The Bounty of Vai

By Tom Simpson, Suffolk, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 51 - published online 22-04-2005

As part of a summer holiday to Crete in 1995, we embarked on an expedition to see Phoenix theophrastii in its native home. Travelling in Crete is always something of an adventure, even if you are going from one main town to another. The vehicles, which were available for hire then, did not inspire confidence - car hire firms are often named after Greek gods like Zeus as a precaution. The country is full of precipitous mountainsides and steep gorges where each hairpin bend has its little shrine denoting a previous car accident. The shrine resembles a small church on stilts and contains flowers and pictures of the departed. Rain in the winter is of biblical proportions, and sweeps straight off the mountains by any means, turning streets into rivers and leaving boulders in the roadway. Cretan taxi drivers shrug their shoulders, say "no problem" and perform amazing handbrake turns in their silver Mercedes. Some shrines are like miniature cathedrals and possibly denote larger accidents or coach crashes. It was therefore not uncommon in Crete, on negotiating a sharp bend, to be faced with [a] boulders in the road, [b] a road surface that has vanished altogether, [c] oncoming vehicles on the wrong side, or [d] part of the road washed down the cliff face.

Being based in Rethymnon, in the West of Crete, we hired a small jeep and aimed to stop over on the northeast coast. Travelling on Crete could take a long time in the early nineties, due to the poor road surfaces. We made slow progress along roads lined with huge oleander bushes and agaves. Night clubbers will know the resort of Aghios Nikolaos in this area, but we based ourselves in a picturesque spot called Elounda, a typical Greek fishing village wedged between mountains and sea, with whitewashed houses and noted for the restaurant Vritomartes, which seems to float out in the harbour. "Who pays the ferryman" was filmed here donkeys years ago. Plants such as Bougainvillea, Hibiscus and Carpobrotus grow like weeds, which is always annoying.

Setting out the next day, we aimed for the extreme eastern coast at Vai and Fig Tree Bay where Phoenix theophrastii is common along riverbeds that link to the beach. Like the edible date palm, it likes its head in the sun and its feet in water. Vai is rumoured to be the beach where the early Bounty adverts were filmed, and certainly it is a palm-fringed beach in the traditional style. The palms are first encountered along the streams and riverbeds as you approach the coast and then they fan out along the beach. Phoenix theophrastii deserves to be much better known than it is. It is native to Crete and possibly arrived with ancient trade in dates and olives. Where it outshines its more famous relatives, I feel, is its ability to clump and sucker freely, giving it a more attractive aspect than a lone solitary palm. This is particularly useful on the beach, where palms curve outwards from clumps to provide natural hammocks and seats, similar to the habit of coco palms in the tropics. What could be better than lying on the beach in the shade of a palm tree and all for the price of a cheap package holiday!

George Sfikas, in his book Wild Flowers of Crete gives the details of Phoenix theophrastii: “Tree with trunk not surpassing as a rule 10m in height, producing other lateral trunks as well from the same root. Leaves glaucous green, with the middle leaflets 30-40cm, stiff, while those near the base are spiny and yellowish. Fruit is about 1.5cm, a brownish yellow, and, when ripe, blackish, fibrous and inedible. It is a rare tree endemic to Crete. Habitat sandy damp valleys near the sea.”

Although fairly difficult to get to, Vai is still a popular spot, and in spite of the tourists you can still sit on a palm fringed beach without leaving Europe, which has got to be worth something. Phoenix theophrastii is available from some seed dealers and a few specialist nurseries, and I have grown it in the Midlands under glass. It may be worth trying in warmer areas of Britain to see if it is hardier or more garden worthy than P. canariensis or P. dactylifera. Phoenix theophrastii seems to be a poor relation to the other European palms, in terms of popularity, which is a great shame.


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