Scents and Sensibilities - The Dragon Lily of Crete
Dracunculus vulgaris is one evil-smelling but seriously spectacular beast. Its striking beauty can be a little shocking at first given its unpleasant smell but thankfully this only lasts a day or two. Like many of its close aroid relatives it relies on a foul strench to get its flowers pollinated. Flies and beetles, having been attracted to this malodorous invitation, enter the throat of the spathe and are promptly trapped and held captive for hours. In their ensuing attempts to escape these hapless creatures scramble around over the pistillate flowers dusting them with pollen from earlier traps.
This plant is known by many names, including Dragon Lily, Voodoo Lily and Stink Lily and is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean occurring in a variety of habitats, from stony wastelands to undisturbed olive groves. Even out of flower its dramatic habit and attractively marked leaves are an imposing presence but the size and shape of the flower lift it to even greater heights. As the influorescence unfurls it reveals a large, broadly arrowhead-shaped spathe varying in colour from reddish purple to almost black, enfolding a thick, tail-like spadix of the deepest black.
Dracunculus vulgaris is very common in Crete and found all over the island. In a few sites on the southern flanks of Mt Idi or Psiloritis a very special white form occurs along with an incredible range of marbled, stippled and mottled plants. After seeing the common dark form of dracunculus through out the rest of Greece it is a revelation to come across such extraordinary variety in one place.
Back in 2008 we discovered a large number of mostly white plants in a very grotty, stony gully used for penning sheep. It was strewn with the refuse of shepherding: discarded stockfeed bags, old tyres, rolls of wire and the dismembered limbs and heads of slaughtered animals. Needless to say the combined effects of decomposing flesh and the odor emanating from the dracunculus was rather overpowering but the sight of so many beautiful plants more than compensated.
Strictly speaking the white form is a very pale greeny cream. The flower has a velvety quality that strongly mimics that of plush chamois leather and when combined with the striking mix of inky black spadix and creamy white spathe the effect is breathtaking. Most of the flowers we saw on that first visit were past their best, which was a little disappointing, but the sight of one of the Holy Grails of all bulbous plants was very exciting and a highlight of the trip.
When we returned in 2010 we found to our dismay the shepherd gates at the gully had been locked and were guarded with a very noisy dog. So we decided to explore an interesting track up the next gully and hit paydirt, dracunculus everywhere, ranging from greeny cream through to mottled purple. They were in peak flowering condition and this time we noticed that a few of the flowers had golden spadices. These incredibly beautiful individuals had such intense coloration that the whole flower appeared to take on a primrose glow.
There were very few "normal" coloured plants to be found in this population but a considerable number of gorgeously mottled and marbled ones. No two plants were the same with each one varying in the degree and intensity of their markings. Why this rich variation occurs in such a small and discrete part of this species' extensive range is a mystery. There appears to be no evolutionary explanation as to how white flowers confer an advantage or why intermediates also thrive there while everywhere else flower colour is uniformly purple to blackish purple. Recently another population of dracunculus have been discovered in Crete where the flowers have no unpleasant smell and this raises further questions regarding the interaction between Dracunculus vulgaris and its potential pollinators. The situation would appear to be more complex than is currently presumed and there is more to be teased out before the full story is understood.
Our hostess at the hotel we were staying in was a very sweet girl on work exchange from Moldovia. She had told us that she was keen to explore the surrounding countryside but regrettably work commitments were always getting in the way. So we picked a couple of flowers to take back to show her and bring a little bit of the countryside back with us. We put them in the boot of the car to contain their feculent odour but even on the short drive back it had leaked most unwelcomly into the cabin and we were forced to open the windows.
Veronika was in the lobby of the hotel when we arrived and she came to greet us just as I was taking our evil beauties out of the boot. Upon seeing them her eyes widened with delight and she exclaimed, "Oh! They're so beautiful, like vonderful huge ice creams with shockolate sticks". Rather unwisely I swung the flowers towards her for a better look and before I could say stop she had sunk her nose into the throat of one of them and sniffed deeply. Her face instantly contorted into one of disgust, and recoiling quickly she hissed, "Oh sheet!" For a brief moment I could see our friendship had taken a backward step but being a true pro she quickly composed herself, and smiling sweetly, said, "Thank you zo much for bringing to show me but I think we leave them outside".