Symi: the month of the thyme

One of the things we have always loved about trekking around the mountains on Symi, is the smell of herbs.  Whole mountainsides are swathed in sage, oregano or thyme.  Rarely all three together except in small patches, usually one is dominant.

Starting my visit at the beginning of April this year, I have been more aware of the difference in timing of flowering.  Though somewhat oversimplified and generalised there has seemed to be a broad pattern, varied by aspect and to a lesser extent by altitude.  In shade and on north-facing slopes flowering is later than in full sun facing south.

In April I was aware for the first time of the understated pale blue flowers of sage.  Individually the flowers are larger than the other herbs but somehow are easily overlooked, perhaps because the prolific and statuesque Dragon Arums command attention. Normally sage is more noticeable by its smell, the pale leaves curling up in response to the intense heat seeming to intensify the aroma as legs brush past.

Sage in flower at the side of a path is easily overlooked

Sage in flower at the side of a path is easily overlooked

...closer inspection

…closer inspection

I usually don’t arrive over here until early May when the sage has finished flowering and the white of oregano is dominant across expanses of mountainside with butterflies and other beasties using the flat-topped crowns for their own purposes and pollinating the tiny individual flower heads in the process.  The tender foliage is ideal for drying and sprinkling in small amounts on Greek salad or adding to fasolakia but the strong, somewhat bitter flavour doesn’t seem to be to the taste of goats or to the ‘hopper’ stage of locusts which flourish at the same time.

Reproduction of species .... and coincidentally pollination of plants

Reproduction of species …. and coincidentally pollination of plants

Butterflies can carry large amounts of pollen between oregano plants on the underside of wings and bodies

Butterflies can carry large amounts of pollen between oregano plants on the underside of wings and bodies

When I arrived back at the beginning of June from a brief stay in Grey Britain, the oregano had mostly turned dull brown as seed has set.  Now the vivid blue of thyme is dominant.  This isn’t the soft-stemmed  thyme I grow in the herb garden at home but a tough prickly variety which deters the voracious appetite of the goats and seems to have no other predators.

On the other hand, much more so than either the sage or the oregano, it is very attractive to bees.  The only occasion I have been seriously concerned for my safety in the mountains was walking between the Llanover Road and the Fox Hunter car park in the Brecon Beacons before the path was marked.  Wading through dense knee-high heather in full flower I was white with pollen up to my waist and surrounded by untold thousands of bees and a loud high-pitched buzzing for nearly an hour. I suspect that they meant me no harm as it was hopefully clear that I was no threat to their activity but the incessant noise and its pitch and frequency were unnerving.

To a lesser extent so it is with the thyme covered mountainsides on Symi.  Thyme honey is much valued and commands a premium and this is the time of year when most of the pollen-collection is going on.  On one walk along a ridge-top above Nimborio Bay the path was very ’thin’, non-existent in places, and so I was again pushing through the gathering ground of thousands of bees with their dusty white coating of pollen, the air filled with the unintentionally menacing buzz.  I tried explaining to them that I meant them no harm and apologised if I accidentally trod on any of them.  I don’t think they listened to a word I was saying but they continued with their industry and didn’t bother me.

When I reached an area of huge limestone rocks the seed-headed oregano took over from the thyme and the noise just stopped.  The silence seemed intense.  I relaxed.

Single cushions of thyme  on the slope down to the sea

Single cushions of thyme on the slope down to the sea

A few more clumps in a barren landscape

A few more clumps in a barren landscape

... and in places the thyme is more widespread

… and in places the thyme is more widespread

A pleasure to walk along some sections of path

A pleasure to walk along some sections of path

... but in places the 'path' has to be picked through densely growing clumps

… but in places the ‘path’ has to be picked through densely growing clumps

In places there is no discernible way through the thyme

In places there is no discernible way through the thyme

Increasingly farmers are turning to honey production in the vicinity of areas of thyme

Increasingly farmers are turning to honey production in the vicinity of areas of thyme

Multicoloured hives in the middle of thyme going all the way down to the sea

Multicoloured hives in the middle of thyme going all the way down to the sea

.... a closer look

…. a closer look

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