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A botanist’s paradise

About 10 million years ago, a group of little islands that later formed Crete became permanently separated from the Peloponnese, and from Karpathos to their east. The plants left on them over several million years during the Pleistocene period either survived through isolation as the remnants of their species, or began to evolve into new varieties. This has resulted - amongst a total of around 1900 plant species which make Crete one of the richest regions of Europe where the diversity of flora is concerned - in the high degree of endemism (9.4%) found on the island today, mostly in biotopes in the mountain and alpine zone. For example there are the beautiful Tulipa bakeri and Tulipa doerfleri, which in spring bathe the Omalos and Yous Kámpos plateaus respectively with their swathes of colour. Perhaps the most famous of all is Origanum dictamnus, the Cretan dittany whose ability to heal the wound of an agrími (Cretan wild goat) caused by a hunter’s arrow was praised by Plutarch and others; it is sold to make a soothing tea on market stalls today. There are also 14 endemic species or subspecies among the total of around 70 different types of orchids found on the island.

Nature shows her best face in spring, after the winter rains. Along the roadsides and in the meadows there are anemones, narcissi, yellow daisies and blood-red poppies, as if daubed there by a giant hand. Wander through the majestic gorges of Samaria, Imbros and Aradena, following stream beds lined with brilliant pink and white oleander and shaded by tall plane trees. Stroll along the sandy beaches of Crete in the late summer to find the fragrant white sea daffodil whose beauty inspired Bronze Age artists on Thera.

The forests of Crete have been depleted over the centuries, their cypresses and cedars sacrificed for ship building by the Venetian and Turkish conquerors. The wood for the pillars at the palace of Knossos, tapered at the base, was probably obtained from the cedars that were once abundant here. Today, the largest area of forest is that of the Samaria National Park and the slopes of the White Mountains, with its cypresses and chestnut trees, but there is the exotic date palm forest of Vai, whose trees, tradition says, sprang up from date stones spat out by Saracen invaders but are actually to be identified as the endemic Cretan date palm, Phoenix theophrasti, already depicted in Mycenaean times. Wherever you walk in the hills and mountains of Crete, phrygana and maquis, scrub-like bushes which include myrtle, broom juniper, euphorbia, rock rose, arbutus and cover the ground between trees such as the evergreen Quercus ilex (Holm oak) or Quercus coccifera (Kermes oak). A gentle breeze brings the fragrant aroma of oregano, thyme, sage, and rosemary, and the country folk you meet on your way will readily extol the virtues of these herbs when they are drunk in tisanes.

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