Some of nature’s rare gems that are found exclusively in Greece

Johnsen’s botanical drawings illustrate «Endemic Plants of Greece: The Peloponnese,» by Kit Tan, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and Grigoris Iatrou, associate professor at Patras University’s plant biology department. Johnsen is an award-winning botanical artist who has also illustrated two volumes of the Mountain Flora of Greece among other scientific books and journals. The 480-page book is the result of six years of field trips throughout the mountains of the Peloponnese. It describes 359 plants found only in Greece, and of which 160 are only found in the Peloponnese. «Most of the endemic plants in the Peloponnese belong to the schizo-endemic category,» said Iatrou. What this in fact means is that they reflect Greece’s turbulent geological history. When the Aegean was still dry land, these plants comprised a unified species that spread over Greece and Anatolia. When the land now covered by the Aegean Sea sank and communications between the old species were cut, the plants on either side of the Aegean evolved in different ways. «Geographical isolation leads to the creation of new plants,» said Iatrou. Before the Aegean flooded, its flora was enriched by elements from other continents, such as Asia. Later, however, the land bridge was removed, then reunited, only to be severed again later. At the same time glaciation brought down floral elements from Central Europe where weather conditions could not support organisms that were able to thrive further south. The island of Kythera, which at that time was still joined to the Peloponnese, was the end of the geographical road for plants, so the island is home to a huge variety of endemic plants. A typical example is the Tulipa goulimyi, one of the rarest endemic plants in Greece and only found in the southern Peloponnese on Cape Maleas, Kythera, Antikythera and part of Crete. «These are remnants of a species that grew on a land bridge linking the Peloponnese with these three islands. The Asperula taygetea has a similar geneology,» said Iatrou. Plants are named according to morphological or geographical criteria by the person who first described them. Iatrou, for example is the «godfather» of dozens of species. «Aurinia moreana was named for the Morea (another name for the Peloponnese). This plant was first noted in the Voraikos gorge and in the mountains of the northern Peloponnese,» he said. «Minuartia favargeri was named after Favarge, a professor at Neuchatel University in Switzerland and an expert in the study of endemic flora. Linum hellenicum was named after the village of Hellenico in the southern Peloponnese, a name I Iike very much. Linum phitosianum was named in honor of Professor Dimitris Fitos, who founded the botanical laboratory at Patras University. The Monastery of the Virgin of Elonas gave its name to Asperula elonea. «This is a very impressive shrub that grows to a height of one and a half meters and has not been described elsewhere. Because it was found in the gorge of Leonidio, we named it after the monastery that looms over the gorge,» said Iatrou. In the same area, researchers also recorded a very old species, Potentilla arcadiensis. «We found that some of its distant ‘relatives’ exist only in the Alps and in Turkey. So it came down into Greece with the ice caps and was left behind when they withdrew to Central Europe. «The complexity of the Greek mountains and each area’s particular microclimate have provided ecological refuges in which many plant and animal forms could survive,» he explained Iatrou said that this plant covers an area of only 250-280 square meters of rock. For millions of years, this species is a record of the entire paleo-geography of Europe and the contribution of Greece’s mountains to preserving such old and important ‘remnants’ of species. «Do you realize what it means when someone ignites a stick of dynamite to turn an area like this into a quarry?» asked Iatrou. New species Greece is a very beautiful country with its mountains and islands, and these many different habitats explain why 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 in a previous interview. «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. In honor of Ritsos Alliumi ritsii was named after the late poet Yiannis Ritsos after it was found in Monemvasia, his birthplace in the southeastern Peloponnese. «This is a tiny onion that grows to a height of 8-10 centimeters and grows around houses in the area. It is related to others like it in North Africa, Corsica and Sardinia, and is a steppe species that appeared when communications between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were cut off and the sea began to dry up. It was a time when steppe flora was prevalent and the start of exchanges between African and southern European flora and fauna.