Fritillaria of the Eastern Aegean and Beyond Part 3
Lesbos is a big confident island with a history of poets, sea captains and sponge divers. In recent times it has become the largest producer of ouzo in Greece and a purveyor of tertiary education. Its capital Mytilene is home to one of the University of the Aegean campuses and wherever there are students there is bustle and bars, chic eateries and noise! The buzz of motorcycles and the duff duff of Eurobeat are constants, and, apart from a brief respite for a few hours around dawn, a sea of humanity swarms through the streets.
Move away from the town and life proceeds at a more leisurely pace, old stone buildings, tumbledown fishing villages and ancient olive groves are scattered all over the island. Travelling through the countryside is a trip back in time, and here time seems to have slumbered through the centuries.
On open hillsides in the south of the island under chestnut and walnut trees there grows a fritillaria found nowhere else. It is a controversial beast which has attracted considerable taxonomic disagreement. Initially it was described as a taller and more vigorous subspecies of Fritillaria pontica, called F. pontica ssp substipelata, for a time some have even lumped it in with F. acmopetala. It does look like a decent mix of the two, having the winged seedpods of F. pontica and the tall elegance and rice grain bulbils of F. acmopetala so these placements are not entirely unreasonable. Enter the Greek taxonomists, Kamari & Phitos, and in what looks to be an act driven a tad by nationalism, they have described this plant as a new species and given it the name, F. theophrasti, after the ancient philosopher from the island. What ever! I am sure their's is not the last word on this ... .
Once, with the boundless energy of youth, I made a quick dash out of Mytilene to look for F. theophrasti beyond the stone village of Agiasos. The previous evening I had travelled up from Samos on a small coastal trader to intercept the big ferry from Athens to Lesbos at Chios. After a night of strong coffee, endless games of eightball, and a smart sprint along the dock (someone told me the wrong place as to where the ferry would dock) I finally arrived at Lesbos early in the morning. With a ticket to Turkey booked for the following morning and my baggage stowed I had some time on my hands so I bought a map, hired a car, and somehow managed to navigate out of the mad Mytilene traffic into the countryside.
I had been given instructions to drive beyond Agiasos following the road to an old mental asylum and to park at the base of a steep hill near there. On the top of this hill was an army observation post and no sooner had I stopped the car and opened the back door when down the hill drove an army landrover. It pulled up provocatively within a few centimetres of my car and out jumped two young Greek soldiers who eyed me suspiciously. "Sir, this is a restricted zone. You must leave here immediately", one of them commanded. "I have no camera. I am just looking for a plant that grows around here", I retorted, "I can't see what the problem is?" He smiled amiably, "the problem is my commanding officer is up there on the hill watching us and he expects you to get in your car and leave." Never being one to miss a chance, I persisted, "OK, but before I go may I ask if you have ever seen this plant in the area?" I handing over a picture. The talkative one spoke in rapid Greek to the other and they both shook their heads. "My friend here knows much about the plants in this area and he says he has never seen this one", said the talkative soldier, handing back the picture, "we wish you well with your quest but not around here".
Suspecting a "bum steer" I waved a cheery goodbye and trundled off back down the road until out of sight, waited for ten minutes and then crept back up to a bend that preceded the earlier encounter. I secreted the car a short distance along a dirt track I had noticed earlier and started exploring. Across the road was a glorious stand of walnut trees running like a rukked green ribbon along the course of a boulder-strewn brook that burbled and bounced its way down the slope. On the edges around the trees grew scattered groups of a tall, robust, sentinel-like fritillaria. They had whorls of opposite, grey-green leaves and impressively large winged seed capsules, each one like a segment of a fluted Greek column, aged to a patina of bronzy green, every curve, every groove in perfect symmetry
The further I looked the more I saw threading through the undergrowth, accompanied by the bright green shiny leaves of a colchicum, possibly C. bivonae, a large, autumn-flowering species common in Greece. Along the banks of the stream were thickets of paeony leaves, most likely P. mascula ssp. mascula, long past flowering, their furry seedpods the shape of a tricorn hat. So entracing was this idyll that I had completely forgotten how far I had wandered and was suddenly brought crashing back to reality with the metallic sound of a megaphone shattering the silence. Huh! Was it talking to me?? "Would the intruder please leave the area immediately!", the thing barked from out of the observation post ... I didn't need a second reminder. I was back in the car and out of there in a flash.
In Part 2 of this series I mentioned two endemic yellow-flowered fritillaria species found along the coastal areas of south west Turkey. One of these, Fritillaria forbesii, I described in that post but the other remained unmentioned. This was Fritillaria sibthorpiana, named in honour of John Sibthorp, professor of botany at Oxford, who set out in 1786 on a two-year expedition to collect and identify the plants included by Dioscorides in his first century herbal, the Codex Vindobonensis. Remarkably some 2,000 specimens were collected, 300 of them representing previously unknown species. One of these was Sibthorp's Fritillary, incorrectly named after him as Tulipa sibthorpiana, and later transferred to Fritillaria sibthorpiana by John Baker, Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew. Sibthorp died young and along with him, it seems, all knowledge of his botanical namesake. For the next 185 years it remained "lost" to science and was only recently rediscovered, more than likely its absence was the result of being misattributed to similar species, like F. forbesii and F. carica.
F. sibthorpiana is distinct from all others with its bright buttercup-yellow bells, the outer three petals of each bloom reflexing upward, and its two, occasionally three, broad, glaucous-green leaves. A subspecies F. sibthorpiana ssp enginiana has limey-yellow flowers and four to five leaves. Both are medium-sized plants and very rare. The type is only found in a few locations west and southwest of Marmaris, mostly growing on serpentine. Back in the day I searched for this plant in many places along the Marmaris and Dactca Peninsulas without success, despite gold bar site information, finally encountering it on a tiny frying pan island, east of Marmaris, growing in tall grass under Turkish Pine.
It was a great discovery so after all the excitement I had driven back along the crinkly coast towards Bozburun looking for a place to stop and take it all in. Just before the village a tiny finger-like isthmus poked out into the silver skin of the sea and on it sat a tea house. Perfect, so down I drove, and walking towards a scattering of outside tables and chairs, I noticed a beat up old van with German number plates parked close by. Two young Turkish men, who appeared to be brothers, brought out a small glass tumbler of tea and a complimentary basket of bread, and there I sat in the still silence, the salty scent of the sea and the sweetness of the tea making perfect companions.
Before I could drift away on a traveller's dream an accented voice in English brought me back to earth. "Vould you mind if I sat with you to take zum teh?" I could smell him before I had opened my eyes, a dishevelled, middle aged man, reeking of alcohol with a cigarette stuck to his lip had suddenly appeared, and was making himself comfortable opposite me across the table.
It was a most unwelcome proposition but as he was already installed we exchanged pleasantries and typical tourist talk, where I was from, where I had been, what I had seen and then he asked, "Are you travelling alone?" "Yes", I said, " I enjoy it much more that way", wishing to head off any suggestions of joining forces or meeting up again along the road. "I was travelling vith my Turkish girlfriend, and ve are staying here then two days ago she ran off vith all my money and my passport. The Turkish family here are giving me help until I can get some money", he tells me, his voice breaking. Silence .... Is this a scam or this bloke for real? Better split I think to myself. "Hey mate I gotta go, things to do and all that, but here's something to tide you over", I say, somewhat guiltily, slapping down a ten million lira note on the table. He gasped my hand, and in a pleading voice said, "But you must stay. It is my fortieth birthday and the Turkish family has made me a cake."
At that very moment, as if on cue, the Turkish brothers emerged from the tea house carrying trays of sweet pastries and grilled fish, and behind them their mother with a very large cake crowned with a dozen or so candles. She lit the candles, said something in German to the birthday man with her hand on her heart, and then she and her sons began to sing. I assumed this to be the Turkish version of Happy Birthday, although none of the words were recognizable and neither was the rhythm of their accompanying clapping but I joined in anyway with my own version. It was a shambolic and discordant performance, notes akimbo, some trailing down against others climbing up, no-one starting or finishing together ... a mess. But the German didn't seem to mind, with tears flowing he hugged each of us in turn, even the mother allowed a restrained and respectful embrace. "Thank you my friends, my vonderful friends, you have made my day happy", he said, looking at us each in turn. So there we were, a disparate huddle around a birthday cake and a man we barely knew ... strangers all.
Yes, it was strangely surreal and somewhat uncomfortable but it was also surprisingly uplifting, like something had been understood between us, some bond had been forged, if only for a few hours, but to be remembered for a lifetime. We toasted the German's health with shot glasses of double raki, I wished him well, and took my leave.