A brief history of botanical exploration in Greece

Although scientific botany, like other branches of western science, has its roots in classical Greece, modern botanical exploration started relatively late. Linnaeus (Species Plantarum, 1753) had only a fragmentary and indirect knowledge of the Greek flora, gained mainly from Tournefort who had travelled in the Aegean area 1700-1702, and from older Venetian sources on the flora of Kriti, including Onorio Belli (late 16th century) and Prospero Alpini (De Plantis Exoticis, posthumously published in 1629). Linnaeus used the epithet graeca, graecus, etc., for c. 10 species. Epithets such as cretica, cretensis, etc., are more common in the Linnaean publications, appearing a total of c. 40 times, also for some species that were mistakenly believed to occur in Kriti. In addition there is the occasional chia, samia, peloponnesiacum, etc.

The first extensive botanical exploration of Greece was that of John Sibthorp who made a botanical grand tour of Greece, Cyprus and W Anatolia in 1786-87, accompanied by the artist Ferdinand Bauer. Specimens and sketches from these travels formed the basis for the magnificent Flora Graeca Sibthorpiana which appeared in 10 folio volumes with 966 hand-colored copper engravings published in 1806-1840, long after Sibthorp’s death, with most of the text prepared by James Edward Smith. For an account of the background and production of Flora Graeca and its forerunner, the Florae Graecae Prodromus, see Lack & Mabberley (1999). The original Flora Graeca was printed in only 25 copies and remains one of the rarest and most expensive botanical works ever produced. An annotated re-issue with reproductions of the plates in somewhat reduced size as well as modern text and distribution maps was published in 5 volumes by Strid & Strid (2009-2013).

The French explorer and naval officer J.S.C. Dumont d’Urville, later famous for his travels in the South Seas, collected in the Aegean area in 1819-1820, and several new species were published in his Enumeratio Plantarum (1822). Other important French contributions in this period were those of J.B.G.M. Bory de Saint-Vincent and L.C. Chaubard who published Expédition scientifique de Morée (1832) and Nouvelle flore du Péloponnèse et des Cyclades (1838), the ancienne flore presumably being Sibthorp & Smith. Bory & Chaubard discovered several spectacular new species, especially in the Peloponnese (e.g., Corcus boryi, Gypsophila nana, Sideritis clandestina and Verbascum acaule).

In 1839 the northern parts of present-day Greece were traversed by the intrepid German explorer August Grisebach who later worked extensively on plants from the Caribbean and South America and became one of the most distinguished phytogeographers of the 19th century. 19 new genera, 172 new species and 136 new varieties appeared in his Spicilegium Florae Rumelicae et Bithynicae (2 vols, 1843 & 1846), and c. 89 of those occurring in Greece are still recognized at species or subspecies level. For an account of Grisebach’s travels and publications, as well as typifications of his new taxa, see Strid (2000).

The period from c. 1842 to 1862 was the golden age of botanical exploration in Greece, with Theodor von Heldreich and Theodoros Orphanides as the leading names. Their specimens were generally sent to Edmond Boissier in Geneva. Boissier himself had visited Greece only once, in 1842, but became a central figure for the flora of the whole region, publishing the monumental Flora Orientalis in six volumes, 1867-1888.

Heldreich, born in Dresden in 1822, came to Greece as a young man in 1843 and lived in Athens until his death in 1902. In this long period he contributed more to the Greek flora than anyone else, before or since, discovering around 700 new species, most of them described together with Boissier. Many well-known Greek plants have been named after him, including Pinus heldreichii and Jankaea heldreichii, both discovered on his expedition to Mt Olympus in 1851.

Orphanides, Heldreich’s Greek colleague and sometimes rival, was scientifically active for a somewhat shorter period of time, mainly in the eighteen-fifties, but equally important as an explorer. He travelled to remote mountain areas and made many spectacular discoveries, including Biebersteinia orphanidis, found on Mt Killini in 1851 and rediscovered only a few years ago. Several species, including the attractive Tulipa orphanidis, have been named after him. In the latter decades of the 19th century there was considerable activity by visiting foreign botanists, as well as some resident Greeks. The following may be mentioned:

Heinrich Carl Haussknecht collected extensively in the Pindos mountain range in 1885, and the results of his expedition, including numerous new species, were published in the series Symbolae ad Floram Graecam, which appeared in several parts from 1893 to 1900. He assembled a very large private herbarium which later formed the core of the University herbarium in Jena (JE).

Father and son Candargy, residents of Lesvos, explored their home island thoroughly over a period of several decades and published a series of papers in 1889-1899, including descriptions of several new species. Unfortunately their herbarium, which must have been very substantial, appears to have been lost.

Elisée Reverchon collected a lot of valuable material in Crete in 1883, 1884 and 1886. His specimens were widely distributed and are represented in several European herbaria.

Paul Sintenis was a prolific collector who travelled extensively in Greece, Anatolia and elsewhere; he made important expeditions to Kerkira in 1888, to Pindos, Pilio, etc. in 1896, and (together with the young Joseph Bornmüller) to Olimbos, Athos, Thasos, etc. in 1891. His collections usually comprise several duplicates and are represented in many European herbaria with the most complete set at Lund (LD).

Antonio Baldacci collected in Crete in 1893 and 1899, and several times in the Greek/Albanian border area in the period 1892-1902. He published a series of important papers in Italian journals; the main set of specimens is at Firenze (FI), with duplicates in many European herbaria. The name of Bornmuellera baldaccii, a serpentine endemic of northern Pindos, commemorates two great botanists active in this area.

Charles Immanuel Forsyth Major collected extensively in the Aegean area in the period 1886-1890. Together with William Barbey and Carlo de Stefani he published important contributions to the flora of Karpathos, Kos, Ikaria, Samos and other East Aegean islands.

A distinguished Greek collector was Christos Leonis, who travelled in Evvia, the northern Sporades, the Kiklades, Kriti and parts of the mainland in the period 1893-1902. His specimens, usually well prepared and well annotated, are represented in a number of herbaria, including Athens (ATH), Berlin (B), Geneva (G), Lund (LD), Prague (PRC) and Vienna (W and WU).

Eugen von Halácsy, an Austrian physician and botanist of Hungarian descent, collected in Greece in 1888 and on a more extended expedition to Peloponnisos and the mainland in 1893. The results were subject to a major publication in 1894. Floristic work in Greece was summarized in his Conspectus Flora Graecae, which appeared in three volumes in 1900-1904, with supplements in 1908 and 1912. This careful and accurate work marks the end of the 19th century explorations in Greece and is still a major source of information. After more than 100 years it is still the latest complete Flora of the country. Halácsy’s Herbarium Graecum is kept separate at WU.

Arguably the most important botanical explorer in Greece in the 20th century was Karl Heinz Rechinger of Vienna. From 1927 to the mid-sixties he made numerous study and collecting trips and published prolifically, including Flora Aegaea (1944) which summarizes knowledge of the flora of the Aegean islands up to that time. He is the author of c. 150 currently recognized species and subspecies of Greek plants, and several taxa have been named after him (Androcymbium rechingeri, Paronychia rechingeri, etc.).

Several Bulgarian botanists, including Nikolai A. Stojanov, Daki Jordanov and Boris T. Achtarov, collected in northern Greece in the nineteen-thirties and -forties, and published important papers on the flora of Olimbos, Falakro, Thasos and Samothraki. Their specimens are mostly at Sofia (SOM). William B. Turrill from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, published numerous taxonomic and floristic contributions for Greece and the Balkan Peninsula from 1918 to 1960. His book “The plant life of the Balkan Peninsula” (1929) remains an important reference work.

Sophia Topali collected in Pilio, Evvia and elsewhere in the nineteen-thirties. Most of her material was published together with Gustave Beauverd in Geneva, and the specimens are usually at G. Another Greek collector from the same period was Dimitrios N. Zaganiaris who published several important floristic contributions, including Herbarium Macedonicum (1938-1940).

Constantine N. Goulimis, a Greek amateur botanist who had been legal adviser to the Greek government in exile in South Africa during World War II, travelled and collected extensively in Greece from 1946 to his death in 1963, and made several remarkable discoveries (e.g., Crocus goulimyi and Tulipa goulimyi). His specimens are kept separate at the Goulandris Natural History Museum in Kifissia (ATH).

From c. 1960 to the present, an increasing number of native and foreign botanists (including all co-authors of this checklist) have been active in the exploration and study of the Greek flora. Large modern collections now exist at a number of institutes, including Athens (ATH and ATHU), Berlin (B), Copenhagen (C), Geneva (G), Lund (LD), Patras (UPA) and Vienna (W and WU). Major floristic works have been completed for the neighboring countries, the most important being the Flora of Turkey and the East Aegean Island (9 vols, 1965-1988 with supplements 1988 and 2000), the Flora of Cyprus (2 vols, 1977 and 1985) and Flora Europaea (5 vols, 1964-1980, with new edition of vol. 1, 1993). A Mountain Flora of Greece (2 vols, 1986 and 1991) covers 1,980 species and subspecies, or a little over one third of the Greek flora. The Flora Hellenica Bibliography (Strid 2006) lists 13,276 publications relevant to the flora and phytogeography of Greece.