Crocus biflorus on Rhodes
One of the loveliest reminders I have of the Greek island of Rhodes, the largest of the 12 islands of the Dodecanese, is a delightful little Crocus biflorus ssp biflorus I found there at least a decade ago. I have since returned twice more to the area but on each occasion I have been too late to find it in flower. It grows around the old Italian army barracks at the top of Profitis Ilias and just across the road is the summer house of the dictator Mussolini. On that first visit it was completely abandoned, like some relic from the Great Gatsby, and a cheerful old man was selling coffee out of a tiny makeshift kiosk. Now the house has been renovated and turned into a hotel and smart waiters wearing starch-white aprons serve coffee and croissants out under the pine trees. On each side of this area grows Paeonia rhodia and throughout the pine woods Cyclamen rhodium is abundant. I have not found my biflorus elsewhere in Greece. Although I have found its very similar autumn-flowering counterpart, C. biflorus ssp melantherus, in the Peloponnese and the more dramatically marked C. biflorus ssp alexandrii just creeping in over the border into Greek Macedonia. Apparently this one from Rhodes is the most easterly occurring population and a long way from its locus classicus in Italy.
I mention this because currently the crocus tribe is undergoing a taxonomic shakedown. Bloodlines have been turned on their head and species that were once considered close family have been cast out into unlikely company. Why? In a word ... phylogenetics. Until recently taxonomists relied on physical similarities to imply relatedness but now with new genetic sequencing techniques they have a powerful tool to study the evolutionary relationships between species. The results have been, well, surprising, and no more so than in the biflorus group where the mother species has been confined to Italy and deemed unrelated to all of its subspecies.
Where does that leave my little orphaned foundling? Is it a new species? Or is it related to one of the species on the Turkish mainland just a few kilometres across the sea? No-one seems to know or care. Everyone is too caught up in the “gold rush” for new discoveries and re-naming that this phylogenetic revision has afforded.
I have my own theory about this plant. I wonder if the Italian soldiers brought the crocus there and planted it around their encampment to remind themselves of home. It is more an Italian plant than a Greek one and the troops must have gathered flowering plants because all around the barracks Colchicum macrophyllum still grows. I am sure these are not random plantings and being an un-abashed romantic I secretly hope this turns out to be the true story.
Many thanks to Susan Jarick for the images around Profitis Ilas