Mediterranean Garden Society

Tulipomania – a personal discovery of Greek tulips

by Lucinda Willan
photographs by Lucinda Willan

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 110, October 2022

The photo at the top of this page shows Tulipa doerfleri in the alpine meadows above Spili, Crete (Photo Lucinda Willan)

Lucinda Willan, Head Gardener at Sparoza, writes:
Tulips have an allure and a fascination that set them apart from many other genera. There aren’t many plants that can claim both to have been worshipped as a holy flower and to have started a socio-economic phenomenon. But it is not a tulip like the cultivars we see in gardens today, it has a delicacy and elegance that speaks of its wild ancestors.

There are a surprising number of wild tulips in Greece. The Vascular Flora of Greece cites fifteen native tulip species.

Tulipa raddii at Sparoza

We have three different tulip species in the garden at Sparoza – Tulipa raddii (formerly T. praecox), T. saxatilis and a dwindling group of T. australis. These tulips have all been introduced rather than occurring naturally. They put on a fleeting but spectacular show in the early spring and gave a lot of pleasure and comfort during my first spring at Sparoza during the lockdown. Tulipa raddii is particularly striking due to the size of its flowers and its stature. At 45-55cm tall it has the look of a cultivar rather than a species tulip.

Tulipa australis

From April 2021, the Greek government allowed us to move around Attica at the weekend, and so Noeie (Sally Razelou’s dog) and I took the opportunity to go straight up Mt. Hymettos looking for Tulipa australis, of which Fleur Pavlidis had told me there were decent numbers near Stavros. In fact it was particularly special as it was one of my first spring walks outside the confines of the Sparoza hill. Sure enough, as I climbed to about 500 metres I started to see tulip foliage among the limestone scree and boulders and then a single, tiny bright yellow six-pointed star. I followed the fine flames of glaucous foliage around the hill and eventually I came across a glade where the tulips were taller and flowering under the shade of a stand of pines. This was the first time I had seen tulips growing in the wild and I was immediately hooked.

This initial encounter got me plotting how I could see more tulips in the wild. Within the confines of the mountains near Athens I discovered that four different species of tulips can be seen, Tulipa hageri and T. orphanidea on Parnitha, T. undulatifolia in the fields near Kitharonas and the T. australis that I saw on Hymettos. In this way I could not have been more thrilled when the Greek botanist Lefteris Dariotis asked me to join him on a few trips to collect samples for the programme. However, 2020/2021 turned out to be a bad year for tulips in Attica due to very little rainfall in the autumn. The first trip we made to Kalyvia in April 2021 bore witness to this. A hillside usually covered with Tulipa australis wasn’t even showing foliage.

The next trip we made was to the Peloponnese in July in order to collect tulip seed and we had a similarly frustrating time. We couldn’t find a trace of a tulip on the alpine meadows of Chelmos that contain large numbers of Tulipa australis and were seemingly taunted by a herd of very beautiful, very well-fed cattle walking over the site. We were similarly thwarted in Lakonia when hunting for over an hour in the searing heat for Tulipa goulimyi seed.

Tulipa undulatifolia

This mixed success didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and it was a return to the same fields in the Argolid at the beginning of April this year that accidentally turned this spring into a rush to see as many Greek tulips as possible. I was en route to do some gardening on Hydra with László Máté Tálas, the wonderful Hungarian gardener who came to help at Sparoza in the spring of this year. We had had plentiful autumn rain and the recent cold snap had delayed flowering, which meant we had a good chance of seeing excellent displays of tulips. I was completely unprepared for the scale and astonishing beauty of what we encountered. Tens of thousands of eye-poppingly red tulips, Tulipa undulatifolia, filled the olive groves and ploughed fields as far as the eye could see, accompanied by the exquisite bells of the hybrid fritillary Fritillaria spetsiotica × F. rhodocanakis. When viewed in isolation from above the tulips looked like red stars with deep black eyes surrounded by the octopus tentacles of their wavy leaves, which give them their specific epithet. They were at the peak of their perfection and the saturated red of the flowers actually made my eyes hurt, reminding me of the Sylvia Plath poem Tulips.

Tulipa australis growing above Keratea, Attica

The following weekend I drove Máté to Kalyvia to look at the colonies of Linum leucanthum and hopefully to see some of the Tulipa australis which had eluded us the year before. We were in luck. As soon as we came across the first mounds of Linum leucanthum we got out and spread out as we walked up the mountain through the phrygana scanning the ground for bulbs. It was less than ten minutes before I spotted a flash of yellow. Tulips! We were soon spotting tulips all over the hillside in clumps and rivers – some pure yellow and others with a beautiful orange flame to their outer tepals. I love the contrast of the grey-green glaucous leaf, the bruised stem and the bright yellow flower, its anthers and filaments matching the sunshine-coloured tepals. It never fails to surprise me how these tiny, delicate flowers thrive in such tough conditions.

Tulipa bithynica on Lesvos

Friends had invited Máté and me for Easter in Crete, which fell this year towards the end of April, and this then led to plotting – how many endemic tulips we could see over the long weekend of Easter celebrations? Before we were to travel to Crete I took two days’ holiday in order to join Lefteris again for the programme to look for Tulipa bithynica on Lesvos. We went on up the hillside to about 700m where suddenly we could see tulip foliage everywhere – across the fields and orchards, even along the roadside and a spattering of nearly-open pinky-red flowers. As with the Tulipa undulatifolia in the Argolid, the density and number of tulips was extraordinary but then it stopped abruptly, making one very conscious of how vulnerable these colonies of plants are. There are huge numbers in these small isolated places but what happens when these places are under threat? Very quickly a whole colony could disappear.

Tulipa bakeri in Crete

This idea of the vulnerability of these tulips was at the forefront of my mind as we flew into Chania two days later, watching the White Mountains spread out in front of us as the sun rose. We were hoping to see two endemic tulips on this trip with very localised habitats, Tulipa bakeri (which is a popular species bulb in the trade under the cultivar name ‘Lilac Wonder’) and Tulipa doerfleri. There was a very slight possibility that we might see T. saxatilis as it was a late year but not T. cretica as it is earlier to flower.

Tulipa bakeri on the Omalos plateau, Crete

The Omalos plateau is 1000 metres up in the White Mountains. The drive up was spell-binding and the roadsides decorated with Acer sempervirens, fantastical goat-pruned topiary, mounds of Daphne sericea and spatterings of Cyclamen creticum. It didn’t take long to arrive at the wide flat plain of Omalos and it was less than five minutes before the spectacle of the fields of Tulipa bakeri began to unfold before us. There were carpets of purple-pink tulips everywhere. We could see we were probably a week too early for the full effect but it was incredibly beautiful even with more than half the tulips still to flower. We sat among the tulips for a while and then drove on to the Samaria gorge to admire the view and the gnarled thousand-year-old Cupressus sempervirens dotting the hillside, and then back to our friends.

Tulipa doerfleri in the alpine meadows above Spili, Crete

The next day we went in search of Tulipa doerfleri and T. saxatilis in the alpine meadows and hills above the village of Spili. We finally arrived in the meadows just as the light was starting to fade. It was a completely magical sight, the short red Tulipa doerfleri was carpeting the fields with, in some areas, sweet rocket, in other's orchids. The fading light made the tulips glow and all four of us were delighted that we hadn’t turned around. We left in the pitch dark and wended our way home.

The next morning Máté and I drove back to explore the site in the daylight and to see how far the fields extended. It was a fascinating morning and the number of orchids we encountered was phenomenal. Busloads of horticultural tourists started to arrive depositing people on the side of the road and so we walked further, following the fields further back to the edges where they were hemmed in by the hillside and were horrified to find a tractor and plough making its way towards us having just ploughed a whole field of tulips. The broken stems, crushed flowers and drying bulbs lay scattered across the newly turned earth. How is it possible that a plant listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List could be ploughed under in just a few minutes? The tulips in the Argolid had shown that tulips can coexist with agriculture by the bulbs pulling themselves down below the depth of the plough - we measured a bulb depth of more than 45cm in one field – but this ploughing up of the bulbs so that they lay drying out on the surface meant that a lot of endangered tulips were going to be lost. Where tulip sites are protected from spraying chemicals it seems mad that they are being allowed to be ploughed.

Tulipa hageri on Mt Parnitha, Attica

The last trip to look for tulips was on the Saturday after Easter, the last day of April and the day of my birthday. Máté and I went up Parnitha with us to see if we could see any tulips. We were in luck, just catching the last few tulips of the season. The short bright red flowers of Tulipa hageri are very similar in shape and habit to T. doerfleri and were nestled in a grassy plain surrounded by the burnt pines from the fires of last summer. They appeared as small red stars amid grass, daisies and the beautiful purple-eyed Papaver argemone.

Tulipa orphanidea on Mt Parnitha, Attica

The second site had fewer tulips in flower but it did have one very interesting plant. There was no doubt that this was something different from the other Tulipa hageri, its flamed orange colour and elegant proportions looked a lot like Tulipa orphanidea, a tulip endemic to the Peloponnese. This was hugely exciting and made my day. Subsequent reading has shown that Tulipa orphanidea was originally discovered on Mt Parnitha but is considered otherwise endemic to the Peloponnese.

I found myself sitting on my bed on the night of my birthday thinking about all the amazing sights I had seen over the course of the month and feeling enormously grateful. Travelling to see these rare and often endangered plants concentrates the mind as to how fragile their habitats are and hopefully programmes such as can raise awareness about the plight of Greek tulips and educate local people to love them, be proud of them and to admire them where they grow instead of picking them. Seeing plants in the wild is the best way to learn how to grow them and to work out what conditions they thrive in. The tulip trips of April have made me want to expand the number of tulips we grow at Sparoza and I feel that it should be easy to grow at the very least the other tulips from Chios that enjoy the same conditions as Tulipa raddii, which thrives here.

My tulip fever has not abated and I am already plotting a trip to Chios next spring.

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