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Tha Flora

The natural beauties of Crete, the "fair wooded island" as it was called by Homer in the Odyssey, Crete the "windyo" isle, have been sung since antiquity. Herodotus speaks of an island covered with shade trees; it is no coincidence that the name of the central mountains of Crete, Ida, derives from the Doric idha = forest. The forests in fact covered almost the entire territory of the island and supplied precious material as early as the Minoan period for construction of palaces, and under Venetian rule, for ships and fortifications. Forest fires, grazing, and indiscriminate use of the land by man have nevertheless greatly reduced the forested acreage over the centuries.

Today, the territory of Crete is in the main exploited for agriculture and grazing: in the highlands, in the fertile plains, and in the areas in which the lay of the land and climatic conditions permit, intensive cultivation produces citrus fruits, bananas, vegetables, grapes, almonds, figs, and other products destined for the foreign as well as the domestic markets.

In order to achieve greater competitiveness on the market, plastic covered greenhouses are often used by now, these constructions have become normal, albeit not aesthetically pleasing, elements of the landscape. Abandoned terracing and windmills in working order and in disuse remind the visitor of the great importance that has been vested by agriculture since the most remote times. Agriculture is flanked in importance by herding: goats and sheep are to be found literally everywhere on Crete, where almost 50% of the territory is given over to pastures.

Unfortunately, however, the sheep and above all the goats destroy many of the plants, so that in the end the typical vegetation of the island is represented mainly by garrigue and phrygana formations characterized by spiny, highly aromatic graze-resistant plants. The other element that has modified the natural landscape is the extensive urbanization that has taken place on the island mainly in response to the tourist demand: kilometer after kilometer of the territory, especially along the northern coast, is by now entirely occupied by buildings and tourist complexes - and the building continues. Of the ancient and famous forests sung by the poets there remain only limited extensions o/Pinus brutia, Italian Cypress, and the spiny Kermes Oak. Nevertheless, Crete still possesses an unquestionable charm, not only thanks to its architectural treasures, the authentic hospitality of its people, and the renowned vacation spots, but also to its natural beauty.

The tourist whose curiosity is aroused by the rich plant life of the island is never disappointed. Above all in the spring the visitor to Crete can admire many different and some very particular plants in full bloom as he travels to beaches, gorges, mountains, and the archaeological sites and castle ruins. The vastly assorted flora of Crete counts more than 1700 species with distributions from the beaches to the highest mountains; to these we must add the about 70 plants introduced in various periods of history from other countries; many of these have become naturalized. There are numerous endemics (about 10% of the total), the majority of which are found in the gorges and in the high mountains; that is, in the most inaccessible environments and therefore those richest in 'natural' vegetation.

The climate of the island is marked by its scarce rainfall, high summer temperatures, and strong winds; moreover, the soil is incapable of holding the moisture provided by precipitation. There thus are created arid conditions that the perennial plants are able to withstand only thanks to specific adaptations that limit the transpiration of water, like hairiness and leaves that are small and leathery or caducous during the dry season. Other adaptations, like the development of thorns and production of highly aromatic substances, discourage the grazing animals.

Many plants flower in the spring, when climatic conditions are most favorable, and live through the driest season in the form of underground organs such as bulbs, tubers, or rhizomes (geophytes), or as seeds. The arboreal species on Crete are relatively few, only about a dozen, while the prevailing plant type is the xerophytic shrub with its special adaptations for withstanding the aridity of the climate and the grazing animals; the geophytes are also many in number. Today's vegetation and flora therefore represent the result of geological events, climatic influences, and the prolonged and complex action exerted by man on his environment.

This guide examines the flowers botany enthusiasts will be most likely to see during their stay as visitors to Crete. In order to aid species recognition, the plants have been grouped by environments: coastal communities (sandy and rocky coasts), woodlands, maquis, garrigues and phrygana, rupestrian habitats, gorges, wet areas, and lands that have felt the effects of anthropization (roadsides, old walls, cultivated and abandoned farmland). Only naturally, many plants are common to more than one environment. This is true above all for the phrygana, where we will find many of the plants listed as living in the garrigues, and for the gorges, composite environments that host the plants that typically live on cliffs and along watercourses.

Certain of the plants listed are rare or endangered, or thrive in habitats worthy of conservation. For this reason we have included the relative European Community environmental protection provisions as set forth in the EUROPEAN COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 'on the, conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora' of naturalistic interest at the Community level (Natural Habitats Directive,).

Article by Marina Clauser , Photos by Andrea Innocenti and Stelios Asmargianakis



Posted on: 11/02/2011






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