Tag Archive for: autumn bulbs

Greece in Autumn

Last week I told you about the beginning of a tour I led for Greentours to the Peloponnese in south-western Greece. Today I will pick up where I left off for the second half of the trip. While the mediterranean climate is a draw for many a tourist in the area, Greece in autumn holds a special lure for nature enthusiasts at this time of year in the form of stunning arrays of autumn bulbs.

The second morning in Gytheio we woke to bright blue skies and after a lovely breakfast overlooking the calm waters of the harbour, we set off for the day. We headed north towards Sparta and skirted the edge of the town heading west towards the hilltop citadel of Mystras. From afar you could barely see it, the hill it is perched upon blends almost seamlessly with the vertiginous Taygetos range behind. Driving closer, the ancient site becomes clearer by the moment and before you know it the road is winding its way up to the entrance. We parked up and walked round to the gate. On the gate tower itself we had fantastic views of an Eastern Rock Nuthatch preening on a sapling that grew between the stones. Under the arch we found a lovely clump of purple Campanula versicolor blooming in the shelter of the old walls. Once again nature and history were intertwined in an effortless beauty.

We spent over an hour wandering at leisure among the ruins, some more complete than others, Byzantine churches scattered throughout. The views over the plain below from the Upper Fortress was spectacular. In sunnier spots Greek Rock Lizards and Peloponnese Wall Lizards skittered about in search of prey, occasionally chasing one another.






There were lots of butterflies around too, among them Comma, Red Admiral, Clouded Yellow, Small White, Brown Argus, Small Copper and Wall Brown as well as Hummingbird Hawkmoths whizzing energetically from flower to flower. A Cetti’s Warbler sung from an olive grove on the hillside, a Redstart danced its characteristic bob on a rooftop and Buzzards soared on the rising thermals above.




It was soon time to move on and we wound our way further uphill and into the mountains. Beside a mountain pass we found our next stop near a chapel under magnificent Plane trees. Here, a small stream trickled its way downhill and having enjoyed a picnic we set out to explore our surroundings. The trees here feel almost as old as the mountains around them, huge boles supporting branches laden with golden autumn leaves, many hollow but still reaching skyward. There should have been Fire Salamanders to be found but despite our utmost searching we didn’t come across them. The area was green with mosses and beautiful variations of Cyclamen hederifolium leaves and, among them, masses of different fungi.




The main purpose of our stop here was not the salamanders but another autumn bulb and a particularly stunning one at that, Galanthus regina-olgae, a relatively large but nevertheless delicate Snowdrop.




Having spent a happy afternoon discovering the treasures under the trees we headed back to the vans for the journey home. On the top step by the chapel was one last surprise, a Western Conifer Seed Bug. This species is in fact invasive, native to North America originally and spreading across Europe, but still interesting to see.




The following day our first aim was to head back out to the Narcissus tazetta site on the edge of town which we had visited so briefly in the rain. The sun was shining and there was a lot more life to be seen. The dainty daffodils were out a little further and giving off a sweet, heady scent in the warm air.




With less of a hurry to get out of the rain we found more this time too. There were Crocus boryiCyclamen graecum and Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula to be seen as well as a lovely Clematis cirrhosa which was draped over almost every tree in a neighbouring gulley. Male and female forms of Ephedra foemina hung from the road bridge over the gulley and intriguingly, several instars of Swallowtail caterpillar were found on a single Fennel plant. There were more birds around too including a sweet female Redstart catching insects from the telegraph wires overhead.




The real difference though was the number of butterflies. The first visit hadn’t yielded a single one, unsurprisingly, but now there were masses. Plain Tigers, similar to the American Monarchs, flapped past in a slightly lazy fashion while Common Blue, Painted Lady, Large Wall Brown, Eastern Bath White, Small White, Red Admiral and Clouded Yellow nectared alongside a new species for the trip, the tiny Lang’s Short Tailed Blue. The star find though came in the form of another caterpillar. Right by the vans were a couple of Oleander bushes; low and behold, nestled among the leaves an Oleander Hawkmoth caterpillar was chomping its way to adulthood. Despite its vibrant turquoise false eyes, it was surprisingly well camouflaged. A quick search revealed several more, some already advancing towards pupation.




We struggled to tear ourselves away from this spot now that we had discovered so many wonderful things but eventually we managed it and headed south into the Mani. Our next stop was by a small coastal village where we found glorious thick clumps of Colchicum parlattoris growing between rocks on the roadside.




As ever, these were not the only lovely things to be seen, there were plenty of butterflies around and several other plants which were now becoming familiar friends. Among the new things though we  had shiny green chafers buzzing round our heads, I found a marvellous Cicada case on a grass stalk and a group member suddenly appeared holding a stunning Glass Lizard. These are legless lizards rather like our Slow Worms but much larger, this beautiful male was about 3 feet long!





Moving on we drove through increasingly typical Mani countryside with hilltop villages all around us, displaying their characteristic square towers. Every strong household had a tower, declaring their status and defending against invasion, both on a personal and village scale, as well as providing a high point from which to shout at your neighbours! The surrounding hillsides are covered in a dense scrub but even driving through there are things to be seen. We came across a Jackal prowling through the bushes at one point and the rocky outcrops were perfect Rock Thrush territory. We stopped for lunch on the edge of a particularly picturesque village called Vathia. There was little to be seen in the way of wildflowers but there were Quail in the undergrowth and the views made up for it.




Our journey south continued till we reached the Gates of Hades and the Death Oracle. This sounds very dramatic, I know, but these are historical sites at Cape Tanaeron. The Gates of Hades are actually a series of caves set back from the small pebble beach there in a narrow gulley where Fig trees grow in the scant shelter from the rugged coastline. The Death Oracle is now the Byzantine Christian remains of a church which was built using the original materials of the Oracle itself. The headland is fairly exposed but still yields some interesting things. Not least the number of recently set seed heads there from the Sea Squill which must have been a fantastic sight in full bloom. There were more Colchicum parlattoris here too, Caper bushes and Ephedra foemina overhung the rocks against the sea. There was a beautifully dainty Sea Lavender too, Limonium virgatum which grew plentifully along the high tide line. Of course there were a few butterflies here too and a lot of Red Winged Grasshoppers as well as a stranger looking grasshopper called Acrida ungarica.

Moving on once more, we took the opposite side of the peninsula to that which we had travelled down. The plan was to stop at a couple of sites for Campanula versicolor  and Mandrake but the amazingly atmospheric skies we were enjoying turned into an enormous thunderstorm with a heavy downpour. It was fairly short lived and we were soon out the other side of it but needless to say the original plan had gone out of the window. Instead, we stopped at a charming little coastal village where we parked almost on the beach. We enjoyed drinks from a local cafe and enjoyed searching the beach for shells. I was particularly pleased to find Tusk Shells and a complete, perfect green sea urchin smaller than a 5p piece. The clouds had dispersed somewhat and we had a lovely Turner-esque sky above us which I managed to snap on my phone just before climbing in the van to drive back to Gytheio as darkness fell.




Sunrise the following morning was fantastic but the red sky in the morning soon lived up to the rhyme. Thankfully the downpour was over soon enough and we were able to load the vans during a break in the weather. Sadly it was to remain overcast for much of the day but spirits un-dampened we carried on regardless. We were heading back inland and starting the long journey back towards Athens.




Of course we couldn’t make the trek without having a few stops first and we began at a roadside site in the middle of nowhere up a mountain, as you do! The scrub here was different with fewer really prickly shrubs and a base of heather, Erica manipuliflora, studded with Spurges and a myriad of other plants. Amongst it all were some lovely Crocus cancellatus and Crocus hadriaticus.  The former were growing in puddles in places while the latter clung to jewel-like water droplets from the previous rain storm.




There was a small pink flower, the foliage of which smelt rather unpleasantly like rotting cabbages when crushed, Putoria calabrica and a dainty white scabious, Lomelosia argentea. Apart from these and the crocuses there were little flowers in this slightly desolate landscape but there were a few Strawberry trees among the scrub and in the damp conditions their rusty red bark glowed.

We were soon moving on once more to a village known for its Crocuses. Here we wandered through a couple of small fields where there were swathes of Crocus goulimyi and Cyclamen graecum. Round the corner, an old stone threshing circle proved the perfect spot where C. goulimyi was joined by C. boryi and C. laevigatus. Another Oleander Hawkmoth caterpillar was found nearby and Goldcrests were feeding in a maple tree.

Our next stop was for lunch above another village where there was a little shelter to sit under. While the picnic was prepared the group scattered in search of some few last treasures. There was soon an excitement as some Spurge Hawkmoth caterpillars had been found on Euphorbia rigida. They were an impressive sight, a little smaller than the Oleander Hawkmoths but vividly coloured. An oil beetle was also discovered but no sooner than we had marvelled at these tiny wonders it was time to hit the road again.




Our journey now was a long one to reach our hotel for the night and we didn’t stop again but we did have wonderful views of the Targetos mountains which rose above the clouds like something from a mythical tale. After navigating a winding mountain pass in the dark we made it back to the first hotel we’d stayed in and a wonderful warm welcome. The following morning would be our last in Greece and would be spent travelling back across the Corinth Isthmus to the airport in Athens. We had enjoyed a fantastic few days in a warmer clime, if slightly wetter on occasion than we might have liked, and seen a beautiful array of wildflowers and wildlife. Greece in autumn had exceeded expectations and I hope to get the chance to lead another tour there in future.



Autumn Bulbs in Glorious Greece

At the beginning of this month I was privileged to spend a week leading a tour to the Peloponnese in southwest Greece for Greentours. It was ostensibly to see the autumn bulbs there, and indeed the display was wonderful, but of course we saw lots more lovely things too so I thought I’d take a moment to share it with you. I had intended to write this a lot sooner but the last couple of weeks have been rather hectic so apologies for the gap between posts!

We flew from Heathrow into Athens, arriving mid-afternoon. Having collected luggage and vehicles we set off northwards across the Corinth Isthmus, crossing the impressive Corinth Canal whilst on the motorway, towards our hotel for the first night. We arrived just as darkness descended to a wonderfully warm welcome.

The following morning we woke to church bells and beautiful sunshine glowing through the leaves of an ancient Plane tree on the village square. Filled with home-cooked breakfast delights and anticipation for the rest of the trip, we were soon on our way again towards our base for the week in the seaside town of Gytheio. Our route took us down in to the valley below which was full of vineyards all displaying wonderful autumn hues. I managed to grab a quick phone-snap having pulled over to take in the scenery for a moment.




Continuing on, we climbed through a hillside village and soon came over the summit of the mountain beyond. The vista which greeted us was incredible, if slightly hazy, with vertiginous slopes giving way to rough woodland lower down where a local goatherd tended his flock and the valley floor below laid out like an interlocking jigsaw of fields, olive groves and vineyards. In the distance the Taygetos mountain rose in a shimmering silhouette among the clouds on the horizon. The road wound its way around a series of sharp hairpin bends and having navigated a couple, we stopped below the summit to admire our first bulbs of the trip, tiny Colchicum cupanii and Cyclamen graecum growing in the crevices between rocks in the verge.




The rich rust-red soil was still damp from an overnight rain shower and the air was thick with aromatic scents of sage and thyme. The sun was warm on our backs and the tiny flowers at our feet were dwarfed by a nectaring Painted Lady, while overhead a pair of Ravens tumbled on the updraft. A Sparrowhawk soared over and the Sardinian Warbler which had been singing from the depths of a nearby Carob tree fell silent. We tore ourselves away from the flowers and clambered back into the vans to continue on down the mountain. It wasn’t long before we stopped again to catch our first glimpse of Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula beside the road. We had inadvertently found a sheltered spot and there were masses of butterflies making the most of the pocket of warmth; Common Blue, Large and Small White, Brown Argus and a tiny Geranium Bronze – a new species in the area having spread across the mediterranean from northern Africa.




The next stop on our journey was a longer one at the ancient ruins of Mycenae where we marvelled at the epic proportions of the Lion Gate while looking for flowers among the excavations. There were swathes of Field Marigold (Calendula arvensis) among the stones as well as more Cyclamen graecum, lovely clusters of the nodding green-humbug-striped Friar’s Cowl (Arisarum vulgare) and the tall seed heads of Sea Squill (Urginea maritima) were interspersed with the much smaller blooms of Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis).




After lunch in the modern village of Mycenae below, we moved on once more. We made one more stop in the hills above Sparta where we had hoped for masses more Sternbergia. Sadly we realised that it had been an early autumn and the majority had been and gone but there were plenty of other interesting things to see such as Crocus biflorus melatherus which has characteristic black anthers and a few lone blooms of Iris unguicularis cratensis in more sheltered spots. A Leopard Snake was spotted basking against a rock. It stuck around just long enough for a few people to take photos before beating a hasty retreat. There were masses of Earth Star Fungi among the lichen underfoot and I was a little surprised to stumble upon a very large Centipede (Scolopendra cingulata).




We were now on the last leg of our journey to the coast and had soon made it to the seaside town in which we would be based for the next few days. We checked into our hotel overlooking the harbour and walked out along the water’s edge to a restaurant for dinner.

The next morning we woke to a torrential downpour and a an uninspiring weather forecast for the rest of the day. After some discussion we decided to head further east for the day to try and avoid the worst of the weather. Having stocked up with picnic provisions we set out and made our first stop just outside town. The spot we had chosen was a good one for Narcissus tazetta among other things but we made it a fairly brief pause due to the poor weather and because we knew that we would have time to stop again later in the week when we hoped it would be sunny!

Heading further east we passed the fortified town of Monemvassia and headed south a short way. We found a spot to stop for lunch on the coast. It was still blustery and the waves in the bay were crashing over a narrow causeway leading to a tiny chapel. This phone-snap captures the atmosphere perfectly!




Having enjoyed an only slightly dampened picnic we headed up into the hills above us. Here we were treated to carpets of sweet scented Cyclamen hederifolium sap. crassifolium under the olive groves and delicate Crocus goulimyi in both purple and white colour forms. Although many were closed up tight against the cooler weather there were a few just open and the views back over the coast from our lofty viewpoint were well worth it too.

Heading back down to sea level we stopped in at Monemvassia. The name means “one entrance” and indeed there is only one way in to this walled town: On foot. We parked up and wandered in to be greeted with narrow cobbled streets and manicured window boxes reminiscent of Mont St Michel. Having explored a little and visited the beautiful church, we retired to a cafe to warm up before heading back to Gytheio.




The following day dawned a lot clearer and we headed south into the northern Mani. The first stop we made was a roadside spot where Colchicum psaridis grew in the verge. Initially our attention was drawn by some rather handsome looking goats being herded into an enclosure further down the hill – every bit the picture of rural Grecian life. We were soon looking at the flowers again though. The Colchicums were joined by Crocus boryii and Crocus goulimyi, Allium callimischon and more of the Friar’s Cowl all among the spiny scrub.




Along with beautiful bulbs we also came across lots of insect life here; Dor Beetles, large millipedes, Glow Worms an uncommon Cedrio sp. beetle and a particularly large and impressive Carabid beetle among others.





Moving on we made another stop only a short distance away to admire a good display of Crocus niveus among the terrace walls of old olive groves beside the road. Most were white but there were a few bicolour forms which were particularly pretty.




Our next stop was possibly one of my favourites of the whole trip; a little chapel among olive groves where we had a lovely picnic in the sunshine before enjoying incredible colourful carpets of flowers under the trees. Here, Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula mingled with Cyclamen graecum, Crocus niveus and Scilla autumnalis in a stunning display while birds sang around us, huge beetles buzzed clumsily through the air and butterflies flitted past. I also came across a jumping spider which had taken up residence in my van. I moved it carefully out into the open air and it sat on a stone wall while I photographed it – I’ve wanted to find one to photograph for a long time so I was thrilled. After my last guest, Matt’s fantastic post about spiders I couldn’t not share!




With some difficulty we left the floral spectacle behind us and drove to a lovely spot a short distance away where we were looking for Narcissus serotinus. These tiny daffodils are incredibly dainty and pretty, a similar size to the Tête à tête that we grow in our gardens in spring but without a pronounced trumpet. Alongside these there were a few Autumn Lady’s Tresses Orchids and among the Crocus boryii one particularly unusual form of the flower with beautiful purple feathering up the petals. There were also several different beetles, Praying Mantises and a colourful Red Veined Darter dragonfly among the scrub.




Our final stop was on the tiny island by Gytheio harbour where the lighthouse stands guard over the rocky coast. The light was beginning to fade but there were still a few things to see there too including Black Redstart and a Kingfisher with its catch. It made for a lovely end to the day.




I realise I’ve been waffling on for a while now and there are still a couple of days and lots more beautiful autumn bulbs to tell you about so I’ll leave those till next week – watch this space!