|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Greek Branch of the MGS
The Parisian-born zookeeper met us just inside the entrance, where parrots' shrieks filled the air and a pond with flamingos filled our eyes. Moving closer to the pond, which is surrounded by cypresses, reeds, oleanders and a Judas tree or two, Lesueur began by answering our questions about water. Separated from Sparoza by a few kilometres and the Attiki Odos highway, the zoo shares our headquarter's semi-desert conditions and we were extremely pleased that Lesueur shares our waterwise approach to planting.
He told us that when he bought the property in 1999, it had been an abandoned vineyard without a single tree. In clearing the land for the aviaries – the zoo originally had only birds and contains the world's third largest collection – ‘we put in plants that didn't need too much water. But we also brought in river sand for some areas and in the process acquired a lot of “volunteers”, especially wild Judas trees. Of course, we've welcomed them and everything else that has sprung up naturally. We also dug a borehole, which does produce adequate water for our irrigation needs, but it is brackish. So recently we installed a salt-breaking device, with the result that our pipes and automatic watering system drips are no longer clogged.'
As we set off on our tour, Lesueur said that the zoo has grown from 55,000 square metres and 18 staff to its present size and a staff of 60. In just over a decade, the number of animals has risen to 2,200 individuals, representing some 400 species. An additional 10,000 square metres remain unoccupied for the moment.
Each species lives in an environment that makes it feel at home. Mostly this is by design: the Asian aviary – like an airplane hangar – contains Asian plants, such as casuarinas, pittosporums, bamboo, pyracantha … and plants that attract insects for the birds to feed on; the Bactrian camels wander on a stretch resembling the Gobi desert. Sometimes this has happened by chance. The predators' cages, for example, are draped with vines that had reasserted themselves.
Especially pleasing were the paths linking the various enclosures. Lesueur himself has designed the walls set in honey-coloured local stone which frame beds of healthy-looking rosemary, aloes, cactus, ice plants. Thick stands of oleanders line many of the paths, their dark green a vivid contrast with the stone. In the Delphinarium, a recent construction, wide beds of creeping rosemary fronted by Tulbaghia violacea looked as if they'd been thriving there for years.
What we also appreciated was the imaginative use of dead plants – trees, logs, branches – as part of the habitat of many animals, but particularly that of the various clans of monkeys which had whole playgrounds at their disposal. And where an environment could not be planted because of our dry climate, some clever artist had painted the walls with lush vegetation. Real live plants supplemented them of course, as in the areas designated for the big cats, but the effect was charming.
All in all, the zoo represents a happy combination of adaptation to Attica's conditions, a flexible approach to plants, great attention to cleanliness and care of both plants and animals (who remembers the lion's den in the National Gardens?), and an exemplary use of the most common, humble plants to harmonious effect.
We haven't mentioned the animals, but suffice it to say that this is a model, contemporary zoo in every respect. It belongs to the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA), which coordinates the movement of species to avoid inbreeding. None of its creatures is acquired from the wild; it employs a full-time vet and runs several educational programs.
Even the dolphins, which we were sad to see confined to a pool, seemed well adjusted. You can watch them crowding round Lesueur, eager to greet him, but otherwise they are swimming too fast to photograph.
Diana Farr Louis
Thomas began by giving us a quick introduction to the history of gardens and their relationship to the landscape. A garden is a closed system that reflects changes and trends in the wider landscape around it. In ancient Egypt, for example, gardens mirrored the agricultural revolution, while in nineteenth-century England they shifted from the agricultural to the pastoral, idealizing the grazing grounds that produced the wool turned into textiles by the Industrial Revolution's new looms and factories. Whether we're looking at the water culture that's at the heart of Islamic gardens or the ‘museum' approach that characterizes late Victorian Imperial gardens, a garden is never just an abstract idea but always symbolic of its time.
Today, gardens are no longer viewed as mere static decoration, they are living systems in which nature asserts itself and agriculture is still present.
Before moving on to illustrate specific projects, Thomas told us about his love of the Mediterranean, ‘not the fake Mediterranean in tourist brochures, but the landscapes created by 7000 years of interaction between human and natural forces'. But nowadays a new economy is at work, changing the landscape in ways he doesn't like. He and his 14-member office, doxiadis+, ‘are striving to do something with the landscape, not to it, and we all love this work'.
The first project he showed us dealt with agricultural de-desertification on 200,000 square metres of hillside on Serifos. Here decades of over-cultivation had rendered the soil as hard as concrete and almost totally devoid of organic matter. Still, rivulets of oleanders betrayed the presence of water and the soil, eroded gneiss, was not as hard as it looked. After breaking up the soil and digging out terracing with a tractor, doxiadis+ decided to introduce nitrogen-fixing plants that would provide natural fertiliser for the owner's eventual vineyard. Aromatic phrygana on the terrace slopes could be an additional source of income.
The next project, on Antiparos, was the opposite of agricultural. It involved the landscaping of another 200,000 square metres of land around 15 big second homes, with big garages, big pools, big roads … a very invasive development that could destroy the very environment its residents came to enjoy. Thomas's first challenge was to convince the owner/developer that the splendid Aegean view and setting was the selling point, not the presence of 15 villas. Then he had to set about restoring the 3000 square metres that had been dug up during the construction of each 500-square-metre house. Although a ‘green garden' was desired in the immediate vicinity of each house, doxiadis+ put in plants that needed progressively less irrigation as their distance from it increased. Then different mixtures of plants – especially Sarcopoterium, thyme and cistus – were introduced, leaving spaces between them for nature to fill. The only home where this did not happen was the developer's, whose gardener was assiduously weeding out the intruders!
Meanwhile, the unsightly new roads were camouflaged by following the existing drystone walls and terracing. When Thomas showed his father photos of the project, the older man looked puzzled and then said “Apart from the houses, I can't really tell what you've done here”. “That made me very happy,” Thomas said.
The next two projects were proposals that illustrated the same non-invasive approach. One dealt with the restoration of a quarry on Milos. Here, on the filled-in/replanted slope, traces of various mining activities (trenches) and minerals (kaolin cones) were left exposed ‘to tell the story of what went on', a story that even included water in certain seasons. The other, a competition entry for the Sanctuary of Demeter at Elefsina, had wheat as its theme. The judges pronounced it the most beautiful, but impractical.
Finally, Thomas told us about plans for the Varkiza Didactic Beach (to promote ecological awareness). This was ‘an amazing beach in poor condition. We looked at what was growing on the unbuilt landscape east of the municipal beach and decided to create a set of four sub-landscapes: from sparse forest to dense forest (tamarisks, pines, eucalypts), dunes to re-create those that used to be here, and a parking area planted with mulberries and lots of poles to keep people and cars from straying. There will be three differentiated levels of natural regeneration managed by three different levels of disturbance, and the project has been approved by the authorities and is moving towards realization.'
In conclusion, we were treated to an urban installation, Promise of Paradise, on a vacant lot near Kerameikos (the cemetery of ancient Athens). A series of slides taken one summer illustrated the growth of some Ipomoea vines – planted as seedlings – around an old winding staircase. They were the metaphor for the doxiadis+ philosophy. ‘We try to give nature the scaffolding on which to grow, rather than creating something that only looks like nature.'
Doxiadis's reverence and love for the phrygana, for the timeless, drought-resistant Mediterranean landscape, his waterwise approach and his reliance on local plants were clearly in tune with our MGS guidelines. So we applauded him enthusiastically and then invited him to join us for some wine and mezedes in a pre-Christmas spirit.
Diana Farr Louis. Photos courtesy of doxiadis+
The garden is the result of a bequest to the University of Athens from the estate of Alexandros and Julia Diomedes. A politician and cabinet minister in the second decade of the last century, Diomedes was manager of the National Bank of Greece from 1919 until 1949, and served briefly as Prime Minister after Sofoulis's death. He passed away himself in 1950 – a shining example of an old-style public servant with more than selfish interests on his mind. Julia, née Rodocanachi, was independently wealthy and a passionate gardener.
Although it took some 25 years for the couple's wish to materialize – the land was granted by the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1960s – they would be more than pleased with their legacy. Most of the huge area has been left as it was – a combination of phrygana and the oldest pine forest in Attica (Pinus halepensis). As our guide, MGS member Andreas Zikos, told us, it is home to more than 500 indigenous species, and the aim has been to leave it as natural as possible.
Only 20 hectares are occupied by the botanical garden itself. Nearest the entrance is the arboretum, where tall trees from the five continents create an atmosphere of majestic serenity in contrast to the bustle and traffic of the Iera Odos, the old Sacred Way, outside.
Andreas, a biologist, then led us through the section devoted to historic plants that appear in the works of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, and in ancient history, literature and myth. Under nicely yellowed fig leaves, he told us about the origin of the word sycophant. In ancient times, figs (syka) were important as sweeteners and it was forbidden to export them. Naturally, some people tried to smuggle them out of Attica and sell them. Others found it convenient to bring false accusations of such smuggling against their enemies. They came to be known as sykophantes or slanderers; the word has acquired a different meaning in English.
Walking through the spacious grounds, interspersed with occasional beds and small pools, we came upon other familiar plants like giant fennel, Ferula communis. Its stalks possess a sponge-like interior which Prometheus exploited to keep the gods' fire smouldering until he could give it to mankind, but it was also used to make splints for broken bones, as its Greek name narthika suggests. Its lookalike Conium maculatum or hemlock, famous for poisoning Socrates, has a less innocent history. Andreas told us stories about the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), the Ginkgo biloba (a living fossil), and a wonderful Chinese climbing legume Bauhinia yunnanensis, the ‘orchid vine', with leaves like butterflies and delicate pink flowers (from which some of us plucked pods). There was white-plumed pampas grass from Argentina, red Salvia coccinea, Hypericum calycinum (a relative of St. John's wort) with large waxy yellow flowers, Tilia mongolica, Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) with red leaves like enormous feathers, ginger lily (Hedychium gardnerianum), Chinese cypresses, and lily ponds with lotus(Nelumbo nucifera) in various stages of decomposition, but promising wonderful blooms and leaves in summer (late June is best). We admired white Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica) a metre taller than any Greek variety and discovered the wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), which in winter has small nondescript flowers with an intoxicating perfume.
These are just a few of the fascinating plants Andreas introduced us to, but besides the individual species, we were all beguiled by the setting: the open spaces contrasting with thick vegetation, the neat paths, stone walls, vistas of autumn colours, and the feeling of being in a ‘happy' place. Nine gardeners work to keep the plants healthy and the grounds immaculate. It obviously has a large ‘fan club'; families with small children, people with yoga mats, picnickers, strollers of all ages added their own appeal without being obtrusive.
We only touched the surface, didn't even glimpse the wild area, but this taste whetted our appetites for more. As one member said, ‘We should go every month to see what may be blooming'. But apart from the general pleasure to be gained, we will soon have another reason to go back. MGS member Makis Aperghis is planting a rock garden in memory of his wife Myrto, former General Secretary of the Hellenic Society for the Preservation of Nature and an avid admirer of wild peonies. He is busy collecting plants his wife loved from places where they used to walk and explore. We hope Makis will let us know when it's ready.
Gousterina, the lovely garden created by Susie and Alban, was our first port of call. Their stated aim, as for most mediterranean gardeners, was to create a waterwise garden. Gousterina is a relatively young garden and they are learning by trial and error, so there have inevitably been a few failures, but many successes. The garden has a stunning location, west-facing and looking out to sea. Originally a shallow-terraced olive grove, it has now been landscaped to accommodate the house and to blend in with its environs, which complement and ‘frame' the garden. Many mature olive trees remain.
As we came down from the road through the main entrance, we had on our right the top terrace cactus bed, a dry bed planted with Phoenix canariensis, Cycas revoluta, Yucca gloriosa, Trachycarpus fortunei, bougainvillea and thyme. There is a gorgeous contrast between pyracantha and a beautiful dark purple-stemmed grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum'. On our left were prostrate and upright rosemary. An architectural element is added by cypresses, pines and eucalyptus, some of these outside the garden and, through all these, the eye is drawn to the sea and the rugged coastline.
The swimming pond is a prominent feature, very innovative for Greece, using only fresh and constantly gently circulating water. It is three metres deep to allow cooling of the surface water which heats up considerably in the summer months. The water never needs changing as it is cleansed by oxygenating plants and mineral filter beds. No chemicals are ever used. Around the edges are beds planted with water lilies and rushes. I rather liked the minimalism of the sparse planting, though Susie says that this is due to some plants not having thrived in the fluctuating summer/winter temperatures, and she hopes successfully to introduce more resilient specimens.
We saw this garden in October, and although it was flowering beautifully, we were assured that in spring, with the olive trees under-planted with various spring flowers, among them Hermodactylus tuberosus (mourning widow iris), Gladiolus byzantinus, and wild Narcissus tazetta, it is a true spectacle. Nonetheless, following a brief digression when some of us walked down to the sea, as we returned to the garden, we were met by a row of Tecoma capensis, known also as Cape Honeysuckle, in vibrant oranges and reds, and then the pergola smothered in blue Thunbergia grandiflora and jasmine, and on the wall of the house Solandra maxima, honeysuckle and stephanotis, a wonderful autumnal display.
Although landscaped and humanized, the garden blends successfully into its framework, and one is continually aware of this, as the eye is always drawn from the immediate to the distant, the rugged, and wild.
We went straight on to Chrysoula's small cactus garden in the heart of Stoupa. Although both gardens are the work of artists, marrying colour and architecture, this one has no background, no larger framework, because of its location. It is truly ‘organic' in that it is a collection assembled over a long time. At first glance one might think it is just a mediterranean version of the garden gnome syndrome because of all the wacky toys and odds and sods within. But it becomes immediately apparent that this is the work of a very serious, dedicated and knowledgeable gardener who, whilst she may not always know the names of her plants, certainly knows how to deal with them - Chrysoula really does have green fingers.
Her garden makes the most of the little space it has – olives, citrus, yuccas, an oak, rose-pink hibiscus, a Dizygotheca, daturas in all colours, succulents, but above all, a huge collection of cacti: small, large, furry, spiky, the large also supplying an architectural element. Some look like creatures, others are actually euphorbias, or look like flowering shrubs; one is from Texas or Arizona and is currently growing an arm for the classic shape. In the midst of this plethora is a huge sculptured rock, brought down from Taygetos: it is a miniature world with bonsai olive trees growing from it, lovely mosses, capers, figs and thymes.
We thank Chrysoula, and Susie and Alban, for hosting these visits. Members then went on to lunch at a favourite taverna by the seashore between Agios Nikolaos and Agios Dimitrios.
Valia Calda means ‘hot valley' in the language of the Vlachs – descendants of Roman border guards who settled all over northern Greece. It forms the core of the Pindos National Park, the least known and least visited of the country's ten national parks. Valia Calda lies at an altitude of 1400 metres, surrounded by mountains higher than 2000 metres. As we learned, the designation is relative; its winters can be brutal.
But we were lucky and the thunderstorms that had been occurring almost daily in June, even in Athens, came in the afternoon and only marginally curtailed our walks. We were also lucky in our guides, who belong to a society dedicated to protecting the region. They regaled us with stories and information, communicating their knowledge and enthusiasm. Although they told us about the history, geography, forests and flora, their most vivid tales seemed to involve bears. Bears devouring cherry orchards, ripping out vines with sour grapes, and even dancing to the music intended to frighten them away. Since the founding in around 1990 of the Arktouros refuge for performing bears at Nympheo (Central Macedonia), the brown bear population of northern Greece has grown from 120 to 400. Sixty of them live in the Grevena area and they are about as clever and rapacious as raccoons, but far more frightening and dangerous.
On day one, our first excursion was a tour of the outer park, which includes villages, churches and old stone bridges. Our bus took us to the Ziaka bridge, newly restored, over the Velonias river. It was once a toll bridge on the old Egnatia Odos, the main thoroughfare between the west coast of Greece and Constantinople. Then we drove past vineyards, wheat fields, and big, well-kept houses with rose gardens, up into the hills through forests of conifers and deciduous trees. The east-facing Pindos here is home to one of the largest mixed, semi-virgin forests in Greece, containing such a variety of trees that multiple shades of green dappled the slopes. The most visible were fir (Abies borisii regis), black pine (Pinus nigra), white pine (Pinus heldreichii) or robola in Greek, used for wine barrels in Kefalonia, beech (Fagus sylvatica) and oaks, but we even saw the rare Taxus baccata – used now in anti-cancer drugs and in the past for making bows.
Finally, we set off on what was billed as an easy one-hour walk to Orliaka and the Mount of Eagles. In fact, our six-kilometre stroll lasted almost three hours, we were so busy taking photographs and listening to our guides telling us about the curiosities on our path: a tiny brown snake, deadly mushrooms, wolf prints, bear spoor, and various trees and flowers. Unfortunately there were no real botanists amongst us to reel off the names of some of the more unusual flora, but here is a list of some of the plants we encountered (on both days): hellebores, wild geranium (Geranium columbinum), Viola spp - yellow and mauve, Orlaya grandiflora – identified from a photo, Cerinthe major, campanulas (Campanula persicifolia), Onosma echioides, Myosotis sp., salvias, Tulipa sylvestris, alliums, verbascums, lathyruses, Orchis ustulata, Dactylorhiza romana, D. sambucina, other orchids (pale yellow), thyme (Thymus longicaulis), Euphorbia myrsinites, a late snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) and an early yellow Lilium albanicum
By the time we got back to the bus, we were more than ready for lunch, but more sights were programmed: first the charming seventeenth-century monastery church of the Panagia tou Spilaiou – which had an exceptional carved icon screen and fine frescoes – and then a descent by jeep to the spectacular Portitsa gorge, a knife-slit in a towering cliff, where equally impressive indigo salvias danced above the rushing water. After lunch, with the rain finally pelting down, we had a quick glimpse of our third bridge, Aziz Aga, the highest arch in the region.
On day two, a procession of 4x4s took us into the heart of the forest, Valia Calda itself. In this place of open pasture and tall pines, criss-crossed by streams and rivers, Apostolis (Tolis) Dianellos, our chief guide, unveiled mysteries we surely would have missed without instruction. He showed us the tiny white insect-eating butterwort (Pinguicula crystallina ssp. hirtiflora) by the edge of a brook and then fished out a yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata); he told us about forest growth (always more luxuriant on the eastern slopes), edible mosses, the uses of Buxus sempervirens (the box we use for hedges, very common in those parts), the difference between an Orchis and a Dactylorhiza (we saw many examples of both), dendrochronology; he pointed out the occasional 700-year-old tree; he warned us of the perils of mushroom collecting (he'd been poisoned three times), and ruminated on human and divine nature – all very appropriate in such an inspiring setting. At the end of our tour of this open-air museum, Tolis said what a pleasure it was to have people as interested and aware as we were. It seems many groups take one look and then start itching for the nearest café.
The daily storm arrived somewhat earlier than usual, so we gobbled our picnic lunch, choking on sips of extra strong tsipouro, and scrambled back into our jeeps. The road back was somewhat nerve-wracking since parts of it seemed to be washing away as we bumped along. If it had been clear, we would have been able to see Olympos, Smolikas (Greece's second highest peak) and other famous mountains in this extension of the Swiss Alps. However, some lucky people received a bonus when they glimpsed a bear as we headed back to our hotel.
Grevena, our base, also provided interest. Who knew that it was the mushroom centre of Greece? The locals collect some 90 edible varieties, among the 2000 plus types that exist in the region. All the ‘souvenir' shops sold packets of dried porcini, chanterelles and morels – the most popular – as well as soups, noodles and trahana flavoured with fungi. And all the eateries – from the ‘best restaurant' to the pizzerias to the taverns and tsipouradika – featured mushrooms on their menus. We ate extremely well everywhere, and cheaply (not more than 15 Euros a head for copious amounts). Moreover, to our surprise, the region produces an excellent brousko – red barrel wine – that left no ill effects the morning after.
I think we all agreed that the trip was an unqualified success.
In convoy we drove high up above Kardamyli to Katerina Georgi's garden at Aghia Sophia. When we walked through the blue entrance gate, we saw the beautifully restored old house and a breathtaking view of the valley below, the little church of Aghia Sofia, and the sea. When Katerina bought the property two years ago, the plot had just the house on it, nine olive trees and an old aloni (threshing-floor). The land had large flattish terraces, which she retained, but the areas around the house were mostly flat rock which limited planting possibilities. She introduced more levels in order to accommodate rubble and stone from the building work and create raised planting beds. There are now several places to sit, and although there are large areas of hard landscaping, these will eventually be softened by plants overflowing from the confines of the planting beds. The area to the south of the paving will soon be gravelled and planted and downhill from there will be the vegetable garden.
The garden layout has a very well balanced composition. The old stone of the house and garden walls, in contrast with the straight clean lines of the terrace, softened by the plants, pebbles and gravel, results in an interesting, beautiful garden design. The total area of the land is about 1500 square metres and at present the part developed as a garden is 300 square metres. Eventually it will be larger, but Katerina wants to leave the olive grove in its natural state.
From there we drove down towards Stoupa and up into the mountains again to visit the garden of Lilian and John Munby. This is a romantic garden, with little flagstone paths meandering through the plot. The garden is just under 1800 square metres. About a quarter of it is left wild to encourage the natural flora and fauna – there are flowering thorn bushes, masses of white cistuses and sometimes bee orchids, as well as both species of tortoises, several species of snakes, and plenty of trees for birds to nest in and feed on the insect life. Lilian particularly likes looking at the bare rock, especially when the wild scabiouses, appearing bleached by the sun, populate every nook and cranny, contrasting with the yellow broom and the little patches of purple from the flowering thyme. In autumn they have sea squills and white and mauve crocuses – wild – on the same expanse of rock.
Lilian and John bought the house in 1991 and the first thing Lilian did was to plant lemon trees. They were living in Athens and she saved up the kitchen waste to bury in such holes as could be made around the roots when they came on weekend visits. It was a long process. She asked for raised beds, other stone walls and paths as birthday presents. It was dismaying when their neighbour, without asking, obliterated part of their hillside, which was especially prolific with spring wild flowers, by tipping the rubble from excavating his garage! Her first reaction was to call a lawyer, but then she thought better of it after letting it settle for a year or two, she levelled off the top, built walls and steps, brought in some soil and planted a couple of palms – and they had parking for an extra car. She was only really able to concentrate on the planting and care of the garden after they retired in 1997, though they are never there for more than half the year. Despite that, the garden looks great. Everywhere there are circles made from stones to retain what soil there is for the plants and trees – erosion is a big problem. There are lots of pots, which Lilian uses to supplement her garden design, and there is an enormous variety of trees, shrubs and plants, too many to mention. On the lower terrace there is a seating area, covered with bougainvilleas and grapevines, next to the outside oven and barbecue - a little paradise.
After lunch at a seaside tavern overlooking Stoupa bay, we moved on to the third garden, the ‘secret garden' of Mary and John Hayes in the village of Neohori. They wanted a low-maintenance, water-wise garden with some focal points (some hard, some soft, some existing, some to be created). Above all, they wanted their garden to be different and to have a character of its own. They have definitely succeeded in that! Their property was formerly the site of a village flour mill which had fallen into disuse and disrepair. They restored an impressive buttressed, free-standing stone arch, measuring five and a half metres wide, three metres deep and three and a half metres high, and the moment you walk through the arch, a beautiful little garden (55 square metres) opens up to you. Surrounded by stone walls, it gives a feeling of intimacy, a hidden world with many different shades of green. The leaves of mature trees (two almonds, two citruses and a fig) hang over the walls, giving shade and structure to the garden. Four large earthenware pots with cannas, standing on the reconstructed drystone wall forming the south-western boundary of the garden, create another focal point. In the middle of the garden is a platform of solid sandstone in which an oval depression five metres long and three and a half metres wide has been excavated by donkeys and mules turning the millstones. The depression was filled with soil and planted with succulents, Acanthus mollis (in bloom), and a cypress to give height. Although the garden is mostly green, in every season there are a few plants in bloom.
A door in the south-west wall leads to the rest of the plot (about 380 square metres). Here there are mature citrus and carob trees and a small nursery. When Mary and John bought the house in 1997 there was no garden, so they purchased the adjacent piece of land in 1999, also safeguarding their view of the Gulf of Messinia and the peninsula beyond. With the house restoration still in progress, and only living there for six months a year, they started work on the garden in 2004. Now it's the perfect place to relax, sitting under the arch on a summer evening with a glass of wine.
Our last visit was to Barbara Byrne's garden at Stoupa. She owns an olive grove, with large mature trees. The plot is on a slope but the area where the house is standing has been levelled. At the front, the balcony is covered in climbers. The front garden is left in a natural state and the olive grove starts from there. At the back is a big terrace bordered by a long narrow flowerbed planted with lavender. About four metres from the terrace, the land slopes up again. Barbara made a long stone wall, about a metre high, to retain the soil and keep the plants confined. She filled the empty spaces with soil and put garden plants in between wild ones, thus creating an attractive green wall. At one end of the garden she has an area with pots and a variety of plants.
Our day gave us a fascinating insight into the planning and creation of four very different gardens, each with its own inherent possibilities and problems, and all providing delightful spaces for their owners to enjoy as well as environments that encourage the local flora and wildlife.
Text and photos by Ada Kopitopoulou
After a short drive in the direction of Piges/Alagonia, we set out once again on foot exploring the verges and rocky banks, many with the most picturesque waterfalls. We were well rewarded. Fraxinus ornus was in full flower in several places along the roadside, with its unusual tassel-like flowers having quite an impact. The flowers smelt of freshly cut grass and we were told by those with a copy of Marjorie Blamey's Mediterranean Wild Flowers that an extract of the bark makes a useful laxative!
On a much smaller scale, and the cause of much excitement, we saw many fine examples of Cistus salviifolius, a prostrate plant with many, many white flowers with a gold centre. Apparently, tea from the flowers is used against dysentery. We were hoping this would turn out to be the endemic cistus mentioned by Kit Tan in her book Endemic Plants of Greece – The Peloponnese, but concluded that our beautiful specimens were not tall or straggly enough to be the endemic plant.
Along these and other stretches of roadside that we explored, we saw over forty different varieties of wild flowers, some being localized hybrids and difficult to identify positively. Others were easier to identify, but some proved much more challenging. After extensive research by some of the party our finds included:
By 1.30pm our energy levels were dipping, so we made our way to a small mountainside taverna. Here we were treated to a sumptuous meal of traditional Greek fare, washed down with robust village wine. After lunch we continued our adventure with a mystery tour down roads not covered on the reconnaissance trip. Although we didn't find many new plants, we saw more spectacular scenery, including a deep valley with beautiful Platanus trees, and enjoyed watching Jeswyn trying to remove the cover from a road sign to find out where we were!
All in all, we had a fabulous day. The sun shone from beginning to end, we enjoyed excellent company from five different nations and saw many beautiful plants in the most amazing locations – a trip certain to be repeated in future years.
Although the Pedio tou Areos in downtown Athens is one of the city's biggest parks (at 250,000 square metres), surprisingly few of us, Greek or foreign, had ever visited it. But for months the papers had been full of praise about its restoration after years of neglect, so we were curious.
The design and supervision were carried out by the architectural offices of A.N. Tombazis and H. Bougadelis in joint venture. We were lucky to have as guides Sophia Paraskevopoulou, who was the project architect, and Andreas Barboutsis, horticulturist and landscape consultant to the project team.
Before we set out, Sophia briefed us on the background of the park: its founding before WWII, the jurisdictional confusion that led to its decline, and the competition in 2005 for its restoration. She told us of the security problems – the neighbourhood has become one of Athens' most dangerous – and alas, the lack of clear-cut jurisdiction that has cropped up again since the project was awarded. Does the park belong to the municipality or to the prefecture (which was swallowed up last year by a larger entity, the Periferia, or Regional Authority)?
Armed with colourful maps highlighting the park's focal points and routes, we followed Sophia down alleys bordered by young plane trees, busts of Revolutionary heroes and stately palms. Our tour was both inspiring and disheartening. So much effort, expense and imagination have gone into the rehabilitation of this wonderful area, but where are the personnel to look after the new plants – the 1,200 trees, 7,500 bushes, 2,500 roses and 50,000 annuals and perennials added in the past two and a half years? Where are the staff to keep the new fountains and watercourses functioning on weekends?
On the positive side, granite tiles and tamped earth have replaced kilometres of asphalt, giving the park a more natural atmosphere but also enhancing it ecologically. This change, combined with the new planting and water elements, is expected to lower the ambient temperature by 1–2 degrees Celsius. And the less visible infrastructure – irrigation and watering networks as well as lighting – is having a beneficial effect.
Moreover, as Andreas Barboutsis told us, the park is hosting a novel experiment to combat the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) that is killing our city's trees. The beetle arrived along with some palms illegally imported from Egypt before the 2004 Olympics and its attacks have been particularly pernicious because it has no natural enemies here. The painful sight of frondless palms is common from Voula to Kifissia and beyond. Some 300 palms exist in the Pedio tou Areos and technicians are using a GPS system to pinpoint which trees the beetles will attack so they can administer antidotes (parasites that feed on R. ferrugineus) before the heart is destroyed. If successful, the system can be applied throughout Athens.
It was obvious, as we walked, that the park is loved by residents. Families were strolling or picnicking, a gang of elders were connecting round a tavli (backgammon) board, New Agers were meditating in the shade, kids were cycling … city sounds did not penetrate, and thick stands of trees gave the impression of dense forest. The restoration project has met some goals – to keep the original, informal character of the park and to give it back to the people.
It remains to be seen whether the Pedio tou Areos will find an agency to look after it: to prune and weed, to care for the roses, to enable the creation of a botanical garden of plants of Attica for educational purposes, to permit the introduction of a composting facility, to keep water running through the 'river' and the fountains. As Andreas Barboutsis said, 'hope dies last'. Perhaps the administrative problems will be resolved, but as one old Athenian told me, 'Don't count on it. The Pedio tou Areos has had them since its creation in 1934.'
Some MGS members expressed a desire to help. If any Athens residents would like to organize an 'adopt a piece of the park' group, do let us know.
F's garden covers 7000 square metres of flat land at the edge of the Mesogeia plain south-west of Sparoza. It is a young garden, begun ten years ago when the couple bought the plot. Only a glance at the area outside the property – where scattered olive trees grow on the grassy but otherwise bare hillside – shows how much effort and imagination our hostess put into the project.
Members gathered about midway between house and garden in a paved area near the pond, a catchment F had dug for rainwater. Before we set off for a tour, F told us that she'd wanted a 'wild' garden and that she'd planted in two phases.
Phase 1 began in 2001, south of the pond area, well away from the workmen building the house. She left the pistachios and almonds that were already present and, in honour of the oaks that had been there in the past, christened the property Velanidia (oak tree in Greek). Hoping that it will live up to its name, she planted the following species: Quercus coccifera, Q. ilex, Q. macrolepis (now usually classified as Q. ithaburensis ssp. macrolepis), Q. frainetto, Q. pubescens, Q. robur (UK, a seedling from her mother's garden), Q. alnifolia (bought during the Cyprus AGM on a trip to the Troodos Mountains) and a very baby Californian Q. agrifolia (from an acorn brought to her by Bracey Tiede). As F says, 'There are about 20 surviving in all and I'm still planting acorns.'
We'll have to go back in ten years and see the grove.
Amongst the oaks she put hardy shrubs and plants that one might come across on a walk in rural Attica: phlomis, both the common yellow and the rarer pink, which drew cries of admiration, salvias, borage, heather (Erica arborea), euphorbias, cistus, convolvulus, centaurea, artemisia, rue, wild alliums, . . . among others. Lots of wild flowers had seeded themselves, staking a claim once the land stopped being pasture for a local shepherd.
F didn't start planting nearer the house until it was completed in 2006. She then began work in earnest, planting on impulse rather than by design: 'Whatever I came across and thought would do well, I stuck in.' The result is a glorious, often dense cover of flowers, bushes and shrubs of all different sizes and textures, coexisting in exuberant harmony. Over 200 species can be found, including some 20 different types of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), but they have one thing in common. None of them is thirsty or gets watered more than once a week (by a watering system) for 30 to 45 minutes.
F told us she draws most of their water from a borehole 170 m deep. The pond is more decorative than useful, but it does attract birds not seen in the area before it was filled. And the earth removed from the cavity was used to mould the plot a bit and relieve its flatness. F has ordered some oxygenating plants from England for the fish that she hopes will devour any mosquitoes.
We were all filled with admiration for what F has achieved, by herself with only occasional help for the heavier work. She has created a slice of paradise, an example of the best collaboration between a gardener and mother nature. She should be very proud of herself and we felt privileged to share in her joy.
On a bright and windy Saturday morning, the group met at the home and retreat centre of Maria Kumb and Fokke Brink in Foutia near the village of Elleniko. There we explored their steeply sloping garden, which offered a blend of native plants (including wonderful swathes of aubrietas, poppies and white irises) and others, such as Dutch tulips and a hazelnut tree. The result was a harmonious mixture that harked back to their own roots in the Netherlands and Germany. Before leaving, we were treated to coffee and a selection of herbal teas, and traditional pies made with local varieties of horta.
We then moved higher up into the Kounos mountain area to begin a one-hour walk that led up to the double church of Agios Konstantinos with Agia Eleni, and Agios Kosmas, built on the site of an ancient fortress. We were accompanied by a local couple, Panagiotis and Maria. Maria is an expert in her knowledge of edible wild greens (horta). Along the way, she stopped to show us the many different varieties and to explain their medicinal qualities as well as how best to cook them. We were also able to see some of the plants that are flowering all over Greece at this time of year. Among others, we saw lots of the endemic tulip (Tulipa goulimyi), lupins, a spectacular brassica that no-one was able to identify, as well as the aromatic riki or tree heath (Erica arborea), from which the bees produce a very tasty honey. Along the way, Maria told us to be sure to stop at a huge rock on the left. When we approached, we discovered an enormous natural arch through which was framed a beautiful view of the alpine meadow below. It was spectacular.
When we arrived at the thirteenth-century church, Panagiotis explained some of its history, including the fact that it is unique in being dedicated to two saints, Konstantinos and Kosmas. He also sang a very beautiful Byzantine hymn. On our way back down, we called in at the old school house of Kriovrisi to see Maria demonstrate traditional weaving techniques on a loom with 4500 threads that had belonged to her mother. After a wonderful lunch in the village of Elleniko, we took a short walk through a very old forest to see the mountain spring which used to be the village's main water supply. Here we saw very different vegetation, including ferns and several varieties of ivy.
The following day, the plan was to climb up to the ruins of the upper town of Monemvasia to see the wild flowers to be found there, as well as the stunning church of Agia Sofia. Unfortunately, rain prohibited us from doing so as the climb would be too dangerous. At this point, some of us left for our trip home, while others stayed on a little longer to view a traditional home in the inhabited lower town, and to warm up with coffee.
In spite of unpleasant weather on our last day, it was a very rewarding excursion, thanks to the efforts of Maria and Fokke, and Panagiotis and Maria.
He came up with two designs. The first, OS1, requires a one-off investment, which will go unnoticed in new buildings, where the roof treatment all but replaces air conditioning and the cost and work can be absorbed in the overall construction. An example of this design is the flowered wild Greek field on the roof of the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma Square. It has already saved the Ministry thousands every year in air conditioning and heating bills. As a side benefit, the roof not only repels pigeons, but has attracted butterflies and birds back to the city centre.
Perhaps of more personal and immediate interest for the audience was the second design, the OS8 modular system launched in October 2010. Consisting of individual 'tiles' resembling grey felt cushions, this method is both economical and easy to install. About 10 cm thick, four of the tiles cover a square metre. They are made of a weatherproof geotextile which is filled with a rich mix of 108 minerals from Greek rocks. You slit them open, stick in a plant – a hardy herb or low shrub, raised at Oikosteges' special nursery – and that plant will never need fertiliser. From the outset, the system barely needs watering, and even less so after the plants are established, since the substrate they grow in has the capacity to generate dew. As they mature, the plants renew themselves as in nature and the benefits only increase. The tiles rest on light draining boards designed to cope with the 'boras' – short, sharp rain events of the Mediterranean – and they fit together like puzzle pieces. Even a few of these tiles on a balcony will create some energy efficiency in your apartment.
But eighty square metres of either roofing plan can suck up 20 tonnes of CO2 in ten years. Just imagine if more Athens roofs were green. Covering just 10 percent of them would bring about a reduction of up to 10 degrees in the ambient temperature in summer! There would be far less flooding during storms, far less electromagnetic radiation penetrating the buildings, better sound-proofing as well as better insulation, and less danger of fires, because they actually make the roof surface drier. And for curmudgeons who fear leakage, OS1 comes with 15-year guaranteed waterproofing, which can also be applied to OS8 if it is for a rooftop. On balconies, OS8 will reduce dust and absorb rain water and actually reduce the amount of run-off through the drains below.
The plants need no pruning and the system requires only minimal maintenance and will last indefinitely. If the minerals start to lose effect after 30 years, you simply top up the substrate in the tiles or roof surface. Even when saturated with water, each tile can weigh as little as 5 kg, or 20 kg per square metre. And if you move house, you can take the tiles with you. They have been tested from sunny Crete to freezing Nevrokopi and shown to withstand all weathers.
Don't green roofs sound like a good way to help save the planet, or at least make our homes and cities more comfortable and pleasant? For more information, go to oikosteges.gr (in Greek) or vveco.eu (in English) or contact Vanya Veras.
It couldn't have been a more gorgeous day as we set off by coach from Athens for the northern Peloponnese. We noted some thoughtful planting along the highways – hardy colourful Mediterranean plants, including pyracanthas. Our first destination was the Hellenistic site of Sikyon with its theatre, and its gem of a museum housed in a beautifully restored Roman bath complex. The theatre is one of the largest in Greece. The upper tier, with its vaulted passageway at each side, has not yet been excavated and is covered with a mantle of green, but tree growth is discouraged to prevent root damage to the underlying structure. Rocket grew at the entrance to the theatre, but no one reported any remarkable flora elsewhere.
On a warm Thursday morning, more like September than November, we spent some two hours tiptoeing through Roungeris's cabbage patches in the hot sun. Roungeris, who hails from Tinos, said that switching from conventional to organic farming had not been too difficult for him, because he had never used truly invasive fertilizers and chemicals. He has been growing vegetables for farmers' markets in the Athens area since 1984, and growing them organically since 2004, without the incentive of subsidies. He rents 50 stremmata – on three different plots – in Marathon, and also uses his family's 20 stremmata in Tinos, where his father grows potatoes and artichokes.
Roungeris waters his plants 'when they need it'. Each plant has different needs, but he says, 'a plant should have to struggle a bit, even in terms of water, in order to be both resistant to disease and tastier.'
Eleven o'clock on a sunny morning found us setting off by boat from Methoni to the island of Sapienza. This is one of the four islands lying off the southern-most tip of the western Messenian peninsula. The island is designated as a nationally preserved site due to its unique fauna and flora, and no chance visitors are allowed to land there. The Kalamata office of the Forestry Commission had granted the MGS permission to visit the island and we were to be accompanied by a Forestry Commission guide.
Our boat kept close to the sheltered eastern side of the island, and after 45 minutes we landed at Porto Logo, the southernmost cove. Rather surprisingly this cove contains a fish farm, obviously not considered as impinging on the preserved status of Sapienza. A welcoming committee was waiting for us, consisting of one male kri-kri (wild goat) with the most wonderful horns, several pheasants and a flock of rock partridges (chukers). Their timely appearance was not haphazard, as our guide had come equipped with feed.
The first destination was the late nineteenth-century lighthouse, built by the British on the southernmost tip to facilitate navigation in the eastern Mediterranean. A 30-minute hike over very rough ground brought us to the lighthouse, now unoccupied and lit by photovoltaic cells. The building was open, allowing us to explore the eerily deserted living quarters. A few brave souls climbed the 75 steps to the first platform, now only partly protected by a stone parapet. The lighthouse gave a good view of Schiza, the neighbouring island, which in comparison was very barren with a few patches of shrubs.
On the way to the lighthouse we encountered the first examples of Arbutus andrachne (eastern strawberry tree) and Pistacia terebinthus (turpentine tree). Together these provide almost all the extensive tree cover on Sapienza; this might be termed a virtual duo-culture. Other low shrubs included Pistacia lentiscus, Quercus coccifera and Q. ilex, and Calycotome villosa. There was nothing else growing along our path - hardly surprising at the end of a long dry summer. However, sharp eyes spotted, growing in the crevice of a rock, just two colchicums, later identified as most likely Colchicum boissieri or C. autumnale. With the arrival of the first autumn rains there should be a wonderful show of colchicums.
Our next port of call was Maghazakia, a cove lying about 3 km north along the east coast, this time totally deserted. Our guide led us through groves of Arbutus andrachne, now much taller than in the exposed position near the lighthouse. This species differs from A. unedo in various ways – the bark is not smooth but very deeply fissured in long dark brown strips, reputedly used to flavour tsipouro (grape spirit), and the fruit is much smaller. It was too early to find any A. andrachne in bloom as this does not happen until January or February.
As we climbed out of the lake floor back to the coast, led by our captain, the path zig-zagged through a tangled and extensive primeval forest of nearly 15-metre-tall A. andrachne. No felling or clearing of these trees by humans has ever been carried out. An hour later, after much rock scrambling, we were still not in sight of the sea and our moored boat, but morale was quickly restored when the Forestry Commission guide appeared suddenly from the undergrowth. After another half-hour, hot, tired, thirsty and hungry, we were all glad to be reunited with our packed lunches back on board the boat. For the first 30 minutes of the return we were in calm waters as we motored past a dramatic rocky shoreline covered with vegetation. Suddenly, as we came abreast of the northern end of the island, we were hit by strong wind and waves, but our captain knew the local conditions well and by 4.30 pm we were all safely ashore at Methoni.
The next morning we visited the Gialova lagoon and its wetlands. Some of us scrambled up to the extensive remains of the medieval fortress of Paleokastro, which gave wonderful views of the lagoon and Voidokilia Bay. Others walked round the shore of the lagoon and on to the sand dunes around Voidokilia bay. From there the route climbed to the rock tomb of Thresymides, a son of King Nestor, and on up to a very pretty chapel on a headland overlooking the next bay. Flora-wise the Sunday walks offered more. The castle walkers found the violet flowers of Mandragora autumnalis (mandrake) hugging the ground. The lagoon walkers found lots of a sea lavender (possibly Limonium echioides). Other salt-tolerant plants, such as glasswort, were growing in the brackish water along the lagoon side. Bird watchers were disappointed, as any migrating species would have left at dawn, but as we arrived a white egret was spotted. In the extensive sand dunes around Voidokilia Bay Urginea maritima (sea squill), Euphorbia paralias (sea spurge) and the white flowering shrub Salsola kali (prickly saltwort) were everywhere. A few lucky ones did find a few Pancratium maritimum (sea daffodil) still flowering on the shoreline.
By midday everyone felt ready to repair to a taverna at Gialova for a leisurely feast of 'orektika', content at having seen and experienced, in just 36 hours, such contrasting habitats and vegetation so characteristic of southern Greece.
An early start to catch the ferry to the island of Evia was worth the effort. After coffee and cake at the friendly Galaxias Hotel we set off by car for Mount Ochi, led by our guides James Brown and Lilian Lorenz. The off-road vehicles had the best of it as we climbed higher up the slopes, finally leaving the tarmac to head off on foot for our destination, the last remaining ancient chestnut forest on Evia.
The area, called Kastanalongos, lies within easy reach of the Mount Ochi climbing refuge, discreetly built from local stone and blending happily into the hillside. The forest must inspire wonder at any time of the year but in early summer it was magnificent. Enormous ancient trunks, many gnarled and bent by the storms of centuries, provided shelter from the summer sun, not just for us but for the herds of black and brown goats, coats shining with health and horns twisting skywards. Many wore bells and some wore very large bells indeed. A small herd of sheep was browsing quietly until our arrival and must have been very glad when we left after admiring the wonderful views down to the distant coast.
We were a little too early to see the chestnut trees in full bloom, though a few branches offered some early flowers as a sign of what was to come. The vegetation in June consisted mostly of goat-proof mounds of Euphorbia acanthothamnos and E. spinosa, the mounds joining one to another in a brilliant green spread over the hillside. It was with delight we found Viola arborescens pushing through the mounds, studding them with delicate mauve and white flowers.
After a picnic under the trees, Lilian led us to the delightful garden of a member who had prepared home-made lemonade and caper-studded nasturtium flowers to revive us. The garden did not seem to be large but the stone path cleverly wound around beds of flowers and shrubs so that at no point was more than one section visible. We especially admired a Duranta erecta with its delicate blue flowers and yellow berries.
We then moved on to Lilian's two gardens where everything was flowering in glorious profusion. We admired her imaginative way of dealing with difficult slopes by the use of terracing and varied planting. She told us that many of her highly successful mediterranean plants such as Euphorbia characias and E. dendroides, Ruellia britoniana and Echium candicans came from Sparoza's plant and seed exchanges, as well as Verbascum olympicum, Salvia guaranitica and S. farinacea, Billbergia nutans, (Queen's tears), Phlomis fruticosa, Ptilostemon chamaepeuce and Iris germanica. The flourishing plants covered the ground to such an extent that the irrigation system was completely hidden. Lilian's advice to those who have not yet embarked on a garden of their own in this harsh summer climate is that ground cover is everything. Where there are spaces between plants there are pine chippings, and every path has a black weed suppressant underneath its pine chippings or Karystos stone.
With her garden so thoughtfully planned and successfully established, we hope that its owner can now take advantage of the charming sitting area she has created beneath a palm tree on one of the terraces, where a huge urn, a wooden bench flanked by large leaved plants such as Strelitzia, Cotyledon coruscans and spiky cacti, combine to create a calm oasis for reading and contemplation. It is almost impossible to weed a cactus garden. Lilian solved the problem of bindweed by digging a trench around the edge of the bed and sinking local stones set into concrete as an edge. The surface of the bed has a thin layer of concrete, leaving holes with the pots in place for the plants to go into the earth. The concrete was then covered in gravel and now the area is weed free and survives without water.
Greece has many wonderful lesser-known corners. This visit was to a beautiful area overlooking the Gulf of Corinth to see an environmentally friendly home with a lovely garden, thoughtfully created from plants suited to mediterranean conditions. The garden has evolved over thirty years of trial and error, and has regenerated wonderfully since it was devastated by fires that swept through the area ten years ago. We received serious warnings of the inflammable properties of rosemary.
Plants tried and tested for suitability and endurance include the well-known herbs such as lavender, thyme, oregano and rosemary, which featured prominently in the garden. Convolvulus sabatius, Gaura, Tulbaghia violacea and Oenothera (evening primrose), lantana and oleanders provide contrast and colour, sometimes planted in pots and containers rather than in the ground.
A well-planted gravel garden is being developed and it was interesting to see how well foliage and flowers were displayed against the gravel background. Weeds and grasses are not discouraged by a light layer of gravel, but they will be deterred if an impermeable layer is laid first. Much hard work and careful consideration has gone into creating this continuously evolving garden, which blends beautifully into the hillside.
A drive into the mountains led us to a plateau where we walked through drying grasses, threaded with echiums and thistles, to the 11th century church of Aghios Nikolaos. The views were stunning.
On our last day we set out for the emerald green Lake Tsivlou, a tiny lake on the side of Mount Tsivlo, formed in 1912 after a landslide stopped part of the flow of the river Krathis. Pushing through the sweet-scented Spartium junceum (Spanish broom) that frames the lake was not easy until we stumbled on the main track, prettily fringed by Clematis flammula, Cornus sanguinea (dogwood), Nigella (love-in-a-mist), cistus, ferns, and unusually dark pink pyramid orchids, Anacamptis pyramidalis.
We all took home happy memories of this beautiful area and are extremely grateful to our hosts for their generous invitation to visit them and their mediterranean garden.
Members of the Peloponnese group met on a sunny May morning in Areopolis to drive to the very end of the road in deepest Mani, 40km further south. This was the start of a 2km walk to the tip of Cape Matapan (also known as Tenaro) and the working but unmanned lighthouse at the southernmost point of mainland Greece.
We parked alongside Agioi Asomatoi, a ruined chapel constructed from the remains of a temple to Poseidon and the Death Oracle. Just below, in Porto Kisternes, is a cave reputed to be where Cerberus was brought up from Hades by Heracles. Our path led us down to the cove of Porto Kisternes, so called from the numerous cisterns carved out of the rock.
This area was first mentioned in the 7th century BC as 'the sea-girt town of Helios'. Remains of ancient dwellings are everywhere, and on the hillside are the enclosing walls of what must have been a considerable town. Tenaro's central position on the sea routes of the eastern Mediterranean gave it importance as a trading centre, with flourishing brothels!
This area, apart from some very stunted olive trees, is treeless, with a thin covering of soil on a limestone karst. From a botanical point of view this is wonderful because, apart from light grazing in the winter, there is no agricultural activity to disturb the flora. Our first impression was that only thistles were growing on Tenaro – but such magnificent ones! The multi-headed Scotch thistle, Onopordum myriacanthum, is an impressive plant with sharp spines on every leaf and stem. A more attractive member of the thistle family was the Spanish oyster plant Scolymus hispanicus with feathery bright yellow flowers. On the stone walls were the long fronds of pepperwort, Lepidium spinosum.
After pausing to inspect the excavated mosaics in the remains of an imposing Greek villa, we climbed a grassy slope to the ridge that leads to the Cape. Low-growing white and pale pink convolvulus hugged the ground. (In November, this area is covered with the autumn narcissus N. serotinus.) We had hoped to catch the brilliant tiny blue cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus, that grow in the rock crevices, and there were indeed some remaining. They grow together with the subtler blue of slender larkspur, Consolida tenuissima, which we found in abundance.
The major finds of the walk were two endemics. The first was not unlike a compact hyacinth. It was almost certainly an endemic allium, Allium gomphrenoides, described in Kit Tan's book* as having pink to dark magenta flowers compacted into very dense umbels. The second – pale green spikes with a mass of white flowers like an asphodel – was the star of the trip: Ornithogalum prasinantherum, everywhere bending in the wind. The last few metres down to the lighthouse were spectacular, with the sea 50 metres below, and nestling in the rocks were brilliant violet clumps of hoary stock, Matthiola incana. After a brief rest at the lighthouse, the freshening south-easterly wind drove us back to our cars and thence to the taverna nestling above Marmari bay for a merited lunch of assorted mezedhes.
* Kit Tan, Gregoris Iatrou and Bent Johnsen. Endemic plants of Greece: The Peloponnese. Copenhagen: Gads Forlag 2001.
Photos by Linda Reynolds.
The group met one Saturday morning in Sparta. At the public library, member Ada Kopitopoulou gave an inspiring illustrated talk on garden design. She led us through the various phases in planning and creating a new garden, and even for those of us who have already made some irrevocable decisions, Ada's talk gave useful points to consider as the garden matures.
After a taverna lunch, we moved on to the Museum of the Olive and Olive Oil, also in Sparta. The Museum, funded by the Bank of Piraeus, is exceptionally well designed and very informative. It covers the history of the olive, its uses, and its cultivation and processing. As well as artefacts associated with the domestic use of olives and olive oil, there is an impressive display (indoor and outdoor) of olive presses dating back to the Byzantine era and beyond. At the end of a fascinating afternoon we moved on to our accommodation in the present-day village of Mystras.
On Sunday morning the group set off from the square in Mystras on a circular walk. The route wound up through the beautiful countryside behind the Byzantine citadel of Mystras, entering the city at the Fortress Gate. After a picnic lunch within the walls of the fortress we walked down through the site and thence back to the village. A surprising variety of wildflowers were still in bloom, looking their best in the warm spring sunshine. On the way up to the fortress there were colourful displays of Spartium junceum (Spanish broom) and Vicia cracca (tufted vetch), and occasional examples of Anenome pavonina, Tuberaria guttata (spotted rock rose), Campanula sp. and Ophrys sp. Throughout the site there were swathes of yellow, pink and blue provided by dramatic stands of Ferula communis, clumps of Centranthus ruber (valerian), and cascades of Campanula sp. and Stachys candida clinging to the medieval stonework. The weekend concluded with a short late-afternoon walk up to a rock-cut church just outside the nearby village of Parori, followed by an excellent meze meal in the village.
Photos 1, 2, 4 and 5 by Linda Reynolds,
This year spring came early, so not only did we have a beautiful day for our visit, but there were flowers in profusion. There were wide sweeps of both pink and white Cistus creticus. Large displays of yellow Phlomis cretica contrasted with the rich green of Rhamnus lycioides and Pistacia lentiscus (with berries) and conehead thyme (also called Spanish oregano). Some Anemone coronaria were in still in evidence, and Asphodelus aestivus, a few mandrake and several orchids (Ophrys phryganae, Orchislactea – milky orchid, Serapias lingua – tongue orchid, Serapias bergonii, Orchis papilionacea – pink butterfly orchid), were spotted peeping through or among other plants.
Dr Melpo Skoula, the botanist in charge, explained that the Park was founded in 1994 with financial support from the Pancretan Endowment Fund and other donors. It opened to the public in 2004, covers an area of 30 hectares, and is staffed by just two botanists and two gardeners. The Park is attached to the Technical University of Crete and its aims include research, conservation of the native plants of Crete, and raising public awareness about the importance of biodiversity. The Cretan flora includes 1820 species and subspecies, ten per cent of which are considered threatened and in need of protection; 180 species and subspecies are endemic to the island. There are 300 different wild species in the Park at present.
On a lovely November morning the Greek Branch visited the War Graves Cemetery at Faliron. We were given an interesting and informative tour by the people who take care of the cemetery. It is immaculately kept and the simplicity and harmony of the planting create a beautiful setting for the graves. The planting has changed in recent years from roses and honeysuckle to less demanding mediterranean plants that can cope with our climate and still look happy all the year round. We enjoyed seeing the nursery, bursting at the seams with plants in all stages of growth, and admired the machinery and well-kept tool shed, housed in an old building with some of its original tiled flooring still in situ.
Just before leaving our attention was drawn to a brownish-red weevil on the side of the road. This is Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, commonly known as the red palm weevil, whose larvae are responsible for the death of many palm trees. We were told that near the top of an infested palm it is possible to hear the larvae at work, crunching their way through the tender part of the tree. At pupation each larva builds a cocoon of palm fibres in leaf litter at the base of the tree. The newly hatched adults continue to feed on the tree but do less damage than the larvae. Major symptoms such as crown loss or leaf wilt are usually only visible long after the palm has become infected, and by this time the damage is usually sufficient to kill the tree.
Photos by Vina Michaelidis.
Hopes of seeing clumps of Sternbergia sicula and Colchicum whilst admiring the stupendous views from the top of Mount Ithome were soon dashed by the inclement weather. However, a break in the rain allowed a close examination of the impressive Arcadian Gate, which was part of a defensive wall that stretched 9 km around the ancient town of Messini. A walk to another section of the wall provided opportunities to climb and examine the structure in more detail. Here we found blackberries and small crunchy wild apples, and even a few field mushrooms. Verbascum sinuatum was still in flower, distinguishable by its bright yellow flowers with red filament hairs. Colourful clumps of Cyclamen graecum and C. hederifolium drew our attention, and new shoots of lupins were also in evidence.
The rain had started again so we returned to Mavromati for lunch at a taverna overlooking the ancient site. Soon we were tucking into excellent roast pork and goat, accompanied by beer and wine. Alas, it was still raining when we had finished, but some hardy souls with umbrellas braved the weather to explore this fascinating and partially reconstructed site with its wonderful stadium and theatre.
Despite the rain new friendships were forged and old friendships reinforced which bodes well for the future health of our group. Our grateful thanks to Jeswyn and Martin Jones for organising such an enjoyable day.
Photos by Linda Reynolds.
Photos by John Spantidakis and Barbara Diamantides.
Photos by Christian Lafauchez, Barbara Diamantides and Vina Michaelides.
In Porto Heli we saw some wonderful gardens and breathtaking vistas of wild flowers in the surrounding countryside. We were too late to see tulips but found Gladiolus byzantinus and fields of Muscari comosum (tassel hyacinth). After visiting the ancient Acropolis of Halieis, we visited the old monastery of Ag. Dimitrios at Pelei, another atmospheric spot with Iris cretensis scattered everywhere. Campanula andrewsii was clinging to the rocks in glorious profusion and Alyssum saxatile grew from cracks in the rocks, a wonderful rock garden. Views down the valley and birds nesting in the cliffs nearby stay in the mind's eye. We left with the warmest impression of the wonderful hospitality of friends and members in the area.
Hydra in May
The Greek Branch had an early start for its day in Hydra, an island in the Saronic Gulf. Our tireless hostess, who had arranged our itinerary down to the finest detail, was much more practiced at negotiating the stepped streets than we were, but following her as our Pied Piper we saw courtyard gardens lovingly created to make the most of space available and incorporating wonderful views through windows and archways.
As we walked the cobbled streets it became obvious that literally anything that takes root, whether friend or foe, and no matter where it grows, is eagerly welcomed and looked after: succulents on a roof, capers on a wall, 'weeds' in corners - even a mirror propped behind to increase their impact - or was it a happy accident? Gardens, walls and doorways are beautified with interesting pieces of sculpture, ironwork, and... flotsam, as can be expected of Hydra's colony of artists.
Our group grew as friends joined in and opened yet more gardens for our delight. We learned a lot about Hydra's history and its famous families from the beautifully presented collection in the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra and the Monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin, which houses the island's Town Hall and, in the monastery museum, a stunning display of ecclesiastical artifacts and vestments.
Members of the Greek branch manned the stall for four days from 28th April to 1st May. The weather was disappointing, May Day was not being its usual sunny self, but nevertheless the Flower Show seemed to be the venue of choice for most Athenians. It was literally standing room only and crowds came to buy plants, watch the dancing, listen to the singers and, sadly, get soaked in the heavy afternoon rain. We received lots of enquiries at the Society's stand and it was fun to see people recognising the pomegranate, Punica granatum at our entrance and eyeing the distinctly non-mediterranean Bilbergia nutans. A fragrant basket of herbs caused a lot of interest (and wild guesses as to its contents) as did Sally's beautiful wild flower arrangement. This year we shared our table with the Goulandris Natural History Museum and their lovely posters and drawings were much admired. Our helpers did a wonderful job and deserve medals for sticking to their post in such inclement conditions.
The people of Athens are genuinely fond of plants, as a glance at any balcony verifies, and this year's Flower Show offered a lot more than potted plants. Nick Thymakis, the Show's Horticultural Consultant and MGS member, put together a programme of talks on different botanical subjects every day for the two weeks' of the show and it was heartening to see many people gathered for each presentation. The Show will close on 14th May, Mother's Day, with a Blood Donor's session at 10 a.m. - the Flower Show has indeed matured and the organisers are to be congratulated on the scope of this year's programme.
Some flowers were already displaying their colours in February when the Greek Branch visited the ancient silver mines and Mycenean tomb at Thorikos, with Marianne to tell us about this historic site. Muscari, Ornithogalum, Anemone pavonina, brilliant red A. coronaria, deep blue Anchusa arvensis, Arisarum vulgare and Aubrieta deltoidea were just making an appearance after the cold weather of January and early February. A hawk overhead noted his disapproval of our intrusion and tiny flickerings in the grass showed that lizards and grasshoppers appreciated the beautiful day as much as we did.
Photographs by Davina Michaelidou