Skip to content
Personal tools

Home Articles Conferences Projects Publications
Gallery Library Links Donations Contacts
You are not logged in   Log in
You are here: Home » Articles » Environment: Flora & Fauna » Prehistoric Plants of the Islands of the Aegean Sea - Sea Daffodils (Pancratium Maritimum)

Prehistoric Plants of the Islands of the Aegean Sea - Sea Daffodils (Pancratium Maritimum)

Document Actions
  • Print this page
The flora of the islands of the Aegean sea has its roots in the flora of the tertiary period and there has been a local evolution of the remnants of the vanished flora of the Aegean since it was submerged, probably at the beginning of the quaternary period.


The climate of this region from the beginning of the holocene age has been mild and it is little different from the climate of today; most of the prehistoric plants of the islands in the Aegean sea still exist today.


We have no written documents, but everything we know about the prehistory of the islands of the Aegean sea and the established civilizations there is due to the excavations which have been done, as well as to the dating of rich finds by current methods such as radioactive C14. Prehistoric archaeological research indicates that man appeared in Crete during the last neolithic age (4000 B.C.) while during the palolithic age nowhere in the Aegean have trees of man been found.

The oldest inhabitants of the Cyclades were found in the island Saliagos which is between Paros and Antiparos, and where a flourishing Cycladic civilization existed between 4300 - 3700 B.C.; it must not be excludecd that this civilization was just a phase of an older one. 

The civilization of Kefala in Kea about the end of 4000 B.C. till 2875 B.C. represents the last phase of the neolithic age of the Cyclades and the beginning of the copper age.

The excavations made by Evans in the palace of Knossos in Crete, have uncovered a whole neolithic quarter and remnants of cultivated plants under the yard of the Minoan Palace.

Generally the finds of cultivated plants of the neolithic age are not very different from the wild plants which usually had already been in existance and which man started to cultivate at the beginning of the neolithic age. During the mesolithic age man had already obtained experience about the food value of the plants of his environment, the significance of seeds and fruits: after preliminary experiments he began to cultivate the most edible of them and in the course of time he became himself a producer of food, jumping from the hunting to the agricultural stage. Later, when man became more civilized he cultivated decorative plants in gardens, while at the height of the Minoan civilization's glory when art had reached a high level of development, flowers and plants were used for their beauty as an aesthetic pleasure.



The dating of finds of seeds by the radioactive C14 gives approximately the time when they had been cultivated. When the cultivated plants are not native the problem arises of determination of the place of their origin as well as their first appearance and evolution. This subject is relevant to both botany and archaeology. The seed finds etc., in the Aegean region which have been studied show that the most important cultivated plants were the following:


  • Spring Barley (Hordeum Vulgare)

Its culture is noted in Crete from 3000 B.C. and its ancestor is considered to be native in Eastern Thibet Hordeum agriocrithon. Seeds of spring barley have been found on the island of Saliagos from 3700 B.C. and in the first Cycladic quarter at Kefala on the island of Kea from 4000 - 2700 B.C. The variety, Winter or Square Barley (Hexastichon), has been determined by Netolitzky (1934) in carbonized seed from Knossos dating from the year 1600 B.C.


  • Wheat (Triticum dicoccum)

This kind of wheat is mentioned as cultivated in Assyria and Iran from 3500 B.C. and in Troy from 2500 B.C. Seeds of Wheat have been found on the island of Saliagos from the last neolithic age as well as the variety of Triticum aestivum var. antiquorum, which has been discovered on Crete by Netolitzky.


  • Lentil (Lens esculenta)

Its cultivation has been determined on Thera and at Knossos from 3000 B.C. and in Egypt from 2000 B.C. It is considered to be a descendant of Lens nigricans which was cultivated in Egypt in about 2400 - 2200 B.C.


  • Garden Pea (Pisum sativum)

It was cultivated on Crete from 3000 B.C. It comes from the wild variety Pisum elatius which was met with in Kefala on Kea from 4000 - 2700 B.C. From this species have probably come all the cultivated varieties of peas.


  • Broad Bean (Vicia Faba)

It was cultivated on Crete and in Egypt from 2800 B.C. Netolitzky has identified seeds from Knossos which belonged to the varieties Vicia faba var. minor and Vicia faba celtica


  • Chickling Vetch (Lathyrus sativus)

It was cultivated on Crete and Thera and in Egypt from 3000 B.C. Lathyrus Cicera is perhaps its ancestor.



The excavations in the palace of Knossos, of Zakro, of the royal quarters of Mycenae and of the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, revealed that even from prehistoric times there were laboratories for manufacturing perfumes and cosmetics. Seeds that have been found there belong to the following plants, which are native to the islands of the Aegean Sea and were used for the above purposes: 


Δίκταμνος   -   Amaracus dictamnus

'Ảψινθος   -   Artemisia absinthium

Έλελίφασκος   -   Salvia triloba

Μάραθον   -   Phoeniculum vulgare

Κορίανδρον   -   Coriandum sativum

Κύμινον   -   Cuminum Cyminum

Σέλινον   -   Apium graveolens



Remnants of trunks from trees, carbonized woods, building timber etc. which have been found in the palaces of Knossos, Festos, Zakros and elsewhere, demonstrate the existence of the following trees during the neolithic age:


  • Olive-tree (Olea europaea)

It was cultivated all over Crete as well as in other islands of the Aegean sea together with the Vine (Vitis vinifera). As well as the olive tree there is also the wild olive tree or Oleaster (Olea europaea var. sylvestris) which is called κότινος. In the forests of Crete, which were much thicker during the prehistoric period, indigenous trees have been found.


  • Pine (Pinus brutia), Cypress (Cypressus sempervirens)

Cypress wood was used in the pillars of the Minoan Palace in Knossos, in the doors of the houses, etc. In hipbuilding wood of cypress and pine was used. Traces of shafts from the double axes show that they were made of Juniper and Pine wood and not of Cedar as had been thought before.

Common forest trees were also the Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa), Oak (uercus aegilops var. cretica), Holly Oak (Quercus ilex), Juniper (Juniperus Oxycedrus and Juniperus macrocarpa), and Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua).

Netolitzky (1934) examined the remnants of carbonized woods in the palace of Knossos and expressed his opinion without vouching for its accuracy that they were pieces of Spruce (Picea orientalis), Fir (Abies cephalonica), Holly Oak (Quercus Ilex), Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), and the common Juniper (Juniperus communis). But from the anatomical structure of the above mentioned trees, as described by him, taking into account their contemporary geographical distribution, it is more likely that the trees: Pine, Holly Oak, Juniperus macrocarpa and Cypress, existed in Crete rather than Spruce, Fir and Cedar.

At that time the forests on the islands and particularly on Crete were much thicker and more widespread than in the historic period. Pastures in the islands supported a greater population of oxen, goats and sheep, of which a large number wandered. This means that in summer they grazed in the mountains and in winter they grazed on the plains. For centuries the ox grazed freely on the plains, while goats and sheep were in a majority in the mountains.


Men were often occupied with cattle-raising and this was considered to be respectable work during the Mycenaean period in the Homeric age. Generally there was more cattle-raising than cultivation at that time. Until the Homeric age the inhabitants of the Aegean region were divided into cattle breeders and cultivators, both contributing in their own way to a free economy.



The first relations of man with plants, mainly during the beginning of his agricultural civilization, had a purely practical meaning. Later some plants were devoted to the worship of divinities. Magic trees and plants were dedicated to divinities among all prehistoric peoples of the Orient and were closely connected with their religion.


The first men, even from the early Mycenean period, before they built statues and churches to their gods, took refuge in the thick ancient forests at the tops of the mountains or in caves in order to pray to their gods. Later they created the groves in suitable places where the existing trees of cypress, oak and plane-tree etc. were considered to be sacred and protected by divinities.


Minoan civilization begins about 2250 B.C. and it is the first time in the history of humanity that plants are displayed for their beauty. The period from 1700 - 1450 B.C. has been called naturalistic because the plants are painted with botanical details and therefore are able to be recognized without difficulty. This style, however, was repeated for a long time, and as the years passed it became schematic and gave only an indication of the initial shape of the painted plant.


Moebius (1933) describes from the botanical point of view, and in detail, about twenty kinds of plants found in Minoan art which are repeated in painting and pottery painting.


These plants are the following:

Lilium Candidum, Pancratium maritumum, Crocus Cartwrightianus, Iris germanica, Rosa canina, Papyrus or Cyperus papyrus, Hedera helix, Phoenix dactylifera, Olea Europaea, Punica granatum, Ficus carica, Myrtus communis, Capparis rupestris, Amaracus dictamnus, Nymphaea alba, Viola odorata, Lonicera etrusca, Phlomis fruticasa, Urtica pilulifera, Gladiolus segetum.


Some of the above plants were particularly preferred in the First Minoan age because of their beauty, religious meaning and dedication to divinities. Such a plant was the Lily (Lilium Candidum) which today is known as the Madonna Lily, and it was probably an indigenous plant in the forests of Crete. During the whole Minoan age Lilium Candidum was a well-loved theme for representation in wallpaintings on vases, etc. on Crete, Thera and other islands of the Aegean sea.

Finally it is represented simplified and restricted to two leaves which are twined symmetrically and have three stamens coming over the flower. Perhaps this was the emblem of the country. The Prince of Knossos wears Lilium candidum on his crown and necklace.

Another plant used more frequently in art is the Crocus (Crocus Carwrightianus); it is a very common plant on all islands of the Aegean sea, it grows on low hills, and blooms from October till December. It is a common flower depicted on pottery, as is Lilium Candidum. Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) has also many standard shapes particularly in frescoes.

Ivy (Hedera Helix) with stylised leaves is found in different shapes on pottery.

The Date-Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is also found on Minoan and Mycenaean pottery in different stylised shapes.

There are date-palms of a somewhat tropical character, in some parts of frescoes in Crete and Thera. Perhaps during the prehistoric age they were widely spread in Crete even if papyrus had not been brought there from the neighbouring countries, e.g. Egypt. The symbolic representation of both plants might possibly have been done by foreign artists from memory.



As is well known Homer is regarded as the first writer of Greece in ancient times.

About sixty species of plants of that period which grew in the islands of the Aegean were mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey. Many of their names have been retained and they existed before the Minoan age. They are the following:


'Άγρωστις   -   Cycodon dactylon

Αίγειρος   -   Populus nigra

'Άκανθα   -   Cardopathium corymbosum

'Άκυλος   -   Quercusilex

'Άμπελος   -   Vitis vinifera

''Άρκευθος   -   Juniperus oxycedrus

Άσφόδελος   -   Asphodelus microcarpus

Βάτος   -   Rubus fruticosus

Δάφνη   -   Laurus nobilis

Δόναξ   -   Arundo donax

Δρύς   -   Quercus aegilops

Έλαίτη   -   Olea europaea

Έλάτη   -   Abies cephalonica

Έρέβινθος   -   Cicer arietinus

Ίτέη   -  Salix alba

Κλήθρη   -   Alnus glutinosa

Κρανείτη   -   Comus mas

Κρόκος   -   Crocus sativus

Κρόμυον   -   Allium cepa

Κύαμος   -   Vicia faba

Κυπάρισσος   -   Cypressus sempervirens

Κύπειρον   -   Cyperus rotundus

Λείριον  -   Lilium Candidum

Λίνον   -   Linum usitatissimum

Λύγος   -   Vitex agnus castus

Λωτός   -   Nymphaea Alba

Μελίη   -   Fraxinus exelsior

Μήκων   -   Papaver Rhoeas

Μυρίκη   -   Tamarix parviflora

Νηπενθές   -   Papaver somniferum

Πλατάνιστος   -   Platanus orientalis

Πτελέη   -   Ulmus campestris

Πύξος   -   Buxus sempervirens

Σέλινον   -   Apium graveolens

Σπάρτον   -   Spartium junceum

Συκή   -   Ficus carica

Σχοίνος   -   Pistacia lentiscus

Ύάκινθος   -   Hyacinthus orientalis

Φηγός   -   Quercus aegilops

Φυλίη   -   Phillyrea media


PANCRATIUM MARITIMUM L. (Sea-daffodil, Pangratium Lily)


From the botanical point of view Pancratlum maritimum belongs to the family of Amaryllidaceae. It is a pleasing, bulbous plant with its short compressed narrow greyish grass-like leaves, and bulbs which penetrate deeply into the sandy ground.

The flowers are short-stalked, white, sweet-smelling, in groups of 3 - 8, which are enclosed by yellow or brownish-white bracts at the base. The corolla is tubular, with a long tube, which is divided into 6 narrow parts at the apex, among which 6 stamens are placed; the stamens have white filaments and yellow anthers, which are placed perpendicular to the slender filament. The ovary is inferior (Fig. 1).




The Pancratium Lily is met with on all sandy coasts of the Mediterranean sea in places where plant communities like to grow in the sandy ground and where the winds favour the formation of dunes (Figs. 2, 3). These ecological conditions are not different from those of the prehistoric age. As is known, it is rare to meet dead calm in the Aegean region, while in some periods of the year prevailing winds are met with known as "Etesian winds". Etesian winds are northern, rather stong winds, which prevail in the Eastern Mediterranean during the summer months. They begin as a light breeze in May, and become more intense in June, the strongest winds prevailing in the middle of July; then they become weaker till the end of September when they cease altogether.


The appearance of the Pancratium, Lily in the Mediterranean region is of great interest. It begins blossoming in the middle of July, under the influence of the sea waves. At the end of August it reaches the height of the flowering period, when many of the sandy coasts of the Mediterranean are covered by the beautiful, white, sweet-smelling flowers of the plant, which are very short-lived. In the middle of September the flowering period ends. It should be mentioned that the strong perfume of the flower, particularly in the second fortnight of August, keeps sheep away from the coasts.


The first plant which was met with by the masters of the seas on the Minoan ships visiting the islands of the Aegean sea during the favourable months for sailing, was the full-blossomed Pancratium maritimum.


The spreading of the Pancratium Lily in Greece during the modem age, and particularly in the islands of the Aegean sea, has been subject for study for all those who have been occupied with the plants of Mediterranean region. Hegi (1931), describing the foreign plants of the Amaryllidaceae family mentions that this plant is the most interesting one in the Mediterranean ("Gehört zu den interessantesten Pflanzen der Mittelmeerflora 1931, II, 319). Some investigators give details about the ecology of the plant and others simply mention the localities where it is found.


Among modern investigators Halacsy (1904) states that Pancratium maritimum was observed on sandy coasts in Thessalia near Litochoro; in Attica, Faleron, Laurion, Sounion; the island of Aegina; in the Argolid, near Astros; in Laconia, near Elos; in the Cyclades, Melo, Naxo, Renea, Thera; In Crete, near Platania Chania, Rethymno; in Cephalonia, near Steno Lixourio. Rikli (1946) mentions that Pancratium is a plant of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is met with in the Ionian islands, Eastern Greece, Southern West Thraki, S. Cyprus and E. Marmare. It is also met on the coasts of N. Egypt, Palestina and S. Syria - Boissier (1867 - 1888) mentions that it is met in the sandy coasts of Greece and its islands, Macedonia, Pontus Black-Sea, Cyprus, and Egypt near Alexandria. Rechinoer (1943 - 1951), who has particularly written on the flora of the islands of the Aegean sea, states that the Pancratium Lily is met in Aegina, Euboea, Scyros, Athos, Lemnos, Kallipoli, Kythera, Troya, Mytilene, Kos, Kreta (Chania, Platanias, Rethymno, Heraklion), Syra, Renea, Naxos, Melos, and Thera.

Older investigators of the Greek flora also mention the spreading of Pancratium maritimum; they are Sibthorp (1806 - 1840), Chaubard et Bory (1838), Margot et Reuter (1838), Fraas (1845), Heldreich (1869, 1878, 1883, 1896), Orphanidis (1866) and Haussknecht (1893). But we must take into account that the contemporary spreading of the Pancratium Lily is much diminished everywhere in Greece; in many places it has disappeared because of the constant destruction of the natural environment of the coasts by man in the last years.


The first representation of the Pancratium Lily is mentioned by Evans, who discovered it during the excavations he made in the palace of Knossos (1896). Later it is mentioned by Marinatos (1967 - 1972) during the excavations on Thera (Fig. 4). There is a painting of this plant in the right lower corner of the well-known wall painting with the blue-bird in the palace of Knossos which is considered as the first and only presentation extant of the Pancratium Lily in the World.

Later it was found on Crete with the double-axe and the sacred horns; for this reason Marinatos believed in the religious meaning of the plant. It is also met with on amphoras in the Palace Style (1425 B.C.) and is often confused with papyraceous plants or with the Madonna Lily; I believe that all representations of flowers with an inferior ovary, many stamens and curved petals as in the Egyptian symbol "waz" are related to Pancratium maritimum, although much simplified. During the excavations on Thera which is situated opposite Knossos on Crete, wallpaintings with marvellous paintings of the Pancratium Lily were discovered. In the "Room of the Ladies", as Marinatos called it; the whole west wall, as well as a part of the southern wall was covered with immense clusters of flowers, three in each group. Although at first it was considered to be another plant, Ornithogalum nutans (Drooping Star of Bethlehem) if was very soon determined that the painting represented the Pancratium Lily.


Another painting of the Lily was found in the West Room in the excavations of Thera made by Marinatos. There it is the so-called "Banner" which later was considered (Marinatos VI, 16) to be the cabin of the stern of the war-ships. This design on this cabin is depicted eight times in the "bedroom" of the excavated "west house" representating on the upper part the symbol of Pancratium maritimum and the "waz" (Fig. 5, 6).


This discovery is of great significance because in the uncovered miniature on Thera where the Aegean fleet is represented all ships have as a "banner" the same symbol of Pancratium maritimum (Marinatos VI, 35; 57, 112).

Many problems are presented to archaeologists by this wallpainting. Marinatos refers to the Libyan wallpainting.

We might be permitted to believe that these ships are the Minoan fleet of Crete, the mistress of the seas, with, perhaps crews of Lybian mercenaries.

Pancratium maritimum was a most important plant indeed in the islands of the Aegean sea and the symbol of the powerful country of Minos. Furthermore, it proves the uniqueness of the Aegean sea and its unchanged ecological conditions from the mesolithic age until today.


  For figures please refer to book.
  Figures mentioned in this paper: 
Fig. 1:  Pancratium Lily (After: Sibthorp).
Fig. 2:  Pancratium Lily. 
Fig. 3:  Pancratium Lily on sand.
Fig. 4:  Pancratium Lily, "Room of the Ladies". 
Fig. 5:  The ship with the steering cabin. Thera, "West Room". 
Fig. 6: The sheep with the steering cabin. Thera "West Room". 


Source: "Thera and the Aegean World II" 
  Papers and Proceedings of the Second International Scientific Congress, Santorini, Greece, August 1978. 
Pages: pp. 129 - 140
Written by:  C. Diapoulis 
  Institute of Systematic Botany, University of Athens, Athens, Greece.
  Book information: 
  ©Thera and the Aegean World
ISBN: 0 9506133 2 0
Published by:  Thera and the Aegean World, 105-109 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3UQ  
Editor:  C. Doumas
To order the book from


Created by pmnae
Last modified 2006-03-15 19:49
Upcoming Events

7th Conference 'Spring Pediatric Days''
Petros M. Nomikos Conference Centre,


7th International Workshop on Statistical Seismology
Petros M. Nomikos Conference Centre,


Wedding Ceremony
Petros M. Nomikos Conference Centre,


33rd International Music Festival of Santorini
Petros M. Nomikos Conference Centre,