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Spring in Croatia

by Fleur Pavlidis
From The Mediterranean Garden No 73 July 2013 (abridged)

Starting at the famous walled city of Dubrovnik, we spent a week visiting islands and the Dinaric Alps as we slowly moved north towards Split, where we stayed at the nearby historic town of Trogir. During these days our ‘orchid count’, begun on a remarkable plateau in the mountains, reached 19 without much effort. The yellow Orchis pauciflora, the explicit Orchis italica (Italian Man Orchid)and Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa and the dullOrchis anthropophora were visible in their tens if not hundreds, alongside Orchis quadripunctata, sometimes displaying only two of its four full-stops, Ophrys bertoloniiwith its strange shiny hollow, and Ophyrs scolopax subsp. cornuta with its horns. By the end of the trip all of us, including our two excellent Croatia guides, could identify these with ease. A further two days in the National Parks of Paklenica and Plitvice brought the orchid count up to 23.

Orchis pauciflora

Ophrys bertolonii

The Dinaric Alps form part of a massive range of limestone mountains that stretches from Slovenia through Croatia, all the way south into Greece (Pindos). They are rugged, picturesque and stony: unwelcoming to farmers but perfect for Mediterranean wild flowers. Our leader, Chris Gardner, had picked out some enticing stops but even as we drove into the mountains we got our first delight – masses of Salvia officinalis blooming wildly in dark mauve. Also viewed constantly from the mini-buses was the national flower of Croatia, Iris pallida, which, as Chris remarked, was hardly pale at all but a rich purple. So to the first stop and Campanula lingulata, an impressive biennial making up for its lack of the usual campanula grace by its thrusting upright head of flowers. After the ‘plateau of orchids’ where we picnicked and which many of the group voted their favourite place, a brief stop on the way back garnered more orchids, Linum tauricum – a shorter version of Linum flavum which would make an ideal garden plant – and Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. praepropera, the flower a clear red, a colour not very often found on the hillsides. In Croatia even most of the Papaver rhoeas were orange.

Campanula lingulata

Leaving Dubrovnik, we moved on to the island of Hvar (pronounced hwar with a soft H and W) which had its own treasures. The scrub was a refined mix of Rosmarinus officinalis, Erica arborea, Arbutus unedo, Euphorbia spinosa, (lower and less spiny than E. acanthothamnos) and the cistuses C. salviifolius and C. creticus, both in full display; we found orchids galore and in between were innumerable pretty specimens, like the annual Blackstonia perfoliata which belies its awkward name with its little bright-yellow open flowers.  A Salvia officinalis by the side of the road was a particularly tempting rose-pink sport, Leopoldia comosa with its tasselled head was everywhere, Flowering Ash (Fraxinus ornus) was flowering, Securigera parviflora had charming pink and white flowers, and Ranunculus illyricus reminded us that the tribe of the Illyrians had occupied the Dalmatian coast in antiquity. The hillsides criss-crossed with walls made from clearing the land of stones are a prominent feature of the island. Originally the little sloping ‘parterres’ were used for olives, later the islanders turned to lavender oil production and the olive trees were grubbed up to be replaced by lavender bushes. Now tourism rules and most of the planting areas so painstakingly cleared are returning to the natural vegetation. Our evenings on the island were spent in the little Venetian town of Hvar which has a delightful piazza open on to the quay where we sat outside to eat through dusk into night.


Then on 1 May it was back to the mountains, and in particular the national park of Mount Biokovo where, having been driven to the very top along a precipitous road, a white-faced few decided to walk back down to the picnic spot. The promise was that we’d find Erythronium dens-canis the Dog’s-tooth Violet, and there they were, hiding but enough for all to see and photograph.

Erythronium dens-canis

Chris’s sharp eyes also spotted a Fritillaria montana from the bus, another of those flowers which always bring out a gasp, though it is hard to analyse why. His sharp nose then sniffed out the Scented Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea just coming into flower. Indeed you need a full complement of good senses to be a nature guide –Chris could also identify the birds for us from their calls. The potential disappointment of finding only a couple of half-hearted crocuses (C. malyi, C. veluchensis) rather than a mass of Crocus sieberi was forgotten on a bank dotted with nodding Narcissus poeticus. That was my magical moment. The nearby Dactylorhiza sambucina looked almost coarse in contrast. The forest on Mt Biokovo is made up of Pinus nigra (Black Pine), beech and hornbeam while Juniper communis grows like a flat ground cover. A joy at many of the stops in the mountains was the sight of veronicas so vivid in colour that they couldn’t be missed despite their miniature size. One was Veronica orientalis, another remains unidentified. Gardeners from outside the Mediterranean Basin were introduced to the two forms of Tragopogon, the pink dandelion, T. porrifolius with its giant seed ‘clock’ and the smaller Geropogon hybridus.

Narcissus poeticus

And so on to Trogir. We had walked the massive walls at Dubrovnik, built initially to keep out attacks by their Venetian trading rivals, and now we explored a town occupied by the Venetians for 500 years as a port and trading post for their fleet. The purpose of the towns has gone but the beauty remains.

The next day we had a different kind of treat, a visit to a botanic garden created in the grounds (four hectares) of a primary school. Instigated by some inspired teachers in 1976, the garden was formally nominated as a Botanic Garden in 1986 and although there are three full-time gardeners, the staff and pupils are still totally involved in the daily up-keep. Rather like the volunteers at Sparoza, the children help by doing the routine chores, collecting the snails from the flower and vegetable beds and picking the olives in winter for instance. Without noticing it they are being educated in botany and ecology. Professor Ivna Bućan, the director, along with Leda Tomas, the teacher responsible, showed us around: two very dedicated women. The climate, with mild winters, summers not too hot and the rainfall averaging an annual 930 cm including some summer rain, is very favourable for plants from many different regions so we saw not only trees familiar to Mediterranean gardeners like Melia azedarach and Schinus molle but many we could never hope to grow like Cinnamomum camphora, and the Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera in flower) as well as others we could never hope to find a source for like Japanese Lemon (Citrus trifoliata, syn. Poncirus trifoliata) and the African acacia (Acacia drepanolobium). The latter, we are told, is grazed by giraffes – and indeed to keep the children interested most of the plants are associated with anecdotes. The Sequoia sempervirens is introduced as a ‘baby’ being only 32 years old, the Cryptomeria japonica is grown round Japanese temples and has the unusual feature that the leaves can turn brown and then back again to green, while the leaves of the Melia tree are used as bait by fishermen. The children love to run their hands over the bark of the Cork Oak (Quercus suber), but since it is only a single specimen they dare not try to harvest the cork. We left the garden wondering why more schools have not undertaken similar projects.

This being a garden society trip, several visits to gardens had been included and apart from the school all of them turned out to be linked to the distant past. On our first day in Dubrovnik we caught the ferry to Lokrum Island, first planted with oranges and vines by Benedictine monks 900 years ago (picturesque ruins of their 14th-century monastery remain), then stocked with all sorts of exotics under the command of Emperor Maximilian when he built a palace there in the 1850s. Even in the early 20th century, according to our hotelier, sea-captains trading throughout the world were being instructed to bring back new plants for the garden. It has now been formally designated as a Special Forest Vegetation Reserve and the trees remaining, including California conifers such as Pinus coulteri, Torreya californica and Cupressus goveniana as well as various Dasylirion and Yucca, have grown to full-sized specimens. Next up was Trsteno Arboretum; badly damaged by war and forest fire decades ago (as described in TMG 28), it has now been restored to restful tranquillity. To give some idea of its age, an aqueduct constructed to irrigate the arboretum was already in existence when Columbus discovered America, and is still in use. The size of some of the trees, including two famous planes but also some enormous Pinus halepensis,suggests that they are from the same era. The final garden we visited was a replanting of a tiny monastic garden in the medieval town of Sibenik. The Franciscan monastery of St Lawrence is now used as a school which maintains a handkerchief-sized physic garden with all the herbs carefully labelled.

As we drove up to the National Park of Paklenica the countryside changed. Paklenica is characterised by a dramatic ‘karst’ landscape of canyons, caves and bare rock faces. It is a paradise for rock climbers and indeed our visit coincided with the annual rock climbing festival. Mature flower lovers clutching their cameras, binoculars and Blameys rubbed shoulders with virile men and women wielding ropes, helmets and carabiners. I suspect they interested us rather more they we did them. Now at last the cyclamen lovers amongst us got their reward. Masses of Cyclamen repandum greeted them – they could almost have rolled in them, like cats in nepeta, had they so wished. In general the forest was showing a northern influence. Among the more southern black pine, Carpinus orientalis and Acer sempervirens were sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), the common hazel (Corylus avellana), Amelanchier ovalis and the Spindle Tree (Euonymus europaeus). In the shade we saw the Toothed Orchid Neotinea tridentata, Pseudofumaria alba subsp. acaulis (syn. Corydalis ochroleuca), the white violet Viola kitaibeliana and Dictamnus albus, the Burning Bush.

The National Park of the Plitvice Lakes lives up to all the tourist guide hype. Think of a forest with signs of great antiquity spread over a wide area which drops by 300 metres. Add sixteen lakes of varying sizes fed by numerous rivers and steams each connected to the next and imagine the volume and movement of water over falls and cascades. Now include the fact that the water is rich in dissolved limestone (calcium carbonate) which deposits itself on the rock and plant life irrespectively in a layer of porous material called tufa. The waterfalls change shape and size constantly and in general they are unexpectedly green since plants can get a root-hold in the tufa before they are themselves incorporated into the rock. In this probably unique setting the park has been organised so admirably that the visitors can walk on slatted paths beside, over and through the lakes and waterfalls. Ferries and buses carry those pressed for time or energy over the longer distances. The forest here is beech, Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika), Syrian Fir (Abies cilicica), Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Whitebeam (Sorbus aria). Cornus was growing as a ground cover. Among the many flowers on the pathside, those which I recall most are Staphylea pinnata, a loose bush with enchanting bunches of rose-specked white blossoms, Lathyrus vernus which starts blue then slips into purple, Cardamine enneaphyllos with creamy-white flowers and the eponymous nine leaves, and Anemone ranunculoides, resembling much more its species name than its genus in bright yellow. Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) would have been glorious a week or so later, their leaves were everywhere. Bright green lizards with bright blue faces (Lacerta viridis) were here and there and as the frogs croaked noisily, Chris spotted a Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata) stalking them through the reeds.

Plitvice Lakes

Bright green lizards

And so with our holiday ending on a high, what other impressions did we have of Croatia? Well the Croatians are very tall – male, female, young and old; in fact an internet search revealed that the people of the Dalmatian coast are the tallest in Europe, out-growing even the lofty Dutch. On the other hand their dogs are very small, almost pocket-sized and none the worse for that. The wine is good, the beer is bad and if you enjoy seafood you’ll always eat well.

In conclusion, our thanks to Alisdair Aird for all his work as  the MGS and Cyclamen Society organiser for the trip and congratulations to Chris and Başak Gardner for leading us to all the right places, feeding us tasty picnics, ensuring we didn’t get mislaid and having such a lovely son in Merlin.

Photographs by Alisdair Aird and Nikos Pavlidis
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