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Photos & text

Creative Commons License
Photos & texts by Sabina Burrascano is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Italy License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at: info@plantsdontlie.com.

Are we valuing what is really unique in temperate forest?

Besides hosting most terrestrial plants and animals, forests provide a wide range of services to human societies, ranging from the provision of timber and other forest products, protection from landslides and avalanches in mountain areas, clean water and clean air. Forest also sink and store large amounts of carbon, mostly in wood and soils, contributing to climate change mitigation.

Currently, climate change has a greater relevance in the scientific and political agenda as compared to the ongoing dramatic biodiversity decline. Therefore, global and regional environmental policies often prioritize forest carbon stocks and assume that a forest with a high amount of woody biomass also has a high value for the conservation of biodiversity.

One the one hand, this assumption is particularly convenient when it comes to monitoring, since quantifying the amount of carbon in woody biomass is much less difficult and costly than measuring forest biodiversity. On the other hand, looking at carbon without directly assessing the patterns of forest biodiversity can be dangerous. As a matter of fact, carbon is just the same across pools and ecosystems, whereas forest biodiversity represents a unique and irreplaceable value that differs across forest types and regions.

Recent studies confirm the correlation between carbon stocks and biodiversity at the global scale with regards to vertebrates’ species richness. Still, it is unclear whether the same happens at the fine scales relevant for management and for multiple taxonomic groups.

When managing forests, we should preserve both carbon stocks and biodiversity and, in case not both of them can be jointly maximised, make choices and set priorities. In our paper ‘Trade‐offs between carbon stocks and biodiversity in European temperate forests’, recently published in Global Change Biology, we try to assess whether we can we manage forests to both support biodiversity and maximize the amount of carbon they store.

Such a complex research question should account for information on multiple ecosystem components and requires the joint effort of several research groups bringing together data and expertise. A huge field work, carried out under different research projects, provided information on forest carbon, vascular plants, lichens, bryophytes, saproxylic beetles, wood-inhabiting fungi and birds in more than 352 plots in 22 beech and deciduous oak forest sites across Hungary, France and Italy.

 

fieldwork

Insect, lichen and plant taxonomists during field sampling. Credits: F. Parisi, S. Ravera, S. Burrascano.

These data were used by Francesco Maria Sabatini to model the relationships between forest biodiversity and carbon considering both an aggregated measures of biodiversity (i.e., species richness) and the individual response of individual species.

We found little evidence that above‐ground live carbon and species richness in temperate forests are congruent at the extent of individual forest stands.

brt

Relationship between species richness of different taxonomic groups and above‐ground live carbon modelled through Boosted Regression Trees. Scaled richness equals the fraction of the species pool for a given plot. Ticks on the x‐axis represent above‐ground live carbon data distribution. Values in parenthesis represent the relative importance of aboveground live carbon. Credits: freedownloads.com; openclipart.org.

Considering species richness does not return the whole picture. Our analyses on species composition indicate that, for increasing carbon levels there is a turnover between species adapted to carbon-dense forests ( ‘win-win’ species), which slowly replace open-habitat species (‘trade-off’ species).

We checked whether a specific threshold in forest carbon exists at which most of this turnover occurs. Such a threshold would provide an indication for forest managers on how forest carbon can be manipulated without negative repercussions on biodiversity. However, we found that species and community‐level change points differed between win‐win and trade‐off species, and across taxa and forest types.

 

change-points
Community-level change-points and 90% quantiles along the aboveground live carbon gradient for different taxonomic groups in oak and beech forests. Tick marks on the x-axis represent aboveground live carbon data distribution.

Overall, our results suggest that, at the extent of an individual forest stand, biodiversity and carbon cannot be jointly maximized. Rather, forest planners and managers should carefully evaluate whether to give priority to biodiversity conservation or carbon‐related goals, since maximizing forest carbon stock (e.g., by altering the number and arrangement of trees via thinning or planting) may only benefit some species, while being detrimental to others.

Reconciling biodiversity and carbon objectives requires planning across multiple scales, so to find the optimal arrangement of management types which delivers highest co‐benefits by integrating stand‐level structural and compositional features.

 

Full Reference

Sabatini FM, de Andrade RB, Paillet Y, Ódor P, Bouget C, Campagnaro T, Gosselin F, Janssen P, Mattioli W, Nascimbene J, Sitzia T, Kuemmerle T, Burrascano S, 2018. Trade‐offs between carbon stocks and biodiversity in European temperate forests. GLOBAL CHANGE BIOLOGY. n\a, 1-13. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14503

Looking for easier (and cheaper) forest monitoring

The success of any initiative to conserve biodiversity relies on the availability of objective and timely information on its distribution, which is extremely complex and expensive. Counting the number of species in a forest can be overwhelming if one considers several groups of organisms (e.g. insects, spiders, birds, lichens, fungi), also because some of these groups are very difficult to identify. Such a sampling requires hundreds of hours to a team of well-trained field biologists.

img_4488-1

If the variation in biological diversity would be congruent across groups of organisms, a single group could be used to draw conclusions on the others. Although the use of indicators is a well-established praxis, it is not yet clear how well these indicators work in European temperate forests. One of the open questions relates to the effect of spatial scale. In our new article “Congruence across taxa and spatial scales: Are we asking too much of species data?, just published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, we tried to find an answer.

We tried to understand whether the biodiversity of one group of species, correlates equally to the biodiversity of other groups, when changing either the grain (the size of the sampling unit) or the extent (the geographical area interested by the sampling).

We assembled biodiversity data for six groups of species (=taxa, singular=taxon): vascular plants, bryophytes, birds, epiphytic lichens, deadwood dependent beetles and wood-inhabiting fungi, collected across 354 plots in 23 forest sites situated in France, Italy and Hungary.

fig1-alternative

Changing the extent from site to continent

To understand the effect of the extent, we compared cross-taxon correlations when considering plots inside each forest (site extent), and across all forests in our dataset (continental extent). If cross-taxon congruence was not affected by this change, then one would expect the correlation coefficients between the same pair of taxa (e.g. lichens vs plants, or beetles vs birds) to remain constant.

changing-extent

This was not really the case for the number of species (=species richness). Not only the cross-taxon correlations were on average low (graph on the left), but when changing the extent (red vs. blue) some of these became stronger, other weaker, while some switched from being positive to being negative. When we consider the actual identities of the species (=species composition) correlation between pairs of taxa were always positive and they increased in strength with the extent of the analysis (graph on the right).

Changing the grain from plot to site

Results were slightly different when changing the grain. Moving from a finer to a coarser sampling unit (i.e. when considering the whole forest as a unit, instead of each individual plot inside the forest), correlations became on average much stronger, and in this case the results did not change much when considering species richness or composition.

changing-grain

In short, we found that cross-taxon congruence is strongly scale dependent. By increasing the spatial scale (both for extent and grain) broad scale factors (e.g., climate, biogeography) become more decisive than conditions directly or indirectly related to forest structure (e.g., gaps in the tree canopy, occurrence of deadwood). This may change the sign and the degree of congruence between different taxonomic groups. Therefore, when collecting biodiversity data we recommend sampling different species groups, since their diversity pattern are often not congruent. If this is not possible, then one should carefully choose the most promising indicators, and be aware that these only give a partial information.

Generally, the spatial extent has a greater influence on congruence between taxa than spatial grain, and species richness is more sensitive to shifts in spatial scale than species composition.

When considering fine-scale (plot grain, site extent) patterns of species composition we found consistent cross-taxon associations in many sites, especially between plants and other taxa. This is not surprising, because plants are the major structural and functional component of forest ecosystems and therefore influence forest structure and nutrient cycling. Sampling plant species composition in scattered plots across different sites may therefore be effective at summarizing the whole community composition.

Full reference

Burrascano*, S., R. B. De Andrade*, Y. Paillet, P. Ódor, G. Antonini, C. Bouget, T. Campagnaro, F. Gosselin, P. Janssen, A. Persiani, J. Nascimbene, F. M. Sabatini, T. Sitzia, and C. Blasi. 2018. Congruence across taxa and spatial scales: Are we asking too much of species data? Global Ecology and Biogeography 27: 980-990 https://doi.org/10.1111/geb.12766

How to assess the conservation status of semi-natural habitats?

The conservation status assessment is one of the most controversial processes that derive from the Habitats Directive and this strongly hampers monitoring and conservation actions.

For a habitat, favourable conservation status should mean that:

  • natural range and areas within that range are stable or increasing;
  • the specific structure and functions which are necessary for its long-term maintenance exist and are likely to continue to exist,
  • the conservation status of its typical species is favourable.

However, many of the concepts included in these criteria are vague and can be applied through a wide range of approaches that are often not consistent. For instance, univocal definitions of “natural range”, “specific structure and functions” should be given in order for these criteria to be read consistently troughout the EU member states and across the broad range of stakeholders that may read and interpret these words.

The interpretation of these concepts is particularly complex when looking at semi-natural habitats, since these, by definition, do not have a natural range, but rather a range that depends on human activities interacting with vegetation dynamics. In fact a semi-natural grassland maintained by grazing livestock has a range depending on the quantity and quality of farming activities and its specific structure and functions also depend on management intensity and objectives.

foto-retro

In a recent study, my colleagues and I contributed to the debate on this topic by proposing to use historical vegetation data to assess the conservation status of semi-natural habitats. Firstly, we quantified the degree of compositional change occurred between the historical sampling and a recent sampling. Since the historical sampling could be assumed as in favourable condition, we used the measure of compositional change as an inverse proxy of conservation status.

Then we quantified ten potential indicators, encompassing proxies of species composition (e.g. number of habitat diagnostic species, relative cover of steppic species), habitat structure/function (e.g. relative cover of woody and graminoid species, ratio between toxic and non-toxic species), and landscape patterns (edge complexity of the polygon, perimeter shared with woody communities).

Finally, we tested these potential indicators against the degree of compositional change.

The two most relevant indicators were the number of diagnostic species and the relative cover of woody species. By combining these two parameters we assessed the conservation status of 132 locations and found out that this assessment was in good agreement with the number of species of conservation concern.

fig-4

We know we are still far from an agreement on standardised methodologies. However, we hope our attempt of looking in the past to drive future actions can be of use in the path towards this goal.

Plant diversity changes as we walk up European mountains

At this link a nice post from a dear colleague on a study he led that was recently published on the journal Ecography.

He provides original hints on patterns of plant diversity along altitudinal gradients and gives an idea of how complex it can be to soundly address ecological questions the answers to which often looks intuitively simple. Ecologists hard life!

Enjoy your read.

Do current European policies jointly foster carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation?

The common assumption behind current environmental policies is that increasing forest area, besides providing climate benefits through carbon sequestration, will also support biodiversity, thus making afforestation a “win-win scenario”.

However, recent evidence suggests that joined climate and biodiversity benefits are strongly context-dependent and the outcome of afforestation is often highly questionable.

The increase in forest extent is frequently at the expense of grasslands. In Europe, grasslands managed at low intensity, which are often perceived as marginal for their relatively low-productivity, contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation and carbon storage in soil.

The role of grasslands and forests in EU-27 for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration and storage

The role of grasslands and forests in EU-27 for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration and storage

The expansion of forests to semi-natural grasslands can be due to either the grassland abandonment followed by spontaneous succession towards woody vegetation or deliberate afforestation programmes promoted by the carbon-centered policies of the European Union or by individual member states. Between 1990 and 2015, EU-27 forests underwent a 12.9 million hectare (Mha) expansion on abandoned agricultural land, of which > 1.5 Mha were deliberately afforested. Both deliberate afforestation and natural expansion of forest may support forest-dwelling species and carbon storage, but they may have negative outcomes in terms of both soil carbon storage and biodiversity when they happen in semi-natural grasslands.

Given that EU is often observed as a leader in global environmental politics, it is legitimate to ask whether the current EU environmental policies acknowledge these uncertainties and recognize and mitigate the potential conflicts between carbon management and biodiversity conservation.

Here I link a perspective article that tries to find an answer to this question and that was recently published in the scientific journal ‘Biological Conservation’ (http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1TXmy1R~e3Chf).

The results of our article is concerning. We found that important conflicts exist between policies to mitigate climate change and increase carbon sequestration on the one hand, and to conserve biodiversity on the other. For instance, although grasslands managed at low intensity contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation and carbon storage, there is the risk that the EU may be paying to maintain these grasslands in some areas, while also paying to convert similar grasslands into forests in other areas.

Goals, documents, funding streams, outcomes and drawbacks of current policies related to biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation through Land-Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry. Light-green boxes refer to the funds and outcomes addressing the conservation of semi-natural grasslands, dark-green boxes to those addressing afforestation, and blue boxes to actions aimed at increasing the proportion of energy supplied by the use of biomass.

Goals, documents, funding streams, outcomes and drawbacks of current policies related to biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation through Land-Use, Land-Use
Change and Forestry. Light-green boxes refer to the funds and outcomes addressing the conservation of semi-natural grasslands, dark-green boxes to those addressing afforestation,
and blue boxes to actions aimed at increasing the proportion of energy supplied by the use of biomass.

Indeed, we found a striking ambivalence between European policies and funding schemes addressing grassland conservation on the one hand (e.g. Habitats Directive, green payments within the Common Agricultural Policy) and those supporting afforestation on the other (e.g. rural development funds).

Since the current land-use trends are still towards the abandonment of marginal farmland with the consequent increase in forest area, carbon-centered measures that further promote and allocate funding to afforestation may only marginally contribute to the international commitments to mitigate climate change with the risk that they could result in a substantial decline in grassland biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The study suggests three measures that could contribute to more effective policy making: (1) promoting the alignment of the decisions taken across different policy sectors; (2) focusing on the whole range of ecosystem services and biodiversity issues rather than on carbon management only; (3) appraising low-intensity managed systems for their multifunctionality.

I hope that this study encourages to face such complex problems by an interdisciplinary approach both in science and policy-making.

Dynamic is the world!

Whoever had the chance to study some ecology, or to catch a glimpse of how natural systems work knows as a commonplace that everything natural is constantly changing, every single cell as well as the most complex ecosystems is dynamic.

Despite this is undoubtfully a commonplace it is not always easy to keep this concept in mind since our perspective often tends to be static in time.

However in some cases a single snapshot of life disperses every possibility for a static view. I had this impression recently when I had the chance to visit a small open patch within a beech forest in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park.

The ground was moist and crunchy under my boots. A closer look revealed that I was walking on petrified grasses and mosses, that were building a travertine rock.

Travertine

Travertine is a type of limestone that is formed by a process of rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate, often at the mouth of springs. Bryophytes, algae and other organisms colonise the surface of travertine and are slowly included into it while it forms, giving travertine its distinctive porosity. This process was just taking place under my feet in that small patch and was strikingly evident.

Pinguicula bud and rosette

 

I was just wondering at what was under my feet when other things caught my attention. On the travertine, plants other than bryophytes developed, these were vascular plants, or as someone calls them higher plants. In particular I saw small, light green plants, with shy buds still hidden in their rosettes, leaves and peduncles densely covered by glandular hairs. How unique, how rare these plants looked, even to unexpert eyes solely for their ability to grow where no other plants can make it.

 The glandular hairs of Pinguicula

Again I had to wonder that something hidden and silent was happening: hunting was going on with no sound or clear movement that could be perceived. The glandular hairs that my macro lens just managed to capture displayed some irregularly shaped black spots. These spots answered my questions about how can this plant make it where no others can, as soon as I realised that they were what was left of insects that tried to land on these small plants.

What is left of the unlucky protein supplier

I was looking at tiny, wonderful ‘carnivourous plants’, catchers of insects, that they need to integrate their strict diet on nutrient poor soils. In particular I was looking at a representative of the Lentibulariaceae family. The members of this family (like other plants of the order Lamiales) were originally able to secrete a proteinase mucilage through leaf surfaces, that prevents insect predation by trapping and degrading potentially harmful insects. Several studies suggest that these glands can shift their function from secretion to absorption giving plants the ability to absorb the proteins deriving from the unlucky insects.

The second most diverse genus of this family is the genus Pinguicula, within which more than 80 species were described, mostly from Southern and Central America. ‘Flora Europaea’ reports 12 species for Europe, of which five occur in Italy. However the taxonomy of this genus grew much more complicated since the publication of the ‘Flora Europaea’, with distinctive characters found for several isolated populations and new species and subspecies recently described (see Conti & Peruzzi 2006 for detailed information). According to this recent publication the plants I had the chance to see belong to the species Pinguicula vulgaris and to the subspecies vestina.

Pinguicula in bloom

Later on in the same site I had the chance to see two plants of Pinguicula in bloom, in a delicate and almost romantic pose that helped me to focus on the beuty of their flowers and to give a sense to the fate of the unlucky insects stamped on their leaves.

In the patch I just described everything was evidently in transormation: from water to rocky and nutrient-poor habitats where only plants that are able to prey insects are able to survive, and to use their extra-income of nutrients to produce wonderful flowers. Even if no movement could be perceived, nothing was static in the pictures I took, but everything was silently astonishing.

The wettest and wildest Spain

Far away from the collective imagination of Spain, made of Flamenco and Paella, lies the Atlantic region of Asturias more similar to southern Ireland or England than to Andalusia…in botanical terms at least.

Besides the imagine of barren dusty landscapes, the word ‘Spain’ often recalls, a long history of human activities and land exploitation, as it is for other Mediterranean countries. I guess many people would bet on the absence of areas with negligible anthropic disturbance.

After visiting the Reserva Natural Integral de Muniellos everyone that somehow relied on the most common images of Spain would think of this country in a new different way.Roble gigante

The Reserve occupies an area of about 5500 hectares in north western Spain, within the Asturias province. This area displays notable uniformity of geological substrates, with almost total dominance of siliceous Paleozoic substrata (quartzite, sandstones, schists and slates) shaped by water in deep valleys and steep slopes.

This part of Spain has an oceanic climate and gets amounts of rainfall far higher than the central and southern areas of the country whose climate is Mediterranean or semi-arid. In particular most of the area of the Reserva Natural Integral de Muniellos may be included in the hyperhumid ombroclimate, with annual rainfall ranging from 1200 to 2000 mm.

The Reserve is not only in one of the wettest parts of Spain, it also includes forest ecosystems among the best preserved in Spain: in Muniellos the best examples of broadleaf deciduous forests of the Atlantic region of the Iberian Peninsula occur (see Los Bosques Ibericos for further details).

The most spread forest types in the Reserva are dominated by sessile oak (Quercus petraea), beech (Fagus sylvatica), and birch (Betula pubescens often called B. pubescens celtiberica or B. celtiberica).

The sessile oak forests (robledales) in Muniellos are among the most spread in Europe and the best conserved in western Europe. Oak trees up to 40 meters in height and 1 meter in Diameter at Breast Height can be found.

These forests develop on very shallow soils with abundant stones, on very steep slopes.

 

Daboecia canatbrica in flower

 

 

Several species of the Ericaceae family can be found in these robledales, ranging from Erica arborea to Daboecia cantabrica. Interestingly, the genus Daboecia occurs in western Ireland, western France, northwestern Spain, Portugal and the Azores, and includes only two species:

Daboecia azorica endemic of Azores, and Daboecia cantabrica occuring in the other mentioned territories.

 

 

 

 

Another species that catches the eye in the understorey of the forests of Muniellos is Linaria triornitophora, endemic to Iberian peninsula and easily distinguished from the congeneric because of its big purple flowers (up to 45 mm) with a yellowish lobe in the lower lip, and a long spur.

Linaria triornitophora coloured flowers

Less loud but equally beautiful are the ferns belonging to the species Blechnum spicant, rather common Blechnum spicant fertile leavesin the woodlands of Muniellos since this fern is especially competitive on acid soils. This evergreen fern and has two types of leaves: the sterile leaves have flat, wavy-margined leaflets, while the fertile leaves have much narrower leaflets, each with two thick rows of sori on the underside.

The wonderful green beings that can be appreciated in the area are numerous, I would like to post all the pictures taken in the days I spent in Muniellos but I will only mention Luzula lactea, a species endemic of the Iberian peninsula with specially remarkable flowers for this genus.

Luzula lactea in flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other things I want to mention of this area are: the abundance of water and streams you will encounter while hiking, but also the very harsh morphology of the places that will invite you to stick to the valley paths.

 

The river Muniellos within the Reserve

 

 

Harsh ridges within the muniellos reserve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reserve is enclosed in a mountain region with unique traditional buildings that tell a lot about the long coexistence of humans and nature: the barns designed to discourage mice and other animals from reaching the stored food; and the cortinos that would avoid bears to reach the sweet results of bees labour. I think there is much more to discover in the region for an inquiring mind so…don’t miss your chance!!!

 

Asturian barnCortino, a stone ring to protect beehives

Autumn creatures

When the temperature drops leaves become of several different colors but green. Then green beings are no longer green and other creatures catch the eyes in the woods.

Acer obtusatum leaf at the beginning of autumn

Castanea sativa leaf at the beginning of autumn

Acer obtusatum leaf at the beginning of autumn

 

 

Mushrooms are so variable in shapes and colors that they resemble the diversity of my favourite taxonomic group.

Some of them look like discs, but they are similar to corals if you change perspective.

Saproxylic mushrooms on deadwood

Saproxylic mushrooms on deadwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some others are tiny, but still magical in their ghost costumes.

Tiny white mushrooms

 

Some are so attractive but dangerous, already when they have just come up of the ground.

Amanita pantherinaAn Amanita just come out of the ground

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just like plants, some of them can provide you a meal or get you into troubles…this time the meal was gorgeous.

Boletus edulis sacrificed for lunch

Down through the Samariá Gorge

In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea there is an island where rocks have been shaped by wind and water in numerous sculptures that are unique just as much as the plants that grow on them. One of the many ways to witness what the four elements have been able to create, and the great variety of plants that occur in Crete is to walk through the Samariá Gorge along one of the busiest path in the Mediterranean.

The walk through the Gorge starts from the edge of the Omalos Plateau (ca. 1,250 m a.s.l.), from where you can just lean over the first part of the path that will lead you to the coast, beyond your horizon. A step down and you are walking through a steep slope covered with cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) and pines (Pinus brutia), both native to the eastern Mediterranean region.

On the steepest stretches of the path, where trees are missing, you can have a look at the White Mountains from a great perspective looking towards the highest peak of the range (Pachnes 2,453 m a.s.l.). White Mountains is the English translation for Lefka Ori, which is the local name for this mountain range, and probably derives from the light colors of these limestones mountains that are crossed by several gorges (about 50) and include a number of plateaus ranging from 500 to 1,100 m a.s.l..

A view of Mt. Pachnes from the trail to the Samaria Gorge

The evergreen leaves of Acer sempervirens

 

Besides Pines and Cypresses, another tree caught my eye, even if it was much smaller than the two conifers I just mentioned. At first I recognized it as Acer monspessulanum, but soon I realized that, despite the fact that the three-lobed leaves were very similar to those of the small maple I am used to see in Italy, the leaves of the maple I was looking at were clearly evergreen. No surprise then, but great satisfaction, when I found out that an evergreen maple does exist in the south-eastern Mediterranean region, Acer sempervirens, and, as described by a recent publication on the Ecology and Management of the Samariá Gorge, it is typically found together with Pinus brutia and Cupressus sempervirens.

 

Dracunculus vulgaris in bloom

 

 

Within the forest, where a sunflake reaches the ground sparse individuals of Dracunculus vulgaris occur close to the path. Also this species has an eastern Mediterranean distribution and, as it is often the case for eye-catching plants, it is poisonous.

 

It is fascinating how many species in this part of the Mediterranean are completely new for me. This glimpse on some of the species of the flora of Crete really makes me wonder about how south-eastern Europe is rich in endemic and limited distribution species. I know this is true for many other regions, also within the Mediterranean basin, but the relevance of this regional hotspot is however absolutely impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

Nerium oleander in bloom

The path continues on the river bed. As a hiker you will walk beside and on it for several hours being grateful to the summer drought for letting you pass by that trail. The biggest plants you notice as soon as you get close to where the water is, or uses to be, are Planes. Large individuals of Platanus orientalis will let you easily identify the deepest parts of the valley. There the air is fresh and other plants are waiting for you, their flowers wondering around if there is someone interested in taking a picture of them: the Oleanders (Nerium oleander). These plants in their habitat hardly resemble those planted along the highways in the Mediterranean. When the Oleanders grow spontaneously their green is brighter and their pink more delicate, they actually bloom.

 

 

If some plants prefer to get close to the water, despite the risk of being partly submerged or swept away; some others prefer a safe dry rock from which to look at the river. Spiny cushion plants grow more and more numerous along the riverbed as it become narrower and its sides steeper and rocky. Here the plants of the phryganas can show off their art of surviving saving water in the sun.  Among these, I had the chance to see Verbascum spinosum, Phlomis lanata and Satureja thymbra in bloom.

The first species puzzled me for a while, as it seemed to me a Chimera, with Verbascum flowers on a totally misleading habitus. Indeed this species forms a compact hummock-shaped little. Cushion plants like Verbascum spinosum represent an example of parallel or convergent evolution with species from many different plant families on different continents converging on the same evolutionary adaptations to endure the harsh environmental conditions. Verbascum spinosum is endemic to the Sphakia region of Crete, and I really enjoyed to ‘get acquainted’ with it.

Flower of Verbascum spinosum    The hummock-shaped Verbascum spinosum plant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another species growing on the walls of the gorge that is endemic to Crete is Phlomis lanata.

It is not as different from the other species of its genus as Verbascum spinosum, but it can be distinguished by its rounded leaves. Its bright yellow flowers lean out of the rocky walls offering flying insects a profitable stop over.

 

Satureja thymbra belongs to the Labiatae family and offers to its pollinating insects a good reward in nectar. It is more spread than the two former species in the Mediterranean basin and it is used in cookery and phytotherapy.

Satureja thymbra and its guest for breakfast

The flowers of Phlomis lanata growing on the walls of the Samariá gorge

 

Before getting to narrowest part of the gorge, the old village of Samariá lends itself for a pleasant break. It is made of a few, partly destroyed, rocky houses, surrounded by old olive groves. The actual point of interest for the hiker is the fountain under the mulberry tree, with perfectly ripe fruits at the beginning of June (note that the picture of mulberry fruits was shot somewhere else, where hunger did not kept me to spend some time taking pictures before the fresh snack).

 Fruits from the Mulberry tree

 

Finally the path goes through the ‘Portes’, a passage only a few meters wide betweenrocky walls impressively high.

Here some bold cypresses challenge gravity and slip their roots in the rocky walls, their habitus reminded me of trees in the Far East, depicted in Japanese engravings.

 

The Portes of the Gorge of Samariá

Cupressus sempervirens growing on the walls of the gorge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The town of Agia Roumeli and its beach are near. Once there, it is hard to believe that only a few hours before you were looking at a completely different landscape from the Omalos Plateau; and you realize that the Gorge represents an incredible shortcut from the sea to the inner part of the island: you finally understand why the founders of the village of Samariá chose the Gorge to settle.

 

More than alike

I was not really seeking for green wonders when I found the book I am going to write about in this post. I was rather browsing through the stall of the most famous flea market in Rome when a familiar shape caught my sight.Book Cover

My ravished face did not allow me to bargain as I could…however I had a tiny reduction anyway. The book was about a combination of two things I love: art and plants.

It is a book made of plants illustrations, mostly works in watercolors, all belonging to a British collector, a woman that spent a lot of time and energies not only in collecting botanical illustrations but also in promoting this art genre. Her name is Shirley Sherwood and to give you an idea of the role this woman has in the spread of botanical illustration it is enough to remind that the first gallery in the world dedicated solely to botanical art is named after her: Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

Indeed Botanical illustration has been gradually replaced by photography in the task of accurately reproduce plants. For this reason not many people practice this kind of art today; however, even if it sounds passé I think it is absolutely natural for people who like drawing and painting to reproduce plants. In order to survive photography this genre had to substantially change its focus. Today the goal of a botanical illustrator is not only to faithfully represent a species but also to choose a detail, a moment in a plant life, something beautiful, or to compare different parts or species, to offer the observer a different perspective.

The change to which botanical illustrations were subjected in the last centuries is extremely clear if you browse the first pages of the book by Shirley Sherwood. In fact one of the things that make this book interesting is that in the first pages pairs of illustrations are displayed that represent the same species, or similar species, painted by contempLilium new-schoolorary artists and by artists from the 17th-18th century.Lilium old-school

I report here only a few examples through which the different approaches of the artists are evident. I chose two illustrations of Lilium (older illustration by Francis Bauer & Ferdinand Bauer, contemporary by Coral Guest), and two of conifers (older illustration by Georg D. Ehret, contemporary by Brigid Edwards). In both the oldest ones the artist tries to highlight the traits by which the observer can identify the species, also through text in the case of Lilium. In the contemporary illustrations text disappeared and the plant is represented through a few parts or even a single part as in the case of Pseudotsuga menziesii cone.

Pinus old-schoolDouglas fir cone

 

 

Another case in which only a fruit is painted, without any hint on how the plant that will develop from it could look like, is the Illustration by Coral Guest in which a Screw Pine nut is represented (Pandanus sp.). I find this illustration extremely powerful since it catches the beauty of a part of a plant that maybe I would not have appreciated in its actual form.

MagnoliaThis trend can be more extreme as in the case of this representation of Magnolia by Susannah Blaxill in which only two parts of the plants are chosen for the illustration and represented apart from the whole plant; these parts are painted in a moment that is absolutely not the best time to analyse their traits in the view of the plant identification.

Acorns from Brunei

In this book I also appreciated those illustrations that represent a series of similar plant structures allowing the observer to spend time comparing them, finding similarities, differences, wondering about convergence or a unique form of time lapse.

 

This is the case of the illustrations by Mieko Ishikawa letting us know how many species of oaks occur in Brunei through the representation of their wonderful acorns; or of the Rosiers painted by Regine Hagerdorn in which the artist points out a part of roses that is not usually appreciated but that reaches a very high degree of diversification, thorns.

 

 

 

Rose thorns

While Regine Hagerdorn helps us to appreciate differences, Alvaro Nunes in its Fruit of Savannah wants us to notice similarities and to hypothesize convergences. Finally a nice time lapse is realized in the representation of the goat willow blossom by Brenda Watts.

Goat willow time lapse