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‘Lalades,’ the Local Tulips That Signal Spring on Greece's Chios Island

Tulip at Chios Island, Northern Aegean. Photo by author

When you hear the word tulip, you might think of the Netherlands, maybe even the 17th-century tulip mania. But did you know that the golden era of the Ottoman Empire is called the “Tulip Period” (Lale Devri)? That's just one small testament of how the flowers are found elsewhere in the world.

On the small Greek island of Chios in the Northern Aegean sea, tulips are called “lalades,” and at the beginning of March they flood the fields and olive groves with blossoms that only last for 7-10 days. Famous for its equally renowned mastic trees and, more recently, known for accepting a big influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East via Turkey, Chios has long marked spring by the blooming of tulips. The flowers are a traditional cultivation that provides a livelihood to villagers.

Tulips originated in Central Asia and spread through the Mediterranean territories to central and eastern Europe. The local Chios term for tulip, lalades, speaks to the flower's history: lale is the Persian name for tulip, which through Turkish eventually entered the Chian dialect.

Fourteen tulip species are cultivated in Greece, four of them especially in the central and southeastern parts of Chios Island (Tulipa praecox, Tulipa agenensis, Tulipa clusiana, Tulipa undulatifolia).

Lalades at Kallimassia village, Chios Island. You can see also olive trees and mastic trees in the background. Photo by author Artemis Touli

Tulipa praecox is locally called Turkish lale. It has a vivid red color and can reach up to 70 centimeters in height, and is usually found around cultivated fields and olive groves.

Tulipa agenensis, locally called Frankish lale, can reach up to 50 centimeters and has red flowers with black dots and yellow stripes inside.

Tulipa undulatifolia is also a rare and endangered species, up to 30 centimeters in height, with orange red blossoms and wavy leaves. It can be found in cultivated areas as well, usually near pistacia fields.

Finally, Tulipa clusiana, locally known as Constantinople or Babylonian lale, grows up to 60 centimeters and has white blossoms marked with intense exterior scarlet stripes. This species is rare and originates from Persia.

Lalades are a precious natural treasure for Chios Island, but the flowers do face some pressures. If care is not taken, the traditional massive collection and the digging up of their bulbs every year could wear out the soil. Furthermore, the abandonment of traditional cultivation practices and the adoption of modern methods of plowing can destroy bulbs.

For a soothing glimpse of Chios Island's flowers, take a look at the video below, filmed by Panos Mavrakis and uploaded to his YouTube channel, showing an endless red carpet of tulips in Chios:

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