In the Mediterranean basin most native plants suspend their development in summer (aestivation) due to drought and extreme heat and in the winter as a result of the colder temperatures. This is done so they may conserve or recover their energies. As a result, Mediterranean plants have two growing seasons; autumn and spring. Although our autumn has been long in coming this year (almost two months overdue), it finally hit in late October. Now, therefore, is a very busy time for us here at Sparoza. There is so much pruning and tweaking to do to get plants in good shape for their growth spurt and lots and lots of planting to be done. For the past week though we have been experiencing a strange weather occurrence, a sort of premature Halcyon period, another bit of droughty summer and therefore a small pause. So, to mirror our climatic situation, I will make an aside in my description of our usual autumnal work to share with you two stories which have changed and will continue to change this beautiful garden.
Last Thursday, the first of November, as I was walking from the bus stop just off the Αττική Όδος (the major highway that goes from Athens to the airport) I spotted a peculiar plant growing by the side of the road. It was a Muscari of some sort shooting up through the rubbish-strewn earth with such vigor that it made big cracks in the sun-baked soil. The little pale blue flowers were hovering like tiny bubbles amongst a flush of garbage and dry plants surrounded by strong needle-leaves. This, a site not only neglected but entirely overlooked by most, seemed an extremely unlikely spot for such a pretty and what has turned out to be very special little bulb. It is Muscari parviflorus, the only autumn flowering grape hyacinth in the Mediterranean region. Sally tells me she has only seen it once before on Cyprus and therefore, as she is an expert wild plant spotter, its presence by the side of this road is quite wonderful.
We went back down to the site later that day to double-check my discovery. We hoped that where there was one patch of it there would be more and to our delight we found not only that I had not deceived myself but that there were two more clumps of bulbs. The three patches were almost equally spaced and this has led me to believe that they were accidentally transported here during the building of the Attic Road; each clump being carried and dumped in its personal lorry-load of earth and rubble. We were thrilled to find more than one patch of this Muscari as it meant that we could collect some without the guilt of removing it entirely from its ‘natural’ habitat. I am aware that the collecting of wild bulbs is a delicate subject both morally and legally so I hope that nobody reading this finds our decision to liberate some bulbs unethical. Their adoption by Sparoza will secure their preservation and broaden their dwindling distribution as we plan to collect seed and plant bulbs in the phrygana and up the hillside. At the moment they are looking extremely happy in a wide, shallow pot half-filled with crocs and stones and topped up with the soil we found them in along with some of our own lovingly made potting mix. We also planted a handful of bulbs along the border of our αλόνι, the threshing floor, where we hope they will naturalize and spread.
The other story is one that, up until today, I had resolutely put at the back of my mind as it caused me remorse and sadness. It was almost a month ago to the day that I found Περσεφόνη, the caterpillar of the deaths-head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) happily demolishing our single and very beautiful Lavandula multifida. She was enormous – the thickness of my thumb and almost the length of my hand! As I didn’t want her eating all of this special lavender I decided that she would really enjoy living with me in a big glass jug full of nice things to eat and no danger of predators. I was excited by the idea that I would watch her change while keeping her safe and cared for. How wrong I was. At first she seemed comfortable in her new home on her lavender twig, finishing off the last of its leaves. But then she suddenly became very distressed. She refused to eat anything I offered her and became so angry at me that she wouldn’t even eat the stalks of fancy lavender I secretly picked for her.
Eventually she became almost psychotic with hunger and claustrophobia, crawling in circles around the base of the jug for a whole morning which, in turn, made me feel very upset. Two days after her capture I released her. Worried that she would ruin something else special in the garden I took her with some leafy twigs up the hill and hid her underneath a shrubby Pistacia lentiscus in the hopes that she would find something pleasing to eat or finally decide to settle down and form her cocoon. I have serious doubts whether she even survived her first afternoon beneath those bushes and for this my conscience is plagued. Since this event I have learned that all hawkmoths are becoming extremely rare in Greece and that the particular lavender is capable of springing right back after such serious damage. Both these facts show that I should have left Persephone to eat that lavender to her heart’s content and then maybe more hawkmoths would use Sparoza as a haven for life and procreation.
I make this confession of my naïve need for a pet and blind care of a plant over an insect to show how silly and narrow-minded our desires, interests and ideologies can be. Since my relationship with that caterpillar I discussed the facts with Sally and we decided that the plants at Sparoza (most of which are shrubs and tolerate heavy pruning and eating) will, when necessary, sacrifice their leaves for the sake of preserving wildlife. I encourage you to do the same. Rue, a Mediterranean native and very beautiful plant, is a favourite of swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and regenerates with great speed after being ‘pruned’. Sparrows have made very noisy homes in the out-of-reach dead leaves of our giant Yucca (Sally has never discovered what species it is) and lizards and snakes (some poisonous) live amongst the dry-stone-walls and piles of rocks throughout the garden. Being wildlife savvy in your garden isn’t just about putting up a bird feeder and pretending the flowers are there especially for the bees. It is about acknowledging the way of things and allowing them to happen.
Today we found five little death’s head hawkmoth caterpillars on two of the winter flowering jasmines, Jasminum nudiflorum, just above the pools. They are more than welcome to stay and can invite their friends too.