In 2008, I decided that I would take my holidays in countries that were once part of the Roman Empire: I’d been fascinated by the Roman Empire ever since I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels which were set during that period. As a child, I’d written two novels set during Roman times: A Circle of Stones based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars which I studied for Latin ‘O’ Level, and In Days of Old set in Rome itself.
Sicily: scarlet pimpernel and toadflax.
What I didn’t realize, when I started travelling, was that I’d also be meeting new flowers as well as new sites, and that they, too, would give me a huge amount of pleasure.
In the 17th century, ‘many people put toadflax under the bare soles of their feet and in between the toes and heels to drive off quartan fever.’ (Also known as the ague.)
I’d come across asphodel many times in Greek legends; it was a plant usually associated with death. The Greek goddess of spring, Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the Underworld and taken to his Underworld kingdom as his wife, wore a garland of asphodel in her hair. The meadows of the Elysian Fields, reserved for the blessed, were fields of asphodel. But I didn’t realize that the plant above which I’d been admiring was asphodel and that it was a real plant. I’d always assumed that it was mythological.
Crete: narcissus serotinus
This narcissus, growing among some Cretan tombs, is tiny and hugs the ground – it is much smaller than this photograph! It looked nothing special but when I knelt down close to it, I discovered that its scent was piercingly sweet.
Crete: acorn cup with acorn
The ground nearby was littered with extraordinary acorn cups which looked as though they were wearing Renaissance ruffs; they turned out to belong to the Turkey oak.
Sicily: a huge fennel stalk in flower with the temple of Segesta (a small light brown smudge) in the background
I discovered that photographs taken with something floral in the foreground, make for a better photo. I was amazed to see how huge fully grown fennel in Mediterranean countries was. It was taller and much bushier than fennel in the UK.
Traditionally, sprigs of fennel were placed in horses’ harnesses to keep flies away, though, looking at the size of the fennel above, probably not on Sicily!
Germany: sheep’s sorrel
This photo was taken when I went on a fascinating Roman Germany holiday. (I found it difficult to believe that ‘Roman’ and ‘Germany’ had much to do with each other. But I was proved wrong. The Romans occupied the east side of the Rhine for over 200 years and left some spectacular buildings to prove it.) The sheep’s sorrel above, with its reddish-yellow flowers, sets off the remains of the Feldberg Roman fortifications in the field behind it.
When I was a child, sorrel had the country name of ‘sour docks’ and we used to eat its refreshingly sour and sharp new leaves in spring.
Sardinia: bristle-fruited silk weed
I saw my first bristle-fruited silkweed in Sardinia. It looked absolutely extraordinary. When the bristly yellow pod is ripe a mere touch can cause it to explode, sending out fine silky filaments containing the seeds.
Pyramidal Orchid, Ireland
I’ve discovered that, on my archaeological and history trips, there is always a flower person, and a bird person. And when I was exploring Ancient Latium, our guide was an orchid person; so, as well as being taught to identify the neat, square Roman reticulatum stonework, we also learnt to identify various orchids. Now I know what pyramidal orchids look like, I see them all over the place!
If you want to catch the spring flowers in Mediterranean countries, the best time is around the 2nd week in April. Mind you, it is not an exact science. There are years when the weather causes spring flowers to come out early – or to delay. When I went to Turkey in early April, it was snowing in Istanbul! Fortunately, we were going south, and after a day or so we began to see the flowers.
So, long live travel! This year, I’m staying closer to home and – I hope – visiting the Isle of Man.
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