George Sfikas’s ongoing campaign to salvage Greece’s natural habitats
An early career in art and a love of Greece’s countryside has led George Sfikas to become one of Greece’s best-known authors and illustrators of books and articles on the country’s flora. But that is only part of the story. Sfikas has spent nearly all his adult life searching in Greece’s mountains and valleys for new species of plants, discovering many that were formerly unknown. Two of these (Viola sfikasiana and Colchicum sfikasianum) are named after him. What has become a passionate devotion to disseminating knowledge and cultivating an appreciation of the natural environment began after a hiking trip in 1968 on Mt. Iti in central Greece, where he collected a few plants to take home to draw. As a teenager, Sfikas had studied art with Linda Antoniadou-Vakirtzi, her husband Giorgos Vakirtzis and Nestor Papanikolopoulos before going on to a career in advertising. Eventually, he began to devote more and more time to studying flora, beginning with the nine-volume plant dictionary by Dimitris Kavvadas. His first botanical drawings were for the pharmaceutical company Hoechst. The range and depth of his life’s work since then is all on record at Anthoforos, a private foundation he established with his wife Chrysanthe in 1992 to further the study and protection of Greek flora. The walls are lined with his illustrations for the Ekpaideftiki Elliniki encyclopedia’s volume on plants, along with some of his botanical paintings. Thousands of slides of flora, fauna and landscapes are stored there, as are his plant archives, containing 12,000 samples of plants and a card index of 5,700 species and subspecies and their areas of distribution. The latter is also stored in the Philotis data bank at the National Technical University. Anthoforos also boasts a well-stocked library on botany and the plants of Greece, including monographs and magazines. For the present, Sfikas makes these valuable sources available to academics and other researchers. It is purely a private foundation, with no outside funding or support. His involvement in the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, of which he is now president, and the mountaineering society have provided further outlets for Sfikas’s commitment to Greece’s environment, as well as teaching seminars and research projects. Many of the plants Sfikas has collected during his expeditions have gone to the Botanical Garden of the Philodasiki Society in Kaisariani, with which he was deeply involved for about three years, planting and propagating samples of flora collected from all over Greece, some of them never before seen outside their own region. The collaboration ended recently, however. We did not agree as to the aims of a botanical garden and the way those aims should be achieved, Sfikas explained. Compared to other European countries, botanical gardens are in their infancy in Greece. The first was established during the time of the Bavarian monarchy in Greece in the 19th century, in an area in central Athens now simply known as Votanikos. This was followed in the last century by the Diomedis Foundation botanical garden on the Iera Odos, then the Kaisariani garden begun by the Philodasiki’s postwar president, Katy Argyropoulou. Another has recently been opened in northern Greece, representing Balkan flora in general. For a country with the largest variety of endemic plant species in Europe, this is a very small number, considering that in the Alps alone there are around 100 botanical gardens. Sfikas emphasizes the need for adequate infrastructure and personnel for botanical gardens if they are to be run properly. Botanical gardens need constant work. They are living entities that need to be constantly enriched. For example, at the botanical garden in Copenhagen, around 2,000 annuals are planted every year. They also have to be planned properly from the outset. Mistakes can’t be corrected – you can’t move established trees, he said. As botanical gardens provide a living museum of local flora, they are best visited during periods when local species are in bloom, periods that vary from one region to another. For example, botanical gardens in Alpine areas are under snow in winter. Mediterranean flora are at their best in spring, and to a lesser extent in fall, but dormant in summer, when plants in more temperate climates are in bloom, said Sfikas. Over thirty books Sfikas is a prolific author and illustrator. Apart from his on-going contributions to magazines, encyclopedias and graphic art work, such as postcards and posters, he has published around 30 books, including the series on Greek flora published by Efstathiadis Press in several languages that have become classic handbooks for nature lovers. His latest book, scheduled to be released by the end of the year, will describe 135 areas in Greece where there are rare plants. Votaniki Paradisi tis Elladas, published by Toubis Publications, is illustrated with 780 color photographs. Sfikas is currently working on two more books. One is on parks and gardens, aimed at giving information and advice on appropriate species, and another is on the wildflowers of the Greek islands.