Mediterranean Garden Society

Theodoros Orphanides: Botanist, Gardener and Poet

by Jan Jordan
photographs by Arne Strid

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 114, October 2023

The photo at the top of this page shows Campanula orphanidea found wild in North East; Mount Athos summit range 1400 to 2200m flowering in July (Photo Arne Strid)

This is an abridged version of the printed article by Jan Jordan. She writes:
Theodoros Orphanides was born in 1817 in Smyrna, into a prosperous urban family. He spent his childhood in Nauplion and on the island of Syros, where he and his family settled, together with other refugees from Greek Communities of Asia Minor, as the struggle for Greek independence gathered momentum and they were forced to leave the Ottoman Empire. The family established itself in Athens in 1835, and Orphanides, at 18 years of age, was appointed to a secretarial position in the Ministry of the Interior.

Theodoros Orphanides portrait from the University of Athens

This was a difficult time for the newly formed nation. The war for independence was over. Britain, France and Russia, as the ‘Protecting Powers’, had installed a young Bavarian prince as king Otto of Greece. When Otto arrived in Greece in 1833 with an extensive entourage of Bavarian administrators they were faced with the daunting task not only of building up infrastructure where none had previously existed, but also of forming a nation out of a disparate group of local loyalties.

They made many mistakes, and Orphanides was quick to point them out. He had been well educated in the classical tradition and he was extremely articulate. He turned to political satire, and in a series of poems (Menippos) he severely criticised the Bavarian administration, including the newly founded university. He was removed from his position and sentenced to three days in prison for “transgression”. In no way deterred, he continued to satirise the administration, the military and also prominent wealthy Greek politicians and businessmen in his magazine The Archer (ΟΤοξότης). At the end of February 1843 he was again arrested and exiled to Nauplion.

Ioannis Kolettis was a prominent Greek politician of the time. He represented French interests and had strong cultural and political ties with France. Recognising Orphanides’ talents, but wishing to distance him from Greece, he sent him to study in Paris on a small government grant. There was no stipulation as to the subject of study but the assumption was that it would be language and literature. Once in Paris, however, he happened to attend a public lecture about botany that completely changed the course of his life. Heldreich had said that Orphanides had always loved flowers from his childhood: from that time forward he channelled his considerable energy and ability into studying them scientifically. He had found his way: he would continue the work begun by Theophrastus and Dioscorides. He would study the flora of Greece. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne and studied herbarium specimens in the Museum of Natural History as well as living plants from all over the world in the botanical garden (the Jardin des Plantes). He himself says “It would be impossible for any of the staff of the Museum to forget me, with my Zagorian shepherd’s cape and my Greek fez, remaining as I did from morning to night […] in the Museum and also in the Garden.” He felt the same enthusiasm for field trips and the examination of plants in their natural setting. 

Heracleum orphanidis found in North Central; Peristeri, woodland margins and meadows
1500 to 2000m flowering late June to early August

Orphanides and Heldreich were not friends: they shared a very small professional and social circle in the Athens of their day, and they had both said things about each other in print that would be hard to forgive, even for a saint. Nevertheless, Heldreich recognised the enormous contribution Orphanides had made to botany in Greece. In his obituary he gives us the basic outlines of Orphanides’ professional career and assesses his contribution internationally as well as in Greece. In spite of their differences, they had a lot in common: both men loved Greece deeply, both shared a passion for botany in all its aspects, both believed that its practical application for humanity was an important part of scientific research, and both clearly enjoyed botanical exploration.

Plant-hunting in Greece in the mid-19th century was not for the faint-hearted: quite apart from the very real threat posed by brigands, and the lack of a comprehensive system of roads through the interior (almost all transport was by sea), the botanists themselves increased the risks: they searched cliffs and ravines in the most inaccessible areas of the mountains, places out of reach of goats, where one’s very life depended on the stability of the rock beneath the foot and the plant grasped by the hand. In the earlier years Heldreich sometimes accompanied Orphanides, and he tells us that although Orphanides was somewhat heavily built, on field trips he was sure-footed, agile, and utterly tireless. Such trips in the summer often lasted for many weeks. Plant presses and paper had to be taken along, and accommodation would be whatever was available in village homes or shepherds’ huts; even in caves, says Orphanides. A local guide was essential. 

Tulipa orphanidea found in Peloponnese; Attica - Parnitha, Parnon, Chelmos, Taygetos, open areas up to 1700m

Immediately upon his return to Greece in 1848 Orphanides began his botanical exploration, initially in Attica and on Syros. His first major expedition was in June and July of 1850 to Mt. Parnon in the eastern Peloponnese, and from then onwards he continued to explore and to gather plants throughout Greece and its surrounding areas within the Ottoman Empire. During the summers of 1851 and 1852 and the spring of 1854 he was in the high mountains of the northern Peloponnese, Kyllene and Chelmos, where he visited the renowned Valley of the Styx with its many rare and beautiful species, and the gorge of the Voraïkos from Mega Spilaion to Kalavryta. The summer of 1854 found him on Parnassos, which he explored from the gulf of Corinth to the summit, and in June and July of 1857 he climbed Olympus, where he was able to collect Jankaea heldreichii in flower (Heldreich had found fruiting plants), and continued on towards Thessaloniki and Mt. Disoros or Korthiat, a mountain he returned to in the summer of 1862 on his way north to Bitola and Mt. Pelister. In August of 1862 he climbed Mt. Athos. He made several trips to the Argolid over a period of twenty years, and spent the month of April 1856 on Chios. He felt he had almost completely recorded the botanical treasures of Attica in repeated excursions.

Viola orphanidis found in North Central; Peristeri, Varnous

Orphanides sent specimens of his discoveries to Edmond Boissier in Geneva, who published them in his two monumental works Diagnoses Plantarum Orientalium Novarum and Flora Orientalis. Boissier honoured Orphanides by using his name as species epithet in many of his discoveries, such as Tulipa orphanidea and Smyrnium orphanidis (now Smyrnium creticum Mill.) from Attica, Silene orphanidis from the summit of Mt. Athos, Viola orphanidis from Mt. Pelister in Macedonia, Euphorbia orphanidis from Parnassos and, perhaps the most spectacular, the lost and re-found Biebersteinia orphanidis from Mt. Kyllene.

Biebersteinia orphanidis local to mountains of north Peloponnese; flowering May

Biebersteinia orphanidis was not the only species ‘lost’ and then re-found. The botanist Arne Strid writes: “Orphanides was an excellent botanical explorer with a remarkable talent for finding rare and interesting plants. No less than 52 currently recognized species and subspecies were co-authored by him (usually together with Boissier), and several more were at least partly based on his collections. They include very restricted local endemics, some of which were not rediscovered until more than 100 years later. One example is Astragalos agraniotii, known only from the summit of Mt Parnonas [Malevo] in the S.E. Peloponnese (found in 1850, collected again by Christos Leonis in 1896, then ‘lost’ until 1986). Another is Centaurea musarum (‘knapweed of the Muses’) which occurs on a single cliff face on the southern side of Mt Parnassos (found in 1885, rediscovered in 1995).”

Astragalos agraniotii only growing on summit of Mt. Parnon

From his first year as a student in Paris Orphanides had realised the importance of a rich and varied collection of dried plants: a botanist without such, he said, is “a soldier without weapons, a philologist without books, a cashier without cash”. When he returned to Greece he brought with him his own collection (seven crates) from the environs of Paris and other parts of France, as well as rare specimens from the Jardin des Plantes, and he continued to add to it by means of his plant-hunting in Greece, by exchange for other specimens from all around the world, and by purchases on the open market. Among those who sent plants to Orphanides were Asa Gray (plants he had collected himself in the USA), and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker of Kew (plants from the Himalayas).

Helichrysum amorginum discovered by Orphanides in Amorgos and nearby islets

A wealthy businessman and benefactor from Odessa, Theodoros Rhodokanakis, bought Orphanides’ personal herbarium of over 45,000 specimens in 1873 and donated it to the recently founded Botanical Museum of the University of Athens the following year. A beautiful fritillary first recorded by Orphanides, growing only on the island of Hydra, Fritillaria rhodocanakis, is named after him.

Orphanides was appointed adjunct professor of botany at the University of Athens in 1850 and became full professor in 1854. During his many years of teaching he worked hard to develop a hitherto non-existent standard Greek terminology for use in botany, basing it on ancient sources but following general language usage up to the present. He also wrote a two-volume textbook on Botany, ready to print in 1865, but never published.

As director of the Public Arboretum, Orphanides introduced many trees and shrubs into Greece, including the eucalyptus. From 1852 he began to produce his Flora Graeca Exsiccata: approximately 1000 plants in ‘centuries’ of 100 herbarium specimens at a time, with their scientific names, their ancient names if known, their modern Greek names, the locations where they were found and their flowering times. These collections were sent to major botanical museums around the world and were widely consulted.

Viola mercurii discovered by Orphanides in Peloponnese; Kyllene, rocky slopes and screes 1400 to 2000m

He attended many international conferences and exhibitions in Europe, often as official representative for Greece. He also continued to publish poetry regularly. Words had always come easily to him: he said, and wrote, what was on his mind, and this immediacy was apparent even in his formal addresses. His account of the native Greek flora, in a lecture given on the occasion of his appointment as Prytanis of the University in 1867 begins with a lyrical description of its extent and variety, from the summits of the snow-capped mountains, where the aristocrats of the Greek plant world grow in small hollows in the melting snow, down to the warm cultivated coastal plains with their palms and citrus groves.

He did not publish in European journals, and rarely wrote about botany in the Athenian magazines of the day, but his great gift to Greece was his own periodical, Geoponika (Γεωπονικά – Agricultural Matters). He produced it himself and wrote almost all of its content. It appeared in monthly fascicles from 1872 through 1876, when it ceased for lack of funds. It is written in clear, simple language, and is addressed to everyone who lived off the land who could read, write and do simple arithmetic. There are regular columns: Elements of Botany Necessary for Everyone; Physics and Chemistry Necessary for the Farmer, Arboriculture, Horticulture, Industrial Agriculture, Pharmaceutical and Poisonous Plants of Greece, and Miscellaneous – agricultural and livestock news from Greece and abroad, letters to the editor, information concerning new agricultural tools, and much more. The numerous explanatory illustrations are excellent. There are detailed articles on the commercial cultivation of the saffron crocus, madder (Rubia tinctorum), and the textile fibres cotton and ramie (Boehmeria nivea), as well as his beloved citrus trees in all their varieties. He was also very interested in viticulture: there are many articles on Phylloxera in Geoponika and he had worked for years on a book about the types of grapes grown in Greece, giving a detailed botanical description of each variety together with their local names (there were 111 varieties in Attica alone). It was almost ready to print when he died but was never published.

Melampyrum heracleoticum discovered by Orphanides in North Central, North Pindus;
in open rocky woodland and margins 500 - 1400m

Orphanides was a master story-teller, as his students could well attest. He described a sinister plant called Chilblain (Χιονίστρα) which killed large animals - oxen, horses and mules – within 24 hours if they ate it when they were let out to graze while the snow was melting in early spring. Understandably, their owners desperately wanted to know which plant was responsible, and after carefully searching an area where two mules had recently died, Orphanides found evidence that they had eaten the folded new leaves from the tops of Colchicum bulbs. All parts of all colchicums are very poisonous. His research into ‘Chilblain’ could well have led to his particular interest in the genus: in 1874 he delivered a paper at an international conference in Florence entitled Sur les caractères spécifiques du genre Colchicum, et sur quelques espèces nouvellement découvertes en Grèce.

Colchicum boissieri found in Peloponnese, Menalon, Kandili (Evvia, Chios); autumn flowering,
leaves in spring; on grassland 700-1800m (photo shows underground stolons)

His fellow Athenians were proud of Orphanides’ reputation as a famous botanist, though they related more readily to his poetry, but everyone knew the “Garden of Orphanides”: it was a local landmark.

Orphanides said that he lived for his garden. Poets, established or aspiring, gathered to discuss their muse in a kiosk at its centre. It was teeming with plant life. Heldreich tells us that he grew wonderful roses; there were beds of bulbs, mainly native, and a tiny greenhouse, as well as many varieties of his beloved citrus trees, his ‘golden apples of the Hesperides’. Here, with infinite care, he tended his camellias, fine-spraying them in the shade to help them through hot summer afternoons, and picking out the secondary buds to produce a single perfect flower, the most spectacular of which he sent to his next-door neighbour, Queen Amalia of Greece. The two worked closely together on the planting of the palace gardens (now the National Garden). Amalia loved greenery and did much to improve the appearance of the new capital on her own initiative. She was as energetic, forthright and determined as Orphanides himself.

Sadly, in the last few years of his life his mind failed him, and he was no longer able to work in his garden or fulfill his responsibilities to the university. He had, however, dedicated his best years to improving the lives of his fellow countrymen, most of whom lived in rural Greece, and he had played a major role in establishing his country firmly within the sphere of European botany.

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