Plant specimens collected on the Salonica Front

The New Mosquito of April 2015 (issue 31) contains a fascinating article by Dr James Wearn of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, entitled ‘Risking their lives to collect plants on the Salonika Front’. It is about the eight members of Kew Gardens’ staff who served in Salonika with the armed forces, but were able to collect plants as an extra-curricular activity.

Some while later I was contacted about this article by  Emeritus Professor Arne Strid, distinguished Swedish botanist and expert on Greek flora, whose two-volume Atlas of the Aegean Flora was published in 2016. Professor Strid provided additional interesting information about plant collecting in the region and kindly allowed me reproduce this here.

The collections from the Salonica front in 1916-1918 are well known to me, although I have not been able to make a systematic study of them. There are several collectors, including Blackett, Cummins, Edwards, Harris, Russell, Turrill and Wallace. About 180 collections have been registered in the Flora Hellenica Database; most of them are at British Museum Natural History (BM), somewhat fewer at Kew (K), and a few at Edinburgh (E). They represent what I have come across on visits to BM and K, or found in the literature. Undoubtedly there are many more (the figure of 2,000 is mentioned in the article).

The specimens are generally well prepared and well identified. Most of them are from an area NNE of Thessaloniki which is still not very well explored botanically.

Spring flowers in The Birdcage Line (March 2016)
Spring flowers in The Birdcage Line (March 2016)

Another interesting set of botanical specimens were collected somewhat further east in the nineteen thirties by another Englishman, H.G. Tedd, who was regional manager of a tobacco company and lived in Xanthi c. 1930-1938. He sent around 2,000 numbers to Turrill at Kew; in the Kew archive is a fairly extensive correspondence between the two. A couple of new species were described based on Tedd’s collections, including Salvia teddii Turrill and Arenaria teddii Turrill.

In the turbulent history of the Balkans many interesting botanical collections have been made by military staff, ranging in rank from private to general. One example is the German Th. Herzog who published in 1920 Botanische Studien eines Frontsoldaten in Mazedonien [Botanical studies of a front soldier in Macedonia]. When collecting the rare Gentianella bulgarica in September 1917 in a high-altitude wet meadow on the present Greek/FYROM border, he observes, with a wonderful understatement: “Die Stellen eigneten sich wenig zu beschaulichem Sammeln, da sie vom Feind eingesehen waren und oft unter starkem Artilleriefeuer lagen” [the places were not suitable for conspicuous collecting as they were within sight of the enemy and often under heavy artillery fire].

The subject of plants collected during military field campaigns is an interesting one, not least in the Balkans with its rather troubled history. One interesting example is the discovery of the rare Dioscorea balcanica, the only European species in a large, mainly tropical genus. In the summer of 1913 the Serbian botanist Nicola Košanin (later director of the Belgrade Botanical Garden) was a captain in the Serbian army and posted with his unit in the wilds of northern Albania, where he collected plants together with a soldier who also had botanical interests. The soldier had apparently been instructed always to collect complete specimens, including roots. One day he came back with an unknown plant, “mit schönen dreiflügligen Kapseln” [with beautiful, 3-winged capsules]. “Der Soldat bedauerte …. es sei ihm nicht möglich gewesen, mit seinem kurzen Bajonett die zwischen grossen Steine versteckte Wurzel herauszugraben” [the soldier regretted it had not been possible, with his short bayonet, to excavate the root which was hidden among large stones]. This was the type specimen of Dioscorea balcanica.
A Bulgarian soldier, Jan Mrkvička, was killed in action 17.8. 1916 on Kajmakčalan, a large mountain rising to 2520 m on the present Greek/FYROM. He had collected many interesting plant specimens in a previously poorly known area. The specimens were sent to his parents who handed them over to Josef Velenovský, a professor of botany in Prague. Velenovský published an article, Reliquiae Mrkvičkane, where the identified collections are listed and a few new species are described.
One generation later, the Austrian botanist Karl Heinz Rechinger (1906-1998) made important collections in 1942 in German-occupied Crete. I had the privilege of knowing Rechinger quite well, and vividly remember him telling me the following story: He was a member of a small group of German and Austrian biologists who were all drafted into the Army. One of them had friends in high places, and presumably thanks to these contacts they escaped being sent to the Russian front and instead were sent to Greece to collect plants. The official task was to collect relatives of cultivated plants to be used in long-term breeding programs. Rechinger interpreted his mandate quite widely, saying: “That means all flowering plants”. And so he spent the whole spring and summer of 1942 collecting in Crete; the results were subsequently published in his Flora Aegaea and Neue Beiträge zur Flora von Kreta. It was certainly not Rechinger’s own choice to come to Crete in German uniform. Politically he was rather the opposite of the ruling ideology at that time, and remained a true friend of Greece all his life.
A trench in The Birdcage Line colonised by plants (March 2016)
A trench in The Birdcage Line colonised by plants (March 2016)

Author: Andy Hutt

Andy's interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Arthur, who served in Salonika as a sapper with the Royal Engineers from 1916-1918. Opinions expressed in these posts are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.

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