Wild Flowers of Crete

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Wild Flowers of Crete by George Sfikas

Buy the book Wild Flowers of Crete (Nature of Crete) by Amazon UK wild flowers crete Published by the Efstathiades Group, 1987/2000; 8vo; paperback; pp310 + contents


Reviewed by Stelios Jackson and Lance Chilton

I hope that the following reviews will be doubly useful to anybody wishing to buy 'Wild Flowers of Crete'. I am not an expert on flowers; I can usually tell the difference between a flower and a weed, but when it comes to differentiating between sub-species, I confess to be utterly hopeless. I feel eminently qualified therefore, to write a review of 'Wild Flowers of Crete' from the layperson's point of view, while below, Lance Chilton - author of a number of very useful walking and flower guidebooks to various Greek islands for "Marengo" publications (click here for a list of Marengo publications) and co-author of the highly specialist "Flora of the Cretan Area" - has shared with us his views of the book. I am deeply indebted to Mr Chilton, whose expertise allows him to spot mistakes, which I (and, I suspect, most of you) would be completely unable to. Lance Chilton's review can be accessed by clicking here, or by scrolling down the page. The temptation to crib from Mr Chilton's review was overwhelming, but one I resisted; furthermore I have expressed views and opinions, that would have been easily verifiable by asking the expert - rather than make a fool of myself - another temptation that I resisted, as I wish to share my utter ignorance with you. After all, you may be in the same position as I, as far as being totally incapable of identifying flowers, so the usefulness of this book can be measured from two totally opposite spheres of knowledge. Between my summary and Lance Chilton's you will find a contents list for the book. SJ

Stelios Jackson writes:

I have travelled to Crete on several occasions during the months of March, April and May, when the island is a veritable riot of colour, due to the reawakening of its floral life. Even if one has no interest in flowers, it would be impossible to ignore their abundance and the consequent beauty of the island, especially during those months. The sudden urge to identify species can become overwhelming, such are their ubiquity and diversity, and this is where "Wild Flowers of Crete" comes into its own. One can easily identify various species and sub-species and become an
expert for your stay, though in my case, the retention of that knowledge seems to lasts for a very short period of time and I am constantly surprised, upon returning, at the wealth of floral life on the island and how much I have forgotten since my last visit. Having used and reused the book on a number of visits to Crete, I still have absolutely no idea if it is supposed to have a logical format and that's a major problem with it. Colour photographs opposite pen-pictures, help to illustrate the wide variety of plant-life found on the island, but why they are in the order that they are, is beyond me and maybe entirely random. The title is also a misnomer in my view: Are pines wild flowers? I wouldn't have thought so, but they are included in the book, as are ferns. This is of course an additional bonus, though why these two species and not quince - the scientific name "Cydonia" shows it to be named after the island of Crete - is a mystery to me. Maybe pines and ferns "flower" whereas quince bears fruit, but to me they are all trees, though that probably just shows my aforementioned ignorance.

All the flowers are indexed (with their Latin names; more of which below), at the rear of the book but if you are as horiculturally-challenged as I, it may be a good idea to get to know a few of the species before you set off. It can take quite a while to skim through the book's 310 pages, looking for a picture that bares a similarity to the flower you are trying to identify - far easier therefore, to have some idea of which species you have stumbled upon before trying to identify the sub-species. As mentioned above, the index is an alphabetical list of Latin names and I must say it would have been nice, in a book aimed at people like me, if their more commonly-known English equivalents had been indexed as well (the respective names in English appear in brackets next to their Latin equivalents in the book, but are not indexed.) That ''Rosis' is a rose by another name, for example, will come as no great surprise, but for the uninitiated believing to have found a honeysuckle, it's not an easy task to flick through the book until one finds that "Lonicera" is its Latin equivalent - or that "Glycyrriza" is licquorice and "Calendula" are marigolds - for instance.

In a very useful introduction Mr Sfikas informs us of the wealth of plant life found on Crete: "...not counting sub-species there are about 2000 species of higher plant on the island." If you take the whole of Greece there are 700 endemic species of plant of which "...about 250 are to be found in Crete, and of these some 160 are exclusively endemic to it. This number is constantly increasing as new rare species are, even in our day, coming to light growing out of site in some isolated gorge or some remote mountainous region". We are told of all manner of flora and fauna, which have lived on Crete from the late 'Miocene period' (around 14 million years ago) to the present day. This chronological assessment is followed by a topographical one: Under the heading "Habitats", Mr Sfikas outlines the plants found in different "zones", from the 'Littoral Zone' ("...a narrow strip of land extending from the high water mark up to a few tens of metres inland.") to "Alpine Zone" ("from 2,200m up to the highest peaks"), with areas such as gorges and "wet places" also getting a mention.

The descriptions of the flowers are exceedingly thorough, with descriptions of species preceding that of sub-species. I have chosen the generic description for an orchid as an example (below) -orchid appears in the Latin index as both "Orchis" and "Ophrys"- followed by a couple of examples of sub-species, of which there are many.


Orchis (Orchids)

flowers crete

(The above picture, is opposite the text (below), in the book.)

Plants similar to Ophrys but lower petal (labellum) spurred at its base and usually of the same colour. Perianth segments similar, except for the labellum, which is larger and different in shape.

Group A. Yellow Flowers

1.Orchis Provincialis - subsp. provincialis. Leaves with blackish spots. Dense inflorescence with 5-20 bright yellow flowers. Labellum 3-lobed. Spur upward-pointing. Habitat: Middle altitude meadows, glades and slopes. Flowers April-June.

2. Orchis provincialis - subsp. pauciflor. Similar to 1 but leaves unspotted and flowers larger in size but fewer in number. Labellum longer with reddish dots. Habitat: Grasslands, clearings and heaths at a middle altitude. Flowers April-June.

Table of Contents:


Geological Upheavals

Phytogeographical and Zoogeographical relations

The Endemic Plants and Animals

Nature in Crete during Antiquity

Nature in Crete during Venetian and Turkish Rule

Nature in Crete Today


The Plants (pages 27-297)

The Glossary of the plants

The Colours of the Plants


Foreign Bibliography

Foreign Bibliography in Greek

Index of Latin Names

The book has a nice feel to it; 310 pages can hardly be described as small, but it is compact and easily carried in a rucksack - the binding leaves a lot to be desired with pages falling out at will- and the quality of the photographs is at best, passable. There is a useful colour collator at the end of the book, which allows one to refer to the various shades described.

All in all, I like this book and have found it tremendously useful in the past. I may not know a great deal about flowers, but thankfully I know a man that does:

(SJ 21/7/02)

George Sfikas: Wild Flowers of Crete
Review by Lance Chilton co-author of "Flora of the Cretan Area", "Flora of Crete"

"Wild Flowers of Crete", first published in 1987, was written by George Sfikas, a gentleman scholar and skilled artist with a wide knowledge of Greek nature and a passion for its protection and conservation. The text can be divided into two parts: the introduction and the plant descriptions. The introduction holds much of interest, and it comments strongly on the destructive effects of human activities in Crete - only when it reaches the habitat descriptions of the lowland, sub-montane and montane zones does it go a little astray. These are not nearly as clearly separable as he suggests, and the lists of species can be misleading. The typography of the introduction - and elsewhere - does leave something to be desired, particularly for scientific names, but most English language texts composed by Greek typesetters show numerous errors, so one cannot be surprised when scientific names - words that are neither English nor Greek - are misspelled. As in most Greek books in English, one laments the lack of a native English-speaking proofreader. This is not considered an important factor in Greek publishing - I have personal, depressing experience of being asked to proofread a 180-page Greek wildflower book, at 6p.m., before it went to the printers the following morning!

The descriptive texts for individual plants appear to summarize briefly the descriptions in 'Flora Europaea' (1964-1980), which covers the entire European flora as it was known in the 1950s-1970s. Unfortunately, "Wild Flowers of Crete" also repeats the errors, some of which the author's personal experience ought to have filtered out. For example, "Valeriana asarifolia" has white flowers (as in the Sfikas photo), not the "pale pink" ones of "Flora Europaea" and the "Wild Flowers of Crete" texts. The habitat categories allocated to individual plants are presumably Sfikas' own - and they can be very misleading. The description of "Phlomis fruticosa" (Jerusalem sage) as a "rare sub-montane" plant, may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen swathes of this colourful plant in April, from sea-level upwards, over most of the western half of Crete.

There are a number of species included and illustrated in "Wild Flowers of Crete" which do not occur - or there is no evidence that they have occurred - in Crete. Of the seven birthwort ("Aristolochia") species included in the book, only three can actually be found in Crete. Conversely, not one of the three species illustrated occurs on the island. The photos and habitat descriptions are clearly taken from mainland Greece.

Perhaps most critically, there is usually no guidance for the reader as to the rarity, or whether species are widely distributed on the island or confined to small areas. For example, "Astragalus idaeus" and "Nymphaea alba" (white waterlily) are included with no indication as to rarity. In fact, the "Astragalus" is known only from just two 19th century collections and has not - despite searching - been refound since, and may well be extinct. The waterlily, a conspicuous species absolutely dependent on permanent water, was seen once, by a reliable observer in 1893, in a river that no longer exists (due to water extraction for agriculture). This was and remains the only record of this species for the entire south Aegean. The reader needs to be given some idea of the likelihood of occurrence.

As I have said, a number of species are illustrated that do not occur in Crete, but the majority of the illustrations do match their titles (albeit under some elderly, and occasionally creaky, nomenclature) and the colours are reasonable.
There are a few errors, such as the "Calycotome villosa"' that is clearly the rarer and more interesting "Chamaecytisus creticus". The titles on page 115 have been rotated – “Trifolium uniflorum” is actually pictured top left. The cover picture shows colour variation in Ranunculus asiaticus, a plant Sfikas regards as one of Crete's most attractive (as do I!).

I have listed plenty of problems. Is this a book to be recommended at all? Does it matter if species are illustrated that you won't see on Crete? After all, nobody is likely to misidentify any Cretan species as a result of seeing the picture of “Aristolochia clematitis”, though they may search for this birthwort in vain. It depends on what information the reader wants, and on what he wants to do with it.

What are the alternatives? If you're a German speaker, you have Jahn & Schnfelder's excellent, comprehensive and up-to-date 'Exkursionsflora fur Kreta'. There is no equivalent in English. The fallbacks are the old Polunin "Flowers of Greece & the Balkans", the older Huxley & Taylor "Flowers of Greece & the Aegean" and newer Blamey "Mediterranean Wild Flowers", all of which cover much wider areas, therefore cover Crete in much less detail.
Haven't I co-written two books on the Cretan flora? Well, yes, but they cover a narrower area - floristics, nomenclature, taxonomy and distribution - not identification. I know from personal experience that books on botanical subjects come in two types - those such as "Wild Flowers of Crete" that are produced comparatively quickly, are incomplete, have errors, but put information quickly into the public domain (and are criticized mercilessly by professional botanists), and those which gestate extremely slowly but contain every known detail and are published after a lifetime's work (and are criticized mercilessly by professional botanists). The latter type of publication may be thorough, but, sadly, becomes out-of-date almost as quickly as the former, and the information contained may be inaccessible to the public for a generation or more prior to its publication.

So, for the non-German-speaking casual visitor, who wants an easily portable volume, with a lot of colour photos, and for whom accuracy of identification is not vital, this may well be the book. If it introduces people to, or encourages interest in, the Cretan flora - and in the 15 years since its publication I have come across many visitors to Crete who have enthused over this book - then I believe George Sfikas' aim will not have been in vain.

Lance Chilton, 12th July 2002


A caveat: This edition is copyright 2000 and no mention is given of any previous publication. I have the 2000 edition but also own the 1987 copy of the book and I can assure you that it has changed, not a jot. If you own this book, do not buy another copy believing that there may be something new within - there is not - and I must add that the omission of previous publication details occur far too often in books published by 'The Efstathiades Group', for this to be merely an oversight.


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