The country is rough, rocky beyond belief and hilly. And where the land has not been scraped bare by volcanoes, earthquakes, snow and searing wind, it is covered in low, tangled, often prickly vegetation that shelters a wealth of flowering plants. If we think Central Otago is a harsh, sometimes barren land, it now seems groomed after the countryside of Crete where I recently went exploring.
There are rough, rock-strewn hillsides framed by deep gorges with towering cliffs on either side, mountains that rise to over 2500 metres, plunging roads that lead down to stunning beaches rimmed by the turquoise Mediterranean and everywhere there are rocks.
I was there to seek orchids and other wild flowers that flourish in Crete’s usually warm Mediterranean climate. Worldwide there are 28,000 orchid species and they can be found in numerous, very varied climates. They range from the exotic, tropical phalaenopsis or butterfly orchids that are so trendy at present in florist shops to the tiny epiphytic dendrobiums which live in places as diverse as the mountains in the Himalaya and the dry climate of the Australian desert. In New Zealand orchids can be found from the coastline right up to alpine herb-fields. I once went walking in the highlands of New Caledonia with a French botanist who believed he had discovered that day, a small new species growing in moss beside a stream in the bush there.
More than half of the Cretan orchids are bee orchids, or Ophrys, and they are not much bigger than a man’s thumbnail, carried on frail stems that somehow fight their way up amongst rampant grasses and tangled spiny shrubs – phrygana as it is called on Crete. The complicated designs of these orchids imitate a female insect and when the male insect attempts to mate with the flower he effectively causes pollination.
Others are classified as Orchis and these are the often pyramidal orchids made up of tiny individual blooms, often in various shades of pink. Their stems are more hardy that those of Ophrys and they grow randomly amongst long grass and often dandelions! Strange then that we think of orchids as being some special kind of flower.In all, it is estimated that there are roughly 65 species and sub-species of orchid on Crete, some among them endemic to the island.
I’m travelling with a bunch of British botanists, hell-bent on checking off the long list of species they came to find. We spend two weeks scrambling over the hills and clambering up steep rocks in search of these flowers which mainly bloom in April. There are lots of euphorbias of different kinds and other prickly, congested low bushes making it problematical when searching for a handhold to help with the scrambling.
I’m fascinated by the orchids and amazed by their intricate patterning and clearly defined colouring.
But I’m not interested in endless discussion about which species they might be. I love the variety of all the wild flowers – and I’m also here to experience the country and learn a little of its history.
Small isolated chapels with no windows are dotted around the countryside and one day we picnicked in the shade of an enormous old plane tree beside one. Small herds of long haired sheep range over the land, sometimes led by a shepherd. There are remnants of stone walls across the hills, some of which were probably sheep folds and we see the remains of small, low, square stone huts scattered around – shepherds’ shelters I suspect.
We pass heaps more olive trees, most of them with a folded net at their feet topped with stones to stop it blowing away. Occasionally we see trees with pitted gnarled trunks that are probably a few centuries old. In the green valleys we come across orange groves and for the duration of the trip we drink delicious fresh orange juice.
It’s very empty country but not true wilderness. People have roamed these hills for millennia.
Occasionally we take time out from flower hunting to explore some of the historical aspects of the island. Phaestos is an ancient Minoan structure, dating from about 1900BC. Evidently it was originally a palace with Royal apartments but also public places which acted as a centre for various intellectual activities of the time and over a period of several centuries had been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times before being destroyed by invaders and finally abandoned.
Another day we stop at the monastery of Preveli, a 15th century structure. Nearby is a war memorial dedicated to allied soldiers, including New Zealanders, and the abbot of the monastery at the time who hid allies from the Germans and helped others to escape to allied headquarters in Africa.
Spili, a small mountain village where we stay for a week is small with a winding main street backed by steep, rocky mountains. I go exploring and it has narrow pathways leading up through often quite dilapidated houses. I emerge above the village and keep climbing through masses of yellow Jerusalem sage. I hear a troupe of animals and catch a glimpse of sheep, or they may be goats, all wearing bells, being guided down the track and so home for the night ……. by a ute!!
Strange how wildflowers are often yellow. In Western Australia yellow was the dominant colour in the riot of wildflowers I saw there last year; this year on Crete the colour is similar although the plants are not. There are species of broom and gorse, golden ranunculus, brilliant yellow oxalis (which is fine in the wild, not in the garden), small gold-yellow trefoils or clovers and dandelions in their thousands. One of my favourites is the giant fennel, Ferula communis, growing all over the island and standing tall with its golden flower heads waving in the wind.
We’re also on the lookout for tulips, another flower we tend to think of only as a cultivated garden plant. There were fewer this season than expected, but one day we skirted round a field where the short-stemmed Tulipa doerfleri scattered its red blooms amongst wild grass. Another day we found fritillarias in a small patch almost hidden by the tangled scrub they were growing in.
Unlike a cultivated garden, where so much thought and planning is involved and the pleasure is predictable, seeking wild flowers is a kind of treasure hunt. You know there are surprises lurking in unexpected places; joy is in discovering them.