1996, Course 31, Study Tour, Crete

Study Tour to Crete

Course 31

Participants: Anna Bayley, Katie Butler, Felicity Frost (staff), Gwenda Kitchener, Christopher Leach and Richard Ottaway

Course 31 chose to visit Crete for its third year study tour, with the assistance of funding from the Kew Guild. The group carefully researched the Cretan flora before the visit and selected target subjects to research.

Our expectations were certainly not disappointed. During this April visit we almost literally could not move for orchids, which were flowering in profusion by the roadside. We nearly caused several traffic accidents by spotting these roadside jewels and screeching to a halt to inspect them! We saw many species of Ophrys and Orchis.

The topography of the island provides spectacular contrasts between the low, hot coastal areas and the central mountain ranges. We experienced this during visits to the high plateau of Lassithiou and the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) where the temperature was much lower and the humidity much higher. The contrast in the flora was equally astonishing. A `hike’ down the Imbros Gorge, a smaller version of the famous Samaria Gorge, which was closed in this season, provided us with a veritable feast of diversity. Notable examples were Cretan endemics such as Procopiana cretica and Origanum dictamnus — and lots more orchids! Examples of woody species in the Gorge included Quercus coccifera and the evergreen Acer sempervirens. We arrived at the bottom of the Gorge, Chora Sfakia, to find the rest of the (non-botanical) excursion party waiting impatiently for us, having treated the Gorge as a pleasant stroll!

A visit to Crete would be incomplete without visiting the Minoan palace at Knossos. This labyrinthine ruin evokes a vision of this peace-loving matriarchal ancient culture in all its complexity. Being a major tourist site, we were able to observe Cretan amenity horticulture. The Citrus used as street trees were in full flower and their delicious scent filled the air. Nearby, however, the car park was being extended, cutting an ugly swathe into the Minoan landscape. It remains to be seen whether Crete can extend its already burgeoning tourist industry without sacrificing habitats and natural beauty.

One of our interests was ethnobotany and we talked to several Cretans about their use of plants. Herbal teas are popular for refreshment and as medicinal treatments and there are stalls in the streets selling them. Wild-harvested plants are particularly prized and gatherers risk their lives to pick herbs in the mountains, including the Stone Fern (Asplenium ceterach), used for urinary system problems, and the legendary Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), drunk for pleasure and as a digestive. Mandrake (Mandragora sp.) was also seen growing wild and the Squirting Cucumber (Ecballium elaterium) was a common opportunistic weed. We wondered what it must be like when they all ripen!

Our trip to Crete was unforgettable. The flora was a constant source of interest and the archeological sites added historical depth to our experience. But above all, it was the people of Crete who impressed us the most.The genuine friendliness and unconditional generosity of the Cretans we encountered made our visit enjoyable and relaxed. In spite of the tourist environment, they treated us like welcome guests in their beautiful Mediterranean island.

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