Sunday, 20 April 2008

Tulips from Lesvos

As a child you collected cigar-bands, sugar-bags or stamps. Growing older the collectors boxes and albums were put into a cupboard and forgotten. Only getting much older people get to an age to restart collecting things...

The birdwatchers and botanists who visit Lesvos are in fact also collectors. Instead of albums with printed places where they have to place their stamps, they follow the books of scientists that have written where things have to flower, grow of fly.

Last week I wrote that here on Lesvos there are some 46 varieties of dragonflies and some 320 varieties of birds. The number of plants here on the island is estimated at about 1,400 to 1,500. A real job to find and document them all.

Last week I went for a walk with two botanists who had met each other only that same day. I soon saw my mistake: going for a walk with one botanist is nice and very interesting. Going for a walk with 2 botanists is a disaster: they put their noses into the long grasses and you can wait as long as you want, but for them no more walking. Their debating about names, sorts, forms and colours has no end.

So yesterday I went for a walk with only one botanist, which still demands some patience, because now it is high season not only for the birdwatchers, but also for the botanists. The island is booming with flowers and on each walk you will find different ones and all are to be photographed and documented. This time we went from Lafionas (close to Petra) to Klapados, a village deserted since the Turks that lived there were chased out in 1920 (rumour says they were all killed). The houses are now taken over by nature.

Standing at the foot of a little waterfall where a huge dark purple Arum (Arum dioscoridis) flowered, I regretted not having stayed home. While I waited for the botanist I followed a tortoise that strolled across the path, I looked for unknown flowers and I tried to identify the different songs of the birds that performed a deafening concert in the mountains. A little later however I didn't at all regret coming for a walk with the botanist: I saw tulips!

I must admit that I am still a Dutch woman who is crazy about tulips. Of course it is now well known that tulips didn't originally come from Holland. They come from somewhere in Central Asia. But it's the Dutch that cultivated the tulips since the 16th century and made all the colourful and fancy varieties that you now see all over the world.

In the 16th century the Austrian ambassador to Turkey took some tulips to his friend Carolus Clusius, who worked in the Royal garden of Vienna. A little later Clusius became professor at the university of Leiden (Holland) and took the tulips with him. He was crazy about tulips and started cultivating them, with beautiful new coloured ones as a result. In 1592 he published a book about tulips, the first book ever written on tulips. The years between 1630 and 1637 are known as the Dutch tulip mania. Tulip bulbs were hyped on the exchange market. A tulip bulb in those years was even more expensive than a house on a canal in Amsterdam! When the speculation crashed, many a merchant went bankrupt.

When you see the wild tulips here (the Aegean Tulip, Tulipa aegenensis), you wonder how come that these simple flowers have such a rich history. If you don't pay close attention you can easily confuse them with the red poppies or the red anemones that are also still flowering.

Here on the island the tulips grow on the higher mountain slopes (I would guess above 500 metres). Last year I though that when you wanted to see them, you had to climb Olympos or Lepetimnos all the way, a journey I made once and never again because of my fear of heights and when finally reaching the tulips, they were fenced in and far from the fences. On the road to Klapados, they were so near I could touch them. It took a great effort not to pick them, they are protected.

After the Arum and the tulip we got another surprise: a very strange flower, which looked like the Star of Bethlehem, but each flower had a large ball between its leaves. A flower with balls so to speak. I first thought that it might be chick peas, the balls had that shape and I must admit that I've still never seen the chick pea plant. But a botanist knows where to look and after consulting different books on plants in the Aegean area we got the name: a fruit bearing Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sphaerocarpum), a rare form because they do not bear fruit every year. What happened to make them bear fruit is a big question...

So I'm not going to bother you with the names of all the other flowers we encountered. We walked through knee high colourful flowering meadows where bees were buzzing frantically and the sweet smell of honey made you think you had just entered the workplace of a beekeeper. (be careful: last week a woman was hospitalised after she was stung many times by bees while passing some beehives).

We passed forest boundaries where bright yellow Oriental Spring Sunflowers (Doronicum columnae) lit up amongst the dark undergrowth, we saw the mysterious Viagra (Dracunculus vulgaris) which had just opened its enormous flower, we smelled all those odours, we saw so many colours and finally I couldn't resist picking a bunch of bright blue cornflowers to take home.

Collecting is fun, especially when you have some 1500 plants to discover. But sometimes you get dizzy from the idea that you have to find them on such a big island. You have to be at the right place at the right time, because plants have their own calendar for when to appear. We have a few more weeks to go in this crazy world of flowers and then we are facing the drying out landscapes. Sometimes you wish it could always be spring...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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