FLORA OF THE KATHARO PLAIN

The Katharo plain contains a wide assortment of environments and habitats in which a rich diversity of flora has become established. Ranging from open arable land, and cliff faces to gorges and sandy river beds each supporting it's own unique flora, many of which are Cretan endemics i.e. found no where else in the world, and a few that are found only within the Dikti mountain range of which the Katharo plain is part.

Most of the plain consists of arable land that lies immediately below the village of Avdeliakos, reaching southwards approx 1 km. and west and east by about 3 kms each. It is a rich fertile area interlaced by a network of dirt tracks giving access to the individual plots of land that are owned and managed by the people of Kritsa. Farming practices have remained traditional and virtually unchanged over the years. The only concession to mechanisation is the tractor.

The limited use of pesticides, herbicides and modern fertilisers and the absence of large irrigation systems (most plots of land have a well or sump) has helped sustain, for now, the abundance of weeds that have been introduced over the millennia (archaeophytes), such as the corn poppy, corn buttercup  and blue woodruff.

Although farming practices have remained traditional the chosen crop has certainly changed, this is evident by the number of stone threshing circles that can be found around the plain, indicating that at one time the production of wheat for the making of bread etc. was much more common. Other archaic food crops that can be found on the fertile plain include lupins, grown for the seeds, chicory and the Spanish oyster-plant.

Growing in abundance across this area are large swathes of different varieties of vetch, whether this was propagated as animal fodder or as a means of nitrogen fixation is unclear, but it is still harvested as a fodder in late spring. Other crops that can be seen growing in and around the plain are grape vines perhaps one of the more abundant fruit crops, pears, apples, walnuts, potatoes, cabbages, onions etc., but by far the greatest area of land is used for the production of cereal crops which are now used as fodder for feeding the goats and sheep.

Along many of the tracks that criss-cross the arable area and indeed the lower slopes grows phrygana, defined as an assemblage of spiny often aromatic dwarf shrubs that are resistant to drought and are usually less than 50 cm tall. These include Greek spiny spurge, spiny burnet and crowberry-leaved St. John's wort. Several herbaceous plants can be found growing through the spiny phrygana taking advantage of the protected habitat, including the Cretan vetch and the endemic bellflower.
Between the shrublets may be seen patches of the one-flowered clover (Trifolium uniflorum), the anemone (Anemone hortensis ssp. heldreichii) and in early spring, the beautiful yellow few-flowered orchid (Orchis pauciflora).

Dotted around this arable area are isolated rocky outcrops each seeming to own its own holly oak (Quercus coccifera) under which, in the late autumn, will burst forth the purple Cretan endemic crocus (Crocus oreocreticus) and the purple veined white crocus (Crocus laevigatus). In the spring these same outcrops are home to two more Cretan endemics the lovely arum (Arum idaeum) and the cyclamen, Cretan sowbread, (Cyclamen repandum).
Another habitat that can be found on the plain and certainly man made is the irrigation sump, which in the latter part of the year tends to dry out and for a brief period creates an habitat that is suitable for the growth of the bullrush or reedmace and the narrow-leaved water-plantain.

At the western end of the plain where the Havga gorge cuts through to the Lassithi plain plants grow that have become specialised to the harsh and arid conditions found on cliffs and gorge sides. These specialised plants are called chasmophytes, and because of the special requirements needed to survive and flourish in such harsh conditions most chasmophytes are restricted to this type of habitat. Plants such as the Cretan endemics Cretan gorge laurel  and the beautiful petromarula, and in early autumn Cretan dittany.

On the cliffs to the south of the plain, beneath the towering peak of Mount Lazarus grows the endemic catchfly (Silene antri-jovis), alpine rock-cress (Arabis alpina), and species of stonecrop, also one of the rarest of Cretan endemics (Centaurea lancifolia) has been reported as growing there. On the rocky slopes beneath the cliff face is a wooded area consisting of Cretan maple , holly oaks and Cretan abelitsia. This rocky slope is also home to a large colony of the very spiny berberis. In early summer the Cretan swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum creticum) can be found amongst the boulders that form the bed of the river that flows down from the peak of Lazarus.

TREE AND SHRUBS

Other than fruit trees very few other species of tree can be found growing on Katharo which is not too surprising as few species seem to grow in East Crete.

ABELITSIA

Abelitsia (Zelkova abelicea) is a threatened species. The tree is usually only seen in shrubby form but a few large and regularly-fruiting trees, up to 10-15 mtrs. high, are found restricted to a few places, for example on the slopes below Lazarus at the southern end of the plain. Sheep and goats graze heavily on its habitats and almost all seedlings and saplings are destroyed. The species is able to carry on by the sprouting of new shoots from the roots of older plants. The total number of adult trees in Crete is estimated to about 50-100 individuals.

The timber is very hard durable and resistant, local people use the branches as raw material for making the traditional hooked walking sticks (katsouna).  The walking sticks made from it may maintain a working life of at least a century, much greater than those made from more traditional woods such as mulberry, Kermes oak or olive.

HAWTHORN

The common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) grows on Katharo mainly along the river banks and usually as shrubs, but several have reached small tree status. Bearing fragrant white flowers in Mar-Apr, followed by the small red fruits (haws) in autumn, which along with the fruit of the dog rose (hips) are eaten by birds as winter food.
HOLLY OAK

Holly oak or Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) is perhaps the most abundant tree to be found. It is rare to see so many large mature trees of this species in one area as they are usually sculptured by goats into nothing more than shrubs. The trees of the plain usually grow in ones and twos and may reach an age of several hundred years.
They are evergreen trees that have hard shiny prickly leaves not unlike small holly leaves (hence its name). The acorn is elongate and sits in a cup that is quite bristly. The tree is host to the kermes insect (Kermes illicis) from which red dye was made.

HOLM OAK

The holm oak (Quercus ilex), much less frequent in east Crete is very similar to the holly oak, but the leaves lose their holly shape has they mature. The underside of the leaf has a silvery hue and the stubby acorn is borne in a smoother cup. I known of only one specimen on Katharo.

MAPLE

The Cretan maple (Acer sempervirens) can be found scattered around the plain usually along the river banks, but its preferred habit is the rocky slopes surrounding the plain. It is a small leaved shrub like deciduous tree that sets the mountains ablaze as the leaves turn red in the autumn.
MOCK PRIVATE

The Mock Private or Eleoprina (Phillyrea latifolia) a large evergreen shrub that grows up to 8 mtrs. Common throughout Crete. Bearing very small greenish-yellow flowers that grow in rounded clusters about 1 cm across in the leaf axils. The fruits are small, fleshy, round drupes blue-black with an eye at the tip. Often grown as an architectural tree in British gardens.

WILD OLIVE

The olive tree has been a part of the Cretan culture for several thousand years, and is the longest-lived crop plant, with some trees attaining a great age of hundreds of years. One of the oldest recorded on Crete is at Kavousi with an estimated age of 3250 years.  

The normal altitude limit for olives growing on Crete is about 750 mtrs. The olive can withstand ordinary frosts but a temperature of -12°C, (a temperature easily reached in the high mountains) will kill the tree to ground level. That said one wild olive tree does grow on Katharo as a testament to their hardiness and tenacity.

WILD PEAR

The wild pear (Pyrus spinosa) is quite common throughout Crete growing in woodland, olive groves, scrub, rocky places and field edges, although on Katharo it tends to be restricted to rocky habitats and field edges. A beautiful spring-flowering tree that produces white blossoms in Mar-Apr, followed by small hard yellowish globose pears, edible but not pleasant. The young trees are often used as grafting stock for cultivated pears, apricots or other. fruit trees