The Cretan Flora
Trees and Scrubs
The tree you see most often in Crete is of course the olive tree. There are reportedly 60 olive trees for every person living in Crete. It makes about 40 million trees, so you can hardly avoid to come across one or two of them. Other trees are however rare. Some of them are endemic. That is, they exist only in Crete. Apart from the cultivated species on Crete you will find among others: pine, cypress, carob, oak, hawthorn, date palm, juniper and plane trees.
The largest European oak forest is found in the Psiloritis mountains just south of our holiday house and near the village of Tris Ekklisies south of Heraklion you find the largest grove of wild carob trees. Below are descriptions of some of Crete's trees and shrubs.
Kermes-oak (Quercus coccifera) are found in areas with maquis. It is an evergreen tree or shrub. In Crete the tree can reach a height of up to 12 meters. The leaves have green upper surface and grayish underside. They are thick with thorns on the edge. As other oaks Kermes oaks grow acorns, which are eaten by goats. The tree roots are sometimes infected by an insect (Kermes vermilio), which was previously crushed and used for a red dye called Kermes or carmine red.
The Lentisk grows near the coast on dry, rocky soil. It is an evergreen shrub or small tree up to 2-3 meters. The Lentisk is related to the pistachio tree, which the Latin name also indicates. The seeds can be eaten but it is not the pistachios we know. They come from another species, Pistacia vera. Instead, one can extract the resin from the tree - "mastic" - a material which, is used to make varnish. But it can also be used in candy, bread, cakes and drinks. In Greece the mastic is often called 'Chios' tears' because mastic were mainly produced on the island of Chios and resemble small solidified droplets.
Despite the name Cretan Maple one finds this tree in several places in Greece, Southern Europe and Asia Minor. It is a partly deciduous tree up to 10 meters, which grows in the forests of Crete's mountains between 800 and 1500 meters above sea level. Cretan Maple is one of the most drought-and heat-tolerant maple trees that exist.
The Carob tree is an evergreen tree up to about 10 meters high. It grows in Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and the Mediterranean region. The area around Villa Talea has many carob trees, which has been a traditional harvest crop for centuries. The characteristic pulses can be eaten and used as animal feed. Locust bean gum is used as a stabilizer in jams and various industrial foods. The seeds are very similar in weight and was therefore formerly used as a basis for measuring unit carat.
Cretan Date Palm
The Cretan date palm is one of only two palm species that are native (endemic) to Europe. (The other is the European fan palm - Chamaerops humilis). Europe's only indigenous palm forest at Vai lies on the eastern coast of Crete. Another palm forest is located south of Villa Talea at Preveli beach. The Cretan date palm grows up to 15 meters with a trunk diameter of up to 35 centimeters. It makes a dense crown of long, spiky leaves that have a silvery blue-green color when they are mature. The pinnate leaves can be up to four meters long.
Read more about Cretan Date Palm (Phoenix theophrasti)
This 3 to 5 meters high tree is found only in Crete, where it grows in 17 different places in the mountains. In total, it is estimated that there are 50 to 100 mature trees. It is therefore registered as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Cretan Zelkova grows on rocky, calcareous soils and on rocky hillsides. It is found in forest, scrub and heathland scattered among other tree species. One such place is the Rouvas forests on Psiloriis' slopes south of Villa Talea. Zelkova has a highly branched, dense crown. The leaves are small and green with serrated edges and the tree has small, fragrant flowers.
Juniperus macrocarpa is a special kind of juniper, which grows in the Mediterranean. This evergreen conifer often forms scrub-like growths in sand dunes along the coast. In rare cases it can develop into a small tree. It is a pioneer plant that can grow in poor soil where sea fog would kill other plants. Juniper has long been used in cooking and folk medicine.
This juniper is a large shrub or small tree up to 12 meters. Found throughout the Mediterranean region from Morocco to Turkey. This juniper usually grows in coastal areas at low altitudes, but can survive up to 2.400 meters above sea level. A strong essential oil is extracted from the fresh shoots or berries that can be diluted and used as an herbal treatment for acne. (Sabin wood oil).
Read more about Phoenicean Juniper (Juniperus phoenicea)
Cretan plane tree
Platanus orientalis var. Cretica
The Cretan plane tree is a subspecies of the oriental plane tree. But whereas all other plane trees are deciduous, the Cretan plane tree is evergreen. The evergreen plane tree is found only in Crete and there are only approx. 50 trees scattered around the island. The trees can become very large and are often used as shade in small squares and plazas in the villages. The most famous Cretan plane tree can be found at the archaeological excavations at Gortyn. It is said that it was under this tree that Zeus and Europe made love and that's why the tree has retained its leaves ever since.
Read more about Cretan plane tree (Platanus orientalis var. Cretica)
Thyme is an evergreen shrub found in many places in Crete. the shrub grows in full sun to on dry or slightly moist soil. From June to August it flowers with fine purple flowers. The Cretan thyme is an important utility plant, as it is from its nectar that bees collect the Cretan thyme honey, which since antiquity has been considered one of the world's best.
The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) is an evergreen tree, which originates from the Mediterranean region but is found all the way up to the south of Ireland. In Crete it grows in clearings and forest edges - like in the oak forests of Psiloritis slopes. The tree has white, bell-shaped flowers in October-november and the fruits that are formed from the previous years flowering ripens from October to November. The round berries change color as they ripen. From green to yellow to red. The ripe berries look like small strawberries. They can be eaten, but does not taste sweet as strawberry. The fruit is used as an aromatic addition to Raki or Tsikoudia.
Spartium junceum ginesta
Along the roads of Crete and several other places where there is sun and dry, sandy soil, one can find this beautiful deciduous shrub. The Weaver's Broom or Spanish Broom is found throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and Southwest Asia. It is typically 2-4 meters high with many straight branches on which only a few leaves are sitting. In late spring the shrub i covered with fragrant yellow flowers. The Seed boxes opens later in summer with small snaps and throw the seeds away from the parent plant. The flexible branches can be used for basketry.
The Snowdrop Bush is found in southern Europe and the Middle East. It is a 5-7 meter tall deciduous shrub that grows in sun or partial shade. It has dark green, elliptical leaves on the thin, reddish branches. It has white flowers that smell like honey. Later they develop into round, white or yellowish fruits. Since antiquity a rsin called 'styrax' has been extracted from the bark. A balm that is used in perfume, incense and medicine. According to the Roman historian Pliny, it could also be used to scare away snakes.