The Black Fritillary of Serifos
“Apo do peripato”, she said, eyeing me with an equal mix of curiosity and suspicion .... “Up there as you go”, and she gave a vague half wave of her hand in the direction of the headland that loomed up from out of the corner of the bay. That was the best news I had heard since I arrived on the island and I thanked her with a nod of the head with my hand on my heart. I had come to Serifos with nothing more than a hand-drawn map and an overblown sense of optimism to look for one of the black Greek fritillaries, Fritillaria tuntasia. After 2 days of scrabbling around thorny hillsides with no luck, and only 6 hours before the hydrofoil left for Piraeus, it didn't look like anything was about to change.
Fritillaria tuntasia is only found here and on the adjacent island of Kithnos and it has a few close relatives, Fritillaria obliqua, 90 miles to the north on mainland where it hangs on in a few small localised populations around Marathon and Mt. Parnitha and F. ehrhartii, which is locally abundant along a small coastal strip of south-eastern Evvia. Some still question if the first two are one in the same and whether the differences between them are consistent. They share the listing in Europe’s Red Book of very rare, the result of human incursion into their habitat and indiscriminate grazing.
My map-making friend had put a small green dot for each place he had found F. tuntasia. The highest concentration of these was in the north and that's where I began my search but by the end of day 2 I was started to run out of dots! So on my last day I applied reverse logic, looked for a single dot, and headed down to the village of Mega Levadi at the extreme southern point of the island.
The Greek word "mega" means big but this place is a complete contradiction in terms. One rundown taverna and a handful of dwellings lay nestled on the cusp of a pebbly cove with the usual gaggle of querulous old men taking coffee out under the tamarisk trees. But it wasn't always like this. Once Serifos was known as the Iron Island and for a brief period in the early 20th century extensive ore deposits were mined at Mega Levadi. It was the island's economic centre in this boom period and ghostly vestiges of those glory days still remain. Along the cove from the taverna a grand neoclassical style villa incongruously sits, its facade gently crumbling, and in the shadow of the headland a rusting gantry stands sentinel over the ruins of a derelict mine.
It was here that I met my old lady. She was a small, determined figure in widow weeds, leading her straggling flock of goats from one clump of forage to the next with soft clucking noises. She seemed to me more broody hen that shepherdess but the goats appeared unconcerned and trailed after her dutifully like faithful pets. “Psarno afto to fito edo gyro”, I called, I'm looking for this plant around here, and held up a scruffy hand-drawn picture. To my surprise she pointed to the headland and uttered those first words of hope – “Apo do peripato”.
Climbing up I came across a footpath that led me out along the promontory through low-growing scrub dotted with beautiful cushion plants like Centaurea spinosa, C. raphanina and Silene cythnia. Bulbs are usually found in the open stony breaks between these dense knots of vegetation but as I walked I saw no sign of them, and the further I went the less confident l felt. Plant hunting is a fraught business. Keen observation is critical but it often comes down to luck, as it was to be this time. As I rounded a curve in the next slope, each looking exactly like the last, my eye caught hold of something growing out of a spiny bush. My brain took a little longer to catch up ... I had been expecting flowers, black ones, but this was a seed pod, suddenly I realised I was surrounded by them. I just hadn't been looking for the right thing!
These wild fritillaries were much taller than the ones I grew in my nursery. Their seed heads were huge and many plants were carrying more than one. What they did share with my plants was the signature corkscrew twist of their grey, glaucous leaves. F.obliqua have similar leaves but they are broader, far fewer, lying mainly at the base of the stem.
Everywhere I looked I could see individual plants sticking out at odd angles from the endless hummocks of wire netting euphorbias and tumbled down old terraces that braided the hillside. Below, the lapis blue water in the bay seeped into sea green and turquoise where it lapped at the rocky shore and above the sky was an endless canvas of dazzling light. A faint mist hung over the headland and every breath brought with it the clean, salty tang of the sea. I stood there a moment, a silent witness, and it felt good to be alive and to be in this place.
Later at the taverna, sitting under the tamarisks with a celebratory cold beer and lunch, I spotted the old lady again, her goats in tow, and no doubt, on her way home to take her obligatory afternoon nap. Grabbing one of the seedpods that I had kept as a memento I sprinted after her calling out in Greek, "Look, I found them". She stopped to face me and said, "Bravo", and something further that was unintelligible to my already overly challenged foreign ears. "Pos te lene?" What is it called, I asked. "Almiro", she replied, and turned away to cut short any further attempts at conversation. But did I see a hint of mischief lurking in the corners of her mouth? Or maybe, like the old men I had asked earlier that day, she too was bemused by a grown man being interested in such nonsense.
The next week, in the mountains, on the hunt for another fritillary I approached a group of men sitting and sharing coffee in the shade of a taverna. I asked them in Greek if they had seen this plant, and, emboldened by my recent acquisition of a name, I added that it was called Almiro. A look of puzzlement spread across their faces, and after a few rapid exchanges and associated head shaking one of them addressed me in English. "My friend, this word, it means salty. Where did you get this from?" I began to blurt out, "Someone told me that”, and paused ... the old lady ... was something lost in translation, or was it a playful joke at my expense? “Oh, it doesn’t matter”, I resumed distractedly ... my mind already drifting back to the whispering blue of the sea.
Many thanks to Susan Jarick for the most of the images of Serifos