What makes Karpathos very special in terms of nature is that it’s been evolving in total isolation for the past 2 million years. This has given rise to many plants and flowers that can’t be found anywhere else in the world (i.e. endemic), with a few common only to Karpathos, nearby Kassos and in a few cases the island of Crete. The Management Agency of North Karpathos – which was established to manage and protect the area’s biodiversity and nature – reports the presence of about 90 different endemic species in the region (mostly Karpathos with some common to Kassos and Crete). It also points out to 18 separate ecosystems or habitat types that are relatively in a very good state.
Forests, surprising trees and interesting herbs
Occurring generally at lower elevations, healthy Turkish pine forests (Pinus brutia) can be spotted on the eastern slopes of Northern Karpathos and on the southern side of the nearby Saria Island. There are also other enigmatic Mediterranean tree species such as mastic trees or lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus) and Carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) that even until today flavor some of the foods and desserts in this region of the world.
Present on the island too is Black hawthorn or Mediterranean Buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides ssp. οleoides) which offers good nourishment for birdlife but shouldn’t be consumed by humans in big quantities as it could be poisonous. The pretty rockrose (Cistus spp.) with its purple flowers also graces the landscape, while a wild type of thyme known as conehead thyme (Coridothymus capitatus) – apart from its potential cosmetic and culinary value – has been shown to have powerful antifungal and antibacterial properties.
A certain kind of shrubbery thrives in the rocky regions and gorges of the island, scientifically known as chasmophytic vegetation. The most common is Ptilostemon, a kind of plant that is placed in the thistle tribe within the sunflower family. Similarly another flowering plant from the thistle tribe called Hirtellina fruticosa is reputed to grow only the island of Karpathos.
In higher altitude you’ll find shrubs such as tree spurge (Euphorbia dendroides) and Phoenician juniper (Juniperus phoenicea), while a specific type of garrigue or phrygana – a kind of low, soft-leaved scrubland – can be found in the form of Euphorbia acanthothamnus, as well as the endemic germander (Teucrium gracile).
Photo: tato grasso
Plants that thrive in salty and windy environments can be found on the coastal rocks including the rare and endemic limonium (Limonium carpathum) and the white beancaper (Zygophyllum album). Worth mentioning as well as certain plants related to old cultivation practices on the terraced hills, namely the Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia cretica), the Holy orchid (Orchis sancta) and the Lusitanian woad (Isatis lusitanica).