The Cretan Date Palm

by Thomas Boeuf, Hauptstr. 6, 63796 Kahl am Main, Germany

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Crete has a very special kind of beauty due to its many different types of landscapes: high mountains, deep gorges, deserted caverns, fertile soil, and rugged coasts. Crete's vegetation is very rich, and the climate is mild. Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, this island is influenced by all these cultures. From Europe it got its cosmopolitan flair, from Asia its tradition, and from Africa the Sirocco…and the palms!

In relation to the size of the island, the usable land is comparatively small. Despite this, many types of fruits, vegetables, and spices grow. Deep in the gorges of Crete rare varieties of fauna and flora exist, many of which can only be found on Crete. The most important species, Phoenix theophrastii, was named by the Swiss botanist Werner Greuter in 1938, for the Greek scholar Theophrast (371-287 bc.), who is said to be the founder of botanical science.

It is said that after the successful conquest of the island in 825, the Sarabene Abu Hafis Omar landed on the beach of Vai, situated on the East Coast of Crete. Following Arab tradition, they ate dates and spat out the stones on the beach. Since the time this took place, a grove of palms has grown up and has given this spot a romantic aura. In reality these date palms belong to a species that exclusively grows on Crete and a few spots on the southern coast of Turkey. Although closely related to the true date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, its fruits are small and not really edible. They might be relicts from the tertiary and much older than the legend of Abu Hafis Omar. Nowadays the beach of Vai is a national park and is open to the public only in high season and other special times.

When I was flying to Crete with Friends in October, I had in my mind a trip to the palm beach of Vai to write an article for Chamaerops. Some years before I had been to Vai, and according to the guide, there were some other places with palms growing in the wild. So, I thought about finding these and other unknown places, especially as the eastern cape of Crete is described in many books as the only place where Phoenix theophrastii grow in the wild.

After innumerable inquiries, I was given a tip by an old Greek fisherman. One of the few rivers of Crete flows into the Libyan Sea. The fisherman told me that this place is not easy to reach, and therefore only a few tourists are able to visit it from seaside. This fact raised my interest. The next day we rented a car and started the search. After several kilometers on un-surfaced roads, the giant mountains gave way to a sight of a frugal riverbed of incredible beauty. A few moments later we recognized the glittering of the Libyan Sea. We parked our car and walked to the seafront. From there the canyon could not yet be seen, but the groups of palms which grew close together along the river could. From this place, a dangerous path went down the cliff in serpentines and we needed almost an hour to reach the canyon. A few people who seemed to have reached the beach with fishing boats lay in the sun and enjoyed the silence of the deserted beach. I began my exploration.

My first impression of this canyon was of an oasis in the hills of the Sinai peninsular. Within a range of 30m on both sides of the slowly flowing river were all sizes and forms of Phoenix theophrastii. Some were low and bushy, some had tall or bent trunks. At some places, the palms grew in such a close and tight way that it was impossible to see the individual trunks. The most fascinating thing for me was the light green to slightly blue colouring, and the extreme stiffness, of the leaves. I have got a very lively impression of the spiny nature of these leaves as I hurt myself on the head when I was collecting some seeds. After 2km the palms grew smaller and finally disappeared, and the canyon ended at a waterfall.

On the way back, I waded through the river to get some further impressions. Back on the beach, I met my friends and we stayed until the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Deeply impressed with pockets full of palm seeds, we made our way back.

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