Hvar's Wildflower Treasures

Published in Environment

The wildflowers on Hvar are a year-round joy. Even in the depths of winter, there is hardly a week without colours brightening up the countryside, contrasting with the island's rocks and the variegated dark green of the woodlands. 

When they are not flowering, the wild plants die back or merge into the background, coming to life again to mark the seasons with their colourful contribution. There is no end to the pleasure of walking around the fields and woodlands, looking at the endless range of plants, many of them tiny, which contribute in turn to the natural splendour of the island. The varied shapes of the plants are part of the attraction, and each season has some specially interesting specimens. These are two examples from the spring season.

The tassel hyacinth

In spring from April to June the tassel hyacinths come into their own with their very fine purple heads.

 
The tassel hyacinth (leopoldia comosa or muscari comosum) is one of the species known as grape hyacinths, and is sometimes called tufted grape hyacinth, hairy muscari or edible muscari. It has fertile flowers which are brownish-green, bell-shaped, and held outwards on stalks which are roughly the same length as the flowers themselves, or slightly longer. At the top of the plant a tuft of bright purple sterile flowers on long stalks spreads upwards. It belongs to the Asteraceae family in the Asparagales order.

As one of the synonyms suggests, the tassel hyacinth is edible, and is used for food mainly in Italy and Greece. In Italy tassel hyacinth bulbs are called lampascioni or cipolline selvatiche (little wild onions), in Greece they are volvoi. I have not yet met anyone who eats tassel hyacinth bulbs in Dalmatia, probably because they are bitter tasting and most Dalmatians seem to be addicted to sugar nowadays. The bulbs are boiled and then preserved in oil or pickled, and are considered to be an appetite stimulant, as well as being diuretic. In Greece they are traditionally part of the speciality vegetarian foods eaten during Lent. Reading the descriptions of how they are prepared, it all sounds like tricky hard work, so I shall content myself, at least for the time being, with simply admiring the beautiful flowers when they spread over the fields in springtime.

The tragopogon

I was fascinated for years by the exquisite round feathery seedhead which would suddenly spread all around the countryside in springtime. Finding out what it was proved to be a challenge. People used to tell me that it was a type of dandelion, but that didn't seem to fit the bill. I had never seen the plant in flower. So far as I could see it consisted only of a stem with a slim head of spindles (seen to the front left of the picture below) which opened out to form the magnificent globe of the seedhead.

I was resigned to never finding out. After all, its beauty was not affected by my not knowing its name. And as I am very bad at remembering names anyway, perhaps it was not worth while searching. Then I made a chance visit to Marinka Radež's art atelier in Dol, and happened to see a painting in progress of the very plant. And not just the seedhead which had entranced me for all those years, but there was also a flower which I had not been aware of. It turned out that the flower only comes out for a short while during the day. Either I had not recognised it as being on the same plant, or I had always missed it. Marinka did not know what the plant was called, but I had enough clues to narrow my search, and finally tracked it down through an excellent website called the seedsite.

Tragopogon flower, April 2015. Photo Vivian Grisogono

So it was that I identified the mystery feathered spindly globe as a tragopogon. Definitely not a dandelion (taraxacum), although both belong to the Asterales order in the Asteraceae family. The tragopogon is also called salsify or goatsbeard. One member of the species, which consists of over 140 different types, the purple salsify or tragopogon porrifolius, is edible, mainly the root which apparently tastes like oysters, but also young shoots and leaves.

Tragopogon flower, April 2015. Photo Vivian Grisogono

© Vivian Grisogono 2013

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