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The Balkan Botanic Garden in the Kroussia Mountains, Greece

Volume 3 Number 7 - December 2001
Eleni Maloupa

Greece is a country of great floristic wealth. Due to the geographic position and the coexistence of three floral regions, the flora of Greece, in proportion to its area, is one of the richest in Europe, consisting of approximately 5700 species of higher plants. It is estimated that about 13% of the plant taxa are endemic. The dangers to plant biodiversity in Greece are well-known. Fire, land reclamation, overgrazing, and ever-increasing human intervention have long disturbed the integrity, stability, and beauty of natural Greek plant communities. The need for landscape protection and the conservation of biodiversity is becoming more pressing. Botanic Gardens can fulfil this need.

The Balkan Botanic Garden in the Kroussia Mountains is one of the youngest Botanic Gardens in Europe. It is a new scientific institution in Greece dedicated to conservation, botanical and horticultural research and environmental education. Its mission is to grow, study and protect the Balkan Flora in parallel with the development of ecotourism. It provides an aesthetic, educational and recreational resource for the Balkans and for international visitors. In addition it employs scientific, technical and manual human resources. Furthermore, the Balkan Botanic Garden promotes transfrontier cooperation between scientists of the Balkan countries aiming at developing a Balkan Centre of Native Species.

The Botanic Garden occupies an area of 30 ha and covers the length of a hill ridge It is located in Central Macedonia, Greece, near the village of Pontokerasia, about 70 km north of the city of Thessaloniki. It is situated on the southern foothills of the Kroussia mountains, 14 kilometres from Lake Kerkini.

The project was coordinated by Dr Eleni Maloupa, research associate of the National Agricultural Research Foundation at Thermi, Thessaloniki where the Balkan Horticulture Research Institute and the Botanic Garden’s nursery are located.

Funding has been provided by EU programme INTERREGII, the Greek Ministry of Agriculture and the National Economy and the programme is entitled Development of a Botanic Garden, Research and Education Centre for the Balkan Flora.

Dr Maloupa demonstrated that there has been a growing interest abroad in the native plants of Greece but they are not protected or collected systematically. So the project team wanted to create a place where Greek plants from the Balkan Flora could be conserved in a natural setting where people can come and enjoy them, but where scientific work can also be done.

Since its conception in 1997 major works have been completed such as the construction of an exhibition and office building at Podokerasia and the building of the Horticulture Research Institute on the campus of the National Agricultural Research Foundation (NAGREF) in Thessaloniki. On the site of the Botanic Garden 5,600 metres of metal fence were erected, roads and pathways were constructed, two artificial lakes connected by a brook, fed by rainfall were excavated, and irrigation systems were installed. In addition, wood and stone have been combined to construct the main entrances, the ticket-office, the watchtower and the toilet huts. Convenient parking space has been allocated opposite the Botanic Garden exhibition hall and at the main entrance of the Garden.

The natural vegetation, which does not differ from that outside the garden, features about 15 hectares of trees, mainly oaks, such as Quercus pubescens, Quercus frainetto, Carpinus orientalis, Fraxinus ornus, Ostrya carpinifolia, Crataegus monogyna, Lonicera etrusca, Clematis vitalba, Paliurus spina-christi and Pyrus amygdaliformis, along with a wealth of herbaceous perennials.

Enclosing the area will provide an opportunity to study how a forest develops in an area protected from grazing and logging, and allow inferences to be drawn on species diversity in protected areas. The remaining 15 hectares has been cleared for new plantings of plants found throughout the Balkans.

The various sections of the Botanic Garden are arranged according to different themes. These may be taxonomic relationships, ecological adaptation, different life histories, etc. The scope is mostly educational. However, the display of the living plant collection attempts to convey - besides the educationally useful - an attractive setting that enables people to enjoy and appreciate the recreational and horticultural value of a Botanic Garden.

The landscaping of the 1.1 ha surrounding the exhibition hall attempts to combine traditional Greek garden elements (genius loci) with the demands of a Botanic Garden. It has been landscaped to show the diversity that exists in useful plants, to create a local garden with a “sense of place”, to demonstrate low input gardening and finally to show an unobstructed view toward the mountain range and the main body of the Botanic Garden.

A selection of traditional and old Greek fruit tree cultivars was planted in the far corner of the building site, in accordance with the Greek tradition to concentrate ‘useful plants’ around their houses and in their gardens. Aromatic and pharmaceutical plants are given much prominence, given that Greece is one of the centres of diversity of the Labiatae family, members of which grow in the garden on a steep slope that provides the best conditions (a sunny, dry, stony environment) for oregano, sage and mint.

A visitor that enters the Botanic Garden from the Botanic Garden gate is led through an avenue of Fraxinus ornus that lines the two sides of the central Botanic Garden road. The central road which goes straight for nearly 1200m is also the highest elevation of the Botanic Garden, since it follows the course of the ridge of a hill. Benches and water faucets are placed in strategic positions. Natural forest is seen from both sides of the road for the first 400 m, then the landscaped areas of the Botanic Garden begin.

An authentic representation of each of Greece’s five (often overlapping) vegetation zones, each of which has a distinct ecology, character, flora and history is displayed. These zones are the Mediterranean evergreen forest zone, Submediterranean zone, Beech-Fir forest zone, montane coniferous forest zone and above tree-line zone. Rocks and crevices in an artificial alpine environment will display the neat growth habit and bright colours of alpine plants. Another section consists of maquis and phrygana; short shrubs evolved from overgrazing and logging, which adapted to withstand these man-made conditions by developing cushion shapes and thorns. A spring and an autumn meadow will display Greece’s wide diversity of bulbs and geophytes appearing in each of these seasons. There is to be an Arboretum of about 375 woody species native to the Balkan peninsula, arranged according to their phylogenetic relationships.

A small path leads off to a hidden natural pond, the setting for a fern and Campanula collection, surrounded by rocky outcrops and remnants of an old stone road. Part of the Botanic Garden is set aside as a fallow field for wheat and the annual weeds that used to be common in wheat fields but have been dramatically reduced by herbicides. A comprehensive collection of wetland plants around the two artificial lakes completes the overall image of the Garden.

The Balkan Botanic Garden was officially opened on 19th of May 2001 and since then it is opened to the public.