When I say “plant life by the sea”, I think of plants that grow within the intertidal zone (technically, a scientific term for a land zone under the physical impact of waves and also the area that is under water at high tide) and all plants that grow in the coastal area in general. You know – it's all those things with leathery leaves that seem to be coated in some kind of a waxy matter and which usually smell really good, like laurel or softwood. Also, it would seem by the rule, even if they're not softwood, they're evergreens. I emphasize this fact specifically, because continental schools usually teach that only firs, junipers and pine trees are evergreens – Mediterranean plants species are usually not being taught and even when they do come up occasionally, the teacher would dismiss the mention of holm oaks as evergreens as an textbook error. Laurel, oleander and holm oaks are Mediterranean evergreens – oleander is mainly cultivated while holm oaks used to be the basis of highly productive and quality Mediterranean forests, mostly known as maquis or macchia. There are fewer and fewer maquis due to wildfires – which are quite common in coastal areas, but also due to agricultural deforestation. Also, the legend says that a lot of holm oak logs from the eastern Adriatic coast went into the construction of Venice. Latin term for holm oak is Quercus ilex:
Laurel, Laurus nobilis, a noble evergreen characteristic of the Mediterranean is tightly linked to the cult of Apollo and the meaning of winner. The term “laureate” comes from the Latin name of the plant. Why Apollo? In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us a legend of a nymph Daphne, pursued by Apollo, and to save her from this pursuit her father turns her into a laurel tree. Since then, laurel was Apollo's favorite plant.
More to the west and on the Adriatic coast, we can find Pinus halepensis, commonly known as the Aleppo pine – named as the Syrian city of Aleppo since the first described populations of this tree were the Syrian ones. However, this area is not limited only to Syria, but we can find this tree throughout Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malta, Spain, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
|Aleppo pines, source: via Wikimediacommons, by Christian Ferrer
On the limestone bedrock characteristic to the Mediterranean, we can also find Ephedra campylopoda, or joint pine. The term “ephedra” is actually a name Pliny used to describe horsetail which resembles these plants. This whole genus of plants is interesting because it's somewhere in the middle between gymnosperms and angiosperms. The most important component of this plant is the alkaloid ephedrine which affects the involuntary part of the nervous system, the so-called sympathicus: it increases vigilance, endurance, reduces allergic reactions (especially pollen allergies), tightens blood vessels, increases blood pressure, improves blood circulation, reduces the lipid levels in the blood, relieves asthma.. However, before you rush to pick some joint pine, let me tell you that ephedrine is not harmless, it is poisonous in higher concentrations, and has been declared as a doping agent. It can be found in nose drops because it reduces the swelling in the mucous membranes.
|Joint pine, Ephedra campylopoda
When you notice a beautiful plant with big yellow flowers around the seaside karst, or on the cliff side of the road while driving your car, you'll know that it is Spartium junceum – Spanish broom or weaver's broom.
|Spanish broom-Spartium junceum
The Spanish broom was used in Dalmatia to make textile fibers, and in some places that tradition is still alive. It was also used to tie the grapevines in Dalmatia, and there is a common belief that there are no snakes in places where the Spanish broom grows. The plant is full of aromatic substances and the flowers smell beautifully, and it is believed to be an aphrodisiac (I almost wrote “aphrozodiac”!) and that women become more erotic and intoxicate the men with the smell of Spanish broom. Some say that even the biggest losers would get lucky when the spanish broom blossoms (May-June).
Crithmum maritimum– samphire, rock samphire or sea fennel is an edible plant with meaty and extremely salty leaves. In western Mediterranean countries and Greece, it is used as mangold, seasoning and even pickled. It is not very known as an edible plant in our area.
It is common to pickle or salt the flower buds of capers. There are different techniques of conserving capers – some leave them in sea water, and some prepare the salt water, while some don't event salt – but pickle them. Regardless of the preparation, they are believed to be a strong aphrodisiac and some religious traditions (E.g. Judaism) have strongly controlled when, what and how to eat capers. Apart from flower buds, caper leaves and fruits are known to be used as food.
One of the most beautiful halophytes is Limonium narbonense – or sea lavender, which is somewhat reminiscent of the heather flower but is not related to it.
|Sea lavender by Aneleh Zele, via Wikimediacommons
|Sea lavender, by Hectonichus, via Wikimediacommons
Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.