Whoever visits the Cres-Losinj archipelago is enchanted by the great contrast between the lush forests and bare, rocky pastures.
Before man significantly changed the outward appearance of the vegetation, these islands were completely covered by forests of oak. The region south of the 45th parallel (the line Merag-St. Blaz) was dominated by evergreen forests with holly oak or holm oak and in the region further north of this line the hairy oak (Quercus lanuginosa, Quercus pubescens) used to prevail.
After a thousand years of human influence, the forests were only partially preserved. Their place was taken over by huge areas of eroded, rocky land used for sheep grazing and pastureland. It is on this barren and rocky land that a plant life with approximately 300 species developed. The formation of this plant life of the islands was not produced by man alone, but by other important factors as well.
First of all, the influence of present meteorological conditions with its characteristic temperature pattern and precipitation and the fact that this area is greatly influenced by the bora.
The second important factor is the lithological base (soil content). Mainly two types of bases are encountered on the islands of the Kvarner. Cliffs and peaks are mostly made of hard, compact lime and dolomite, while the base layer of karst fields consists of a reddish colored soil.
Because of its geographical position, space, relief and geopolitical and social circumstances, through its history the Kvarner region has formed into an interesting and unique area: the Liburnian sector of the Adriatic province of the Mediterranean.
Krk, Cres and Losinj are the richest of all the islands of the Adriatic by the number of registered plant species.
If the size of each island is taken into consideration, the Unije with its 629 plant species on an area of only 16 sq km has the greatest concentration of various plants. Losinj follows with 1300 species on an area of 75 sq. km, and then come Cres and Krk with 1300 species on an area of 405,78 sq.km. Rab, as one of the neighboring islands has only 782 species and the island of Pag 650 plant species. All told there are about 1500 plant species on the Cres-Losinj group of islands which is, in comparison to Great Britain which has 1180, a true wealth.
A larger number of plant species that are rarities grow on these islands. These are so-called endemic plants and relicts. Endemic are those plant or animal species prevalent in a particular locality or region and nowhere else in the world. Relicts are plant species of an earlier time in the history of the Earth, and in light of current climatic conditions and environment one would never expect to find them here.
The two basic zones of vegetation are the sub-Mediterranean (deciduous) zone and euro-Mediterranean (evergreen) zone. From the climatic point of view, the sub-Mediterranean zone is characterized by average lower temperatures during the winter months and generally a somewhat greater amount of average annual precipitation. The results are a shorter period of summer draught, on one side, and a winter stagnation period of vegetation on the other side.
Sub-Mediterranean vegetation of the lower vegetation belt (up to 250-300 m above sea level) is distinguished by a natural thermophilic deciduous forest of hairy oak (Quercus pubescens) and hornbeam (Caprinus orientalis), while the higher vegetation belt (above 250-300m above sea level) the forests are of hairy oak and hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia). This belt is often called the Mediterranean mountain belt.
The sub-Mediterranean zone includes the northern part of Cres and the Euro-Mediterranean zone widely continues in the area from St. Blaz (the west side) to Vodice and Merag (the east side) and includes the southern part of Cres, Losinj, Unije, Susak, Vele and Male Srakane and the rest of the islands of the Cres-Losinj group of islands.
The vegetation of the Euro-Mediterranean zone is made up of evergreen coniferous or holly oak (Quercus ilex) forests, which have by now been partially destroyed and exchanged by various other types of vegetation such as maquis, geriggue and rocky land pasturage. This has expanded the diversity of the vegetation and the richness of the flora of this area. In a physiognomic and exological sense, the borderline between these two zones, the evergreen and deciduous, is one of the most overwhelming vegetative phenomena in Europe, comparable somewhat to that of the vegetative borderline between the deciduous and coniferous in higher mountains.
Around the settlement of Merag, in the area which passes from the deciduous to the evergreen vegetation zone there are plants that are glacial relicts: wild gigner (Asarum europaeum), snowdrop (Galantus nivalis), holly (Ilex aquifolium), sanicle (Sanicula europaea), the violet (Viola reinchebachiana) and many others. The lauerel forest (Laurus nobilis), located in the Merag hollow (a little to the north of the settlement of Merag) is another unique phenomenon.
The autochthonic (indigenous) edible chestnut (Castanea sativa) which grows wild and only in the deep (washed out) soil of the eastern and northeastern sides of Cres (Tramuntana) is also a rare natural worth.
Approximately 50% of Cres territory is covered with dry grassy fields and rocky areas. These are eroded areas of the Euro-Mediterranean evergreen belt and of the deciduous sub-Mediterranean belt from which (because of the influence of man and other factors) forest and underbrush vegetation has been completely wiped out. They have the appereance of barren wastelands, overgrown with a specific pasturage vegetation consisting mainly of herbaceous plants and low semibush.
Most of the degraded areas have been occupied by two communities of endemic plants. These are Festuco-Koelerietum splendentis and Stipo-Salvietum oficinalis. The first community, Festuco-Koelerietum, is one of the more common plant communities of this archipelago linked to areas which are relatively less degraded. It occupies most of the areas on the eastern part of the island of Cres, between Orlec and Belej, an area within the ornithological reserve.
The second endemic community that also occupies larger areas of this region, the Stipo-Salvietum, is classified among the relatively rare pasturage communities of Adriatic coast that bring together a large number of endemic plants, and is of outstanding significance for natural sciences. This community is related mostly to very degraded areas with shallow soil exposed to gusts of wind. The largest areas are also found on Cres: the northern part of Cres-Krizic, the surroundings of Osor-Prepoved, south-east of Belej-Konfinski locality, St. Vid. The endemic plant families found only on the Kvarner deserve special attention. Species such as the Istrian campanula (Campanula istriaca) and the Dalmatian centaurea (Centaureetum dalmatica) make their home in the cracks of limestone rocks and on the steep cliffs in which griffon vultures nest. This genus is relatively scant in species due to specific and very extreme exological conditions (exposure to salt, sun and strong winds).
The endemic genus of littoral corydalis (Corydalis acaulis) is most frequently found on the outer edges of the Adriatic islands, and is an exceptionally rare species of Croatian flora, appearing in small numbers and in isolated populations. On the Cres-Losinj archipelago, the only place it has been found is in the cracks of Osor's old walls.