Mad Dogs and Primroses
My hand-drawn map told me that there was a good restaurant on the top-side of the road in middle of the village but it was closed (we found out later the owner had shut up shop and moved his entire operation to the islands). The weather forecast was good, we knew the impenetrable cloak that currently enveloped us would eventually lift, so it was just as just a matter of biding our time and hopefully finding something to eat and drink.
We were standing there contemplating this last proposition when, as if on cue, a small lady appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and asked what we were looking for. “Yes, coffee, bread, spinach pie, or souvlaki?”, we respond in unison, our requests becoming more optimistic as we went along.
The small lady gave a little jump backwards, an outward sign that perhaps she had bitten off more than SHE could chew but after a few seconds her previous confidence had returned and she signalled for us to take a seat in a dining establishment we had clearly missed on our earlier reconnoitre. And little wonder, for it was just an ordinary, rather clapped out little cottage. Our lady in the meantime had rushed into the bowels of her dwelling and returned with an extra wooden table and couple of chairs, but not before barking some foreign commands to as yet unrevealed accomplice.
The cottage was on quite a steep section of the road so it took her a some time tilting and shifting the furniture before an agreeably level eating place was established. Once this was achieved her face creased into a smile of satisfaction and she flung her arms towards us and in a great flourish swung them back imploring us to take our seats at her table.
Before long the side door of the cottage creaked open and out stepped a small man in crumpled work clothes. In one hand he carried a plate of fried potatoes and in the other a basket of sliced bread and nodded to us graciously as he placed them before us, and then dashed off to yet return with a pile of kebabs! We hadn't quite expected this, for in reality we would have been happy with a cup of coffee and a piece of bread!
Once appetites were sated our minds turned to investigation. We were in mountainous northern Greek Macedonia to hunt for Fritilllaria drenovskyi. This is a slender species with narrow pendent bells ranging in colour from brownish purple to a warm caramel, usually edged in golden yellow, with the inner petals in the same hue. Not a plant to really get excited about but it’s one of the rare eighteen or so Greek species and therefore highly sought after by fritillaria obsessives like myself. It grows along this northern border up into Bulgaria and my hand drawn map indicated that it should be found across the valley on the wooded hillside almost in line from where we were sitting. The fog had now lifted but all we could see was a thick thatch of hazelnut trees and that was definitely not promising.
Our hosts proved a little more helpful. After from telling us that they grew all their own potatoes and then sold them to passing Bulgarian truck drivers they could confirm that there were meadows at the top of those hills but they were nonplussed by my sketch of our quarry. This was possibly a sad indictment of my drawing abilities but quite often I have found that Greeks failed to notice plants despite living almost on top of them. Another plant hunter, by way of explanation, rather unkindly commented that this was because they were not the slightest interested in their flora unless they could eat it!
After bidding our hosts adieu we drove down to a little bridge that crossed the valley floor and parked. We started to make our way up the opposite slope on foot through hazelnuts and hornbeam. The forest canopy kept the sun off but the day was becoming extremely hot and humid and pretty soon we were stripped to our shorts and in a lather of sweat. I dealt with these difficult climbs by keeping my head down and pushing on. Besides there were lots of interesting plants and insects to distract me but my fellow companion was not so engaged.
My son was travelling with me during his gap year, and while an excellent companion in many ways, long steep hikes were not to his liking and, despite my insistence to keep up, he had soon slipped back to be almost out of sight
Stumbling on, muttering under my breath about young people not being up to it and other less printable sentiments I was suddenly snapped back to life by the sound of barking down below me to my left. As I turned I caught sight of the unmistakable bounding shapes of two large Greek cattle dogs making directly towards where I had last seen Alex and then, springing out of the scrub like a great gangly colt, my son, sprinting up the slope towards me. The dogs were closing but Alex zigzagged and shimmied and some how managed to keep one step ahead of them. Then he saw me, and locking eyes, made a desperate lunge in my direction, his face pallid with fear. From my vantage point I pelted everything at the attackers that I could lay my hand on but still they came. In a last desperate bid to head them off I ran down the slope brandishing branches and screaming like a banshee, and then out of nowhere a shout, followed by a long, low whistle, and the dogs just stopped dead, turned and wandered off in the direction of the calls like two suburban mutts.
It took us both a few moments to comprehend what had just transpired and then both of us collapsed to the ground in exhaustion and utter relief. Quite unexpectedly I begun to laugh out loud, and said, “that’s the quickest I’m ever going to see you run up a hill and I didn't even get it on camera! “ This was not appreciated at the time but through the years the incident has become part of family folklore the telling of which is always cause for an outburst of mirth.
In the excitement of the dog chase we had not noticed that just beyond the final fringe of trees were grassy expanses running up a gentle slope to some rocky outcrops at the top of the ridge. This looked to have all the hallmarks of fritillaria habitat and just to prove us correct I found a solitary plant nestled in the long grass not far from where we stood.
In deeper shade the ground was smothered in primula leaves, which I took to be Primula vulgaris. The only other species in this area is P. veris which was easily distinguished by its tall flower stems and its preference for brighter, drier places. P. vulgaris has a wide range in Europe and western Asia, mostly represented by the common pale yellow ssp. vulgaris but from Greece eastwards, it is replaced, at least in parts, by ssp. sibthorpii, which shows greater variation in flower colour from reddish-pink to lilac blue, and occasionally, white.
The plants at my feet were festooned with seed pods and although at that stage I was not terribly interested in growing perennials I thought a good friend of mine would be so I quickly stuffed my pockets full and ... big mistake .... never recorded the collection or made a visual take of the area. The seeds were duly delivered and two years later he turned up with a nice little seedling with pale blue flowers. No-one was impressed. It was just another little primula that looked like a dozen others so I handed it on to my keeper of waifs and strays ... my Mum, and never thought another thing about it. That is until about ten years later when I took a proper look at the subject of primulas and discovered that what I had found was a population of the subspecies sibthorpii containing the rarer pale blue/smokey-blue form. A flying trip to my mother’s garden proved disappointingly inconclusive. Over the years I had passed on many single flowered hybrids (failures from a double flower breeding program) and some looked very similar to what I imagined my wild plant looked like so we could only guess.
In the spring of 2012 Susan and I returned to the same hillside at Granitis to hopefully restart the earlier somewhat failed experiment. We spent an entire day tramping its length and breadth and I recalled in vivid detail the dogs, my young son’s gangly frame (now a fully grown man), the chase, the heat and sweat.
The fritillaria were still there, the dogs were still there, we were delighted by a beautiful dark form of Lilium martagon, wild roses wound through the shrubby understory, a plethora of spring flowers everywhere. We even managed to find the fat, green, stubby seedpods and a few last flowers of the lovely dwarf bearded iris, Iris reichenbachii nestling in the broken notches in the rocky outcrops along the ridge line and Primula veris graced every shady corner of the meadow.
Despite my best efforts I could not relocate P. vulgaris. I retraced my imagined steps over and over again, took remembered bearings from the ridge line above and even tried to divine the damn things with gentle invocations to various gods that I thought might be of help ... but they weren't listening. It was if the earth had swallowed up my pretties and there was to be no epiphany.
I turned away and we made our way back down the hillside, turning these thoughts over in my mind, consoled somewhat by the knowledge that I had the plant ... well sort of ... it was just going to take a lot more divinations and incantations when I returned home.
That night back at the recently built and extremely comfortable Grand Chalet hotel with good company and a beer we watched the final of the Euro 2012 football championship and felt much better about the world. We even had excellent grilled country sausage, chips and salad brought up by the woman with the rickety table from all those years ago... she had branched out into home delivery.