Illustration of the Pelion penninsula

Pelion peninsula and Mount Olympus in Greece is rich in orchids

The Pelion peninsula in north-central Greece provides horticulturist Hannah Gardner with a host of botanising sites rich in orchids and autumn-flowering, bulbous perennials. Words Hannah Gardner, illustration Alice Pattullo

The unspoilt Pelion peninsula lies between the Pagasetic Gulf and the Aegean Sea. The slopes of Mount Pelion (1,624m) are a botanically rich wilderness, a mix of Mediterranean and Balkan species that descend to pristine beaches. Rainfall here is relatively high, the hills forested by oak, chestnut, fir and beech trees. Many of the picturesque mountain villages with their ancient plane trees and arched bridges, thrive while others lie abandoned, but it’s an atmospheric region drenched in tradition. The splendid, limestone Mount Olympus rises to 2,919m just 18km from the coast, and offers wonderful botanising at a wide variety of elevations, depending on when you visit. It can be accessed from Litochoro, which lies at the foot of the Enipeus Gorge, a wonderful woodland location for plant hunting.

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Wildflowers field in front of Tien Shan Mountain Range, Road to Song Kol Lake, Naryn province, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia

Inspiration for the trip

I wanted to explore little-known and characterful Pelion, but despite being familiar with the mythical status of Mount Olympus, I had given little thought as to what might grow beneath the feet of its numerous, bickering deities. This changed with the onset of my horticultural education and now no trip to northern Greece would be complete without a hike on Mount Olympus.

When to go

April is peak season for the orchids of Pelion, May for the plants in the Enipeus Gorge, but there is a significant flourish of autumn-flowering species in both locations from late September. Autumn brings the additional rewards of mellow leaf colour, warm seas and pungent mushrooms.

Where to go

In Pelion, the Centre for Research and Protection of Wild Orchids in Kerasia is a great place to start. The centre’s director, Professor Dimitrios Ikonomidis, is an authority on orchids (and there are 52 different orchids in Pelion), but he is also knowledgeable about the many medicinal plants that are abundant here. There are good botanising sites on the way to the abandoned mountain village of Ano Kerasia, where an idiosyncratic ‘church’ bell is slung over the branches of an ancient chestnut tree. A circular hiking trail via Flamouri monastery heads off from here. The hills are clothed with spiky kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) juniper, cedar and chestnuts, and the spring air is deliciously tainted with essential oils rising from a low matrix of Anthemis, Cistus, oregano, lavender, sage, thyme and wild mint. Giant orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) stand proud, but look closely and you may see some members of the Orchis genus – green-winged orchid (Orchis morio), the pink butterfly orchid (O. papilionacea) and the shaggy, pale O. italica – alongside pastel drifts of Anemone pavonina. The delicate, primrose-yellow O. provincialis favours pockets of acidic soil. Ophrys orchids, with their insect-like flowers – Ophrys apifera, the brown, velvety O. sphegodes subsp. mammosa, O. speculum and O. reinholdii – are all here in quantity. In autumn, the boulder-strewn hills and valleys have a second season, featuring sunny Sternbergia lutea and the pastel shades of Cyclamen hederifolium and crocuses.

Where to stay

Dryades Hotel and Spa, Agios Lavrentios, 37300, Pelion, Magnesia, Greece. Tel 30 (0)24280 96110, hoteldryades.gr Located in a wonderful mountain village with stunning views down to the coast.

Hotel Dimatis Agios Dimîtrios, 60100, Greece. Tel 30 (0)23510 84202, dimatis.eu Family owned hotel nestled in the foothills of Mount Olympus.

On Mount Olympus, the road coils past tall, candelabra-like Verbascum and eye-catching scarlet Lilium chalcedonicum before terminating at Prionia (1,000m) where there is a seasonal café. The onward route towards a refuge threads past a spring and beautiful waterfalls, with displays of green, Balkan Helleborus odorus subsp. cyclophyllus, Scilla bifolia, anemones, and the fruitily scented Geranium macrorrhizum. The forest route through the Enipeus Gorge past Agios Dionysios Monastery and on to Litochoro offers more treasures. Fritillaria messanensis is common, and the soft, silver rosettes of the endemic African violet relative, Jankaea heldreichii, which has wonderful lilac flowers in May, are visible on rocks and cliffs. In June the orchids flower, along with the beautiful common twayblade (Neottia ovata) – a tricky one to pick out in the dappled light. The cute flowers of Cyclamen hederifolium appear before the leaves in autumn, forming baby-pink, floral carpets in the shady, riverside woodlands. The leaves are often purplish underneath and gloriously diverse in their patterning. The pink-chequered Colchicum bivonae also flowers here before its leaves reappear in spring.

Plant to grow at home

In Pelion, and near Litochoro, the strappy, intensely green leaves of Sternbergia lutea, the winter daffodil, sprout from their bulbs in September. They are related to daffodils in the Amaryllidaceae family, but confusingly their glossy, citrus-yellow flowers look more like those of crocus. This genus of eight species of bulbous perennials is found across southern Europe to central Asia, and the European species flower in autumn. S. lutea is commonly available in bulb catalogues and is very free-flowering. It brings a vibrant, zesty pop of colour late in the season that associates well with the evergreens and silvery greys of much Mediterranean planting. S. lutea Angustifolia Group (10cm) has compact flowers and narrow leaves. Bulbs require a dry summer rest (during which they aestivate), free-draining, gritty soil that is moderately fertile, and full sun as they are intolerant of winter wet. They are, however, frost-hardy, and thrive in chalky soil. Plant bulbs 15cm deep in late summer at the base of a sunny wall or path edge, or in terracotta pots. If happy, they will clump up and only need dividing if they become congested and flowering is impaired.

Guides and maps

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Flowers of Greece and The Balkans by Oleg Polunin (Oxford University Press, 1997). Centre for Research and Protection of Wild Orchids in North Pelion: orchids-pelion.gr