The Algarve is associated with homes smothered in bougainvillea, orange lantana hedges and pink and white oleander lining roadsides. Making a garden here gives the opportunity to open the ‘paint box’ and soften new homes and gardens with these tough and colourful plants with their own interesting stories. They are available to us in many colour forms from local garden centres.
Try the ‘chilli hot’ red flowering forms which look so good against classic white walls and tumbling through evergreen native shrubs such as the lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus).
The choice is yours. Warm oranges, golden yellows and creamy double flowers – these three plant families offer a huge palette for you to choose your own summer colours.
Bougainvillea was first discovered by a French botanist, Philibert Commerson, in the late 1760s whilst plant hunting on the coast of Brazil and is named after the leader of the expedition, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. It was first botanically described in 1849 and brought to Europe in the late 1850s with the first cultivated plant in Europe recorded as flowering in 1860.
Bougainvillea is a riot of colour for nine or 10 months of the year. A classic Mediterranean plant, adorning garden and house walls with show-stopping colour effects. The colours available run through reds, orange, pink and white. The vibrant colour displays come from the leaf-like bracts which surround the very small white flowers. Some of the oldest varieties come from the Brazilian species B. glabra, which is also the most hardy.
The natural climbing habit uses stout spines in the leaf axils attaching themselves to host trees or structures. They reach nine or 10 metres high, so plant them where they can have plenty of room. Bougainvillea only flowers well on new growth, so pruning is essential at some point.
Here in the Algarve, hard pruning can be undertaken at the end of January or during February – any shaping or hard pruning needed should be done before growth starts in early spring. They will not tolerate wet roots in winter and although preferring rich loamy, well-drained soils, they are very tolerant and adapt to many soil types. Light feeding and some water through the summer will help, but established plants should need no regular watering. The bougainvilleas are salt-tolerant but do need full sun for best displays. Watering during the first couple of summer seasons aids establishment, but they tolerate short periods of drought. Propagation of favourite colour forms is best done by cuttings taken in summer.
Lantana is a member of the verbena plant family; the more common form is Lantana camara, native to Central America. It was described by William Robinson in 1867 when he visited Paris and saw the new sub-tropical plantings fashionable at the time. He loved its shrubby habit used as background for new flower colours in exotic bedding schemes.
It is a rugged evergreen shrub which can grow to two metres high with equal spread in width. Stems and leaves are covered with rough hairs and have a textured surface. They emit an unpleasant aroma when crushed (can smell like cat pee!). The small flowers are held in clusters giving a jewelled look as the colour is distributed among the foliage.
In the tropics, lantana is a non-stop bloomer and has become naturalised on the Azores. Here in the Algarve, the main flowering season is May to September. Flower colour ranges from white to yellow, orange to red, pink to rose in unlimited combinations. It is recommended for use as a drought-resistant hedging plant which can provide shelter for other plantings.
There are more than 100 Lantana varieties. Choose the sterile lantana varieties and hybrids which are normally offered for sale in the Algarve as these are better behaved than the species – avoid digging any naturalised lantana from the wild for your garden as this is probably the fertile seed-bearing species which can quickly become a nuisance if left unchecked, as has happened in neighbouring Andalucia.
Pets can become ill after ingesting lantana. The unripe berries are known to be very toxic and the foliage is toxic to livestock. Lantana is listed as a Category I invasive exotic species in the southern United States, and is a huge problem in Hawaii. The best way to propagate is by cuttings from favourite colour forms. We have used the single colour white and golden yellow flowering varieties to good effect amongst silver and grey-leaved drought-resistant plantings.
A smaller trailing lantana, Lantana montevidensis is a lilac/purple flowering shrub which is particularly good for overhanging walls and groundcover. This is also recommended for drought-resistant plantings and will tolerate slightly lower winter temperatures than the L. camara and its hybrids.
Oleander – botanic name Nerium oleander, the main contribution to our gardens comes from the many selected hybrids giving us a huge range of useful colour forms to choose from (over 150 named varieties in the French National Collection). It is believed to have been growing in the United Kingdom for approximately 350 years but is native to the Mediterranean basin.
It is pictured in wall frescoes of gardens in Roman Pompeii together with the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, and was probably used in the gardens of Conímbriga (Roman Coimbra) in the north of Portugal.
It is recorded as an important component of Islamic gardens as long ago as the 11th century and also Mughal dynasty gardens of India in the 16th century, so may well have formed part of the original plantings at the famous Taj Mahal near Delhi.
It has gradually spread throughout Europe and is believed to have been introduced to North America as long ago as 1786. It is a shrub with a long and distinguished history of use in royal gardens – receiving the same winter protection afforded to the fashionable newly-introduced exotics such as oranges and lemons in the Medici family gardens of Renaissance Italy.
It tolerates bright sun, but some shade is acceptable. It is very versatile, surviving in both dry and wet soils. Fastest growth occurs when some water is given and where it is naturalised; it lives in stream and riverside areas. It will survive some frost but foliage will be damaged. Some varieties are hardier than others. Semi-ripe cuttings are best rooted in summer. Seed is set occasionally, but it is not possible to guarantee colour forms of plants grown this way.
Particularly useful for screening and informal hedges, it is a relatively quick-growing and colourful shrub for newly laid out gardens. By removing suckers, and leaving just a few stems, oleander can be formed into small trees. The oleander is a tough durable shrub that is inexpensive and easy to grow in most situations.
When the terminal flower clusters smother the shrub, it really stands out from the surrounding landscape. The colours vary from white through pink, deep red, yellow, cream and scented double forms. Oleander is toxic in all parts. Contact with skin may cause a reaction. We are using it to help fill out and establish green shrubby areas as it seems to be one of the few plants our wild rabbits will not eat!
By Rosie Peddle