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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.
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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.

 

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