South Africa is recognised as one of the six greatest floral kingdoms of the world and the Cape region at the southern tip has a flora of exceptional richness and diversity.
Differing ecological conditions require different gardening habits and paramount among these is considering a more sustainable approach to gardening in fragile Mediterranean zones such as Portugal.
This approach gives gardeners the opportunity to look at the rich diversity of our own native plants and combine with those from similar zones around the world. It is possible to make a spectacular garden based on climate-appropriate planting by choosing the plants suitable for the conditions. This also has the happy spin off that you can have a garden that is low maintenance, low cost and requires no irrigation.
The emphasis in many Mediterranean zones has moved away from the traditional ‘exotic gardening’ styles to more natural, harmonious and sustainable designs with no lawns, which give seasonal interest and avoid aggressive invasives. One way to achieve this diversity is to look at the native plants of other similar climate zones – and a whole new world of colour and interest opens up.
The richness of South Africa’s vegetation and its horticultural potential is well known and a reflection of its diverse climate and habitats. This is one of the zones which provides so many good garden plants, bulbs, shrubs and trees for our gardens.
You are probably already familiar with many plants which come from South Africa, including some of the worst thugs around, such as the yellow Oxalis pes-caprae and the damaging Carpobrotus edulis, which has lurid daisy flowers on fleshy triangular stems and crowds out native plants in many coastal areas.
But look a little deeper and you will find a staggering range of plants suitable for Algarve gardens. The most extensive and varied native vegetation is in the Fynbos (fine bush) category of the western cape of South Africa. This area includes over 80% of the plant species in the entire Mediterranean climate region, with peak blooming during the months of September and October, the southern hemisphere spring.
As well as the wonderful range of succulents (such as some Aloes), this type of vegetation also includes many plants from the famous Protea family, which in common with the Banksia genus from Australia, prefer nutrient-poor soils which are neutral to acid.
The nectar-rich flowers of the Protea are not dependent on soil nutrition and are designed to attract birds for pollination, producing protein-rich seeds attractive to ants. They harvest the Protea seeds, taking them to their underground nests to eat the fat-rich outer coat but leaving the fertile seed to germinate in the favourable conditions the ant nests provide.
Other plant families from the western Cape familiar to Algarve gardeners are the Agapanthus, Plectranthus, Kniphofia, and the Zantedeschia (arum or calla) lilies.
Proteas are only one of the signature plants of the Cape. Restio vegetation is made up of reed or rushlike plants which take the place of grasses and the heather or Erica family take on unusual aspects and colours.
Restio plants grow in dense clumps with wiry leaves and make a very architectural impact in a garden. Other plants that are common in the Fynbos include bulbs such as Watsonias and Crocosmias; members of the aster family such as Osteospermum and Gazanias; and the great range of species Pelargoniums, the parents of the window box ‘geraniums’.
The Leucospermum are closely related to Proteas and have similar large, long-lasting flowers on the low-growing evergreen shrubs.
There is huge pride in the native plants of South Africa and a visit to the famous Kirstenbosch gardens will demonstrate the enormous diversity and richness of the flora of this region. No wonder gardeners in South Africa and other Mediterranean climate zones are eager to use them in their gardens.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden www.sanbi.org/gardens/Kirstenbosch/
Invasive plants info – https://invasoras.pt/en/invasive-species-in-portugal