dividing herbaceous and bulbous plants it is important to keep in mind the following:

  • Always have the right tools to hand (secateurs/garden forks/knife).
  • Prepare in advance soil and pots for potting up divisions.
  • If divided plants are not going to be planted/potted up straight away, cover the roots or put them in a container to keep them from drying out.
  • Plants are best divided when dormant (usually in late winter) so they can focus on growing their bottoms instead of their tops.
  • When dividing plants be firm but gentle! Of course, when you use a knife to cut up woody or fleshy roots it is impossible to be gentle.
  • Always re-plant divisions to the depth at which they were previously planted.


‘Props’ used for the demonstration

The plants used in the demonstration were:

Acanthus mollis. From its rhizomes it produces baby plants which have their own roots and can be broken off. Root cuttings can also be grown horizontally in a tray.
Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis. Produces baby plants from its rhizomes. To separate them, shake, bounce, pull apart and break the little woody connections. If you wash them clean of earth, they can be separated more easily.
Billbergia nutans. A bromeliad that can live out of doors in a sheltered spot. You can pull this one apart and cut the little woody connections with a knife if necessary. Flowers in early spring.
Bulbine frutescens. Native to southern Africa, this lily forms fibrous, low-spreading clumps, and produces air roots on the stems. The method used to separate these was tear, shake and pull apart.
Clivia miniata. Named after Lady Clive, granddaughter of the famous Clive of India. The one we practised on had pendulous orange flowers. This plant is surface-rooted and is said to dislike soil disturbance. The plants should be divided after flowering, but some that had been dug up two weeks earlier were happily flowering in an IKEA bag. We used a knife to cut these rather woody plants apart and discarded large quantities of roots before replanting.
Tulbaghia violacea. Known as Society Garlic, this plant does have a strong garlicky smell. It makes big clumps, is evergreen and needs to be divided frequently to keep it flowering. The method used was to shake, bounce, remove soil and pull apart. If you have too many of these plants, apparently you can eat the bulbs so they won’t go to waste. Flowers through spring and early summer.
Narcissus papyraceus. Narcissi need to be divided frequently if they are to flower. The bulbs tend to grow very deep in the soil, so be careful when you dig them up. Divide the plants and replant them up to where the green begins. Make sure to let the leaves dry up completely before you remove them in the summer. After flowering, these clumps are less unsightly if you braid or twist the leaves into a knot.
Ruellia simplex. A herbaceous plant which produces new shoots from its roots that can be pulled apart.
Salvia microphylla. Makes new shoots which can be split apart. Isabel demonstrated how to do this by inserting two garden forks, back to back, into the root ball and pulling them away from each other.

Coffee, tea and cakes were served after this informative and enjoyable demonstration was over.

Text and photos by Frosso Vassiliades

January 2013
An illustrated talk on the gardens of Adelaide and Melbourne

Alisdair Aird, who is well known in MGS circles as a leader of exciting trips in the Mediterranean, an expert in horticultural lore and a moderator of our Online Forum, treated a standing-room-only audience at Sparoza to a marvellous slide show of Australian gardens and flora. He and his wife, Helena Wiesner, attended the AGM in Adelaide last autumn and took part in every optional visit on offer, so we got a fleeting but extremely enjoyable taste of the meeting.

As a preamble, Alisdair told us, ‘My pix are a poor substitute for the wonderful gardens we saw there – at least 30! Our hosts treated us royally, they were very welcoming, and many have sponsored a plant at Sparoza and value their link to the Greek heart of the Society.’

He said that while the climates of both Melbourne and Adelaide resemble that of the Mediterranean, ‘Melbourne usually has some rain in most months of most summers, but both Adelaide and Adelaide are just beginning to recover from 12 years of severe drought’, as we know from the horrific fires that keep making headlines. As a result, almost all the gardeners took pains not to use more water than necessary.

As Alisdair showed us slide after slide, the audience hung on his every word as he mentioned not only the names of the plants we were viewing, but also the characters of the gardens and their owners, without missing a beat or stumbling over a syllable, barely consulting his notes.


Alisdair Aird
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades

We learned that some gardeners insist on growing only native plants, while others have a mix of introduced and endemic ones, that dense planting and sometimes careful pruning seem to be the norm, reflecting an effort to mitigate cruel salty or arid winds and high temperatures (regularly over 43-44 °C), and that a feature typical of many gardens is interesting use of artefacts, pots, sculpture, and hard landscaping (walks and steps).

While some of the plants looked familiar, others looked otherworldly, as though from another planet or era. The first show-stopper was a grevillea, one of a big family (Proteaceae) of Southern Pacific plants, followed by a Doryanthes excelsa, or gymnea lilywith a spear about five metres tall surmounted by tufted red flowers, from the Melbourne Royal Botanic Garden. At their extensive new Cranbourne site, which specializes solely in native plants in their simulated natural environments, we saw a brand-new area typical of the arid interior. Another area boasted another oddity – grass trees (Xanthorrhoea johnsonii), with inflorescences jutting above them like poles. One of these very slow-growing marvels was 400 years old.

We saw acacias, not as trees, but as ground cover; explosions of Echium candicans ‘going mad’; more grevilleas with enormous flowers; and, at Lambley, a wonderful collection of plants introduced by early settlers who arrived in Australia via South Africa. It was here that Alisdair expanded on the ‘native Oz movement that is trying to weed these intruders out’, even though they have adapted to local conditions and include forms no longer found even in their own South Africa. Some garden centres sell only natives.


Echium candicans


Eucalyptus youngiana

Being in Australia, of course Alisdair came across many types of eucalyptus, including red gums, known as ‘widow makers’, because they have a tendency to shed their branches on unwary husbands. Others, unknown in Greece at least, had showy flowers. Further wonders included a thickly-flowered ‘Crépuscule’ rose from Tipsy Hill, a surreal-looking Beaucarnea from the Adelaide Botanic Garden, a ‘native frangipani’ (Hymenosporum flavum) with fragrant, soft golden yellow blooms at the Waite Arboretum, and a huge, bushy caper tree (!), Capparis mitchellii, which towered over people. Apparently it does bear fruits (like our tough cliff-hanging capers), which are appreciated by the Aboriginal people.


Beaucarnia stricta

In the Adelaide hills, where the climate is more temperate, we had a glimpse of Trevor Nottle’s garden, which consisted almost entirely of introduced plants, including an amazing array of interesting cultivars collected from all over the world. The Barossa Bushgardens were the opposite, a community garden set up to propagate local plants. It was organized so efficiently that it employed only one paid propagator; volunteers handle the rest of the work. Following that, Alisdair visited three other widely differing private gardens: one with entertaining artworks and new plantings rejuvenating a fifth-generation property; one shaded by an awesomely humongous Ficus macrophylla (which amply repaid the cost of two bathroom rebuilds caused by its thirsty roots); and one with ample borehole water providing a wonderful fantasy re-creation of a large romantic English country garden.


Ficus macrophylla


Stokes Bay Bush Garden

The show ended with the programme’s optional trip to Kangaroo Island – 20 per cent bigger than Evia – which included Stokes Bay Bush Garden's stunning range of native plants. Then out in the wild, remarkable flowers and the ‘Remarkable Rocks’ (giant boulders on a volcanic outcrop) gave way to remarkable animals: a family of blasé sea lions basking on white sand.

It was a show we could have watched for much longer, but Alisdair’s delightful presentation was certainly the next best thing to being there.

See also Alisdair’s article in TMG 71, January 2013, and for more photos, see here.
Diana Farr Louis
Photos by Alisdair Aird

November 2012
Visit to the Centre of the Earth

At the end of November, members of the Greek branch of the MGS visited the Centre of the Earth. It did not involve descent into a mine shaft or any special equipment. In fact, it proved to be just a short distance from the heart of Athens, adjoining the city’s biggest park, and an estate once owned by Amalia, the first queen of Greece.

The Centre of the Earth or Earth Center (Κέντρο της Γης) is the headquarters of a new NGO called Organization Earth (Οργάνωση Γη), which was founded in 2008 by a group of young Greek businessmen who want to raise awareness of environmental issues and bring Greeks, especially children, closer to nature. One of its features, a ‘biodiversity garden’, was conceived by MGS member Penny Turner, who previously created a series of walks and wrote an eco-guidebook called Six Antidotes to Technology for the area around the Arcturus bear sanctuary at Nymphaio in northern Greece.

Although the garden was in the making for two years before it opened in January 2012, to the uninitiated it will look more like a weed-filled vacant lot than any property the MGS would set out to visit. But as Penny showed us in a wonderful slide show before our tour, this unprepossessing site is a vivid example of the miraculous power of nature to heal itself.


The site before intervention
Photo by Penny Turner

Originally a sheepfold, the soil resembled clay more than earth. It was poisoned with heavy metals and littered with rocks and rubble. After clearing, Penny and her team dug out some ponds. As she said, ‘Nature flocks to ponds and the area would benefit from its proximity to the Tritsis park’ (900 acres/364 hectares of greenery and wetlands).

‘We wanted to demonstrate how nature can heal even the most devastated areas, so we prepared three experimental plots: in one was the original “soil” of the area, to the second plot we added slightly less damaged soil, and to the third we added compost. We never watered, planted or weeded. We observed and recorded what species were able to colonize the different areas. You can see very clearly after just two years what Nature needs in order to recover. In the areas outside of the experimental plots, we helped Nature by planting nettles, which enrich the soil, and the butterflies, for which nettles are a food plant, soon followed … And now it’s a jungle.’


The jungle now around the pond
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

As slide followed slide, we watched the plots come to life and become the home of ‘mini-beasts’ that especially delight children: skinks and slowworms, rose chafers, newts, toads and frogs, ‘which are always on the search for new territory’. Woodpiles were added to form habitats for predators of insects that attack vegetables, because in parallel to the biodiversity experiment, the centre planted a large, organic vegetable patch.


The vegetable patch with one of the centre's vigilant scarecrows
Photo by Diana Farr Louis

Viewed close up in Penny’s superlative photos, each new creature and plant had us adults rapt, while Penny explained their function. The aloes, for example, help to remove heavy metals from the soil. The mallows, and there were a lot of them, loosen it up and prepare it for more refined flora.


Some of the new inhabitants: the marsh frog, Pelophylax ridibundus


… the red darter dragonfly, Sympetrum striolatum


… and the caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon
Photos by Penny Turner

As we walked around the experimental plots, we learned that when certain plants become too dominant, they are weeded to allow for new growth, and that Penny collects seeds which she scatters to encourage variety. Other than that, nature is allowed to ‘do its own thing’. Today, at least 200 species of animals and plants are thriving where only three years ago nothing at all existed. And of course, these numbers will only increase with time, until equilibrium is reached and a stable, vibrant biodiverse community will have been created.

One unusual feature of the Centre of the Earth is its ‘poison garden’. Struck by the interest in the poison garden in the famous gardens at Alnwick in the UK, Penny decided to create a poison garden in the Athens project, too. In this case, the star attraction is the small grove of hemlock – people flock to see the plant that killed Socrates. Besides other deadly plants, the poison garden is also home to a number of invasive aliens.

As Penny said, ‘Because such species are largely responsible for biodiversity loss in Greece and worldwide, we hope that by showcasing a few familiar, but harmful plants, we’ll be able raise awareness of the inadvisability of allowing them to proliferate and wreak havoc. Included in our garden, according to season, are datura plants (introduced with cotton seed from South America), and the attractive-looking, but seriously invasive and harmful lantana – which is considered a noxious pest in Australia and which is attacking precious jungle areas in India. Quite popular here, it is poised to cause damage in Greece, as climate change is enabling it to prosper’.

Meanwhile, the centre is also attracting humans – 25,000 visitors in this first year of operation. They are drawn by its activities for children, the old stone farm buildings that house a well-stocked ecoshop, exhibits and a café, stables with horses, and the historic Tour La Reine – Queen Amalia’s version of Le Petit Trianon, from where in the 1850s she ran her model farm.

The Centre of the Earth, next to the Carrefour-Escape Shopping Mall on Dimokratias Avenue in the northwest suburb of Ilion/Ag. Anargyroi, is open on weekdays from 08:30–16:30, Saturdays from 10.00 to 15.00 and Sundays from 10.00 to sunset. Go to organizationearth.org for more information.
Diana Farr Louis

October 2012
A cyclamen walk with Melvyn Jope

Where could you go for the opportunity to learn to identify cyclamen with a recognised expert on Greek cyclamen species, look at frescoes in Byzantine chapels and churches, watch candle-making and encounter conversations about electron microscopes and asteroids? Such was the nature of this walk with the MGS Peloponnese Group. The cloud and rain of last year’s abandoned cyclamen walk were a distant memory as members of the group met in the sun-bathed square in Milia, beneath the tower of the Church of the Metamorphosis. The village nestles in the mountains at about 500m above sea level. The outing was led by Melvyn Jope and comprised three separate walks. We were also joined by Alexios Vardakis from Athens University.

The first short walk took us west on the road towards Platsa. Along the road we saw some small specimens of cyclamen, but not enough really to draw our attention. Melvyn confirmed the identification of a Clematis cirrhosa, but we were collectively unable to identify a small white-flowered plant. Near the road was an interesting vegetable plot with courgette plants growing up through the trees and in the prime of their flowering. Euphorbia was also seen growing on the roadside, and we were reminded by Melvyn of the unpleasant effects the sap of this plant can have on the skin. After a short distance we turned down a well-maintained path to the church of St John the Baptist, Agios Ioannis Prodromos, which will forever be known among certain members of the group as the ‘seventeen-ounce church’ due to the peculiar carving of the date 1702 above the door. The path had Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium and Crocus boryi growing between the stones. We also had a view across the valley with the sun catching Kato Hora, which we were to visit later.


Crocus boryi

The courtyard of the church was humming with the sound of bees in the ivy covering the surrounding walls. The key was retrieved from its hiding place and we were able to enjoy the beautiful frescoes painted in 1706 by Christodoulos Kalliergi of Mykonos. We then continued past the church down part of the old kalderimi, which held the promise of even more flowers in the spring. Our leaders were hoping for evidence of Galanthus, but the prolonged hot weather seemed to have delayed their emergence: not even a leaf was found. As the undergrowth thickened, and not being sure of where the path would emerge, we returned the way we had come. Back on the tarmac road into the village, a few members at the head of the group spotted a recycling opportunity: next to the bins was a collection of ‘bottomless’ chairs. These quickly disappeared into the backs of cars and even on to the pillion of a certain member’s motorbike, who later somehow cunningly managed to negotiate an exchange for an intact chair at the taverna. We look forward to a spring display of some members’ efforts at seat-weaving during the winter evenings.


The path through the olive groves

We then set off out of the village again on our second walk, this time heading east along the path, which eventually, after a 500m ascent, leads to the Panagia Giatrissa Monastery, seen on the ridge in the distance. Ours was a gentle walk through peaceful olive groves, where part of the footpath to a small stone bridge was an avenue of cyclamen. These were mainly Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium; Cyclamen graecum with its wonderful leaf forms was also found.

On the steps of the little chapel just beyond the bridge, Melvyn displayed some specimens, showing the differences between Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium (on the left of the photograph) and Cyclamen graecum. The booklet The Cyclamen of Greece, co-authored by Melvyn Jope and Peter Moore (published in 2011 by the Cyclamen Society, London, ISBN 978-0-9537526-3-8 and reviewed in TMG 68), is an excellent guide to the species of cyclamen growing in Greece, and invaluable in assisting with identification.


Comparing cyclamen species

Returning by the same path with views back to Milia, one keen-eyed member spotted a small red fungus, Clathrus ruber; Melvyn had shown a slide of this species during his talk the previous evening. Below it, at the foot of the wall, was a larger, more sinister-looking fungal specimen. Other plant species seen on the walk included Mirabilis jalapa, Allium callimischon, Spiranthes spiralis, Prospero autumnale (formerly Scilla autumnalis) and Datura stramonium. We also saw species of ferns, including Asplenium trichomanes. On the way back, some conversations strayed from flowers to electron microscopes and to asteroids narrowly missing the Earth.


Clathrus ruber

Following a picnic lunch in the sunny Milia square, we shared cars to drive to the square in Kato Hora on the north side of the valley for our third expedition. The church of Agios Nikolaos was opened for us by Niko, who has returned from the USA to his home village and now maintains some 12 or so churches in the area, and he is developing a small museum in the village. The magnificent frescoes, dating from 1749, cover the inside of the church and are in the process of being restored, using original natural pigments. Outside again, we dropped down into the upper part of the Tepeni Gorge, where we were rewarded by a specimen of rare white Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium f. albiflorum.


Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium f. albiflorum

This is another area rich in Galanthus, but there was no evidence of them emerging yet. We returned to the square via another steep stone path. While waiting for the rest of the group, some members were admiring the display of flowers up the steps of one building and growing through the railings above. A strange passion flower nearly had us fooled, but on closer inspection through binoculars, it proved to be a specimen cunningly intertwined with fabric flowers.
 
We completed our tour by being shown the fledgling museum opened by Niko, with many old photographs of villagers, including Niko as a young man. (For more information about Niko and his life, see Inside the Mani magazine 2012.) Niko also demonstrated the traditional method of candle-making by running hot wax down the wicks. Making 5000 candles for name-day celebrations takes several weeks.

A short drive back to the taverna in Milia, which opened especially for us, completed a thoroughly enjoyable day in good company, with beer, frappé, more cake and good conversation. Our hosts also joined in with some wonderful biscuit treats. Thank you to Martin and Jeswyn for organising another very interesting day, to Sandra for the delicious cakes, and to Melvyn for leading the group and answering all our many questions and queries.


Cyclamen hederifolium

Text by Chris and Graham Aveyard
Photos by Graham Aveyard

October 2012
Spring and Autumn in the Peloponnese: an illustrated talk by Melvyn Jope

As most members will know, there is an MGS Forum where we can post questions – and answers – concerning plants and gardens. A little while ago, a member used the Forum to ask if anyone could identify the species of cyclamen growing in her hillside garden at Neohori, West Mani. The most helpful response came from no less an expert than Melvyn Jope, who has studied cyclamen (and snowdrops) for many years. Melvyn modestly describes himself as an enthusiastic amateur, but in fact he is at the cutting edge of field research. He has for some years been chairman of the Cyclamen Society in England, which is the International Registration Authority for cultivars of all the cyclamen species except Cyclamen persicum. The organisation is affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society.

This response through the Forum led to an invitation for Melvyn Jope to give a talk to the Peloponnese Group of the MGS, and next day to lead a walk in the locality of Milia to look at the autumn flora, with the focus on cyclamen. The venue for Melvyn's talk (and dinner afterwards) was a taverna in Stoupa, and from here he took us on a colourful tour of the Peloponnese with his magnificent photographs. Melvyn’s great love for Greece – and for botany – was immediately obvious. His pictures of people, places and plants captured vividly what it is to travel in this area with eyes (and mind) open. Some of the photographs you could almost smell. Intentionally out-of-focus faces inside Nafplion’s Orthodox church during the midnight ceremony at Easter evoked the aroma of incense. In a mountainous landscape a definitely fragrant young goat-herdess, crook in hand, smiles radiantly into the camera, while her 500 or so not-so-fragrant goats mill about in the meadow beyond. As for the places depicted, one area which seems especially dear to Melvyn's heart is around Agios Petros in the northernmost part of the Parnon range, where Cyclamen rhodium abound. Some of us had encountered C. rhodium ssp. peloponnesiacum on an earlier expedition into the foothills of the Taygetos, but would love to see it in a different landscape, with the bonus of finding it alongside a subspecies we did not see on that earlier occasion – C. rhodium ssp. vividum.


Autumn cyclamen in profusion

Such evocative pictures of people and places were interspersed with studies of spring and autumn plants. The focus was on the six species of cyclamen that grow wild in Greece and the characteristics by which each specimen may be identified. Our attention was drawn to the different environments they inhabit – some prefer red soils, others limestone or leaf litter, some like shady places and others tolerate more sun. The tubers (when you can see them) have varying textures. They produce roots and stems from the centre or from one side, depending on the species. Leaves, too, have different textures: velvety, silky, fleshy or shiny, according to their species. Those of Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium are characteristically glossy. The shapes, colours and patterning vary between species, those of C. hederifolium var. hederifolium being the most variable in colour and patterning (and perhaps the most beautiful), although the leaf shape is more consistent. Some species are perfumed, others not. All cyclamen flowers have reflexed petals, but colour and markings vary, as does the shape – some have comparatively rounded petals, and others are formed like twisted rabbits' ears. Auricles around the mouth are present in some species (e.g. C. confusum), but absent in others (e.g. C. creticum). One of the most fascinating and endearing features of cyclamen is the way in which they protect their seed pods, the stems of the fading flowers curling, then spiralling around the pod, cradling and gently drawing them down to the ground, where they are less likely to be damaged by the elements or eaten by goats.

Our speaker’s presentation appealed not only to those who were generally interested in Greek wild flowers, but also to those with specialised scientific knowledge. If you wanted to know about the chromosome counts at Kew or DNA studies of cyclamen at the University of Reading, the information was there. Or you could simply sit back, look at the beautiful photographs, and absorb some of the warm enthusiasm underlying all Melvyn had to show and say.

For those who are intrigued and want to know more about this remarkable flower, I strongly recommend the little book of which Melvyn Jope is co-author. It is clearly written, thoroughly readable and informative, and beautifully illustrated with photographs. On the last page there is a simple map of Greece showing in which provinces and on which islands the various species can be found. The book is called The Cyclamen of Greece, by Peter Moore and Melvyn Jope, published in 2011 by the Cyclamen Society, London, ISBN 978-0-9537526-3-8. It was reviewed in TMG 68, April 2012.

One of the aims of the Cyclamen Society is to disseminate and extend knowledge of the genus Cyclamen and its species. Melvyn has certainly achieved that end, and, moreover, his achievement will endure because he infected us with his personal enthusiasm for this distinctive and beautiful product of nature. Our grateful thanks go to him, and also to Sandra Panting, whose question to the MGS Forum provoked it all.
Lilian Munby
Photo by Linda Reynolds

October 2012
Visit to Dirfis Mushroom Farm, Central Evia

On our visit to Evia in search of mushrooms we were looking forward to watching cultivated oyster mushrooms grow, as well as tracking down chanterelles and porcini in the woods. In fact, our walk up a steep, wooded path that should have been studded with fungi produced only cyclamen, but the Dirfis Mushroom Farm was fascinating and held a special reward for gardeners. The farm is spread over several different properties in the vicinity of Pissonas/Steni in the pastoral foothills of bald Mount Dirfis, northeast of Halkida.


The Dirfis mushroom farm is located in very attractive scenery, not far from Steni, Evia

Our first stop, on a visit that took us from finish to start, was the warehouse/packaging building near Pissonas. There, Lefteris Lahouvaris, who founded the company with Thanassis Mastrogiannis in 2004, welcomed us with a brief introduction to the growing habits of Pleurotus ostreatus, and he explained the origin of the name: plevro (Greek) > pleuro (Latin) = side and otus = ear; ostreatus, resembling an oyster. Unlike button mushrooms, which grow best in beds of earth containing treated horse manure, these (and there are 45 types of Pleurotus) like to grow on the sides of trees, in the way that ears stick out from the sides of our head, and in shapes reminiscent of crustaceans.


Each mushroom has its own shape and beauty

Then we crowded into a tiny room lined with shelves where the company’s products were displayed. While we were thinking which we’d buy, Lefteris regaled us with the therapeutic properties and nutritional value of the dried mushrooms collected in the district – chanterelles, porcini, morels – as well as truffles from Thrace. Who knew that mushroom teas, depending on the variety, are said to be able to boost the immune system, reduce blood sugar, lessen arthritic pains, and combat asthma – to mention a few of the benefits? Or that dried mushrooms contain more than 20 per cent protein, B vitamins, minerals like magnesium, iron, phosphorus, microelements with antioxidant properties like selenium, and dietary fibres? Moreover, lignin-destroying enzymes, which give pleurotus the ability to break down trees, are also believed to break up the cholesterol molecules in our own bodies.


One of the Pleurotus mushroom-growing 'hangars'

We then moved on to the cultivation ‘hangars’ perhaps a kilometre away, where the aroma of mushrooms hung appetisingly in the air outside. In this particular section, there were about seven hangars with mushrooms growing at different stages in plastic-wrapped bales of cellulose-rich straw and bran that make a perfect substrate or ‘nest’ for the fungi. The straw, from the plain of Thessaly, Greece’s breadbasket, is pasteurized at another location and then injected with mushroom ‘spawn’ imported from France. It is pasteurized rather than sterilized in order to retain the helpful bacteria that promote the growth of the mushrooms.

After the bales are inoculated, they remain in a darkened incubation room for 15 days, but when they’re taken into the lighted hangars that are kept cool and damp, holes are punched in the plastic, and it takes only three days for the mushrooms to burst forth. The more light, the faster the growth. They varied in size from about 1 inch to 10 inches, with 60 centimetres (almost 2 feet in width) the record.


Pleurotus can grow quite large!

The pasteurization plant, seven kilometres away to reduce any danger of contamination from the huge piles of untreated straw waiting for crushing, was an impressive sight as well. Every Friday 120 tonnes of material is lifted into an enormous tunnel, which is then sealed and left to ‘cook’ for three days. Dirfis uses some 200,000 tonnes of straw every year to produce more than 350,000 blocks of ready-to-use substrate.


Wheat straw from the plain of Thessaly goes into the substrate
where the mushrooms grow. Afterwards, it's used for mulch.

What’s more, there is no waste. And here is the good news for gardeners: the used straw makes fantastic mulch, and Lefteris and Thanassis sell it cheaply to vegetable farmers. Interested MGS members should call Lefteris (who speaks English) at 6973496834 or email. You may find it could be yours just for the asking (and carting away). Also, if you’d like to grow your own Pleurotus, for 7 euros you can buy a packet of inoculated substrate that will keep you in mushrooms for about five months.
Diana Farr Louis
Photographs by Petros Ladas

October 2012
Peloponnese Group – Walk from Kardamyli to Agia Sofia for a garden visit

On a sunny and warm autumn morning, members of the Peloponnese group set out to walk from Kardamyli to re-visit Katerina Georgi’s garden, well over a year having passed since the previous MGS visit (see May 2011, Visit to four gardens in the Kardamyli/Stoupa area). Our route took us through the old town of Kardamyli, currently undergoing restoration works, and thence via a kalderimi (ancient paved donkey track) to the little church of Agia Sofia and Katerina’s home. The vegetation along the way consisted mainly of lentisc, kermes oak, phlomis and cistus, with some fine specimens of carob providing welcome shade here and there. Wild mint and cyclamen were common along the edges of the kalderimi and there was the occasional tiny teucrium between the paving stones. An interesting find was Lithodora zahnii, an endemic that has blue and mauve/pink flowers in the spring but blooms only to the south of Kalamata. Nearby, Smilax aspera was winding its way through a lentisc.


A tiny teucrium growing in the path
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)


Lithodora zahnii
(Photo by Sandra Panting)

Three quarters of an hour’s warming uphill effort brought us to Agia Sofia, with its dramatic views of the hillside and the sea below. Nearby, welcome refreshments awaited us at Katerina’s beautifully restored house, where modern design and materials are in harmony with the original traditional stone building. The entrance to the garden gives on to a pathway of magnificent stone slabs set into gravel, leading to the house. On either side are areas of hard landscaping at several different levels. The levels were either determined by areas of flat rock around the house, or created to accommodate spoil from building works. Concrete surfaces have been dressed to create a natural look, and sympathetic planting has softened the edges of the hard landscaping. There are several seating areas at different levels within the garden. Further away from the house is an olive grove in its natural state and an old aloni (threshing floor).


Planting in the raised beds is growing well
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)


The garden blends into the surrounding landscape
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)

The garden is approximately 200 metres above sea level, predominantly south-facing, and with soils developed from the underlying sandstone. The original planting included some 90 species selected for their drought resistance, their leaf texture and the way they associate with other plants. Among Katerina’s choices were oleander, rosemary, echium, phlomis, spurge, scented geranium and artemisia, with particular emphasis on evergreens to give year-round interest. October colour was provided by the purple flowers of Lycianthes rantonnetii (formerly Solanum rantonnetii), the brilliant blue of Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, the more subdued blues of Plumbago capensis and Felicia amelloides (blue marguerite), the mauve of Tulbaghia violacea, and the magenta of a low-growing bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra). The white flowers of Cestrum nocturnum (night jessamine) were in bud, preparing to scent the autumn evening air. The extent to which the planting had grown and encroached on the edges of the hard landscaping since the previous visit was very noticeable, creating a garden that perfectly complements the lines of the house and at the same time is in tune with the surrounding countryside. Although this is a waterwise garden, new plants needed watering from time to time to survive this year’s hot, dry summer. For this purpose, rainwater is collected from the roof of the house and held in an underground tank.


Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)


Cestrum nocturnum
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)

Our return route to Kardamyli took us on a steep path down to the river bed, where cyclamen were in bloom, up towards the hamlet of Petrovouni and back to Kardamyli on the kalderimi. Along the way were the orchid Spiranthes spiralis (autumn ladies’ tresses) with its marzipan scent, Prospero autumnale (syn. Scilla autumnalis, autumn squill) and, between the stones of the kalderimi, the occasional Narcissus obsoletus and Colchicum boissieri.


Prospero autumnale
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)


Narcissus obsoletus
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)


Colchicum boissieri
(Photo by Linda Reynolds)

A delightful walk and a varied and interesting morning concluded with a late meze lunch at an excellent beach taverna, where we were able to slake our thirst and even take a refreshing dip in the sea.
Linda Reynolds

 

June 2012
Surprises for Miyon Yoo Lee at Sparoza

Despite having grown up in Greece and studying environmental sciences in France, Miyon Yoo still found much to surprise her when she came 18 months ago as a garden assistant to Sparoza. She had forgotten that Greece effectively has two springs per year i.e. two hibernation periods (winter and summer). She started working at Sparoza in October 2010 and was amazed at its transformation from a dry, brown landscape to lush, verdant green after the first autumn rains. Miyon's experience in France had been academic so she loved gaining hands-on training, working with Sally Razelou, Sparoza's curator for the last 20 years. Miyon said her goal was to become an expert on Mediterranean flora and landscaping, and to increase her knowledge of recycling, composting and mulching.


Aloe arborescens


Fritillaria obliqua

Miyon told the story of her two years working as an assistant at Sparoza and showed her extensive and impressive slides to MGS members gathered in the Stoupa Cultural Centre, in the Mani peninsula in the Southern Peloponnese. She had found the past two winters to be entirely different from one another, with high rainfall in 2011 and a cold dry climate in 2012. A benefit of the lower rainfall was that Sparoza had 80 per cent fewer weeds to deal with in the second year!

Miyon's slides beautifully demonstrated the amazing mixture of local flora and exotic species to be found at Sparoza – a ‘garden for gardeners’ according to Sally Razelou. Orchids of the Ophrys genus, Salvia sclarea and Epiphyllum oxypetalum were particularly impressive. She told us how the garden is continuously developing, with new plants and new landscaping, including paths and walls, and explained how it depends on its volunteers and visiting students for help in the garden, and how it is funded by a mixture of donations, including those given at the twice-yearly plant exchanges, and MGS funds.


Epiphyllum oxypetalum


Ophrys umbilicata


Ophrys ferrum-equinum

Miyon had thoroughly enjoyed her two years at Sparoza and hopes to find a new placement in Greece for the coming winter. MGS members in the Mani certainly wish her well for the future.

The evening and the MGS Peloponnesian 2012 spring programme was rounded off with a sumptuous meal at a local taverna overlooking Stoupa bay. As usual the food was delicious and the wine flowed freely. A good time was certainly had by all!

Text by Barbara Byrne and Sandra Panting
Photographs by Miyon Yoo Lee

May 2012
Visit to Andros

For examples of waterwise gardening, Andros would not be your first choice. Unlike the other Cycladic islands, it is criss-crossed with rivers, streams and springs, visible and subterranean. Water tumbles from high on the mountainside above Paleopoli, it gushes with such abundance at Sariza that it’s bottled and exported, and even the drier west side has its shaded oases.

We chose Andros for our annual spring trip because a few of our members have houses there and knew what surprises lay behind imposing walls or steep, terraced plots. The eleven gardens on our tour ranged from palatial to intimate, minimalist to exuberant, productive to ornamental. Each reflected the owners’ dedication, enthusiasm and love of plants, whether they were Greeks or foreigners, part-time or full-time residents.

Using the Andros Holiday Hotel outside the port of Gavrio as our base for four days, some 30 members and friends from Attica, the Peloponnese, Pelion, Samos, Syros, Mani and the UK visited properties above the south coast at Ano Aprovato and Paleopoli, in and around Hora on the north coast, in the lush interior at Lamyra and Menites, and in slightly less green Ano Gavrio and north-west Andros.


Catnip, Tulbaghia and Trachelospermum jasminoides.

The very modern, grey stone house at Aprovato was intentionally hidden from view. It blended into the landscape, as did the plants, which were chosen by our own Jennifer Gay. She and the owner wanted muted pastel colours and textures that would integrate with the surroundings. Although this is a young garden (about five years old), it is establishing itself nicely, despite the occasional harsh winds. Native trees and shrubs were introduced to complement the existing maples and oaks with maquis underplanting. We noticed lavenders, rosemaries, catmint, salvias, Tulbaghia violacea, Iceberg roses, evergreen jasmine, Podranea ricasoliana (pink trumpet vine), Echium candicans and aromatics such as oregano, sage, mallow and thyme, among others.

Nearby at Ano Paleopoli, conditions were quite different. The house was old and white-washed, and its owner, a well-known Greek landscape designer, showed that her talent extends to interiors as well as gardens. In this established, rather steep plot, similar plants – herbs and native shrubs, but also white peonies – were set in long narrow beds beside worn stone paths, with cypress windbreaks and pots set in wall niches. The lowest part of the garden was bare except for some magnificent 500-year-old olive trees.


Pathways lined with typically Mediterranean herbs and shrubs.


Peonies, a rarity on a Greek island.

At Lamyra the owners were worried that the garden was not at its best. It boasts an alley and a courtyard lined with Lagerstroemia indica (crape myrtle), whose pink blooms do not appear until August. But we were thrilled by their ‘polished’ mottled branches, the enormous araucaria and magnolia trees, the spacious citrus and olive groves with their whitewashed trunks, banks of white roses and hydrangeas, and the immaculate vegetable garden. The whole estate exuded calm and tranquillity.


The branches of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) are as beautiful as their flowers.


Gardening on a grand scale.

The next garden at Sariza, in mid-village, was a study in controlled confusion. Here red roses, purple irises, orange succulents and an amaryllis we dubbed ‘raspberry swirl’ mixed happily with chives, asparagus, lemon grass, sugar cane and ginger. This was a hands-on garden, as cosy and comfortable as a favourite armchair, with the exotica reflecting the owners’ travels.


A perfect amaryllis, nicknamed Raspberry Swirl.

From there we took a short walk into the nearby Pithara ravine to gape at more Andros water tumbling from shaded rocks into mossy pools, which was more than enough to bring on hunger pangs.

After a lunch of traditional specialities in Hora’s main square, our next stop was an ‘urban’ garden just outside the centre. Though small, careful planning gave it a feeling of space as orderly rows of lavender and creeping rosemary alternated with candy-striped pelargonium and an array of handsome succulents in front of a couple of lemon trees and oleanders. Amidst this elegant simplicity one exceedingly aromatic rose kept us coming back for another whiff.


The falls at the end of the Pithara ravine.


A rose by any other name would never smell as sweet as this one did.

The garden at Menites belongs to a member but is rented by a British artist and his wife. We parked at the famous lions’ head fountain, then followed some 100 steps down to the house and its several levels. Water cascaded outside the front door and a stream at the bottom level bulged into a pocket-sized pool surrounded by dense plane trees. We admired pots of geraniums, amaryllis and cactus, but saved our greatest praise for our hostess’s lemon cake and soumada, a drink flavoured with almond essence.

Sunday morning was spent at a 9000-square-metre working farm possessing not one but two rivers and spread out over a series of broad terraces (pezoules in Greek, aimasies in the local dialect). The farm, which had been featured in the February edition of Ktima & Kipos (a Kathimerini monthly magazine), exemplifies model, ecofriendly and organic practices, carried out scientifically with the aid of a soil technician and an agronomist. In addition to ornamental plants and flowerbeds closest to the house, the plot also incorporates an olive grove, a henhouse, a flock of sheep, a large vegetable patch and beehives. We seemed to pay most attention to the streamlined compost production and a talk on beekeeping by a former sea captain.


Maybe the most impressive old olive that we encountered.

We were also privileged to meet Elly Stamatiadou, a grande dame of Greek botany, close associate of Niki Goulandris at the Museum of Natural History, and mother of the farm’s owner. Mrs Stamatiadou, now in her eighties, has combed the mountains of Greece for flora, collecting 25,000 specimens of rare plants, 40 of which had been hitherto undiscovered. She told us that 1055 different species have been identified on Andros alone and two are endemic: Trifolium andricum and Scylla andria. She has also had two plants named after herself: Veronica stamatiadae and Dianthus stamatiadae.

For lunch we went to a botanical wonderland, a private garden set in the middle of a vertiginous ravine, with water and bougainvilleas tumbling around boulders, ferns dripping with spray, geraniums, acanthus ... the most common of blooms transformed into an extravaganza of colour and drama. There we feasted on roast lamb, grilled chicken, salads from the garden, cheese pies, Andros omelette …, thus satisfying our appetites for all the senses.


A garden in a deep ravine.

Monday’s gardens were all owned by expats. The first and second, both in Ano Gavrio, were both on a do-it-yourself-able scale. One, the passion of recent full-time residents, contains a vineyard and a vegetable garden as well as beds of silver-leafed Mediterranean ornamental plants, lavenders, rose geranium, salvias and a couple of graceful old olive trees. The second, whose owners had just returned from six months in England, was a happy blend of found cistus and planted oleanders, rosemaries, climbing roses, succulents and other hardy shrubs that don’t need much water. Several people remarked on its similarity to Sparoza and the laissez-faire approach to ‘volunteers’.

Our final garden was another mix of fruit trees, vegetables, ornamental plants and poultry, thriving on a series of very steep terraces, with a stream flowing alongside. The family declares they ‘never’ buy anything from the greengrocer. But beautiful flowers abound too – roses, irises, and a dazzling pink succulent that quite possibly would have won the prize for ‘most flamboyant of the weekend’.


A neat vegetable patch.


The pink succulent was an unexpected star in this garden; it was imported from England.

Besides garden visits, we were also treated to a short film and talk on ‘Andros and the threats to its habitats and flora’ respectively by Olga Karagianni and her partner Alexandros Mavis, environmental activists who are dedicated to protecting the island from the twin perils of bulldozing in the pursuit of inappropriate development and the slower but no less invasive nibbling away of maquis and phrygana by free-ranging goats.

The ancient Greeks named Andros Hydroussa, the watery one. Amazingly, even today no one has been able to prove where that water comes from. Elly Stamatiadou gave us an explanation that is as good as any: under the Ottomans, a local pasha dropped a golden goblet into a spring at Karystos, at the southern tip of Evia, the nearest island to the west. Some time later, it bubbled out of a spring on the summit of Andros’s highest mountain, Kouvara.

Whatever the source, that water makes Andros gardens hard to duplicate in most parts of Greece. After the weekend, we were told of many more we should have visited. Maybe next year?
Diana Farr Louis.

May 2012
A garden in Sparta and a walk in the Taygetos

The garden of Ada Kopitopoulou, who lives in Sparta, was the meeting point for 21 members of the Peloponnese group. Ada had very kindly made all the arrangements for this event. She began by serving coffee and cakes in her garden, creating a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that set the mood for the day.

Ada lives in a street where all house fronts are lined up along the pavement. This means that any visitor turning off the pavement and walking through the gate to the garden at the back is in for a wonderful surprise. The garden is like a secret haven, where flowers, flowering bushes and shrubs live in close harmony, holding hands as it were. Ada has a knack of training them to intertwine with one another, locked in such an embrace that geraniums poke their heads through the foliage of jasmine and clematis sit in the lap of roses, heads turning to face the sunshine together.


Ada’s garden.


Clematis and roses.

The garden is arranged in islands of flowering plants with natural paths meandering around them. There was soon a buzz of activity: not the insect kind, but the human kind. People were milling around, tea and cake in hand, talking about what they saw, and drawing others’ attention to the many surprises, especially the beautiful, bright red abutilon occupying pride of place, a worthy focal point that generated lots of conversation. Other notable blooms were clematis, euphorbia, dahlias and verbena. And then, of course, the vegetable garden with the season’s greens, courgettes, tomatoes, beans and luscious strawberries ripe for picking. Ada was able to provide lots of information about the plants we saw.


The red abutilon.

Then we all drove off in convoy to Mystras, where we stopped to check our numbers before taking the long winding road that climbs steeply up the lower slopes of Mount Taygetos to Taygetos village, unknown territory for most of us. The convoy drove through the village and pulled up outside the Taygetos Summer Camp and the imposing but closed gates of the seventeenth-century monastery of Zoodochos Pigi, the starting point for our walk. Ina Van Delden led us (sunhats on some heads) as we climbed above the camp and into the rolling hills, where we were welcomed by a cheerful but elusive cuckoo that kept us company for much of the way. The snow-covered ridge of this central part of the Taygetos range soon came into view, some 600 metres above us.


The green slopes of the central Taygetos.


Orchis quadripunctata.

As always in the countryside of the Peloponnese, walkers are torn between two different kinds of beauty: the majestic beauty of the great mountain scenery that never ceases to amaze, and beauty in the small that stands at your feet and can so easily be missed. This was the beauty we were in search of and we were not disappointed, as there, snuggling beneath fir trees and along the edges of the footpath, were orchids, grape hyacinths, wild lupins and cistuses. We stopped to admire and take photographs, our pace leisurely and the cuckoo still keeping us company as the path took us back down towards the camp. Then the clouds could hold out no longer, and after a few rolls of distant thunder, the first drops came down. Sunhats disappeared. Out came waterproof capes, mackintoshes, plastic hoods and even a lace-trimmed umbrella, apparently a family heirloom. But it was a gentle shower that left us refreshed and grateful, coming as it did on the last stretch of our two-hour walk.

Back in the car park at the camp we said goodbye to our cuckoo and drove down to the springs of Kefalari by Agios Ioannis village. Here we had a perfect, late lunch under the lush green canopy of centuries-old plane trees. After lunch, when the trip back home was establishing itself in our minds, Hilary produced lots of little paper bags, each containing a tiny cactus, and gave one to everybody. A lovely reminder of a perfect day.

Kay-Elvina Sutton
Photographs by Kjeld Kjeldsen

April 2012
Andritsaina

Some 25 members of the Peloponnese group made a weekend visit to Andritsaina in the mountainous region of Elis (or Ilia) on the border of Arcadia and Messenia. This small settlement played an important part in the Greek War of Independence. In 1826 it was destroyed by Ibrahim Pasha’s troops, but today it is an attractive village with substantial old stone-built mansions, cobbled streets and magnificent views. It is home to the internationally known Nikolopouleion library of rare 16th and 17th century manuscripts in Greek and other languages, and it also has a remarkable folk museum.

Our hosts, Carolyn and Nassos Goutis, had planned an interesting programme for us, and as always Martin and Jeswyn Jones were there to keep us in order and make sure we enjoyed ourselves. The local people were friendly and hospitable and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. One taverna was so small that a long table had to be placed diagonally across the room to fit us all in. The food was delicious and even the most pernickety guest was catered for with good will.

On the Saturday morning the folk museum opened up specially to fit in with our schedule. This was possibly the best museum of its kind that many of us had visited. The upper storey was devoted mainly to handicrafts and costumes. Exquisite embroidery on various textiles was on display, as well as clothes dating from the early nineteen hundreds, all in amazingly pristine condition. On the walls were photographs of the family who had lived in the house, at home and on their various travels, actually wearing some of the clothes. It brought alive the life of a patrician family in Greece at that time. The lower storey of this original house was furnished as it would have been: a dining room with the table set for dinner, a kitchen with all the utensils at the ready and a bedroom with a dressing table laid out with all the beauty aids that a lady might need. All the rooms looked as if they had been left only a moment or two before. We all said it was well worth visiting the village just for the museum. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to gain access to the library, so this was a treat to be saved for another occasion.


Part of the costume display in the folk museum.

After leaving the museum, we drove in convoy to the village of Kallithea, about 18km north-west of Andritsaina, where Nassos and Carolyn were waiting to take us on a circular walk. The weather was perfect, with sunshine, billowing cumulus clouds, and a breeze to keep us cool. Our route took us first in a westerly and then a southerly direction. Looking north over the broad and cultivated Alfeios valley spread out below us, it was possible to see the tributaries Ladon and Erimanthos joining the Alfeios and, on the far horizon, the mountains beyond which Patras lies. Looking westwards towards the present-day village of Platiana, the ruins of the ancient acropolis of Aipy, one of the oldest fortified cities in the region of Elis, could be seen in the distance. Between the hills in the direction of Katakolo and Pirgos, and looking a little further south towards Zaharo, the sea was visible. Our attention was divided between these spectacular views and what lay at our feet. Nestling among the greenery at the edges of our path we spotted Pisum elatum, Linum hologynum, Doronicum caucasicum (a species from the same genus as leopard’s bane), Leopoldia comosa (syn. Muscari comosum), Vinca minor, the occasional Anemone coronaria, and orchids, including Anacamptis coriophora (bug orchid, syn. Orchis coriophora) and the gorgeous Orchis simia (monkey orchid). Also along our way were plentiful examples of Cercis siliquastrum, Genista fasselata (syn. G. sphacelata), Lupinus albus and some fine specimens of Erica arborea. Turning northwards and eastwards on the return leg of our walk, we found a sheltered spot beside the path for our picnic lunch. From a nearby vantage point it was possible to make out four ancientacropolises, including Alifeira which dates back to at least 300 years BC. Returning to Kallithea and completing our circular tour, we were invited to the home of our hosts for tea and cakes.


The Alfeios valley


Anacamptis coriophora (bug orchid).


Orchis simia (monkey orchid).


The monastery at Alifeira.

For those of us unable to complete the walk, the village offered compensations: a field of wild lupins, country gardens with flourishing vegetable plots fringed with bright orange marigolds, porches overhung with rambling roses, a meeting with a lady riding home, who apologised for not being able to offer us a lift on a her young, fluffy donkey. In these verdant surroundings only the preponderance of young saplings and stacks of sawn-up charred logs was a sad reminder of the devastating fires of 2007.

The following day began with a visit to the magnificent Vassae temple, still shrouded in a huge white tent while it undergoes essential repair work. In the surrounding ruins we wandered in a blue haze of speedwell; here and there we found Anemone blanda, some a slightly pinkish blue, some almost white. We then moved on to the ruins of ancient Figalia, where we waded through a knee-high sea of flowers, including Crepis rubra, Tordylium, Bupleurum longifolium and phlomis. Other finds included Lupinus angustifolia and the occasional Ephedra fragilis (joint pine). The morning concluded with a drive on winding mountain roads through wonderful scenery to the tiny village of Ambeliona. Here an excellent taverna lunch awaited us, to fortify us for the journey home.


Drifts of speedwell at Vassae.


Bupleurum longifolium.


Lupinus angustifolia.

The dramatic scenery and the history of the area, in addition to the botanical interest, made for a fascinating and enjoyable two days. As one member commented, ‘It’s a long time since I’ve spent a weekend in such merry company’. The trip also served as a reminder of where our gardens come from, as we delighted in seeing the wild relatives of some of the plants that we enjoy in cultivated form.

Text by Helen Barratt and Linda Reynolds
Photos by Linda Reynolds and Martin Jones

April 2012
Exploring the area around the village of Pigadia in the Taygetos

Members of the MGS Peloponnese group met at the Taygetos motel, at the top of the Langada pass, before driving on to Pigadia on the western slopes of the Taygetos. The long and winding road between these two points is a challenging drive, particularly for cars with low ground clearance, so progress was slow. However, this meant that wild flowers could be easily spotted en route, and there were several stops to examine these and to take in the views. Sadly, the landscape was still displaying the ravages of the 2007 forest fires and, after a long, harsh winter with exceptionally high winds, was looking depressingly bleak. There was still a lot of snow in evidence, many fallen trees, and drifts of bark and other detritus. A few weeks earlier the whole area was still covered in snow, nevertheless the recent warm weather had encouraged the first signs of spring, and in the new growth along the edge of the road we spotted Anemone blanda, Iris unguicularis ssp. cretensis, Euphorbia rigida and Muscari commutatum.


Fire damage in the Taygetos.
Photo by Martin Jones.


Anemone blanda.
Photo by Martin Jones.


Iris unguicularis ssp. cretensis.
Photo by Martin Jones.

When we reached Pigadia, we were surprised to be met by a local resident, since, due to its altitude, the village is usually occupied only in summer. Clearly the village had once been a thriving community, and it was sad to see so many lovely old stone houses in ruins, colonised by ivy, their slate roofs long since collapsed. There was a lengthy consultation with the local concerning our proposed route back, which he said was impassable. During the conversation which followed, he told us that the impressive Platanus dominating the plateia was planted centuries ago by his ancestors, who had come to the village from Ioannina. Our friend then disappeared, leaving us to eat our picnic lunches. Just as some of the less organised among us were bemoaning the absence of wine from our picnics, the Pigadiotis reappeared, bearing, in the ubiquitous Coke bottle, a kilo of locally made wine.


Iris and anemone growing along the kalderimi.
Photo by Katerina Georgi.


The Pigadiotika Bridge on the Rindomo Gorge.
Photo by Katerina Georgi.


The narrow mule pass.
Photo by Katerina Georgi.

Our thus enhanced lunch over, we finally set off on our trek – a round trip of approximately 3km. It was perfect walking weather and, heading south through the valley, we passed through imposing scenery dotted with Pistacia lentiscus and exquisitely built threshing floors, as far as the beautiful double arched Pigadiotika Bridge on the Rindomo Gorge. From our vantage point on the bridge, shaded by huge Laurus nobilis, we were able to view the point where the ravine narrows dramatically. It was here, in the days when mules carried goods along the river bed, that they had to be unloaded so that they could pass through the narrow gap. From here a breakaway group crossed to the other side of the river and headed along the Koskaraka Gorge before crossing over a modern concrete bridge (built over the original wooden structure), back up the kalderimi on the west side of the valley, then crossing once more to join the rest of the group before we headed back to Pigadia. Along the way, particularly in sheltered pockets, we saw many wild flowers, amongst them Alkanna graeca, Anchusa variegata, Anchusa undulata ssp. hybrida, Hermodactylus tuberosus (now more properly called Iris tuberosa), Ornithogalum montanum, Saxifraga chrysoplenifolia, Scilla messeniaca, Valeriana tuberosa, and a solitary specimen of Orchis quadripunctata.

Back in Pigadia we wearily prepared to make our way home along another tortuous road, but the walk and scenery had been well worth the effort.

Katerina Georgi

March 2012
Spring flowers at Rhamnous

They say that the ancient Greek city of Rhamnous, not far from Marathon, was named for the prickly shrub, Rhamnus lycioides ssp. graeca, a buckthorn species, that proliferates in the area. This made it all the more fitting for a botanical excursion. The site, which overlooks the Gulf of Evia, is dramatic, with stunning vistas, two temple foundations, a road lined with grave monument pedestals and a large fortress. The antiquities date from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD, when Rhamnous was an important port – the only sheltered cove on the strait between Attica and Evia – and a military base. Normally, only the upper part of the site is open to the public, but we had arranged to be admitted into the lower fortress area and spent more than two hours prowling around.


The fortress at Rhamnous.
Photo by Diana Farr Louis.


Walls of ancient houses.
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades.

But although we were hoping for a splendid array of anemones and orchids, we had to look hard for flora. The winter has been hard on this exposed site: snow, low temperatures and stiff northerly winds seem to have prevented spring from ‘busting out all over’ the way it is at Sparoza and in south-east Attica.

Nevertheless, the site did not disappoint and we had Sally Razelou with us to point out arcane shoots and blossoms. She also steered us to the footprints scratched into the base of the temple of Nemesis and she was the first to start collecting wild asparagus and Dioscorea communis (previously Tamus communis) (black bryony), which were growing ‘like weeds’ all over the site. Many of us joined her, gathering spears for evening omelettes, and they were delicious. Gleeful cries of ‘another Dioscorea communis’ could be heard as we scrambled around the fortress. 


Dioscorea communis (black bryony).
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades.


Alkanna tinctoria.
Photo by Fleur Pavlidis.


Verbascum undulatum.
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades.

On the way down, Sally spotted Glaucium corniculatum, a horned poppy, with its burnt orange flowers and graceful leaves, Alkanna tinctoria, a ground-hugger with mauvey-pale blue flowers that she and Miyon had transplanted to Sparoza from the hillside above it, Scrophularia canina (dog figwort), and a lone bee orchid. Verbascum undulatum, of great beauty and in varying sizes (but no flowers yet), decorated the precinct before the entrance to the fortress. Almost all the plants were speckled with ladybirds (lady bugs to Americans).


Ophrys tenthredinifera.
Photo by Fleur Pavlidis.


Himantoglossum robertianum.
Photo by Frosso Vassiliades.

Returning to the upper level, we saw several more anemones – their colours seem more intense at Rhamnous – and finally a few orchids, including Ophrys tenthredinifera and Himantoglossum robertianum (previously Barlia robertiana). Once we saw one, we saw a dozen at least. Last spring, when I had gone to Rhamnous on my own, I spotted at least four different species of orchid in incredible profusion. And all within the upper level, so no special permission is required to seek them out.

Diana Farr Louis

February 2012
The Botanical Garden at Kaisariani

We’ve been to this very special garden adjoining the famous eleventh-century monastery on Mt Hymettus many times, but no matter how often, no matter the season, it’s never the same. Something new is in bloom, something else attracts one’s attention. As our guide, MGS member Sophia Pilavachi, said: ‘We don’t do any systematic planting. Plants are neurotic, they grow where they want to, so this is a natural botanical garden. All the salvias, for example, behave differently, and we have a resident botanist helping to recognise and label them.’

Sophia, who is the caretaker of the botanical garden, told us that the site is only 4,000 square metres, but it feels larger because it is shaped like a horseshoe on a steep slope and circles a small ravine. Though it was created in the 1960s, it was given a new infusion of plants 30 years later and in 1994 the EU proclaimed the whole site one of the 58 most important Historic Gardens and Architectural Monuments in Europe. Subsequently, the garden suffered considerable damage during the snowstorm of 2002. But in the past five years, a great effort has been made to clear the paths and free the plants from the dreaded smilax, which had run rampant and was covering up the desirable species. All weeding and stonework must be done by hand and it is very labour-intensive.

Most of the plants introduced here come from the Peloponnese and Crete, since they adapt well to the conditions at Hymettus. That said, some of the trees present are not natives at all, but they were so well established it seemed a pity to uproot them in the interests of purity.

The garden boasts 400 species, including ten endangered ones, but ‘they don’t look like much at this time of year’ according to Sophia and we forgot to ask her to point them out.


Viola alba ssp. thessala.


Cyclamen persicum.

What greeted us as we set out were violets, mauve and white, Viola alba ssp. thessala, which brought cheerful colour to the muted greens of the hillside. Here and there plants have been inserted in the rocks — beautiful in themselves — with no compost or fertiliser used. ‘The only unnatural thing we do,’ said Sophia, ‘is to water in summer. Despite the altitude, it gets terribly hot here and without it the plants would die. Fifty taps are hidden around the garden.’

Other plants that we noticed, apart from ubiquitous narcissi and the decorative leaves of Cyclamen persicum, were Ebenus cretica, Euphorbia rigida, Artemisia campestris, Osyris alba - another horrible invader, Senecio cineraria, Ephedra fragilis tendrils (from which a heart medicine is made), and an amazing Cistus laurifolius, which is much larger than the familiar species and bears no resemblance to it.


Euphorbia rigida.


Senecio cineraria.


Cistus laurifolius.

Just outside the garden’s fence to the southwest stood a monument to Katy Argyropoulou, one of the founders of the Friends of the Trees, which was responsible for the reforestation of Hymettus after WWII and for the original botanical garden. Next to it grew some stunning cedars presented by the government of Cyprus.

Those of us who lagged behind benefited from the expertise of Nikos Pangas, forest manager for the Friends of the Trees, and from the sharp eyes and memory of Sally Razelou. They kept us entertained with their comments and discussions about plants some of us might have passed without a second look.

The walk ended at the nursery, rows and rows of hardy local plants that have been grown outdoors in a natural environment and propagated in earth and compost, without hormones, chemical fertilisers or sprays. At least 120 species are available and, what’s more, they now have a catalogue in Greek and in English of all the plants for sale, the kinds of conditions they prefer (sun, shade, dry, moist, etc.) and other pertinent information.

I think Sally spoke for us all when she said, ‘Coming to this garden at Kaisariani is like entering a cathedral.’ The atmosphere is so serene and majestic; one quite forgets it’s so close to Athens.

Text and photographs by Diana Farr Louis

January 2012
Slide Show at Sparoza: A journey in the Khumbu Valley, by Miyon Yoo

Last summer Miyon Yoo, Sally Razelou’s assistant at Sparoza, took an amazing trip to the Sagarmatha National Park in east Nepal to visit a French ecologist friend who is studying water resources there. Said Miyon, ‘I had always dreamt of walking in the Himalayas, but I didn’t know what I was in for. It was an extremely challenging experience.’ As we followed her journey over ‘two intense weeks’, Miyon told her tale so well we felt we were with her, sharing her delight in each new plant and her increasing apprehension as the air grew thinner and the paths disappeared. ‘When I set out,’ said Miyon, ‘I needed to travel light, so I left my heavy cameras behind. I intended to look more and keep the images in my head, but in the end it was too frustrating, so I borrowed my friend’s digital camera.’ We were glad she did.

The park, whose name means Sky Forehead, includes Everest and K2. But because of the monsoon, visibility was usually poor, and the famous peaks showed themselves only once in the whole two weeks. To reach the park, Miyon flew in a 10-seater plane to Lukla airport’s tiny airstrip, a mere 460m long and 2,800m above sea level. Arriving at 7am, she then walked with her friend for six hours to the park’s entrance. ‘This was a touristy area, but we stayed a few days, so I could acclimatise, giving my blood a chance to make red cells. There were dahlias and gladioli, a vegetable garden and a small greenhouse at our lodge. Its vegetables were my last. Our daily diet consisted of a bowl of rice and potatoes and lentil soup. Spices made it interesting.’


Namche.


Leontopodium jacotianum.

The next stop, Namche, was at 3440m. This is the starting point for expeditions to Everest. In the dry season it is completely brown and bare, but the monsoon had made it lush. ‘On our second day there, we walked to Syangboche airport, a grassy landing-strip with open slopes and alpine plants. There I saw edelweiss, gentian, rhododendrons – there are 30 species, some as tall as pines, Campanula sp., Corydalis juncea, Bistorta vacciniifolia (synonyms Persicaria vacciniifolia and Polygonum vacciniifolium), Juncus, and Primula wollastonii.’ Khunde at 3840m was a forest zone, with pines, junipers and firs. The sherpa hut they visited had Tibetan wall paintings, and prayer flags waved outside to protect the paths and a well. Despite the remoteness and traditional life style, all the young had cell phones. Pangboche (3900m), headquarters of Miyon’s friend, was a place of sherpas in cowboy hats and a festival focusing on the arrival of an old priest being carried in state. There she saw orchids (Dactylorhiza), another type of gentian, a geranium, and more rhododendrons.


Meconopsis horridula.


Saussurea simpsoniana.

Dole (4200m) was a district of potato fields. But by now Miyon was beginning to suffer from the altitude. ‘My body felt as though an elephant was sitting on it. I could hardly put one foot in front of the other.’ Compensation came in the form of Polygonum macrophyllum (synonym Bistorta macrophylla), Saxifraga brunonis (?), Myosotis sp., more primulas, poppy relatives, and baby blue Meconopsis horridula. But at Gokyo (4700m), she stayed in bed rather than walk barefoot round a lake before sunrise in observance of a Hindu full moon festival. This is the only day in the year when the surface becomes so still and clear that it is a perfect mirror.

On the other side of the lake was another ordeal that couldn’t be avoided – a glacier, Ngorumpa, one of the world’s longest. Even though it appeared to be nothing but greyish stones and greyish ice, it was home to tiny Saussurea plants and Waldheimia glabra, bearded like an old man, which may have given rise to the Yeti legends. Furry edelweiss also grows here, while saxifrages hide in the cracks of rocks to minimize the surface exposed to the cold.


Primula primulina.


Silene setisperma.

At Cho La Pass (5330m), Miyon was not happy, feeling more and more negative and homesick. ‘It was horribly stony, unstable. I kept slipping on big rocks treacherous with melting snow. As I went higher, I felt heavier and eventually had an anxiety attack. It was the epitome of hostile. We couldn’t see. There were no paths. But I had to keep going, there was no turning back. When I got to a place that was connected to the outside world, I decided to cut short my trek and return home. I learned a lot about myself, but I wasn’t truly prepared. Still, I’d like to go back – in a year or two.’ We sympathized with Miyon, very happy to view her slides, but happy to be sitting comfortably at Sparoza as we enjoyed her final shots of Primula primulina, a tufted light lavender, and Silene setisperma, like Chinese lanterns.

Text by Diana Farr Louis
Photos by Miyon Yoo

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Nikos Vlachakis – Greek branch head
I am an accountant and although my education and professional background have nothing to do with plants, my love for them is great. In particular, raising plants from seed is a great pleasure for me; it is the miracle of life! The Mediterranean plants that are born, grown, live their lives and die under the toughest conditions, with little water and nutrients, are even more worthwhile and admirable. Unfortunately, I do not have a garden or a field that I can cultivate, although I very much wish that I had, only a terrace in the centre of Athens with some pots which I care for every day.


 

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