Go wild – go native

There was a common theme at our recent Mediterranean Garden Fair which I felt could bear a little more exploration, and it struck home as I ...

There was a common theme at our recent Mediterranean Garden Fair which I felt could bear a little more exploration, and it struck home as I listened to the questions coming from the audiences at the talks that gardeners here still have some reservations about using and planting the native plants of the Algarve.

Admittedly, it is difficult to appreciate what a ‘native’ is when you may have just taken possession from your builder of a beautifully built and finished house or villa – which is surrounded by a scalped and flattened landscape with every trace of the local ‘weeds’ removed.  I must admit here that our builder surely thought I was verging on the lunatic when I insisted on moving all the bulbs of the autumn sea squill (Drimia maritima) which were growing on the area where our extension was to go. Now, however, they are safely lodged in another part of what we laughingly call ‘the garden’ and flowering fit to bust at the end of each summer.  These are only one of the superbly adapted plants which grow and flourish in the harsh conditions of the Algarve landscape. Bulbs, above all, are the classic Mediterranean plant – dormant in the long hot summers and in active growth during the cooler more humid days of autumn, winter and spring.  On short midwinter days it is possible to see the native Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus ) flowering among the evergreen shrubs on the hillsides, bunches of small highly perfumed flowers on each stem.  Later in the year there is also the wonderful deep blue Scilla peruviana  - a bulb nursery in France has a pure white version.  Well worth seeking out a supplier of these bulbs for your own Algarve patch.
Group of Scilla peruviana growing in the wild

As well as the bulbs there are the many varieties of the rock rose family, Cistus, which grow here. In our own patch of the chalky Barrocal in the eastern Algarve we are lucky enough to have at least four main varieties of these shrubs and their flowering period extends from early March through to May or June.  There are seven distinct species listed as growing here. One of my favourites is the cerise pink flowers of Cistus albidus, a lovely contrast with the soft grey leaves and this one is slightly taller than some of the other cistus and can be gently pruned to provide a more pleasing shape.  If you have seedlings of this, or any other native shrubs, which pop up in your garden then it is possible to move them around if you get them when they are still very small.  Maybe only  at about 2 inches or 5cm high. The trick is to do it when the ground is wet and before they have had the chance to start putting their long water seeking tap roots down.

Mature cistus, and many other shrubs and trees, use a wonderful trick to see them through drought periods, they have two root systems.  There is a more shallow fibrous root system which spreads out around the base of the trunk and then there are longer wiry water seeking roots.  This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to grow these plants in containers or pots for sale.  If you see small evergreen shrubs offered for sale which look vaguely familiar from your walks in the countryside, grab them and put them in your own garden. You will have a good chance of establishing these much quicker than the more seductive and colourful exotics which are also available.  We have found that regular summer watering is only required for the first year or two and many of our shrubs have now been totally removed from the watering system.  Rosemary and  lavenders , and some of their many colour variants, have been particularly successful  for us.

Paperwhite narcissus bringing perfume to the winter garden

There are also some spectacular native grasses which are sometimes offered for sale and the specialist grass nursery who came along to the plant sale was sold out very quickly on the day.  The Stipa family does very well with little or no watering and has not proved to be at all invasive with us. Stipa gigantea, S. tenacissima, S. capensis and S. bromoides  are listed as native to the Algarve. The first three of these have all been successful additions to our dry garden and look good throughout the year.  The Pennisetum  family has some useful drought tolerant members and P. villosum is listed as growing  in the Algarve.  The grasses seem to provide a useful link between garden areas and the surrounding landscape without the harsh lines and contrasts of more exotic plantings.
A wild Algarve garden of lavender and genista on the west coast in May

Another spectacular spring flowering shrub is the Algarve endemic, Genista hirsuta algarbiensis . If you have the chance to visit the protected area of Rocha de Pena in the late spring you will see clouds of it’s bright butter yellow flowers, do not get too close though as it is extremely prickly.

The Starting from Scratch talk by Burford Hurry is one of the articles on this blog.
We are lucky to have this palette of native plants available to us, seek out the nurseries that are growing them and add them to your garden, after all 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, what better way to celebrate than by making an Algarve native plants area of your very own.

Rosie Peddle
6th January 2010


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