LLR Books

Greek calendar mirrors ours

There's nothing quite like a late Christmas present to keep the festive season going, especially when dodgy weather puts a dampener on things.
What's more, the gift that arrived for me this week, by that wonderfully old-fashioned service called snail mail, is an absolute joy for a gardener. It's useful, informative and, in keeping with holiday mode, blissfully transports me half a world away. It's a calendar of wildflowers of Greece, sent by my Greek family.
Apart from the delicate beauty of the illustrations, the thing I find so fascinating is how familiar the plants are. So many of the plants we grow or those that have become garden escapes here, come from Greece, mirroring our own cultural origins.
We may be a South Pacific nation but, mostly without knowing it, so much of our day to day life, our language, how we think and behave and our political system (democracy) are shaped by ancient Greek culture.
And the plants we have in our gardens are transplanted from the Greek landscape and that country's culture.
Most noticeable at this time of year is the wild silene, growing along our shingle river beds and roadsides, invariably carried along on its adventive journey in hay bales and mud on tyres, hence its common occurrence along our rural roads. Silene is just one of the dozen on the calendar that are so familiar. Others include cyclamen, primula, thistle (Centaurea), peony, viola, symphyandra (bellflower), crocus, Rosa canina (the dog rose), and Vicia (common vetch), often found growing around pine trees here.
The challenge of the calendar is, of course, that it's published for the Northern Hemisphere and the flowers featured are in seasons opposite to ours. So, when consulting it, I will have to either make the seasonal mind shift or allow myself a vicarious other life, six months out of date which, when winter rolls around, I have to say rather appeals.
And now, as the last of the silene flowers here on our roadsides, over there in Crete and Karpathos (the island east of Crete), the wild Cyclamen creticum ("from Crete") is unfurling its tiny, delicate white flowers from under rocky crevices in the wet, early spring weather.
Soon the early primulas will open and later, in the Greek summer, the native thistles will flower as ours let go setting seed.
And the plant names, used universally, also have their origins in ancient Greek language. Cyclamen comes from the Greek "kyklaminos", from "kyklos" or circle, a reference to the round shape of the underground bulb (in fact a swollen stem) of the plant.
Similarly, Paeonia (peony) has its origins in "Paion", physician of the gods, and so called for its healing qualities, where the ancient Greeks used the roots, flowers and seeds in medicine.
And, on the cover of the calendar is the gloriously blue Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa), or Cretan iris - from Crete. Commonly grown here, its fragile blooms make a welcome appearance in our late winter gardens, the name Iris is for the ancient Greek mythological messenger of the gods of the rainbow, while unguicularis means "with a small claw", referring to parts of the flower.
However, while it would be impossible to include all the wildflowers of Greece on a single calendar, a significant two that are missing also make a common sight here in summer. Whilst both are flowering now along our roadsides and rivers and similar in appearance, one, wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), is edible while the other, hemlock (Conium maculatum), is deadly poisonous.
Both feature widely in ancient and modern Greek culture. Still venerated today by the Greeks, fennel is known to them as "marathos", after the fields of fennel growing wild around the site of the Battle of Marathon where, in 490 BC, the ancient Greeks famously and decisively defeated their Persian invaders.
And it was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates - whose system of critical thinking and approach to ethics we still follow - who, in 399BC, chose poison hemlock as his death sentence after being tried and convicted of not believing in the state appointed gods and for corrupting the minds of young Athenians.
While there have been centuries of scholarly conjecture on whether or not it was actually poison hemlock we know as Conium maculatum he drank, modern scientific knowledge backs up the original account by Plato, who described Socrates death in detail, as consistent with the toxins (alkaloids) in Conium maculatum and their effects on the human peripheral nervous system.
The debate about hemlock has never been if it is poisonous, but whether it was actually Conium maculatum Socrates took. The potentially scary thing, especially for parents anywhere, is how common such a deadly plant is and how easily it could be confused with flat parsley when young, before it flowers.
Although a biennial, it can grow rapidly to flowering in just a year, but all parts, including the stem, are highly poisonous, even when touched (see notes below).
With the current fashion for foraging, it pays to know the difference between hemlock, parsley and fennel, a personal favourite of mine for picking wild.
When you see them growing together, the differences are obvious. But, for the naive forager, it might be easy to mistake hemlock leaves for those of flat parsley, as happened in the landmark, much documented and scrutinised case of the humble Scot Duncan Gow.
He was the tailor who, in 1845 after eating a sandwich lovingly made by his children of what they assumed was parsley, but turned out to be Conium maculatum, died with symptoms that mirrored those of Socrates, thus confirming Plato's original account 2244 years after the philosopher's death.