Orchid Habitat Restoration and Preservation
Orchis collina photo by Julia Jones
The Orchids of Crete and their Conservation
text by Julia Jones and Dr. Rosemary John
photos by Paul Harcourt Davies, John Fielding, Julia Jones, Olle Meurling and Thomas Sampliner
The Greek island of Crete is botanically rich, with a wide variety of habitats and a high level of endemism (approx.9%). However, conservation both of habitats and species has a low priority, especially in the current economic climate. Many orchid-rich meadows, particularly in coastal areas are being destroyed for building purposes, in response to the demand for property by Russian and Middle-Eastern developers.
Crete has such a rich and diverse flora because of its location - set between the Greek mainland and the coast of North Africa and, to the east, Israel and the Near East. There is also a wide range of habitats here from pine forests to maquis, garigue, phrygana, olive groves and high pastures. Some of the most productive areas for orchid finding are in maquis or garigue. Maquis supports evergreen scrub between one and three metres tall and occurs on non-calcareous soils in areas of high rainfall. Garigue is degraded woodland created and maintained by a combination of woodcutting, browsing, and burning. It comprises shrubs from 50 cms to 150 cms tall. Phrygana occurs where browsing or cutting is severe and conditions are very dry or exposed (the Greek word means dry firewood or twigs). A further habitat is steppe in which grasses, annuals, herbaceous plants and geophytes predominate. Steppe can be found on the south coast of Crete where the climate is hotter and drier than elsewhere. On the summit of the three massifs of Crete; Lefka Ori, Psiloritis and Dikte, there are sub-alpine and alpine species, while the jewels of Crete are the many gorges and calcareous cliffs which provide habitat for large numbers of chasmophytes, many of which are endemic.
photo by Thomas Sampliner
Ophrys spruneri © Paul Harcourt Davies
Deciding the number of orchids on Crete is a very difficult procedure. The total number of species in the family varies, depending on the status given to individual taxa but it is around 67 with three that are doubtfully present. According to Turland and Fielding in 'Flowers of Crete' the island has 12 small genera plus two large genera - Ophrys and Orchis - with 17 and 31 species respectively confirmed for Crete. According to Dr. Horst Kretzschmar, the author of ‘Orchids of Crete and the Dodecanese’ there are 70 species with 23 sub-species with a further five species that are viewed as questionable or unstable. Fourteen orchids are endemic to Crete- of these, Cephellantera cucullata, Himantoglossum samariense, and Epipactis cretica are listed in the Greek Red Data Book as vulnerable or threatened. Several non-endemic orchid species are also extremely rare and threatened on Crete.
Biarum davisii photo by Julia Jones
Other endangered endemic species that could benefit from orchid conservation include Biarum davisii ssp. davisii, and Paeonia clusii ssp. clusii - both of which are listed as vulnerable.
To combat habitat loss and the associated decline in flora, a not-for-profit organization, Flowers of Crete, was formed. Its volunteer members have been working for some years to raise awareness of the urgent need to conserve rare and endemic species of all plants but most especially orchids, also to create several reserves where they can be protected. On the coast very close to the tourist resort of Elounda there are two important orchid-rich meadows that are under imminent threat of destruction. Elounda and the nearby fishing village of Plaka are the setting for the book and television series 'The Island' by Victoria Hislop and this, combined with the stunning mountain and sea views, has meant that the area is 'ripe' for development. Every month sees yet more bulldozers and more 'For Sale' signs. The meadows themselves are in prime locations for real estate and no doubt it will not be long before they too fall victims to the continuing building boom.
Luxury flats to be built photo by Julia Jones
Unfortunately, in-situ conservation at these sites will not be possible. Purchasing these meadows is out of the question, as similar pieces of land in the immediate vicinity are on sale (even in these straightened times) for more than $800,000. Many of the superb Ophrys at these sites are listed as rare or vulnerable. Attempts by Flowers of Crete to have the area put under a protection order have, so far, proved unsuccessful.
As with many places on the planet, wild bees (and other natural pollinators) on Crete are threatened by the overuse of chemicals, especially pesticides. Many of the Ophrys are pollinator specific and release the pheromone that attracts their particular pollinator. This is reflected in the orchids’ common names - bee Ophrys, saw fly Ophrys etc. so the loss of any pollinator species will threaten its particular orchid ‘host’. The increasing use of strong pesticides to destroy the invasive Red Palm Weevil that is killing palms across the island may further increase the risks to orchid pollinators and to those of other plant species as well.
The most invasive plant that adversely affects native orchids is Oxalis pes-caprae which can be found in huge swathes particularly in olive groves, throttling out orchids and all other species. At the moment there is no suitable treatment for this weed except constant and vigilant weeding which is simply not feasible.
Mountain sheep that roam freely through the countryside find orchids very delicious. photo by Anna Meurling
Vast flocks of mountain sheep and goats are also a tremendous problem. These animals are allowed to roam freely through the countryside and can cause havoc. Julia Jones (President of Flowers of Crete) tells of a visit with a botanist from Croatia to find P. clusii in the mountains around Katharo plateau. They arrived just after the goats. Every blossom and bud had been clipped from the plants and were lying discarded on the ground. Goats seem to like orchids - particularly in the mountains around Katharo plateau. They arrived just after the goats. Every blossom and bud had been clipped from the plants and were lying discarded on the ground. The goats seem to like orchids - particularly Himantoglossum robertianum which can often be found nibbled down to the basal leaves.
Goats get everywhere - even into the lower branches of trees. photo by Olle Meurling
Cephalantera cucullata watercolor by Julia Jones
A further threat to the most endangered of endemic species, such as Cephalantera cucullata and Himantoglossum samariense is the growing trade in the illegal export of these exquisite terrestrial orchid bulbs to growers in Japan and elsewhere. Bulbs can change hands for amounts greater than $1,000 and the organization is repeatedly asked for precise details of their location. The information is obviously never forthcoming.
On an island where there is no reliable public land registry, the difficulties of establishing ownership of suitable recipient sites and in obtaining the landowner's permission to replant cannot be overstated. Therefore, the creation of an orchid 'sanctuary' is realistically the only way of preserving rare and endemic orchids under imminent threat.
Ophrys ferrum-equinnum photo by Julia Jones
Ideally, the orchids should be re-located to augment existing populations of their particular species, but often there is no other known population within a radius of at least 100 kms or those populations are themselves threatened by development. For one species, Ophrys ferrum-equinnum, there is only one recorded instance of this orchid on Crete. The Ophrys ferrum-equinnum - just one plant - was found by Julia in an olive grove close to Elounda. She sent photos to Nick Turland, Associate Curator of Missouri Botanic Gardens, and John Fielding (co-authors of the reference work 'Flowers of Crete' published in London by Kew Botanic Gardens) who confirmed its identification. The olive grove in which it grows is in danger from road widening to provide services for the 'green' hotel being built on the headland. According to Dr. Kretzschmar this species can be found on nearby islands of Rhodes, Kasos and Karpathos, but not on Crete.
The good news is that an enlightened landowner of one of the threatened meadows near Elounda has already given permission for the removal of all the orchids on his site. Some have already been removed and are in pots awaiting relocation.
Flowers of Crete has been offered a long-abandoned orchid-rich olive grove at 'Pezoulia' on lease in perpetuity, but sadly has not had the funds for this to be formalized. Currently, even low level grazing by roaming sheep and goats significantly reduces seed set, as orchid flowers are preferentially grazed - and on Crete the goat population far exceeds that of humans. However, individual orchid populations seem to be constant though not large. After much discussion and consultation with respected botanists and horticulturists such as Nick Turland and John Fielding, a decision was taken to preserve this site in its current state (including current levels of grazing) to facilitate studies of inter-and intra-population dynamics and microhabitat selection, etc. Therefore, no orchids can be introduced into this reserve and no fencing of the reserve is envisaged unless the level of grazing significantly increases.
Orchis italica © Paul Harcourt Davies
To complement this reserve the President of Flowers of Crete, Julia Jones, has acquired a piece of land in the mountain village of Xoumeriako, on the slopes of Mount Dikte in the north east of the island. The land has a north-facing aspect, which is ideal for orchids, although there are no orchids on the site at present. Most of the site contains well-spaced mature olive trees beneath which the ground is uncultivated grassland, providing an ideal habitat for orchid species that require such conditions. No agricultural or horticultural chemicals are used within a considerable distance, so pollination and reproductive success should be at high levels, even for pollinator-specific orchids. It is intended that part of the site will be planted with saplings of Pinus halepensis ssp brutia, the native pine, to provide suitable habitat for woodland species. It is intended that this land, together with the adjoining ancient stone house, be leased to the association to provide both an orchid reserve and study centre. Sadly the house is in dire need of renovation and work on restoration is slow, relying on donations and sponsorship.
Exterior of the old house at Xoumeriakos which was purchased in the hope of turning it into a botanical study centre. photo by Julia Jones
Once a reserve can be established, it is intended to offer guided tours to visitors and to parties of schoolchildren. Education is considered a vital tool in raising awareness of the importance of conservation amongst both local residents and tourists. Flowers of Crete has already established firm links with the Institute of Theology and Ecology at the Orthodox Academy of Crete (at Kolymbari near Xania in the west of the island), the Natural History Museum of Crete (in the island's capital, Iraklion), the Park for the Preservation of Flora and Fauna at the University of Crete (also near Xania) and the Sunderland Winter Gardens in the UK.
Tentative offers of land for reserves have already been received from various town councils around the island, but lack of funding to date has meant that nothing has been formalized. However, by raising awareness about the plight of Crete's rich heritage of orchids including Ophrys, and with the creation of the reserves at Pezoulia and Xoumeriako, it is hoped that more offers will be forthcoming allowing the association to build up a network of orchid conservation reserves.
Although time-consuming and often difficult, seed from rarer species threatened by development is being collected to augment the reserve populations, for distribution to orchid enthusiasts and to facilitate the establishment of new populations in areas of apparently suitable habitat not threatened by development.
For the future, there is scope for the Xoumeriako reserve to be enlarged to accommodate more species in a wider range of habitat types. A derelict stone house on the site could be converted to offer studio workshops offering courses in botanical drawing and painting. Such a centre would raise the profile of Cretan orchids, illustrate their beauty and demonstrate the need for their conservation for intrinsic, scientific and aesthetic reasons. The studio workshops will be particularly important in furthering the cause of orchid conservation amongst young people with a non-scientific background and would be open both to parties of schoolchildren and individuals.
Orchis italica © Paul Harcourt Davies
The ground-breaking work being carried out by a group of volunteers on the island of Crete is making a significant difference to the plight of the endemic and native orchids of this small Mediterranean island and could be emulated by like-minded individuals in other areas of the globe. At a time when government funding is at an all-time low, maybe this is the way forward for conservation in a cash depleted world.
Julia Jones, FLS
President and Founder
Dr. Rosemary John,
Flowers of Crete is a not-for-profit association that was formed in 2006 to raise awareness of the need for conservation on the Greek island of Crete. Since its foundation it has attracted members from around the world. Its Charter of Association can be found on the website
Wasp pollination of Ophrys species. You can click off the ad that pops up in the beginning.