As far as plants and animals of rocky scrubby places are concerned, it doesn’t really matter if the rocky places are natural or man-made. So long as they provide nutrients/food and shelter, they are worth colonising. And the longer it is since humans colonised and abandoned the site, the better.
Best time to go – May-June
Many natural history tour groups now include ancient sites in their itineraries. Such sites are often relatively easily accessible compared with nearby mountain paths, for example, and the animals are so used to humans being around that they are often more easily seen than when living “in the wild”.
Greece is particularly well endowed with ancient ruins, and is the ideal place to combine a human history and natural history trip. The city of Delphi is one of the more popular sites, being accessible on a day-trip from Athens.
According to legend, when the god Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world, their paths crossed in the sky above Delphi, thus establishing the site as the centre of the earth (NB other sites also make this claim).
According to the Ancient Greece website Delphi was inhabited since Mycenaean times (14th – 11th c. B.C.) by a series of small settlements dedicated Mother Earth God. Then the worship of Apollo, as the god of light, harmony and order, was established between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C. Slowly, over the next five centuries the sanctuary grew in size and importance.
The site lost its importance with the rise of Christianity, and was eventually abandoned in the 7th century AD. The temples and other buildings slowly fell into ruin, and the place was apparently forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1880s. Since then, it has been designated a World Heritage Site, some conservation and restoration work has been done, and now it is a well-regulated tourist attraction.
Getting the best out of Delphi
The ruined settlement covers a large area, and apart from the visitor centre, it is all open to the elements – so in the spring and summer, take plenty of sun-cream and water. If you can, get there early. If you’re on a day trip from Athens (or any other organised trip), you may just have to make the best of it. All the services are at the bottom of the site, so once you are through the gate, you head slowly and steadily to the stadium at the top. Have your lunch (and a siesta) while you are there, then head slowly back down – taking a different route. If you are looking at the ancient history as well as the natural history, you may need a couple of days there.
Things to look out for
Like many members of the mint family, ground pine contains essential oils, and in this case, they smell faintly of pine resin. The leaves also look a bit like pine needles. It likes dry open habitats, on calcareous soils. Herbalists have used it for treating rheumatism and gout.
This intensely hairy plant grows on rocky calcareous areas from sea level to 850m. The hairs provide some defence against the arid conditions and prevent the plant from drying out.
Found from southern Greece eastwards. Like other members of its family, it has medicinal uses, in particular as an anti-bacterial agent.
The Mediterranean area, in general, seems to have an abundance of poppies, and identifying them can be a problem. Often, the main characteristic is the seed-pod. Rough poppies have round seedpods, with pale bristles along the “seams”.
This plant is found in grassy and dry areas, on waste ground and in rocky terrain from the Mediterranean basin eastwards, and from sea-level to 3000m. It flowers in May and June, and is pollinated by insects.
The common name refers to the grass-like stem leaves of this plant which is related to daisies and dandelions. It has many uses in traditional medicine – being considered anti-inflammatory, and a cure for infertility in women, amongst many others.
I didn’t see much in the way of bird life at Delphi on this trip – perhaps because it was primarily a botanical trip, and I was busy trying to keep up with the group and photograph the flowers and butterflies. One bird, however, is difficult to miss during the spring and summer.
Rock nuthatches nest all over the site – wherever they find a suitable crevice – or even an unsuitable one that they can adapt by plastering mud over the entrance. Once the entrance is the right size, it keeps the chicks in, and most predators out.
Other species that breed here include black-eared wheatear, woodchat shrike and eastern orphean Warbler.
Of course, where there are flowers, there are butterflies – and Delphi is no exception.
We were particularly entertained by a southern swallowtail Papilio alexanor, and a large wall brown amongst a dozen or so species. But it was only May, and a few weeks later we would have seen a lot more.
Looks like a common swallowtail, but without all the black veins, and like a scarce swallowtail but not so elongated. Found on hot, dry, steep slopes on limestone or similar calcareous substrates. In south-eastern Europe. Flies in search of mates and nectar, with red valerian Centranthus ruber being a preferred source.
Widespread across Europe, but not found in Britain or the Netherlands. This species also likes dry, grassy, rocky or stony places with steep slopes. In the south it has two broods, flying from April onwards, while in northern Europe it has a single brood, flying from mid-June to late September.
One of Britain’s rarest butterflies, yet the heath fritillary is found across most of Europe and Asia.
Fritillary means having a spotted or chequered pattern, so there are fritillary flowers as well as fritillary butterflies.
All the Fritillary butterflies have orange and black patterns, but you need to see both the upperside and underside of an individual to be sure of the identification.
The largest insect in Europe – up to 12 cm long
A careful look amongst the vegetation revealed more insects, many of them green and well camouflaged. While most of the grasshoppers and crickets leapt or flew quickly out of the way, the large, wingless bush-cricket above relied on its camouflage. It could have been any of the several species of Saga found in south-eastern Europe. but I’ve not yet been able to find information about how to distinguish them.
Known as the predatory bush cricket, or the spiked magician due to the way it waves its forelimbs to mesmerise its prey, these critters have the distinction of being hermaphrodite – the females reproduce asexually, and no males (of at least one species) have been reliably identified.
Each female lays up to 80 eggs (the largest insect eggs in Europe) in the soil, and these eggs may take up to five years to hatch, depending on the ambient temperature. Once hatched, the nymphs grow, mature, and lay eggs in a single season.
It occurs in meadows, pastures, shrubby hillsides, cereal fields and vineyards in southern and central Europe and eastwards to China. However, it is vulnerable to insecticides and habitat destruction, and the population is now spread thinly across its range.
Click on covers for more information
This is the standard flora for Greece.
First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.
Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.
However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit you better, but are not as comprehensive.
Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.
More about nature and wildlife in Greece
Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.
The Axios-Loudias-Aliakmon Delta area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Greece – especially considering it is all flat land at sea level. It’s also easily accessible from Thessaloniki.
A trip through the Vouraikos Gorge to look for the wonderful wildlife there, especially the endemic plants.
A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe