The Wild Orchids of Crete in Early April

David Beeson, April 2022


Spring in the mid-uplands of Crete is the main time for seeing the flowers on wild orchids. The mild winters, hot summers with winds often coming from the Sahara and the calcareous soils all add to making this a favourable environment. This last winter the rain and snow exceeded expectations, so has encouraged vegetative growth.

Orchis italica is widely dispersed (with the green Smyrnium rotundifolium). On a raised bank, so not easily nibbled or trodden.

You will look in vain for woodland orchids in most places, as there is little woodland, so it is in the open maquis (called phrygana in Crete) that one explores. The three genera you would probably spot are Orchis, Ophrys and Serapias. All these are also found in the UK, but Serapias is an occasional migrant especially to the south-west.

A selection of Spili orchids. The yellow is Orchis pauciflora.

Orchids are short-lived perennial plants that generally grow from a pair of tubers. Here, at Forest Edge, few survive more than a couple of years in a flowering state.

They are monocotyledonous, with parallel veins on their strap-like leaves, a cluster of flowers on the  flower stalk, have colourful bracts and a package of six tepals (petal-like sepals and petals) and their pollen is produced in pollinia. Because their flowers are so different the group attracts more attention than perhaps they deserve, however they can be extraordinarily attractive, and their looking like wild insects to encourage copulation and hence pollen dispersal is an added human attraction. The Ophrys genera’s flowers appear insect-like and are still evolving, so crosses are common and that also generates interest. One is never quite sure what any plant’s flowers will look like – they change colours and patterns. I have a Military x Monkey orchid cross in my garden that is about to flower.

The problems in Crete for the orchids, and flora in general, are the sheep and goat herds plus the ploughing up of orchid-rich areas. Perhaps understandably, the struggling locals gain nothing from their wild orchids and care little. Ditto the authorities, although we have travelled to Crete twice because of them – and that is good income. I have heard it said that the plains above Spili have some conservation protection, yet it is not obvious.

I am seldom convinced by orchid names. They are very variable and folks add titles with little evidence. I suggest this is Ophrys tenthredinifera.

Where and when to visit?

April and early May are the best time. Location – the ‘orchid superhighway’ is on the road between Spili and the Amari Valley. However, you will find orchids elsewhere when animal flocks are not present. Try the Minoan site near Armeni or near Moni Arkadiou.  In the east Plakia and the wonderful Katharo (above Kritsa) have proven good sites.

An orchid site

Botanists from far and wide are attracted to the Spili area and human trampling is an issue. The area needs wardening. It will not happen! We encountered numerous goat and sheep flocks crisscrossing the area, trampled plants and orchid sites ploughed.

Just coming into flower: Aceras anthropophorum, the Man Orchid. This was not in flower on our first visit to the site, but was slightly open three days later. However, it was cold, very windy and dull – so the image is not as good as I would have wished.
Orchis tenthredinifera
Ophrys cretica variant or O. ariadnae
Orchis lactea
Ophrys bombyliflora, Bumblebee Orchid.
Wild iris on the orchid site.
Orchis italica at the Minoan site
Orchis pauciflora
Orchis boryi seemed to prefer moister locations.
Seraoias orchids look unlike many other types. This was photographed near Plakias.
Anemone hortensis near Spili
Anemone coronaria near Spili.
The very last of the Narcissus tazetta were holding on. Found in damp areas near the orchids.

As I said above, ophrys orchids can be very variable and happily cross with other species, so putting an absolute name to any given plant is problematic. Our local guide said we had also seen Ophrys herae and kedra, but my photographs are not clear enough to decide. Barlinia robertiana and Ophrys apifera were at the Minoan site and not photographed this time.

For Annette and myself, being in wild places with the sights and sounds of wildlife is a pleasure in itself. Putting names to plants is okay, but not majorly important to us. The ecology is important, yet deciding why that orchid thrives there and not just over there is quite beyond me!

And, yes, my camera needs changing. Not the best images.

North coast beach with the White Mountains in the distance.
Monastry church at Moni Arkadiou
Overlooking Souda Bay from Aptera.
Roman amphitheatre at Aptera. is the homepage. Go there for over 150 ad-free articles on wildlife.

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