The abundant cretan flora
Crete has 2000 different species of trees and plants, of which 170 are endemic and can be found only on Crete.
This is easily explained as Crete is an island and its ecosystem is isolated due to the surrounding sea.
The very incomplete knowledge of the prehistoric flora and vegetation of the island permits only a very rough idea of what it was like.
But we can imagine vast forests of pine, cypresses and oak, of which the forests that have survived to this day are the last surviving remnants.
Compared to periods of the past, the vegetation of today has been diminished to a large degree. Mountains that previously had lush vegetation such as Psiloritis (Mountain Ida or Idi) are almost bare today. The few wooded areas remaining on the island, can be found at:
- The White Mountain range in west Crete. The wooded Samaria Gorge can be considered as an image from the past of Crete.
- The south flanks of Mt Idi in Vorizia, Kamares and Zaros area
- The south flanks of the Dikti Mountains in Selakano and Pefkos in Viannos area
Common Trees in Crete are the tamarisk, oak, chestnut, pine, cypress, carob and the evergreen plane tree (Platanus orientalis). It grows close to water and can grow up to 30 m. It is also quite often found in village squares, offering its shade.
A huge plane tree, or platanos in Greek, can be seen at Topolia village in west Crete on the road from Kissamos (Kastelli) to Elafonissi. It is so huge that the local community has declared it a "Monument of Nature".
Another famous plane tree is the one in Krasi village on the way from Heraklion to the Lassithi Plateau (the trunk of which has the largest circumference of any plane tree in Europe).
Undoubtedly, the most famous plane tree is the one in Gortys, which according to mythology, was where Zeus "married" Europa after he kidnapped her from Asia Minor. Look for it when you visit this magnificent archaeological site in the southern Heraklion area.
Of singular natural beauty is the palm forest of Vai, where Phoenix theophrasti grows, a variety unique to Crete. Another famous palm forest is in Preveli. A much smaller and less known one exists at Agios Antonios in the southern Heraklion district.
Wildflowers - In April and May, Crete is covered with wildflowers: poppies, daisies, chamomile, iris (Iris cretica), gladiola (Gladiolus italicus), tulips (Tulipa orphanidea), hyacinth (Muscari commosum) and various species of Cretan orchids. White cyclamens (Cyclamen creticum) can be found in shady areas. They are, however, considered an endangered species, so when you see them do not cut them.
Herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary are very common in Crete and they have been used for thousands of years for culinary and medical purposes.
Dittany (Origanum dictamus), dictamos or erontas in Greek, is another Cretan herb. It is said that the wild goats of Crete (Kri-Kri, an ibex endemic to Crete) eat it when they are injured as it helps the healing of their wounds. Dittany grows wild in steep cliffs and is very good for stomach-ache. Today it is also cultivated in the Viannos area in the villages of Xeniako, Milliarado and Katofigi.
Olea is the common olive tree, you will see myriads on Crete and it is part of its history. Nothing is more characteristic of Crete than the millions of olive trees that grow in valleys and mountainous areas. Cretans have been cultivating the olive tree and using olive oil since 3500 BC during the early Minoan period, as archaeological findings have proved.
The olive tree (Olea Europea) is one of the few trees that can still produce fruits even in rocky and unproductive land. Olea's main characteristic is its longevity and the preservation of its productivity.
The olive tree has been the symbol of wisdom and peace. It was the sacred tree of the goddess Athena and Athens, the capital of Greece, was named after the goddess.
According to mythology, Zeus had decreed that the city should be given to the God who offered the most useful gift to the people. Poseidon gave them the horse. Athena struck the bare soil with her spear and caused an olive tree to spring up. The people were so delighted with the olive that Zeus gave the city to Athena and named it after her. Athena is often shown with an olive branch, a symbol of peace and plenty.
Olive Museum of Kapseliana, Arkadi, Rethymnon
During the Ancient Olympic Games, winners were presented with a simple olive tree branch which was cut with a gold-handled knife from a wild olive tree. The Greeks believed that the vitality of the sacred tree was transmitted to the recipient through the branch.
Olive oil is still being used for medical and religious purposes and it has proved to be an essential ingredient of a healthy diet. As a mono saturated fatty acid, olive oil does not have the same cholesterol-raising effect of saturated fats. Olive oil is also a good source of antioxidants. Unlike seed oils, it remains stable in its chemical structure at relatively high temperatures because of its antioxidant and high oleic acid content.
The first olive press in the world was found on the island of Crete around 1600 B.C. Today, Crete is a major producer of olive oil, with an estimated 34 million olive trees - which works out to 62 olive trees for every man, woman and child.
Crete also claims to have the oldest living olive tree, though two trees - each over 2000 years old - on either side of the island vie for the title.
Branches from both trees were collected to make the wreaths awarded to winning athletes in the Athens 2004 Olympics.