Fremontodendron californicum

Mediterranean seasons in the Algarve

A wonderful aspect of living in a Mediterranean climate zone is the upside-down seasonal rhythm. The Algarve is completely Mediterranean, in the same way as California, parts of Chile and the Cape area of South Africa and also southwest Australia. None of these areas are bathed by the Mediterranean Sea but they all share the same classic long hot summers and humid winter rainfall that define the climate.

Currently we are in the middle of a winter-type landscape, with dormant bulbs, plants, trees and shrubs. All have their various coping strategies, waiting for the cooler and more humid days of autumn and winter. But, hang on a minute, when is it spring and summer? The Algarve has two spring seasons. In the very early months of the year – January and February – we get the traditional spring flowers showing their fabulous colours and variety in response to longer days and winter rainfall.

In the later months of the year, we get a second spring with an almost immediate flush of greenery covering the landscape and gardens in response to the very first rainfall after the long hot and dry months of the summer. This is the signal that we can start thinking about the coming gardening season, time to sow seeds and put plants into the ground at last.

In a dry garden with no irrigation systems, the seasonal differences really shine out. It is possible to get first-hand experience of the seasonal colours and get close to the natural routines of the Algarve. Currently the silver foliage of the various Phlomis species is turned upwards like little chimneys to protect the leaf surface and show the reverse of the leaf to the bright sunshine. When the rain arrives, these leaves will become horizontal, showing their bright green surface to the sun and filling up with the water from the roots. The silver-white leaves really stand out against the bronze cistus seed heads and silver grey foliage of lavenders and santolinas. Perennial grasses continue to give shape and movement without the need for irrigation. We can move in the shade but the plants do not have legs and they need to cope where they grow, and they do this in wonderful ways.

Many plants and trees may look as if they have died but be careful! If your almond trees have lost their leaves and have blackened bark, this does not mean they are dead – this is a natural response to the conditions. The annual miracle of the almond blossom show can start any time from December and continue right through to the end of February when the leaves will follow the flowers. In midsummer, we are now collecting the almonds from the bare branches, but well worth the effort. Store the nuts in a dry place and they will keep for many months until you are ready to crack them open and enjoy your very own organic almond harvest.

Some plants will react very badly indeed to being watered during the long hot days of summer. These plants have adapted to the conditions by shutting down their growth and going into a type of hibernation. Among the most vulnerable to summer watering are the Ceanothus from California, a fabulous intense blue-flowered family of shrubs. Also from California is the Fremontodendron, a large shrub or climber with huge yellow flowers which grows in many parts of Mediterranean Europe but which hates wet roots in the summer.

If you are trying to establish a caper plant, do not think you are being kind by watering it in the summer – it will rot. Above all else, this plant needs good drainage, especially so in the wet winter months. Established native shrubs, lavender and rosemary plants also do not need any irrigation and will react very badly to regular soaking with cold water!

Take a lesson from your plants, adapt to the climate and enjoy the long hot sunny days, we are all waiting for the start of the gardening year in October when the excitement begins all over again.

By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal

Trackside Grasses
Summer grasses
Fremontodendron californicum
Caper flower
Ceanothus-Concha / Photo: Robert Perry