Crocus biflorus on Rhodes

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.

Old Italian Barracks Profitis Ilias Mussolini's Summer House Pine Woods Profitis Ilias on Rhodes

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

Crocus biflorus ssp melantherus Crocus biflorus ssp alexandrii


very nice marcus -well done - i enjoy your style of writing, jonathan. the catalogue looks great as well.

Postcards and Loveletters

Hi Jonathan

Thanks for your kind words. So many of my friends and family have been at me to do a blog and to tell some stories so I have finally gotten around to it! I hope it brings a different perspective to growing plants. For me growing plants becomes a journey of romance and muse. To borrow heavily from Peter Carey's wonderful novel, Bliss, when I see that first flower emerge from a seed I have planted from a foreign land, its like a love-letter thats taken its time to arrive!

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Marcus, Love to read these short articles Marcus and especially love the photos and the reminiscences. You insight into what would grow well in our own situations is so very welcome.

Hi Pat,

Thanks for your interest.. You are a fellow traveller and it means a lot. If only we could get some of the perennials that I see on my journeys here in Australia! I am never in Rhodes later enough to collect Paeonia rhodia seed nor even Cyclamen rhodium.

Rhodes is so different from Ikaria. They even have a conventional airport runway  .... not like the suicide strip one has to face when trying to depart from the latter. Its worth a trip just to see the Old City. A medieval Camelot complete with ramparts and moat that leaves one in awe of the scale and imagination of the human spirit.

Cheers, Marcus

Marcus this is wonderful stuff! When I used to work in the lab every specimen bought in was allocated a number but for me they were always a patient with a history. In the same way your stories bring the plants alive . I am sure that sequencing a genome will never really influence our love of the plants and, will only perhaps confuse and intrigue us and challenge us to learn the new names if we desire.

Hi Cathy, 

Thanks for reading my posts and thanks for your insights. We humans have an undeniable need to give things names and to put them in some sort of order and I guess collectors like myself are even more obsessive than most!  What I am trying to get at in my piece is that this categorisation can work at different levels and that's what you picked up on. While I might well be interested in the name taxonomy gives my plant I also have a collection of memories and reflections that bring a different meaning, as you have found with your specimens. Someone once said to me in response to my prodding about the name of a plant she was describing,  "does knowing the name make the plant grow any better? "

Taxonomy is important because it gives us a language by which to discuss plants but  phylogenetis has really changed things up and it will be a long time and a few dispassionate cool heads later before things become clear (for a while).

Cheers,  M

Hi Marcus, Please keep writing these delightful articles. They make me long to travel! Sarah

Hi Sarah, 

Thanks for reading the post and responding with a comment.  It's great to get feedback! 

I have been lucky to be able to travel in pursuit of my deep interest in plants and where they have come from. Like Cathy, when I studied botany at university I spent so much time in the lab. It was only when we went on field work that plants really came alive.

Keep reading.  My next one is on the island of Serifos in the Cyclades and Marathon the site of the Persian invasion and from whence the first marathon was run. 

Cheers,  M

Marcus Those images absolutely sparkle! And there's nothing like a personal story to really illuminate - spotlight! - an individual species that otherwise just sits (at least from my distance) as one among many. Thanks for that. I've gotta say, I'm just loving the way phylogenetics is shaking up all those musty assumptions taught as irrefutable truth back in my botany days.

Hi Michael,

Lovely to see your comments and sorry for my tardy reply.

I agree phylogenetics is a new broom that's really sweeping out the cupboard. It's a bit hard to let go of old diagnostic concepts, but science, in the end, will prevail. One thing: I hope, as I alluded to in the blog piece, we don't end up with a plethora of names and not too much to connect them. The current tendency is to raise everything in sight to species level and not worry too much about subordinate relationships. Is this helpful? I don't think so but only time will tell. I will leave my comment there I think, if continued, I am at risk of becoming too dry.

Stories, as you, and Cathy say, lift plants out of the pack and give them personality. A perfect antidote to what's going on the previous paragraph!

Cheers, Marcus