stepping aside from Olympus….

… and from the story of my humiliation, which I want to be funny, because humiliation or at least embarrassment is amusing – it’s how you tell it of course – not just the humiliation but feelings of envy and competitiveness which I had been told about but ignored – I mean, when people go on journeys to find themselves they usually get in touch with their spiritual side don’t they? – or there might be healing, or pilgrimage, or inner light, not all that difficult neurotic stuff – so I’ll leave that for now – Yesterday after the road through the forest which lets in the light I found myself thinking again about edges, margins, and the way plants can colonise the environments we build or even how plants and people make communities together, which is something I like to see happen in gardens. . And I began to reminisce about some such places but then I remembered when my sisters and I went youth hostelling with our father, one of the songs he used to be cheery – Keep right on to the end of the road /Keep right onto the end, / If the way be long let your heart be strong, / Keep right on round the bend. / If you’re tired and weary still journey on, / till you come to your happy abode…. So I looked it up and there we are back in the first world war again. Harry Lauder wrote it and sings it, and how he rolls those r’s on youtube now with processions of soldiers marching with fixed bayonets or waving from troop trains off to France where all you love that you’re dreaming of / Will be there at the end of the road. I don’t suppose ’round the bend’ carried the meaning in 1916 that it does now.

An annual campanula traces and expands a crack in the tarmac, near Areopoli, Peloponnese

And it seems so fragile!

near Exochori, Peloponnese

A rich little collection of plants is developing. The cliff was created to widen the road, but it wasn’t secured, so the road has become single track again. First, falling stone does the work of the plough or the fork, then seeds can germinate and grow and gradually more organic matter builds up. As I walked here a driver stopped to warn me that it was dangerous. Sometimes it’s safer to avoid the road and stick to the mountain. See also in the Peloponnese 3, Vaidenitsa

in Assynt, north west Scotland

Poorly drained, marginal pasture, the grasses yellow-brown in late summer. And raised above the boggy ground, a road evidently built on a slight causeway, with a bright green strip of sweet grass on either side which sits on the foundations for the road and profits from the improved drainage and attracts sheep. Drivers think that the sheep are stupid or contrary. But of course if you look at it from the sheep’s point of view it’s the other way round.

near the hamlet of la Montagne in the Buech, south east France

Another tarmac lover. Toxic to animals but plants seem to thrive on it, and I didn’t see this onosma anywhere else even though I wandered cloud-like.

off road near Kambos in the Peloponnese

A little patch of level stony ground beside the road caught the eye as a car park but it had already attracted some Orchis quadripunctata, and you can glimpse a little ornithogalum, or star of bethlehem, amongst other flowers.

on the road which crosses the hills between Kalamata and Sparta in the Peloponnese

This is an elegant, ‘sculptural’ euphorbia, E. acanthothamnos, which although it survives some frost presumably doesn’t grow well anywhere in this country otherwise it would be the landscapers’ darling. Unlike the onosma above, or the sheep in Scotland, or the flowers that bloom in the sunlight which a road cuts into the forest, it’s not particularly attracted to roads or tarmac. In areas where it’s happy it grows all over the place.

On Pangeon in Thrace, north eastern Greece, road building has allowed a fabulous collection of plants to develop. Following a steep contour, on the upper side a low cliff has been cut into the slope, and on the lower side the excavated rock has been used in places to make a level terrace of pulverised scree supporting the road. The rock is white marble, a dazzling setting. But some plants happily embrace the tarmac on this very little used road which leads to an unviable skicentre. (The mountain is only 1900 and something metres high and must have poor snow cover.) The place is perfect for anybody with dodgy knees or all the other inflictions of old age or in a wheelchair who wants to get close to mountain flowers. And there are grand views across the Aegean.

a globularia embracing the tarmac
Anthyllis montana on the new scree bed between the road and the drop
Saxifraga strbrnyi (sorry about that) on the other side of the road, on the marble cliff

Pangeon being on the whole a rounded mountain with little in the way of precipices or scree the road builders have greatly enlarged the area available to many plants. Johannes Flohe in Wildflowers of Mainland Greece is unkind to the road builders. It seems unfair since he spends most of his time driving and never wastes an opportunity to drive as high as he can, even though he also then does plenty of walking. But when a road or track is widened, even though many plants are destroyed, the newly created cliffs and banks become seed beds. The process is similar to the natural violence of mountain erosion. And on a fairly gentle, stable mountain like Pangeon there are without human intervention few new places for plants to colonise. As I wandered round the back of Olympus, as I wrote in the last post, I thoughtg that there are places in Greece where all you have to do to make a garden is widen a road.

At many ancient sites in Greece, (classical, pre-classical and byzantine,) plants are happily tolerated. One of the loveliest rock flowers, a campanula which to me looks much the same everywhere but which according to the books has many distinct variations, shows no preference between man made and natural rock formations. It spreads itself out but doesn’t cling. It seems to sense and embrace the rock. It thrives at Mycenae, and is fabulous at the ruined Byzantine town of Monemvasia (which is sometimes called the Greek Gibraltar.)

Campanula andrewsii at Monemvasia. It has got a hold even in a recently pointed wall.

This is a different form, growing on a massive boulder on the steep slopes below the village of Delphi, where you can wander about and not see a soul. Of course it’s also possible not to see what’s in your own view finder, see the curious lizard in on seeing and now can you see it? The campanula makes no distinction between natural rockfaces and walls and buildings because the builders used local, natural materials. In some places the plants treat our constructions as an extension of their natural environment, in others we’ve inadvertently created a more suitable environment for plants which otherwise would be scarce or absent.

Back in Monemvasia – the ruined town becomes a crowded metropolis again in April when Ferula communis is in flower:

a city of giants – they grow up to eight feet tall, and they are another biennial, soon to die

The emptiness of Mystras, the ruined Byzantine city which climbs the first steep slopes of the Taygetos mountains just outside Sparta, is also filled with trees and flowers:


The pink blossom belongs to the Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, which grows well in this country. On stony hill-sides in the Peloponnese it contrasts with the predominant yellow of big euphorbias, phlomis, brooms and gorses. Our ruins, in comparison, are so tidy.

Nearly all these photos were taken in April. By the summer of course, the ruins are bare. But next we’re into September and in Germany. The site of Tempelhof airport in Berlin deserves a slide show to illustrate its rich botanical variety – 329 species apparently:

An old airport is marginal land grown expansive. A referendum in Berlin decided that Tempelhof would be left, not built on and landscaped and and the result is wonderful. The poverty of the land, the struggle through concrete and tarmac means that the vigorous weeds that thrive in gardens and on arable land can’t get a foothold. 329 species of plants were found in a survey in 2010. I imagine that most of them belong to the poor, dry sandy soils of Brandenburg, not to improved garden soils. For two years after the airport closed there was no public access, so rewilding got off to a peaceful start, but subsequently it was found that the plants, birds, insects and people could co-exist, since people have behaved like good citizens, stayed out of certain sensitive areas at sensitive times, kept their dogs on leads. Looking up Tempelhof on the internet yesterday I had a shock. I found an interesting site with a very helpful English version with a good account of the wildlife. The butterflies, the invertebrates…. and skylarks nest here. So ground nesting birds can survive in the heart- or close to the heart – of a city of 5 million people! Our affection for skylarks has risen in proportion to the shrinking of their habitat, which has led to a decline in their numbers of more than 50% in thirty years. I enjoyed their song when I was a boy, sometimes looked up and saw the little speck of a bird rising higher and higher in the sky over Salisbury plain. But we took them for granted. I’d love to hear one now. All I get to hear these days is Vaughan Williams’ the lark ascending – I wrote to Radio 3 to say give us a break but they took no notice.

I meant to tell you about the shock. The website described the site and its history and also what seems to be an exemplary relationship between Tempelhof and the respectful people of Berlin, but then told of proposals to build thousands of flats and take away at least a third of the open space. Yet somehow by statistical conjuring the development proposals claimed there would be a net ecological gain. This was based on tricks like water trumps everything else, so a lake that destroyed half of the skylarks territory could be seen as a plus, and somehow the creation of new roads was seen as a net gain. So I’m thinking, but when I was in Berlin Micha told me that the future of the airfield had been decided in a referendum, that the people had voted that it would all be left as it was, for people, plants, grasshoppers and skylarks to share! It was depressing to think that what I had seen was just an interlude in the inevitable development of the city. But then I got to the end of the article and a postscript celebrated the result of the referendum, the development proposals had been defeated in 2013. I felt like one of those japanese soldiers hiding in the forest who didn’t know that the war was over. But there was no date on the piece I had read! And here another old man complaint is inevitable. At the beginning of a book you are given the date of publication, the dates of revisions and new editions. But there’s a timelessness about the internet, unless things are actually taken down, which somehow seems at odds with its immediacy, its here and now speediness. Anyway, I staggered out of the jungle, considerably more cheerful. And it’s worth emphasising that predictions at the beginning of Tempelhof’s opening to the public that wildlife would suffer – there are 2 million visits a year – have not come true. Everything and everybody -well, almost – are happy. Maybe even including the refugees in the old airport buildings. Maybe.

I meant to tell you more about skylarks, but I’ll do that next time. Before I finish, one more image from Greece. The first time I drove to Olympus, from Thessaloniki, I took a minor road which cuts across the arable fields on the gently sloping plain near Litochoro. A series of parallel tracks lead off the road through the small fields. I took one more or less at random and walked up. After a couple of hundred metres the fields seemed neglected, and fabulous linum – in the flax family – and onosma had quickly grown over the stony track. Such weeds!

linum (elegans ?)


and there were poppies of course – and kiwi fruit!

poppies with kiwi fruit behind

see also Deviations, Boundaries, Prohibitions, (revised) and at a full stop in the Gasterntal

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