New year, new chances.
We’ve been to Italy this year, to the Cilento region. It has been a superb snowdrop searching season! I have to give major props to Yanik Neff for this one. We knew the normal details – north-facing slopes, limestone, near rivers and deciduous trees – but with his knowledge we took snowdrop searching to new heights. Combining data of the local geology with Google maps (for easy to access rivers by roads and trails) quickly led to desirable results.
In Italy the snowdrops occur in similar habitats as on the Peloponnese and Corfu. The flora surrounding Galanthus is quite different however. Whereas Platanus is the tell-tale indicator species for snowdrops in the Peloponnese, Ostrya took this role in Italy. The tree closely hugged the rivers and streams in cooler micro-climates in Italy. It took Yanik only a short time to notice, and we could easily focus on finding the snowdrops by its presence. As at first I did not understand, I quickly took a fondness to these ‘Austrians’. Other, associated plant species were soon noticed too. Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) was often seen as soon as snowdrops were near. The stingy plant soon earned several nicknames I shan’t repeat here. The ever-ubiquitous brambles did not help either. Carex was identified as an associated species by Yanik, which looked like a big grass to me.
Start of the journey
Our first day was spent in a famous park in Cilento where the plants are widely known to occur. I was impressed by the large quantities of easily accessible snowdrops. It was quite literally a walk in the park, we just had to follow some walking paths. Nothing that would capture a Galanthophile’s eye was seen – no special plants either naturally occur, or worst-case scenario – were taken by plant hunters. Medieval bridges, old irrigation canals and neatly-fenced roads showed us the way and we happily trailed the route.
Yanik initially seemed more interested by the various Cyclamen growing around us. Eventually he resorted to photographing a Cyclamen with some interesting flower patterns he believed to be rare.. I guessed he suffered from some short-lived special-snowdrop-withdrawal after going through the trouble of flying to Italy to find only normal plants..
Our continued searching took us to other parts of the river, where more of the homogeneous white-flowered plants were observed. Here and there some green-tipped plants occurred, but in general the plants did not change from the general theme. I’ve gotten to call it the stream-phenotype: Dense populations of plants that seem to have been transferring their genes easily in different directions along the river, causing a very similar and stable appearance.
A lot more searching ensued, but nothing special was seen. We arrived at a site with a warning sign indicating a risk of flooding – obviously Yanik wanted to continue, as snowdrops might be there. The site was near a river, just over another medieval bridge. The bridge looked sturdy enough, but was clearly in the process of decay. Across the bridge we found a couple of snowdrops underneath some brambles, where we could not easily continue. As dusk fell, we had to break off our search.
We revisited this colony upstream and downstream of the river in the following days. Unfortunately, the upstream site was protected by “straw” dogs and geese – which we did not want to risk pissing off. The downstream site led us to a plot with olive trees being tended by an old Italian couple. Flanking this olive grove, snowdrops occurred near the riverside. This led us to ask the couple where more snowdrops might be found. The man of the couple indicated he spoke some German, due to having worked there. Unfortunately, a real conversation in German did not prove possible. As we tried to ask where the snowdrops were in Italian, hilarity ensued:
“que sono i bucaneve?” (where are snowdrops? – our Italian is very limited)
“Daqui no! Molto difficile!” (Here no! Very difficult!)
Yanik and I briefly looked at each other in incredulity, the snowdrops were just outside their plot. We thanked the farmers and went on our merry way, joking that if the husband didn’t have the wife nearby, he would not have remembered her.. Any time we did not find snowdrops, we’d exclaim, Bucaneve? Daqui no! Molto difficile!
Snowdrops near a Chapel
Eventually one of our searches allowed us to stumble upon a Chapel far down a trail, where snowdrops grew in several directions into surrounding fields. The location reminded us of a well-known chapel in the Taigetos, where many snowdrops are seen growing under deciduous trees. Following down the path of this chapel led us onto another wonderful snowdrop trail, where plants could be observed growing on the road and up the surrounding hills. We happily explored this area over some time.
It is here that my fortune took a turn to the worse. Having only an hour of sunlight left, I heard two dogs with seemingly aggressive behavior in the distance. Yanik had gone off up a hillside, as he often does, which led me to turn back. I ran into a friendly Italian couple with a well-mannered dog while moving back, with whom I shared some greeting words after petting the canine. Just then the two dogs appeared on the cliff, the old woman asking “è tuo cane?” or something similar. I had hardly answered no, when the two dogs rushed past us and lunged towards the old couple’s dog. A fight ensued, in which the old woman attempted to defend her dog with a stick, until finally the owner of the attacking hounds appeared and attempted to take the fighting dogs apart. I am ashamed to say I did not wait to see the end result – I had long passed forward along the snowdrop road, flying into the forest. With some speed I went along the snowdrop trail, even passing the end of it eventually. As I realized dusk was approaching, I was at least 30 minutes into the forest. There was no end of the forest in sight on the map. After managing to get some cellular phone reception, I wrote to Yanik to wait up and turned back. I arrived with only scant moments of light left..
Fortunately some mixed grill could be had as a reward for the hard-fought snowdrop search. Mixed grill and pizza were on the menu the most days. Italians truly exceed any other culture in their cooking-ability and the food was some of the best we had tasted in our lifes, which much improved upon some of the hardships endured during the day.
Wild goose chase
Snowdrops appeared to frequently occur near paths that had run out of use. Or maybe just many of such paths exist in Italy. In any case, we ended up driving our jeep down one of these roads for half an hour. The road was in the process of falling apart, getting progressively worse as we got farther into the forest. We wound up near a river site surrounded by steep cliffs on both sides. Only the upper part of the cliff could be reached. Following the river, we were eventually blocked by big rocks. As we trailed back, Yanik spotted a single snowdrop on this high part of the river bank. Looking down, a few more were seen – obviously this warranted further searching…
We left the car behind, and tried to find a way to the other side of the rocks blocking our way. Initially we continued along an easy walking path, flanked by a large hill on our right. We quickly found some snowdrops running up the side of the hill, which we naturally followed uphill until the end of the colony. It is here we made our mistake. Yanik had the hunch that more snowdrops should be growing on the other side of the hill. Said hill was steep, overgrown by bushes and had a peak 500 meters away. I decided to join Yanik on his route. This climb we both ended up regretting. We arrived at the ‘zenith’ after another half an hour of climbing, slipping, getting caught by vines and eventually running out of stamina. At the top of the hill we realized we did not want to go down to the snowdrops, because it would mean going up the hill a second time afterwards.. We ate our pre-packed lunch, captured some shots from an old ruin on the top of the hill, and headed back to our car..
Wild khaki chase
Another day, another chance. This day, Yanik had something other than snowdrops on his mind. Throughout our journey, Yanik had been displaying an ever-increasing tendency to focus on the edible parts of nature.
Funguses were spotted, appreciated and collected all over Cilento. Some moments Yanik completely delved into this newly-found love of the forest’s various fungi. He claimed to be able to discern the edible varieties and collected some.. I obviously waited 24 hours to exclude poisonous effects on the test subject, before trying minor samples myself..
We found a beautiful walking trail along a river, complete with sitting benches under a tree with snowdrops in its leaf litter. Some snowdrops here even showed some green tips. It’s almost amazing coming from the northern snowdrop-loving countries, that Italians and Greeks hardly seem aware of the plants, especially with such easy access.
As we climbed along the path near the river, the snowdrops stopped. Yanik’s hunger for ‘shrooms took on another level and unfortunately many mushroom appreciation pauses ensued.
As we found another dead end, we again took some shots of the beautiful site and turned back. Yanik suggested there might be snowdrops on another site of the river. This took us down the side of a car bridge, through bushes, over several fences, through a part of the river that was barely wadable/passable by foot to appear into a field with.. khaki.
Yanik took a fruit from the tree, looked to one side of the river and found a difficult-to-pass area with no snowdrops. We headed back through the river – where I got my leg wet by slipping in a second time – considered getting past a cow herd, but decided it seemed too risky
– Then went up the stones beside the car bridge and almost got bit by a snake hiding in said stones. I will now put theory to practice and apply the words the aforementioned Swissman might understand.
We drove to another site, where we went down several hundred meters into a valley. Uphill we started in full sunlight, down by the plants everything was shaded by overgrowing canopy and cliffs. The location was near an old water mill. Though we could not follow the snowdrops spreading along the river over a long distance, the site was exquisitely beautiful. The snowdrops spread onto the hills not quite unlike peshmenii.
A complex game of sun and shade made our surroundings quite pleasing to behold. The snowdrops were relatively sparse and homogeneous, but we were happy our journey had taken us to such a beautiful site.
Autumn and winter
On this following day we drove further than before. We found snowdrops beside a highway, but these were fenced off. The plants went high up steep mountains, where none of the roads we found could lead us. Yanik spotted a bee hive on the bridge. This time I took my camera out without getting another kamikaze bee-encounter and therefore was rewarded with some photos of the surprising location, which I can show you here.
We searched the mountains near the highway by car, but could not find any promising and accessible sites to continue searching. Yanik knew of a site further away where many winter-flowering reginae-olgae were known to occur, and we decided to visit this site. It seemed unlikely that autumn- and winter-flowering reginae-olgae would grow beside one another, but the site seemed promising enough to at least warrant a quick look. Upon entering the area the river banks initially seemed quite empty. After rounding just one corner however, one bank of the river was absolutely covered in a sea of white. Green tips were even sporadically seen. What’s more – just up the hill beside the bank, in a somewhat more open area, was the site with known winter-flowering reginae-olgae. It seemed likely the winter-flowering plants were growing in slightly drier, more sunny conditions. Might this small difference explain the close proximity of the subtypes? Who knows, but the autumn flowering show was incredible!
Big rooty beeches
Our next days were similarly spent searching for snowdrops. The snowdrops in the Cilento region proved to be quite stable in phenotype – though we did find scarce populations with more variety. As usual, a bit of friendly banter helped us get through the more uninspiring areas. Here we encountered some “big rooty beeches” growing all around.
As we slowly ran out of hospitable sites to search, we went up hills, down cliffs and through densely packed woods. In one such patch we ran into an animal path through brambles – when suddenly something started moving. A boar rushed past, and I only barely escaped with my life. Yanik seemed unphased..
We continued searching, but only found few snowdrops in difficult terrain. At one point we stumbled upon a modern bridge that seemingly connected two villages, but had long been abandoned nonetheless.
I suggested revisiting a place with more easy terrain. Here we found some routes we didn’t manage to follow completely on our first attempt. To our surprise, in this part of the colony we saw some of the most variable colonies yet, with many plants desirable to snowdrop enthusiasts.
As on the second to last day we had run out of easily accessible sites in Cilento, we decided to drive to Calabria. I took the lead on the start of the two-hour drive, which took us to an adventure with major ups-and-downs.
Upon driving into Calabria we immediately stumbled onto a mountain path which began with snowdrops on it. Despite the initial luck, following down the path just lead to north-facing cliffs without any flowers. Turning back the road in the other direction lead us to more snowdrops, which were growing sparsely on steep cliffs on sites unreachable across the river in a small village.
We continued to another location half an hour further on, where snowdrops were found, growing on sandstone! A major surprise, but as we did not expect to see many more snowdrops on sandstone, and the path led to a fence with beyond it the smell of boar, we moved further on into Calabria.
It is in this final place we observed very variable plants. The plants were on the cliffs, on the road, spreading into brambles, on north facing slopes and in several picknick places on slight slopes underneath deciduous trees, probably allowing recessive genes a chance to come to surface.. Easy times! Our final hours in Italy were thus spent walking around easy paths, with some of the most interesting plants we had yet seen.
Happy that our final two days had been maybe most interesting of any reginae-olgae journey we had, we returned to our respective homes, filled with joy.
For even more interesting ‘drops (on Corfu), see Yanik Neff’s new book.