Fritillaria of the Eastern Aegean and Beyond Part 2
The big rocky island of Chios - a few kilometres north of Samos - was in earlier times one of the most important places in Greece. It is home to an unprepossessing shrub, Pistacia lentiscus, which produces a resin called mastic, and during the Turkish occupation was worth its weight in gold. Like its neighbour Samos, both F. bithynica and F. carica grow on Chios together with an endemic species, F. pelinaea, although it is found in only a handful of sites. It is a pretty plant, taller than F. carica, with broader, more twisted leaves and narrower, less flared flowers. Named after the big mountain at the northern end of the island, Mount Pelineo, there is no doubt that this is its locus classicus, but it certainly is not common there. Susan and I trudged up the northern side from the village of Viki and from Spartounda to the west searching for it, and while on each occasion things started well enough, the vegetation being lush and"ungoated", by the time we reached the target zone it was a mess. Shepherds had bypassed the lower pastures, trucking their flocks directly to higher places, and it was such a disappointment to find them there so early that a few expletives of the unpublishable type were let loose.
Of all the Greek fritillaries the least Greek is F. elwesii. It is really a Turkish species, just dipping its toe into Greek territory at the furthest eastern point on the tiny island of Kastelorizo. The island is less than a kilometre from the Turkish coast and is still called by its Turkish name of Megisti by those on the mainland ... a fairly strong indication as to whom they think the island belongs. Nevertheless it is thoroughly and aesthetically Greek with its impressively restored mansions, vividly painted houses and traditional settlements. Its history between the two world wars has been dismal with most of the population abandoning their homes and migrating to Australia. Iin recent times, however, it has prospered through tourism and a population revival.
F. elwesii grows in amongst low scrub on north-facing slopes and is accompanied by some other remarkable and rare Turkish geophytes. One of the most bizarre is the evil-smelling Biarum ditschianum, with its huge, fat, golden spadix poking out from a mere rim of a spathe like some weird goblin phallus. Improbably Kastelorizo is home to Galanthus peshmenii which is also found in a handful of sites on the Turkish mainland. On the island it grows almost at sea level in pockets of loam between rocks or embedded in hollowed out cavities in cliffs, the sea spray its constant companion. F. elwesii is a tallish species with narrow greyish leaves, and carries up to three, long, tapered bells of dusky purple, vertically striped yellowish-green. It is very similar to F. latakiensis, which grows further east in Turkey and the smaller F. assyriaca ssp melanthera, found in the south, but as the name implies, is easily distinguished by its black anthers.
Although not quite in the Eastern Aegean the island of Thassos, just off the Thracean coast, is home to Fritillaria pontica. It may be the only island population of this species but is certainly not the only place it can be found. It's a widespread plant, some would say ubiquitous, its range extending through parts of Greek Macedonia and Thrace, Bulgaria, and North Western Turkey. I have found it growing on Mt Falakron above Kavala in Macedonia, near Dadia in Thrace, and at Lake Abant, another 400km further east in the central north of Turkey. It favours damp, shady places in open woodland but can grow on grasslands if there is protection and relatively high humidity.
F. pontica is a robust species with lanceolate, green leaves, bearing one or two fat bells of apple-green edged in terracotta or pink. Occasionally bells can be found of an attractive yellowish green without any other markings. An excellent garden plant with a certain understated elegance and cool charm, it is easily grown in free-draining, alkaline soil in a rock garden or woodland, where, if happy, it will seed around or gently spread by offsets..
Rhodos is the largest of a group of islands called the Dodecanese that follow the coastline around the southwestern corner of Turkey. Apart from an excellently restored Medieval town and castle (thanks to Mussolini's fascists), an amazing history and a package tourist trade that is the envy of the Mediterranean, it has its very own little fritillary. Fritillaria rhodia is said to have grown in abundance at Faliraki just south of Rhodes Town but a hideous coastal strip tourist development has put paid to that population. I have not found it an easy plant to locate, having spent many hours plodding through likely looking habitats from the northern tip of this spearhead-shaped island to its broad southern base. However during my forays I was taught how to say in Greek, " I am looking for this plant and has anyone seen it around here?" by a pleasant man selling coffee from a food van at a very isolated location in the mountains A handy phrase for any self respecting plant hunter to have readily in his lexicon! Frilillaria rhodia is a slender species with spiralled, linear leaves and narrowly campanulate flowers that flare at the mouth. These are limey-green; tipped yellow, becoming lemony-yellow as they age. It is rare in cultivation probably because it is frost tender and a delicate little creature at the best of times.
Two other endemic yellow-flowered species are to be found close by on the Turkish mainland. One of them, Fritillaria forbesii, lives just across the water on the Marmaris Peninsula, its range extending along the coast to Fethiye and Baba Dag, the big mountain nestling close by. This is a tallish, slender plant with narrow, linear leaves and one to three yellow to greenish-yellow, narrowly campanulate flowers. It favours, dry, open slopes on serpentine rock but is also found in the damp, forested foothills of Baba Dag. The plants do not flower there and slowly multiply vegetatively, but when placed in favourable conditions behave and flower normally. It's an obvious pointer to the important role fire plays in creating and recreating favourable environments for plants to live in and to the damage inappropriate environmental and forestry practices can inadvertently inflict.
One of the craziest days I ever spent plant hunting occurred when looking for Fritillaria forbesii in the time immediately after Turkey had placed a ban on removal of native seeds and so it was prudent not to draw attention to one's self. One early morning found me on a drive down the Dacta Peninsula, stopping at likely places and poking about until I had located a few dried seedpods. I was walking back to the car to get a bag to put them in when two young jandarma (civil guard) appeared quite suddenly, rounding a bend in the road.
These baby-faced, submachine gun-toting youth always give me the heebie jeebies and as they neared, almost upon reflex, I closed my fist around the seedpods to hide them. Big mistake! One of them noticed my clumsy attempt at concealment and I could see his interest was piqued. There began a protracted and polite silence, each party grinning back at the other trying very hard not to offend. The jandarmas hadn't a stick of English between them and I had nothing in Turkish apart from the usual polite tourist niceties. I could see the observant one was bursting to find out what was in my hand but in those days tourists were a protected species and I clearly didn't fit the PKK terrorist profile. So there we all were, locked in an awkward embrace, still grinning madly. Time stood still, sweat trickled down my back, the jandarma twanged at his gun strap, my mind squirmed for a way out. Cars ... petrol, petrol station, I thought, "Benzinee, supa, normale?" I blurted out, did a stupid bit of mime about filling a petrol tank and looked beseechingly at them. It worked, "Benzinee, dört kilometres", one said, and pointed down the road. A shift of focus, the tension lifted, matter resolved. With the nexus broken I thanked them and we both turned away, palpable relief on both sides.
Big thanks to Oron Peri for a lend of his image of Fritillaria rhodia.