Wild Flowers of Crete by George Sfikas
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"
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
(The above picture, is opposite the text (below), in the
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:
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 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
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:
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
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
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.
Buy the book Wild Flowers of Crete (Nature of Crete) by Amazon UK