No end to Greek flora discoveries

Some of the most important discoveries of new species of flora in Greece have been made only recently, according to Arne Strid, a Swedish botanist who has been visiting Greece since 1964. He is the director of the Botanical Garden and Natural History Museum in Goteborg and professor of phytogeography at the University of Goteborg. Strid is a regular collaborator with the Kifissia Flower Show, and during his last visit he talked to the show’s horticulturist Nikos Thymakis about his work and the discovery of new species. How did you start to investigate Greek flora? My first visit to Greece was in 1964; that was when I was studying botany at the University of Lund in Sweden. My professor at that time, Hans Runemark, was looking around trying to find an area suitable for studying evolution and speciation (how new species are formed by the evolutionary process). He figured the Greek islands would be a good area for studying such phenomena because they have a rich flora and also there has been no glaciation for some time, so it’s an old flora, having been in place for a long time. The populations on the different islands have had sufficient time to evolve into various species in some cases. We wanted to study the processes that determine how new species are formed. That was how my interest started. I visited Mt Olympus for the first time in 1970 and was fascinated by the flora, but wanted to make a closer study. So in the summers of 1974, 1975 and 1976 I spent a couple of months on the mountain and tried to study the flora as closely as possible, taking a lot of photographs. That then led to cooperation with the Goulandris (Natural History) Museum, which decided to publish a book about Mt Olympus and that is how it started. Is there an end to the discovery of Greek flora? It seems not, because I was actually doing some statistics and it turns out that new species are still being described at a rate of maybe 10 new species and subspecies a year. Not all of them are perhaps good ones, but some are. The interesting thing is that the rate of description of new species shows no sign of decreasing. It’s still at a relatively high level. What is being discovered now, of course, are local species in remote areas that have not been studied before. All the common species are probably known. Can you tell us about the latest ones you have found? Only two years ago I described a new species, Omphalodes runemarkii, from a small mountain in the southeastern Peloponnese – that appears to be a completely new species. Also recently described is a new Leucojum – a bulbous plant from the Ionian Islands. This had been known for some time but had been interpreted in a different way so it has only recently been described as a new species. Then of course taxonomic criteria change, so that what was once regarded as a species might be relegated to synonymy and old names revived. It’s not an exact science. You are a director of the Botanical Garden of Goteborg. What is your opinion of botanical gardens in Greece? Kilkis and that seems to be very promising, although they have a problem being far away from large population centers, so it would be difficult trying to attract large numbers of visitors. I think they are making a very promising start. Then there are many projects on the islands – Chios, Rhodes, Samos and Cephalonia. Do you believe Greek species can enter the commercial market? Is there a fashion for them in Europe? What message do you have for producers? Collecting should be done with care, and not when the plants are rare as this would pose a threat to them. Typically, Mediterranean plants are difficult to grow in Central and Northern Europe, but those that come from slightly higher altitudes are usually quite hardy. What is the policy of the botanical gardens of Europe now? Is it focused on research? I think it will have to be broader. Our philosophy in Goteborg is that we can be both a scientific institution and a garden which is directed at the general public, with educational programs, exhibitions, guided tours and so on. This is necessary to attract funding. But I also think it is important not to lose sight of the scientific purpose. That will always have to be there. What is the profile of a real botanist? That depends on what kind of botanist. The old-fashioned kind, going into the field and studying the plants for their own sake – there might not be so many of those left. Modern botanists tend to be more interested in molecular studies and modern methods and so on, which is only natural. Is this the future of botanical research? One of the futures, I think; the more general approach to the study of the general distribution, the geography of plants and so on, will always be there as a basis. It’s not enough to do DNA sequencing. You have to do all the other stuff as well. What message do you have for Greeks about our flora? Greece has one of the richest and most interesting flora in Europe and it’s worth taking good care of, studying and protecting. So the botanical gardens now being established in Greece will be a good way of doing that. What is also important, as you are doing now, is to foster interest in eco-tourism. With that will come an interest in conserving the flora. Learning more about plants Gardening lessons. The Kifissia Municipality Flower Show organizers are taking bookings until November 10 for gardening lessons over the winter. For further information, call Nikos Thymakis on 210.801.9566 during office hours. Ecology lessons. Flora and fauna, geology and marine environment are just some of the topics in a series of eight seminars on ecology and nature in Greece beginning Tuesday, November 6, at the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature (20 Nikis St). Experts such as Maria Rousomoustakaki, George Sfikas, Martin Gaetlich and Nikos Petrou, will be lecturing Tuesdays and Thursdays until November 29. The fee for each seminar is 5 euros for members (25 euros for the whole series), 6 euros for non-members (or 35 euros for all eight). To book a place, call 210.322.4944.