CULTURE

A valuable resource for botanists

Success in finding rare and unknown species of plants has been a bonus for two scientists who have been hiking through the countryside for years to record the rich biodiversity of Greece’s flora. The results of their collaboration, illustrated with Bent Johnsen’s exquisite botanical drawings, is soon to appear in a massive, beautifully produced tome titled Endemic Plants of Greece: The Peloponnese, to be followed later by two more volumes on the flora of the rest of the country. The 480-page book, with details of over 360 taxa and distribution maps, gives a complete scientific account of all the plants indigenous to the Peloponnese, compiled over the past six years by Kit Tan, research associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, and Grigoris Iatrou, associate professor at Patras University’s plant biology department in the Faculty of Biology. A distinguished Scottish-Chinese scientist, Kit Tan’s main field of research has been the biodiversity of the Greek and Turkish flora and, along with Iatrou, has focused on the floristic and phytogeographical investigations in the Peloponnese. They were fortunate in having award-winning artist Bent Johnsen prepare the 111 full-color plates for the book. Johnsen is an internationally recognized botanical illustrator who was awarded a medal by the Linnean Society of London in 1996. He has also illustrated two volumes of Mountain Flora of Greece and a number of scientific books and journals. The magic of new discoveries Tan, who has been visiting Greece for about 20 years, is currently in this country to further her continuing research in the field. Greece is a very beautiful country with its mountains and islands, and it is because of these different habitats that there is such a large number of species, although it is such a small country. There are around 750 endemic plants in Greece compared to around 500 in Spain or Morocco, Tan told Kathimerini English Edition. Greece is also a wonderful country to study the evolution of plants and to see active speciation (i.e. the making of new species). That is why Greece is a great natural laboratory for evolution; you can see it happening before your eyes, she said. One of the new discoveries included in the book is a rare and unusual thyme, Thymus laconicus, recently found in a new locality in the Malea Peninsula. As plants’ natural tendency is to spread out over a wide area, there is something magical in making new discoveries, in the fact that one can come across a plant that is found nowhere else in the world, or even in Greece, said Iatrou, whose contribution to the book drew from his seven years of work on his doctorate on endemic plants. For example, amid some rocks in a gorge above Leonidio in the eastern Peloponnese, we recently found a small population of only about 150 specimens of a plant (Pontentilla arcadiensis) that is found nowhere else in the world. In the same area we found four more very rare plants, he explained. Greece’s rich diversity compared to the rest of Europe is the result of its geological position at the end of the route taken by Europe’s icebergs and its position at a geological crossroads. Its geomorphology has favored the preservation of diverse species Time is precious Tan is presently doing field research in the Peloponnese with Gert Vold, who is in charge of seed collection for Copenhagen’s botanical garden and who has also made important discoveries in Greece. A plant he found on Mt. Taygetos has been named after him – Halimium voldii. A few years ago they found another rare plant, Viola parnonia, on Mt. Parnon, in the eastern Peloponnese. Tan would like to see more Greeks become aware of the value of their habitat. It is very important for young people to be aware of nature, conservation and ecology. Money can always be made again but time is precious. Once a tree is cut down it takes a long time for another one to grow. We hope more people will get out to study nature. Ecotourism has not really caught on yet because prices are high and that is a pity, she said. Tan paid tribute to the work of Niki Goulandri, co-founder of the Goulandris Natural History Museum – the only museum of its kind in Greece established by a Greek person for the country and the people of the country – and its plant archive which has been a valuable resource for Tan’s own work, as well as to the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature and its president, George Sfikas. Goulandri herself has the highest praise for Tan’s work. Kit Tan is an excellent and an inspiring botanist, with a great deal of courage. Her professor in Britain, the late Peter Davis, also worked closely with us and she has ‘inherited’ many of his talents and abilities, Goulandri told Kathimerini English Edition this week. The Goulandris museum is preparing an exhibition of the botanical paintings of Bent Johnsen next September.