Acacia to Catalpa – Part one

MY TIMING was lousy. Doubly so. Not only was I the only person of the 5,000 watchers in a rather large bar who didn’t speak German, but I had also been caught accidentally celebrating Argentina going one up against the hosts of the World Cup. Not only that, but it was the same day as the last of my never to be forgotten series on palms, and I had just seen my missing Phoenix in the botanical garden at Soller, in the north of little Germany, er, Mallorca.

Away from steiners of sangria, a few large beer halls and rather too many people who looked like Ken and Barbie, the botanical garden in Mallorca was spectacular, and home to the very rare Phoenix theophrasti, the Cretan palm, and also the Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean wine palm. Important to me, as they would probably grow in the Algarve! So, finally, that puts my palms to bed and you will have to wait for the book to come out before you will hear any more about this passion of mine.

The genus Acacia is one of the largest genera of trees and shrubs in the world. It is only rivalled in size by Ficus (1,000), Eucyliptus (500) and Cassia (500). Acacias are commonly farmed throughout temperate, tropical and desert regions, and include numerous distinctive growth forms, with profusions of yellow or white flower clusters, from beautiful hardwoods to gum Arabic and thickening agents.

In the Algarve, they are represented by a group of six or seven, more commonly known as wattle or mimosa. A. dealbata, A. grandiflora, A. longlifolia, A. retinoides and A. saligna are all known for their showy yellow flowers and rapid growth when young. They are saline resistant and become fairly drought resistant. So, should you plant them in your garden? Short-lived, messy, often gangly and occasionally very invasive, my answer is no, but with one exception – Acacia baileyana. With feathery grey leaves that turn pink edged in the autumn, this is the best of the Acacias and is suitable for planting in the Algarve. It will grow up to about 10 metres. Again, it can be a bit short-lived, but this can be accepted in a tree that can grow to six metres in as little as three years. A good tip is to top the main shoot regularly, in order to grow the tree as a multi-stemmed larger shrub.

The Horse Chestnut, Aesculus California, is a striking tree that you will see occasionally in the Algarve. Hardy and deciduous, it will grow to a manageable six or seven metres, and has clusters of creamy or pink candelabra flowers in spring. Its bulky, dense foliage is excellent for south facing terraces, blocking the harsh summer sun but letting in the winter sunshine as the leaves drop.

Another tough roadside tree, seen commonly in the Algarve, is Albizia julibrissins, the silk tree, often confused with the mimosas. Wider than it is tall, it displays a mass of pink pin cushion type flowers in the summer. It can be a little invasive, as its seeds blow around and germinate easily. If possible, plant in the lower parts of your garden, in full sun, as the view of its canopy from above can be spectacular.

While not a flowering tree, the biggest tree in the Algarve must be mentioned. Araucaria heterophylla, or Norfolk Island Pine, will grow up to a heady 35 metres or so – look at the skyline around Bordeira, north of QM in Santa Bárbara de Nêxe, and there are some awesome specimens, standing like proud centurions guarding all they survey. If you want a nice trip away, stay at the Hotel Tivoli in Sintra and look at the Araucaria from the restaurant’s panoramic windows – it starts way down in a valley and still reaches the eighth floor. Until someone contradicts me, I will claim this is the tallest tree in Portugal.

One of the prettier trees I like to use while landscaping in tight places is Bauhinia variegata, the purple orchid tree. Tough, showy, flamboyant, frost resistant and heat tolerant, they produce a wonderful show of purple or white broad petals and large flowers – a little like Magnolia soulangeana. It is perfect next to fences or boundary walls, as its branches droop all around to produce a tight weeping canopy.

If you are a back seat gardener, with a penchant for outside entertaining, then sit still … I have another goodie for you. Vinho in hand when you are asked what the spectacular, almost cartoonesque tree is, and you casually reply “Ah, my Brachychiton populneus, of course!” A very different evergreen tree, it grows leaving a thick trunk at the base and tapers perfectly to nothing at the top, hence gaining the common name, bottle tree. Native of Australia, it is quite drought resistant and will take a little frost. It grows to about six metres and stays beautiful throughout its life, with no maintenance needed. Now, remember that, and then refill your guests’ glasses as they stare at you in admiration at your perfect grasp of botanical Latin.

Someone came to QM Garden Centre the other day, asking for a Yellow Jacoranda. After explaining that Jacoranda has a purple flower and no such thing existed, I was led gently by the arm up to my cisterna, where there is a small yellow flowering tree. Native of South America and with yellow flowers with a red stamen, Caesalpinia gilliesii, known also as the yellow bird of paradise (no relation to your Strelitzias, but I would stick to your Latin lessons!), grows well in the Algarve and is an interesting addition to any garden.

If you want a thumper of a tree to fill a big spot, then one of my favourites is Catalpa speciosa. The Indian bean tree is one of those few deciduous trees that can compete in flower and leaf with showier sub tropical species. If you look a little south of São Brás market, there are some fine examples dripping with seed pods, which look like French beans. It can grow to a massive 20 metres at about two metres a year. It can be hocked savagely to keep it neat and tight – a great tree for shade by a car park.

With the correct planting of a few trees in your garden, you can, after only three or four years, really start to change the climate in your garden and create ideal spots for under planting, change the mood of your outside sitting areas, create shady paths and seating areas. As I write this, it is nearly 40 degrees, and I am tucked under the wide canopy of QM’s floss silk tree; time for 40 winks I reckon.

All trees mentioned in this article are available at QM Garden Centre and readers are invited to visit. It is located on the road in between Santa Bárbara de Nêxe and Estoi. For visitors further away, leave the Algarve motorway at Junction 14 (signposted São Brás/Faro) and turn left immediately then; after 500m left again. The 18-hole crazy golf course and 18-hole putting green are now both fully open, as well as the existing lawn bowling club and table tennis centre. A family ticket for the Crazy Golf is a very reasonable 10 euros and, for the hot weather, there are plenty of ice creams and soft drinks available. QM is open from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday, and 10am to 6pm Saturday and Sunday. Telephone 289 999 613.  Clubs, groups and schools welcome.