The Cretan Date Palm
by Thomas Boeuf, Hauptstr. 6, 63796 Kahl am Main,
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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
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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28-01-23 - 23:50GMT
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