The Coastal Communities of Crete

David Beeson, April 2022

Sand daffodil
Sand daffodil leaves at Plakias

Earlier this month we embarked on a botanical visit to the Greek island of Crete. We have been there twice, previously both walking and seeking plants, but this time headed for the centre of the island, to Rethymno. We had not been to this part of Crete.

Crete is a mountainous island and, despite sitting in the Mediterranean it has snow-covered mountains in April. The highest peak is 2456m, over 8000ft. The bulk of the population is on the north coast and much of the rest is rocky, sheep and goat infested infertile scrub. However, in a very few locations there are amazing numbers and diversity of orchids – and they will be covered in another article.

Roman amphitheatre at Aptera with the White Mountains behind.

Sandy beaches are found along the north coast and that has attracted tourism, yet it also attracts logger-head turtles that come ashore to dig their egg pits. In fact, our own hotel proudly displayed its credentials in looking after its turtles. These endangered creatures come from May until the autumn, so visit then to have any chance of seeing egg-laying.

Many of the beaches are of fine sand with clear seas on one side and towering cliffs on the other. Elsewhere loose agriculture abuts the shore and here we discovered some of the sand-dwelling plants native to Crete.

Sandy beaches are demanding habitats. The plants can be sprayed with salty water one day, pounded by rainwater the next, while between they dwell in shifting sands and 40 Celsius temperatures. But, of course, evolution has driven plants to adapt to these conditions and diverse communities have arisen when allowed.

Plakias, on the south coast, with Ammophilla dunes.

The sand stabilizer is often marram grass, Ammophila arenaria, and this does occur, yet we found it in a limited number of places. The plant has deep roots that can reach non-salty underground water. Its lateral roots stop the sand from drifting too much so other less deep-rooted plants can establish. Among them, and often standing alone and dominant, is the excruciatingly beautiful Pancratium maritium, the sand daffodil. This is a plant we grow, potted, at home. It has thick, flat ribbon-shaped leaves, 2 to 4 cm wide, often showing one or more twists in the blade. It flowers from August to late October with large, fragrant, very showy white flowers. The plant inspired ancient wall paintings. We found it on both the north coast and at Plakias in the south.

The sea holly, Eryngium maritium, was found near Georgioupoli. This has glaucous leaves and blue flowers. Its roots were prescribed as a cure for flatulence.

Matthiola, three-horned stock, is found near the sea, on sand or rocky promontories. The common name refers to the husk of the fruit which has three horns at the apex.

Further from the sea the plant diversity increased with the environmental conditions being less extreme as salt concentrations are lower. There were many annuals here, often low growing. Silene colorata has beautiful showy deep pink flowers with lobed petals and covered large areas. Equally stunning was Matthiola tricuspidate, a greyish-downy annual with four petals in a light pink to violet colour. Sea lavender occurred occasionally, and convolvulus spread around the shrubbier plants.

Both red and blue versions of the pimpernel are found.
Paronychia macrosepala with its small white flowers grouped in flowerheads and surrounded by silvery bracts.
As the shoreline plants gave way to semi-agricultural soils we found squirting cucumber. Ecballium elaterium. It disperses its seeds when its fruit is given the slightest touch – working as a little bomb it bursts throwing its seeds far away. The plant is poisonous.
Sea holly – not Greek photo.

Crete is an interesting island, and worth visiting. We found the pre-Easter weather a good temperature but it is windy and not an ideal spot for a beach holiday. The outdoor pool was 19C. Cold! Walking off roads can also be an issue as they are not maintained and hardly signed; best to go with a walking holiday company.

Olive groves are usually ploughed but the resulting vegetation is used for sheep grazing. We found the groves in the far east of the island more productive for orchids as they seemed less grazed.
Rosey leek in an olive grove.

The spring flowers were exuberant with daisy-like flowers in wonderful numbers around cultivated plots. The big snag being the sheep and goats, that range widely sometimes with human support, eating out the vegetation.

Archaeological sites are good for flowers – the sheep and goats are kept out.
Shepherd and his flock near Spilli. The soils and vegetation are degraded by these flocks and many parts of the island have no significant trees or non-aggressive plants.

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