The Letea Forest - The Original

After a bewildering trip by boat on the old branch of the Danube, to the left of the village Mila 23, at the end of the channel Madgearu you run into a strip of dry land, a stable island in an infinite kingdom of reed. It is the Letea grind (sand bank) that welcomes you with a Cervantes-like landscape: windmills with still, broken propellers, vestiges of a once flourishing milling business. Within walking distance you enter one of the most picturesque villages of the Delta, C. A Rosetti. You would think you are in one of the villages of the Danube plain, if, from time to time, you didn't run into patches of sand gathered up at the margin of the lanes lined with a strange vegetation. A knowledgeable eye is able to spot rare species which are not to be found anywhere else in the country. Among these, a type of nightshade (Solanum retroflexum), known only in South Africa. It is a ramified weed, with small, ragged leaves, with two or three white and yellow flowers and green bacciform fruits, resembling those of the tomatoes, to which it is related. Next to it, one can see the small bushes of a species of wild vanilla (Heliotropium currasavicum), originating from America, with slender, meaty leaves and stems lying to the ground, with small white flowers and a yellow or bluish middle, which sprouts into a round fruit, divided in four little ragged nuts. In less than half an hour of a trip by carriage though meadows with tall vegetation you reach one of the strangest and most original forests in Romania and even in the world. The Letea forest has a particular type of vegetation. It was formed in successive stages on the first strip of sand dunes, which separated the old shore of the Danube from the sea. The depressions between the dunes are covered in woody vegetation, which makes the forest look like a series of 10 to 250 meter wide strips, orientated to the north-south, known under the Turkish name of hasmac. In the background of the valleys that have been heavily flooded, among reeds (Phragmites Communis), cattails (Typha latifolia) and flowering rush (Butomus umbreallatus), there are willows, poplars, the so-called fluffy ash (Fraxinus pallisae), which in the less humid background is the only tree to be seen. The margins of the valleys and the dunes with smaller heights were covered in various species of ash, elm, and more seldom, the lime tree and the black alder tree. The hollow spaces between the trees are filled by a subspecies of bushes which cannot be penetrated, made of a great variety of shrubs: harvest mite, barberry, briar, privet, Evonymus europea, Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), dogwood, alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), sheepberry, seldom the walnut tree. A luxurious vegetation of creeping plants grows around the trunks and the tallest branches of the secular trees: wild vine, silk vine (Periploca graeca), hop, traveler's joy or old man's beard (Clematis vitalba); they all make the forest resemble a rain forest. The academician Nicolae Botnariuc put forth a hypothesis on the birth of this out-of the ordinary kind of forest: "It is not sure, but the Danube, the sea, and the birds may have been those that planted the forest. The sea current may have brought a part of the seed from Ukraine. The Danube may have collected another part from Europe, while birds may have brought other seeds, even seeds of oriental lianas, in their stomachs, on their feathers and beaks. Here on the grinduri with sandy soil, with much moisture and heat, all these plants found a nourishing place for them to grow in, which they couldn't have found in the heavy, alluvial, often flooded soil of the shore grinduri. Both in the grinduri of Letea (most typically) and of Caraorman (which is smaller and less expressive), dozens and hundreds of species of animals live in the thickets of the luxurious vegetation: insects, grasshoppers (many praying mantes), frogs, numerous snakes (most of them non-venomous except for the viper). The ornithofauna is dominated by warblers, flycatchers, rollers, blue tits, stock doves, which are all hunted, just like the small rodents, by many birds of prey: the rough-legged buzzard, falcon, red-footed falcon, hobby, merlin, kite, white-tailed eagle or spotted eagle. Since the Letea forest is Europe's most northern outpost of the Mediterranean-Balkan flora and fauna, its invertebrates represent a focus of exceptional scientific interest. Several groups of insects occasioned interesting entomologic discoveries. Thus, an endemic species of butterflies, called Chamaspecia Deltaica can be found here, as well as other rare species: Bijugis helvetica retiferella, which also exists in the valleys of the Alps and Carinthia, Limnaecia lonchoptera, which exists only in the marsh regions of southern France and Hungary, Zygaena laeta orientis, characteristic of the European South-Eastern region, Agdiotis satanas, known in Morocco, the south of France and Italy, Pseudo-bissetia terrestrella and Thopentis galeriella, known only in Tunisia, Algeria and the Near East, the last one reaching as far as India; Catoptria fulgidella, which reaches the limit of its spreading to the south-east in the Delta; Euclasta spendidalis which develops on the Periploca graeca liana, Arytrura musculus, originating from the region of Amur, Korea and Japan, all characterized by largely discontinuous specific spreading areas. They reappear in the Letea forest, especially in the small "hasmacuri" of Periprava, studied for twelve years by the well-known specialist in Lepidoptera, A. Popescu-Gorj, together with his team from the Grigore Antipa Museum. The most lively region is Hasmacul Mare. Numerous plants grow over relatively small areas. Trees up to one meter wide and up to 40 meters high are adorned with luxurious, heavy lianas. One feels overwhelmed by the thickness of the vegetation, by the dark surroundings, by the incessant buzz of the mosquitoes and other stinging insects that keep harassing one. One can hardly believe one is in a forest of the temperate climate, born out of the sand that has been so painfully taken away from the sea! Out of the 300 species identified in this forest, two are of special importance. Firstly, I will remind Fraxinus pallisae. It was discovered here for the first time and then it was labeled as a new species by the English botanist Wilmott in 1913. The impression that Letea is a tropical forest is given in particular by Periploca graeca, the northernmost Mediterranean chord in Europe in this subtropical refuge. It has the shape of a thin, 20 to 25 m long tendril, with dark-red bark, simple, glossy leaves, and a round corolla. It is often cultivated in parks to form shadowy thickets.

by Tudor Opriş