The vegetation in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea is remarkably varied. Compared to surrounding areas to the north and south, the Mediterranean has an unusually high number of plant species. Greece, for example, which is less than half the size of Great Britain, has three times as many species of wildflowers. One reason for the enormous diversity is that the glaciers of the Ice Age destroyed many plant species in northern Europe but had little effect on the Mediterranean region.
Mediterranean vegetation can be categorized into three major “life zones” corresponding to different altitudes. The lowest of these zones—from sea level to about 2,000 to 3,500 feet—contains the most typical Mediterranean vegetation. This is a dense thicket of shrubs and brush called maquis, which flourishes on hillsides throughout the Mediterranean. Maquis grows to a height of about 23 feet. It consists mostly of evergreen trees (such as juniper, laurel, and myrtle) that are resistant to drought and able to survive the hot, dry Mediterranean summers. When maquis is repeatedly destroyed by fire or clearing, it is replaced by low shrubs that grow only about 20 inches high, barely covering the landscape. These shrubs, which include plant spices such as lavender, basil, garlic, and oregano, have rich scents that give the Mediterranean landscape a distinctive and pleasing smell.
The second life zone—which extends up to about 4,400 feet—contains forests of elm, oak, beech, chestnut, ash, and other deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in winter). The third life zone—rising to the treeline in the mountains, at between 7,000 and 9,000 feet—features pines, firs, cedars, and other evergreen trees. These evergreen forests are often interrupted by open meadows, in which shepherds pasture their flocks of animals in summer.
Bordering the Mediterranean region in North Africa, Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor are deserts that contain little vegetation because of sparse rainfall in these areas. In some places, water runs beneath the desert surface, stimulating the growth of low-growing plants with root systems that go deep into the earth. At oases, where water comes to the surface, many plants and even trees flourish. The tree most often associated with the oasis—the palm tree— was not native to the desert but was introduced during historic times.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had names for hundreds of plant species. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, for example, listed more than 600 plants in his works. The ancients also had many uses for plants. Some plant species provided fruits, berries, and nuts for food. Others were used as remedies and drugs in medications. Forest products were in very great demand. Wood was the main fuel for heating, cooking, and industry, and lumber was used to make ships, carts, furniture, tools, and other items. Forests often played a role in relations between city-states, and many ancient treaties involved the control of forests.
Despite their importance, the forests of the Mediterranean region were greatly depleted in ancient times through lumbering and animal grazing. The loss of forests caused serious damage to the environment, especially in southern Italy and Sicily. Hillsides eroded, and silt* clogged harbors and created swamps that became breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Natural springs also disappeared, and in some areas the loss of forests caused changes in climate.
Earlier peoples considered forests to be the original temples of the gods. The Greeks and Romans considered some groves of trees to be sacred and kept them in a natural state or permitted only careful cutting. With the coming of Christianity, however, protection was withdrawn from these sacred groves, and many were destroyed. (See also Forestry; Geography and Geology, Mediterranean; Ships and Shipbuilding.)
* silt fine particles of earth and sand carried by moving water