By Jennifer Gay

Athens News

A Spring day on a hillside in Greece is an unforgettable experience, with the warmth of the sun on your skin, a tapestry of colour beneath your feet and startling blue seas and skies stretching before you. How lovely it would be to capture that quintessential Greekness and transfer it to your own plot. Actually, it is possible: whenever I begin to garden anywhere, one of the first things I consider is which plants grow naturally in that locality ... and why. By taking note of those plants content in their place - either growing in the wild or in gardens - I gather ideas about what could flourish. Greece is rich in natural flora and has many plants that are excellent candidates for garden use.

As well as observing the local flora, it also is important to understand how the vegetation came to be as it is. The landscape of Greece has undergone considerable change over the millennia. Once oak forest covered these lands; many centuries of fire, deforestation and overgrazing have changed all that. Climatic influences also play their part. Understanding the terrain - and how it evolved - helps us to garden here.

Located at the southernmost part of the Balkan Peninsula, Greece is a country of contrasts. The landscape soars into highlands and dips into valleys, with only the occasional plain interspersed. Much of the land is wild, rugged, mountainous, with more than 40 percent lying above 500m. Looming through the mainland from northwest to southeast, the Grammos and central Pindus ranges are sparsely populated, while Mount Olympus, home to the gods of ancient Greece, reigns over the rest of the country at a height of 2,917m. The soils are mostly thin and poor, and in many places bare rock shows at the surface, with good soils restricted to coastal lowlands. Long rivers and wide valleys are rare features. Most water-courses are irregular and seasonal in character; one hardly can recognise the same stretch of river, when comparing the dried out riverbeds of summer to the raging torrents of winter.

The dramatic coastline of Greece stretches 15,000km, the longest in Europe. As well as the Mediterranean, the seas of the Aegean and Ionian wash onto her shores, gently lapping into countless bays and inlets. Around 3,000 small islands dot the sparkling blue waters, many inhospitable and uninhabited.

Most of Greece has a typical Mediterranean climate of short, relatively mild, rainy winters and long, hot, dry summers, with a tendency towards the extreme of the expected temperature ranges in both seasons. No location is very far from the sea, but there is more variety than one might imagine. The mountainous region is influenced by the central European weather system and has a semi-Continental or Alpine climate, with cool, breezy summers and long, cold winters. The peaks of northern Greece could be snow-covered until late spring, while in eastern Crete summer may have arrived. Even in August, the mountains can be chilly: hard to believe, when in southern Greece every living creature is seeking shelter from the relentless sun.

Thankfully, breezes soften the intense heat of the long, dry summers. A northerly wind, the meltemi, often blows down through the Aegean, while the west coast is more affected by Adriatic north westerlies.

Rain falls almost entirely during the winter from November to April, but amounts vary considerably across the country, with more precipitation in the west. The island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea receives about 1,350mm per annum, while Attica, the Cyclades and eastern Crete often receive less than 400mm. Local weather systems may prevail, particularly where there are highlands close to the sea, whipping up strong intermittent winds.

These differences in climate and topography are reflected in the great diversity found in the Greek flora and fauna. This comparatively small country has 6,000 plant species, of which one tenth is unique to Greece. The variety is truly staggering in spring and early summer, when annuals and bulbs are at their peak. The richness is also a reflection of Greece's physical isolation from the rest of Europe, surrounded by seas on three sides and mountains to the north. Plants have had perfect opportunities to develop new species, especially on highlands and islands.

This floral cornucopia acts as a cornerstone for the gardens of Greece. Among the jewels to be found on the hillsides and coasts are trees, shrubs and flowers of exceptional value. Yet few are available commercially.

In fact, many plants in Greek gardens hail from other parts of the world. The Mediterranean Basin's distinctive climate pattern also occurs in four other far-flung corners of the planet: California, Chile, South Africa and Southwest Australia. Many plants from these areas are old favourites in our gardens: for example, Geranium (Pelargonium) and Lead-wort (Plumbago) hail from South Africa, Californian Lilac (Ceanothus) and California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) come from the west coast of America, Bottlebrush (Callistemon) and Eucalypts from Australia, with Fuchsia and Alstroemeria from Chile. These plants are cultivated so widely that many people hardly realise they are imports.

Historically, the different Mediterranean climate regions have exchanged species, though the net balance of movement has been away from Europe. A huge number of ornamental and crop species - including grapes, olives, wheat, citrus fruits and figs - were exported to the New World from the Mediterranean Basin, after early explorers noticed similarities in climate and characteristic vegetation. European plant hunters then began to collect species on their exploratory travels. They introduced plants, often for their ornamental virtues, to Europe and so the exchange continued.

An interesting point to note is that the Mediterranean climate zones share a similar position on the planet, occurring between 30-45° latitude (California and the Mediterranean Basin to the north of the equator and South Africa, Australia and Chile to the south). All these areas are located on the western or southwestern coasts of continents, where cold, offshore ocean currents usually moderate summer temperatures. Only the Mediterranean Basin proper, virtually land-locked, does not have this benefit and thus it warms up considerably more during the summer than the other regions.

Rainfall is concentrated during the mild, winter half of the year and is relatively low at 25-IOOcm annually (though this can vary considerably from year to year and region to region). Beautiful sunny days with clear skies are characteristic, interspersed by days of heavy rain, often fast and furious. Gradually the wet spell evaporates into a relatively short spring, followed by a long summer with weeks on end of blue skies and virtually no rain.

In all the zones, mountains run parallel to the coastline, causing distinct rain shadows and microclimates. Such regions have little precipitation because the high ground shelters them from rain-bearing winds. Summer fires occur frequently as a natural phenomenon (and now, unfortunately, as a quite unnatural one). The blazes renew vegetative growth and some species are adapted to this burn regime.

Some knowledge of the climate we grow in helps us understand and care for our plants properly. Using species from other Mediterranean climate zones helps us get the best year-round performance - and with the least effort. These species flourish side by side with the abundance of Greek plants that can grace our gardens.

(Posting date 7 June 2006)

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