Just outside Litochoro, right by the road, I came across a dracunculus – literally little dragon. When you’ve only ever seen something once it takes on special importance.
I was driving slowly but you’d see it even if you flashed past on a motorway. It’s regal, splendid, putrid. It is pollinated by flies which it attracts with a smell of rotting meat. But now I realise that I didn’t smell it, it was so fresh and perfect, just opened, and the first flies only beginning to gather. But I can add my prejudiced intuition of its smell to my native republicanism to see its boastful royal purple. Thinking about this last night I wondered if you could see those first flies in the photos, and I found one, taken with my mobile, in which although none are visible in the stills, as a gif it shows a faint dancing web of flies. And now I wonder if I could have smelt the beginnings of the rot if I’d sniffed closely. But in the photo above you can see the first flies.
Home schooling: How do you see Dracunculus vulgaris? What does it look like to you? Did it look different when you saw the picture but hadn’t got to the bit about the flies and the rotting meat? How do you feel about royal purple? I should maybe add that it’s the colour of my Cambridge college. But hang on: Dracunculus vulgaris? What’s common about it? And I’ve only ever seen this solitary plant, though I know I’m not well travelled. The genus has only two species, the other one being D. canariensis, from Madeira and the Canaries, which has a pale yellow spadix (the column in the centre which bears the flowers at its base) and a pure white spathe (the cloak), but in spite of that the same smell of rotting flesh. It’s maybe rare enough to make the other one (found in the Balkans and Anatolia) common, if not vulgar.
There are other genera which are quite closely related, like Arum which includes our own lords and ladies, Arum maculatum, which is also known as cuckoo pint. Pint I see, thankyou Wikipedia, is short for pintle, an old word for penis. No other plant has so many common (and vulgar) names: “including snakeshead, adder’s root, wild arum, arum lily, lords-and-ladies, devils and angels, cows and bulls, cuckoo-pint, soldiers diddies, priest’s pintle, Adam and Eve, bobbins, naked girls, naked boys, starch-root, wake robin, friar’s cowl, sonsie-give-us-your-hand, jack in the pulpit and cheese and toast. The name “lords-and-ladies” and other gender-related names refer to the plant’s likeness to male and female genitalia symbolising copulation.” Thank goodness for sober ‘starch root’.
The little dragon also has many names: dragon lily, dragon arum, the black arum, the voodoo lily, the snake lily, the stink lily, the black dragon, the black lily, dragonwort.
A familiar cousin and a popular exhibit at many botanical gardens including Kew where they queue to see it when it’s in flower, is the titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum. This is said to have the biggest unbranched inflorescence of any plant, and a smell to match it.
Opposite our house in Cold Ashton in the 1950’s was the vicarage with a high dry stone wall around its grounds. My sisters and I once sneaked in; we must have made a dash through the gateway and cut in among the trees to the right so that we were hidden by the wall. And there little Myna, who couldn’t have been much older than two, ate a berry or two of lords and ladies. After flowering the foliage dies away and an attractive head of bright red berries develops from the base of the spadix. We panicked and ran, burning with the two-fold guilt of trespassing and poisoning and said nothing to anyone, but she was ok. Maybe she didn’t swallow anything.
More common in gardens is Arum italicum pictum, i.e. painted; the name refers to the atractive silvery markings on the leaves. Seeing it grow you become aware of its unusual life cycle: it’s summer dormant. The leaves disappear in summer as the berries form, then grow back in the autumn. This habit is not so unusual and of course we’re used to it with daffodils and other spring bulbs. But still it surprises us, we expect things to grow through the summer and die away in the winter. The reverse is more common in the mediterranean where autumn and even winter are more conducive to life than the heat of summer.
You can grow dracunculus in gardens in Britain, but mine died
I was about to get back into the car when I saw that a pick-up had stopped 60 or 70 yards up the road, and a man got out, carefully picked something up with both hands, walked a little way into the scrub at the side of the road and put it down. I realised that it must be a tortoise, and that realisation, the security of understanding, made me feel at home. And it was comforting to see that ordinary greeks – whoever they are: well, they’re people who drive old pick-ups – Graecus vulgaris – care about tortoises. Although they are common I’ve never seen one broken on the road. It used to be sad to see flattened hedgehogs on country roads, now it’s sad not to see them, because it means there are hardly any left to squash.
Here’s a tortoise I saw earlier:
In fact it’s the first one I saw, in the Langada pass near Sparta in 2016, and it too was trying to cross the road. I stood in front of it and spoke to it and it turned around and moved slowly away into the rough vegetation at the side of the road. It’s easy to have a positive relationship with a tortoise. They might put their head in and ignore you, but often they give you a steady look with their ancient unblinking eyes. And of course you can get very close to them. They don’t run or fly away. In that they’re like flowers. When you notice each other you’re usually right on top of them, especially when they’re in the scrubby undergrowth. Their progress among the thorns and wiry tufts is slow, you can see why, like us, they are drawn to roads and tracks. Do their shells become more complex as they age? They remind me of tree rings, with the same suggestion of longevity.
The only thing I’ve read about tortoises in Greece is this. After the devastating fires in the Peloponnese in 2007 see in the Peloponnese it was impossible to enumerate the dead, how many beetles, how many mice and caterpillars, how many birds – could birds be overcome by smoke before they could fly away? They could fly from one fire into another. They could fly high and still be choked and suffocated. But they know of course how many people were killed: ninety seven. And you could count the burnt out tortoises too, though I didn’t see a number.
This one which is less stylish I ran into near Delphi:
And this one I almost stepped on, round the back of Mount Olympus:
Further up the valley I walked down to the monastery of St Dionysias. Every blog and brochure and all the sites offering guided walks tell you that it was bombed by the Germans in 1943 and little else. It’s clearly important but it’s frustrating that the fact of its destruction is now the most important thing about it and has almost wiped out its history. Well, what else do we know about Hiroshima? Or about Old St Paul’s since the great Fire of London? Resistance fighters were based in the monastery. It makes a good story.
After the war they built a new monastery, closer to Litochoro, but more recently parts of the old one have been painstakingly restored.
A suspicious priest looked at me and disappeared. They are prepared for immodest dress and bad behaviour:
But in this courtyard a welcome had been prepared:
I walked on up the valley by the path which keeps close to the river and met a big group of schoolchildren, eleven/twelve year olds, there must have been forty or fifty of them, and they almost all greeted me warmly in English. It’s always strange to come from Britain and find children who want to speak a foreign language and who are so bold about it. But how did they know I was English? Was it just that they knew I was a foreigner and English is what you speak to everybody who isn’t Greek? Or did one of the children at the front ask me where I was from and did the word pass down the long chain? Anyway, I think the fleeces were laid out for them.
The woods and the river were beautiful, and the icy (up above snow was still melting) swimming would be wonderful for those that like that kind of thing:
A little further on I met a young woman from Dresden. She had walked along the valley to Pioria from Litochoro, then up to the first refuge, then on to the summit, to one of the summits, now she was on her way back to the station. I marvelled at her independence and her fitness. She was pleased to hear that I had been to Dresden. I told her that I loved it there, I thought it was amazing how beautifully the centre of the city had been rebuilt after the bombing.
But this picture, a favourite from Dresden, shows a survivor. The shells of some buildings in the Neustadt – which was new in the 18th century – survived. This carving is from the first years of the 20th century. What has she seen? What is she hiding from?
Notice the clothes pegs behind the window. This area is a good place to stay, very different from the monumental centre.
The city is a dream, for us tourists at least, but the geese don’t know that. Here on the shore of the Elbe survivors gathered on the morning of February 14th, 1945.
A couple of days later as I walked up the mountain towards the first refuge I saw a huge boulder on which someone had painted in letters a yard high DYNAMO DRESDEN.
Some people might not know that that is a football team. It’s often the fans of the less successful clubs who have this desperate need to make their mark.