All my life I have lived near water. I grew up less than 10 minutes’ walk from the bank of the River Thames in England. For five years, I lived on the west coast of Wales. Then, in my mid-twenties, I lived back in England, two minutes’ walk from a lake. Now, I live in Athens … but not in Athens, on the edge of Athens – and that makes all the difference.
From my house I can see Mount Parnitha, Mount Penteli, Lykavitos, the Acropolis and Filopappos Hill. I cannot see the sea from where I live, but I know it is there – to the east, to the west and to the south of us and, if we drive around Mount Parnitha, to the north as well.
I love where I live. It is perfect for me. A neighbourhood like a village, plenty of open space and sky, the ancient and modern city visible, but distant – thousands of tiny toy buildings, but no city noise. And ‘the forest’ a five-minute walk from my front door. This is actually one of the biggest ecological parks in Europe, which my children have affectionately nicknamed ‘the forest’. (Probably due to my tendency to stay in the wooded areas where other people don’t go … I just don’t like people in my nature, k?) But this park is a blessing and an education for me. Every time I go (and I go often), I see something new. ‘The forest’ has shown me countless plants I only knew from jars and packets (the excitement of finding real pistachios growing, and capers, and chasteberry!) It has also introduced me to the wildflowers of this part of the world, and showcased in heart-wrenching, graphic detail the power of fire and flood, and the destruction that we bring when people walk into and over a place without knowledge or respect.
With that said, let me take you on an autumn walk around my neighbourhood, and let’s see what we can see!
What I love about early autumn in Attica is that a lot of plants have both flower and fruit on them. And that’s very useful for an amateur botanist like me! Here are a couple of roadside attractions: silverleaf nightshade and squirting cucumber. They grow on untended ground (and are pretty prolific!) Both plants are poisonous (and squirting cucumbers are liable to explode – it’s how they spread their seeds) so don’t get too close!
Nothing says autumn quite like berries, right? I’ve seen blackberries growing in the hedgerows here, and there’s a mulberry tree in the park, but other edible berries are in short supply. Which is a shame because I love them and they are so good for you. I might have a bash at growing some of my own eventually, but for now I enjoy the eye-candy of the ‘ornamental’ varieties. Here we have viburnum and gorgeous fiery pyracantha, which some people call firethorn.
I can’t mention wildflowers in an autumn post without mentioning autumn squill. This teeny-tiny, beautiful flower is everywhere underfoot in ‘the forest’. There’s a lot of false yellowhead around, too, on ‘waste’ ground, both with flowers and the post-flower seed heads.
Let’s not forget the trees either. There are the gorgeous autumn leaves – russet, orange, yellow, green and brown – but I like looking at the seed pods too. It reminds me that everything works in cycles – autumn isn’t just a season of endings, but beginnings too.
Autumn fruit in Greece is so exciting for me too! Oranges and pomegrantes are two things you don’t see growing in Britain.
The great thing about living on the edge of a city is that the wild creeps in. There’s a place in my neighbourhood near the stream where they park lorries overnight, and next to their admin shed, this olive tree is just thriving.
Likewise, no one can keep the nighflower down. ‘Nightflower’ is what I call it personally – a direct translation of the Greek common name ‘nichtolouloudo’. However, it is more widely known (as in, outside my house!) as the four o’clock flower. We have several self-seeded ones in the garden, plus a plant on our balcony which totally usurped the pot of a runner bean. These pavement rebels are my favourite, though. (I know it renders the pavement useless, but if you walk around my neighbourhood for five minutes, you’ll soon discover that pavements are not really a thing here. They’re either non-existent, or an invitation to twist your ankle, or they have olive, bitter orange or lemon trees growing out of them. … What can I say? We have character.)
One of my favourite ways to bring the outside in is the ‘autumn basket’. My kids love collecting stuff for it on our autumn walks.
Obviously, we use stuff we’re going to eat (the pumpkin, butternut squash and pomegranate) and we use things we find on the ground. I also reused my birthday bouquet last year (my daughter used the rest of it to make a fairy queen crown!) The only things I cut were the pyracantha berries. There are just so many HUGE bushes in ‘the forest’, I thought there was enough for us, the animals and the birds.
I love bringing a little bit of autumn into our home. It doesn’t have to be a financial outlay or a huge time investment. All it takes is an autumn walk (or several), and a basket. (Incidentally, this basket belonged to my husband’s grandmother’s grandmother – so it is ancient! I absolutely love it that I have something that has passed through the hands of so many female ancestors. I wonder if any of those Corfu village women could ever have imagined that, one day, their basket would pass to an English girl living in Athens.)