The hidden treasure of Crete
Crete, an Eastern Mediterranean island, is the largest island of Greece and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean basin. Of an elongated shape, it has a diversified terrain, but it is predominantly mountainous, with three mountain massifs higher than 2000 m. Its topographic and climatic variability have created a wide range of habitats, which in combination with the island’s long isolation have resulted into high rates of plant endemism. Crete is recognized by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as a Global Centre of Plant Diversity having 223 endemic taxa (species and subspecies). This biodiversity hotspot attracts every year scientists, tourists, botanists, and naturalists from all over the world.
The 10 most important endemic and rare plant species of Crete are:
Malotira (Sideritis syriaca), also known as Cretan Mountain tea, is one of the most characteristic Cretan herbs. It is an herbaceous plant or shrub, 10-50cm long, which grows in West Crete (over 900 m). The species is endemic to Crete and is collected in July, during the period of its flowering. The word “malotíra” comes from the Venetian period in Crete (male = illness, tirare = drag). Its tea is used against colds and as a medicine for the stomach. Try it with honey!
Dittany (Origanum dictamnus) is a unique aromatic plant endemic to the island of Crete. In the wild, it grows exclusively as a rock-dweller in crevices and rocky habitats, generally from 300 m or more commonly from 500 m to 1800 m. Its above ground parts (non-woody parts) have been traditionally used in Crete as a herbal substance for preparation of a tea (locally called ‘vrastari’ from the verb vrazo=to boil). The famous dittany, also known as eronda, was used since ancient times in the cure of stomach ache and the healing of wounds. It is said that when wild animals are injured, they rub their sore on the plant and it is healed right away!
Abelitsia (Zelkova abeliceae) is one of the rarest trees in the world, which grows almost exclusively in small populations in the White Mountains (Chania). This tree has the most preferred wood for making the katsouna, the traditional Cretan shepherd’s crook, because of its tough nature. Today it is forbidden by law to use abelitsia for making a katsouna, since it is made of an entire young tree!
- White sand lily
The sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), also known as lily of Knossos, beach saffron or beach crocus is a charming flower that overwhelms the dunes of Crete from August to October. Unfortunately, in recent years its population has been limited to a few beaches, due to the shrinking of its habitats. Thus, the lily is today protected by Greek and international legislation!
Anthemis glaberrima is an endemic flower to the islets of Agria Gramvousa and Imeri Gramvousa located at the north-western tip of Crete. This beautiful species is an annual herb, grows on littoral rocks and flowers from April until May. It has been categorized CR (Critically Endangered) according to IUCN Red List. The main threats to this species include accidental or deliberate introduction of goats or invasive plant species to the islets as well as garbage!
Androcymbium rechingeri is a very rare Cretan endemic flower found only on the islet of Elafonisi and a few other locations on the west coast of Crete. It grows on sandy soil and flowers from December to February. Today it is an endangered species, according to the Red Data Book of Rare and Threatened Plants of Greece, because its populations have been badly affected and have taken on tremendous detrimental pressures attributed to various touristic activities!
- Cretan date palm
The Cretan date palm (Phoenix theophrasti) is one of the only three palms endemic to Europe. It grows naturally on the island of Crete in Greece and in south-west Turkey. In Crete, the largest natural palm forest in Europe grows in Vai. The palm grows up to 17 m high and is found in coastal areas, within a few meters from the seaside or along stream banks and rocky gullies. Cretan date palm has no commercial value, but its leaves are used when celebrating Palm Sunday in Crete!
- Cretan Orchid
The Cretan orchid (Cephalanthera cucullata) is endemic to Crete, extremely rare and listed as endangered. It is found in three mountainous locations in Crete (the White Mountains, the Psiloritis range and the Dikti range) on altitudes ranging between 700-1500 m, and nowhere else in the world. The total population has been estimated at 500 individuals and is decreasing!
- Cretan ebony
The Cretan ebony (Ebenus cretica) is an impressive bush endemic to Crete, which adorns the Cretan mountains. It is a perennial small, deep-rooted shrub that reaches the height of 1 meter. It grows in cliffs or steep hills and flowers from late March to June. The flowering period lasts about 1 month and the flowers are fabulous, in color of pink!
- Cretan Bell
The Cretan Bell (Campanula cretica) is an endemic flower found only in western Crete, where it blooms in profusion on roadside, steep rocky banks and shady cliffs. It is listed in the Greek Red Data Book of endangered species. Its colours range from white, through pink to blue and its flowers can be found from June to September.