The Out­sider

Craggy and des­o­late, the Mani is the cen­tral and most dra­matic of three penin­su­las in the Pelo­pon­nese re­gion of south­ern Greece – a home to rare tulips, painted and wild

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS HAN­NAH GARD­NER IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS ALICE PATTULLO

Hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Han­nah Gard­ner heads to the Mani penin­sula in the Pelo­pon­nese re­gion of south­ern Greece

The main road nar­rows to a bumpy lane as you head along the coast from Kala­mata to­wards the south­ern­most point of main­land Europe. I wanted to com­plete a loop that would draw me into the spec­tac­u­lar des­o­late, land­scapes of deep Mani then con­tinue up the eastern side of the penin­sula and into the snow-capped peaks and deep gorges of the ma­jes­tic Tayge­tos Moun­tains be­fore re­turn­ing through the Lan­gada gorge, home to Thal­ic­trum ori­en­tale, with a pass at 1,300m. I hoped to find wild tulips. I had read that Tulipa goulimyi and T. or­phanidea grew in a few lo­ca­tions on the Mani Penin­sula. To my de­light I got lucky, and found the rare crim­son T. goulimyi on my sec­ond day in the hills.

When to go

The peak for the low­lands is from late March to late April, but the sea­son in the moun­tains above 1,000m ex­tends into July. Even if you visit in au­tumn it’s colour­ful, with cy­cla­men, cro­cuses, colchicums and the glossy, yel­low flow­ers of Stern­ber­gia lutea.

Where to go

Driv­ing south I mar­velled at the abun­dance of tech­ni­colour vege­ta­tion spilling on to the shabby as­phalt. To great ex­cite­ment I stopped twice for tor­toises to shimmy across my path. Kas­ta­nia was a high­light of the outer Mani, I was too early in the sea­son to find lunch but wine and a de­li­cious snack ap­peared from a house on the vil­lage square. Cob­bled, an­cient mule tracks ( kalderini) snaked out of the vil­lage and on to the moun­tain. Here in shady spots were vig­or­ous colonies of Cy­cla­men rhodium subsp. pelo­pon­nesi­acum, Anemone blanda and the scal­lop-leaved Sax­ifraga ro­tun­di­fo­lia subsp. chrysos­pleni­fo­lia of­fer­ing its starry white flow­ers up for ad­mi­ra­tion. Nearby I found blue, cour­tesy of the pretty en­demic Scilla messe­ni­aca, and the oc­ca­sional Iris un­guic­u­laris peep­ing out of the grass. Orchis ital­ica, scar­let Anemone coro­naria and yel­low bee or­chids also thrived in the sun. Here too the gen­er­ous, lilac flow­ers of Cam­pan­ula an­drewsii sprawled over smooth lime­stone boul­ders and caught my eye as we walked through the prickly phry­gana (spiny vege­ta­tion that thrives here).

The stony old olive groves are not heav­ily cul­ti­vated, and are full of flow­ers. Tongue or­chids: the larger, darker Ser­apias vomer­acea subsp. ori­en­talis and its pale lit­tle sis­ter Ser­apias lin­gua, ma­genta soap­wort, Saponaria cal­abrica, Vi­cia melanops and Cerinthe re­torta abound.

On the eastern as­pect, the vil­lage of Anavryti (920m) has a won­der­ful café serving moun­tain tea ( Sideri­tis syr­i­aca), which you need to soothe your nerves af­ter the hair-rais­ing as­cent. From here there are many trails to fol­low. In three hours I reached the an­cient Byzan­tine set­tle­ment of Mys­tras, an open archaeological site on the slopes of Mount Tayge­tos. I found many botan­i­cal trea­sures en route, and, among the ru­ins, pro­tec­tion from graz­ing pro­motes yet more flo­ral diver­sity. Here I stum­bled on a tiny, half-ru­ined room, a few frag­ments of fresco per­sisted on the oth­er­wise rough stone wall. Painted flow­ers, among them a slen­der tulip, the an­cient red pig­ment faded to a deep ox-blood black.

Plant to grow at home

Ob­ser­va­tion of any plant grow­ing in its na­tive habitat brings a greater un­der­stand­ing of how to grow it well, and what to plant next to it. Eu­phor­bia chara­cias subsp. wulfenii is pop­u­lar in cul­ti­va­tion, and has been since its in­tro­duc­tion dur­ing the reign of El­iz­a­beth I. Val­ued for its ar­chi­tec­tural form, great stature and long sea­son of in­ter­est, it is of­ten con­fused with the other sub­species of E. chara­cias. This has a more com­pact habit and mod­est, dark-cen­tered flow­er­heads; so it is good to note that the two are found in dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the Mediter­ranean: subsp. chara­cias in the western re­gion and subsp. wulfenii in the east. This won­der­ful ev­er­green spurge is a peren­nial with bi­en­nial flower stems. You cut them back to the base just af­ter flow­er­ing in early sum­mer, mak­ing space for new stems that quickly ex­tend with the prom­ise of dra­matic char­treuse flower whorls the fol­low­ing spring. It is gen­er­ally hardy, but re­quires free-drain­ing soil and is ap­pre­cia­tive of both space and sun. In the Mani, vi­brant Eu­phor­bia flow­ers were plen­ti­ful but it looked most re­mark­able grow­ing with just two com­pan­ions; a wispy grass and drifts of scar­let Anemone coro­naria. The red pea­cock anemone, A. pavon­ina, also grows here (the two are al­most iden­ti­cal but this one has un­di­vided stem leaves and nar­rower, more nu­mer­ous pe­tals). To get the same ef­fect grow clumps of the flame anemone, A. x ful­gens, which is slightly taller and more likely to thrive in a damp cli­mate, and gives a fiery shot of spring colour.

Guides and maps

Mani: Trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese by Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor (1958). Not re­ally a travel guide, but a su­perla­tive com­pan­ion to the re­gion, its peo­ple, places and rich his­tory – and the in­spi­ra­tion for my trip. South­ern Pelo­pon­nese Walks and Car Tours by Michael Cullen (Sun­flower Books, 2014). Flow­ers of Greece and the Balkans: A Field Guide by Oleg Pol­unin (Ox­ford Paper­backs, 1987). You can also find up-to-date in­for­ma­tion on hik­ing routes, pub­lic trans­port timeta­bles and events at in­side­mani.gr

Where to stay

Tra­di­tional Ho­tel Itilo Neo Itilo, Ana­to­liki Mani 230 62, Greece. Tel +30 27330 59222, hotelitilo.gr A bou­tique ho­tel with pri­vate ter­races, pedi­gree goats and won­der­ful hosts. Tale­ton Sparti Coun­try Ho­tel Xirokambi 230 54, Greece. Tel +30 2731 035150, tale­ton.gr Eco bou­tique ho­tel, set in the foothills of Mount Tayge­tos. With easy ac­cess to many walk­ing routes.

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