In the Algarve, there is a documented flora of over 1,000 species and numerous genera, common in Mediterranean areas.
In the inland area of the Algarve (Barrocal), within the municipality of Silves, there blooms a Mediterranean garden with more than 130 species of plants. Since 2014, the garden has remained under the care of Rosie and Robert Peddle – two members of the Mediterranean Gardening Association, alongside 30 volunteers.
The dry garden houses very specific features, making the upkeep a simple task, low cost, with little maintenance and a growing number of aficionados. “The plants are rich in diversity, and rarely or never need water. No irrigation system is needed, so they are low cost,” explains Rosie. “Aesthetically and economically, these plants and flowers (which are suitable for a dry summer and are characteristic of Mediterranean climates and regions, such as the Algarve) are very rewarding. Besides, they’re sustainable, ecological and we have fantastic opportunities in all areas of the region. So, these kinds of dry gardens are incredibly trendy.”
Thanks to these particularities, the Algarve has consequently become a privileged place to begin projects like this. “Many people choose this area because they don’t want to do too much work, and a Mediterranean garden is ideal for people looking to take advantage of space and nature without major costs or maintenance,” she says.
This is also why nature tourism is steadily growing in the region. According to the manager of the botanical garden of the Algarve’s Barrocal, there is a mass industry that funnels millions of Euros into this type of tourism. “Everyone who visits our garden is amazed at how many bulbs, annual plants and flowers are available. There are many foreigners who come to the Algarve for flower walks or to see the wild gardens we have. And there are also many experts coming from other Mediterranean areas, such as Chile, South Africa, California, and Australia. Because we have the same soils, the challenges are the same, and we can use a similar palette of plants.”
One such example is the Portuguese squill (Scilla peruviana), which is typical of the Algarve Barrocal and can be found in white or purple. It looks great in any garden, with blooms in spring while the leaves later fall throughout the warm summer months. Even more characteristic and common is rosemary (Lavandula luisieri), a specific variety for calcareous soils, with an unmistakable beauty, aroma and lilac colour.
Also with a unique and very pleasant smell is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) – also easily found in the region. Its biggest peculiarity is that the leaves can be used in cooking, for mixtures of spices, and they even pair particularly well with fish.
Perhaps the most special of all to be native to the Algarve is the pipe vine (Aristolochia baetica), which produces a flower that resembles a small Chinese lamp tinged in a very specific shade – unlike the mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), which can be discovered in the Barrocal in various colours. According to Rosie, this species can be pruned into any shape. “Those shapes then contrast with the flowers and look very beautiful. Besides, this plant matches any branch.” But among so many varieties, which ones are in fashion this year? All those with flowers featuring a lime-green tone, such as the erva-isqueira (Prangos trifida) and the pascoinha (Coronilla glauca).
For Rosie, dry gardens go far beyond plants and offer a constant challenge: “They encourage wildlife to come in, create shelter and enjoy nature as much as we do. Meanwhile, they also protect the plants. Part of the joy is also seeing the diversity that exists from one year to the next, or from one season to the other. They are never the same and never produce leaves and flowers in the same way or colour.”
Even with two consecutive years of severe drought in the Algarve, these native and typical plants from other parts of the Mediterranean continue to flourish beautifully due to their ability to adapt extraordinarily well to long periods of dryness.
For those looking to buy any of these species, they can be found at garden fairs (such as those organised by the Mediterranean Gardening Association), in nurseries, garden centres or even on the internet, since many of them are shipped to other parts of the world. Though careful measures should be taken.
For those who want to get started in the world of botany and, in particular, create a dry garden, Rosie Peddle suggests several tips: “During the summer, you should plan well on the shape of the garden. Read and find out more about it and see what’s around you. Then do the shopping and plant in autumn because that’s a window of opportunity. As soon as the first rains start in October or November, the soil is still warm but wet. That’s the right time to plant. I advise to buy small plants and, at least in the first summer, to give them a good amount of water once a month, by hand, except for the bulbs.”
Although it seems to be a complex process, the expert assures that it is not at all overly complicated. “It’s a matter of doing things at the right times, to take advantage of the rain when it comes and choose the most suitable plants for each soil,” she explains.
“In the Algarve, it helps to look at the surroundings of the land, the gardens nearby, to open your eyes wide and read certain books or guides that serve as a base.”
For this, Rosie suggests Bringing the Mediterranean into your Garden by Olivier Filippi or the Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Algarve by Chris Thorogood and Simon Hiscock. “We encourage people to develop sustainable gardens like this. We’re in the Algarve, and we have a lot in gardens that we can be proud of,” she states.