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A Frenchman’s passion for Cretan flora

He has been searching the mountains of Crete for 40 years, collecting and recording samples of the island’s rich flora. His collection now includes over 8,000 plants, of which 600 only grow on Crete. Professor Jacques Zafran, of the University of Marseilles’ laboratory of ecology and plant communities, presented the results of his work recently at the Hania Orthodox Seminary, hoping that it will form the basis for further discoveries. Why did you choose Crete for your collection of plants? The laboratory where I worked in France specialized in mountain flora. My professor had traveled all over the world and suggested that I study the vegetation in either Corsica or Crete. I chose Crete. It was a kind of mission for the university. In 1964 and 1965 I spend two months there in the summer, when there is more growth in the mountains. A shepherd took me along the trails, and left me to continue on my own at a certain point. In 1966 I stayed in Crete for six months, rented a house in Hania and began my work of recording plants not only in the mountains but along the coasts. Are the plants growing high on the mountains more interesting? The biodiversity is greater in the mountains, perhaps because there are not as many factors that can affect the vegetation, although the increase in the sheep population on Crete has led to the destruction of many plants. The number of animals in Crete has risen drastically and grazing has caused much destruction. People also have played a part. Particularly in Crete, people collect greens to eat. Pies made with wild greens are much tastier than those made with cultivated spinach. People have always collected these greens without disturbing the balance. It is not a problem as long as there is no mass exploitation. Why is it important to record the plant species? Very soon, perhaps within a decade, they may no longer exist. For example, I found a species in the White Mountains in 1967; then a lot of people went looking for it but couldn’t find it. Every species has a unique genetic code and if the species is lost, it is lost forever. Conserving biodiversity increases the likelihood of survival for nature and for ourselves. Have you discovered any new species? I have discovered about 10 plant species that I have not found recorded elsewhere. A group should be formed soon to preserve this knowledge before it is lost forever. Advantages of geographical position Professor Zafran considers himself lucky to have chosen Crete to set up his collection, given the richness of its flora. He explained that Crete’s geographical position, lying between Africa, Europe and Asia, has meant that the island has plants from everywhere. The origin of the island’s plants is 40 percent eastern Mediterranean, 20 percent Asian and 40 percent from northern Europe or Africa. On the other hand, the island is also far enough away to avoid major influences. «I found about 600 plant species that today exist only on Crete, as they have disappeared from the rest of the world. According to my estimates, about 150 species are endemic to the island, that is, found only there.» Zafran said, however, that since 1964 there has been a huge change in the island’s natural environment due to over-grazing. «Still, the mountains of Crete are not easily accessible and so biodiversity is being preserved.»