Rose of Jericho (Selaginella lepidophylla) is a desert plant noted for its ability to survive almost complete desiccation. During dry weather, in its native habitat, its stems curl into a tight ball and uncurl only when exposed to a relatively small amount of moisture. It is native to West Texas and Mexico. Wall ferns in the Algarve behave in exactly the same way, shrivelling in response to heat and drought, and opening up their lovely green fronds in response to rain.
These plants have evolved a strategy to endure long periods of drought and intense heat. Remind you of anything?
Here we are in August, in the Algarve, in an officially declared drought. In many areas irrigation is banned. Our native plants have developed a trick or two to survive and August is the best time to see how these strategies work. We know that the natural summer colours are gold, bronze and silver with a wonderful background of the shiny evergreen shrubs and trees. All we have to do is find some shade and enjoy the show.
Come the autumn rains, the landscape will be transformed, and it only takes a few days to do it. The dusty foliage is washed, the latent seeds germinate and give a green fuzz over all the fields, and soon there are flowers. A true second spring in response to the rain, shorter days and still warm soils.
The start of the growing season here is in the autumn – that is when we see the gardens and landscapes wake from their deep sleep and produce refreshing greens and the promise of wild flowers to come.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that plants do not have legs, and they cannot move into the shade on long, hot sunny days as we do. They have other ways to cope and some of them are spectacularly efficient. All this works to the advantage of those making gardens here, but only if we keep our nerve and resist the urge to throw water all over the place. How would you like to be fast asleep, in the warm sun, tucked up nice and tight, and then a bucket of water arrives all over you and you are expected to grow?
For example, many people have planted lavenders in their gardens but say they are very difficult plants, refuse to grow and then die completely. When asked, it very often turns out that they are watering their lavenders, not just when newly planted, not occasionally (and by occasionally I mean every month or so) but several times a day, and throughout the year. That way lies death and destruction for true Mediterranean plants.
There are many plants which will respond to your kind summer watering by simply ceasing to exist, kicking the bucket, and shuffling off this mortal coil like the fabled dead parrot, and all because you insisted on watering it. These include Ceanothus and Fremontodendrons from California; Capers and Euphorbias from the Eastern Mediterranean as well as native plants from many arid and warm weather zones which are adapted to summer drought.
Our local Phlomis purpurea is a great example. For most of the year we can see the large felty leaves held outwards from the stem open to the winter sunshine with a soft green colour. By now they have very sensibly folded up their leaves to show only the silvery underside, looking like little chimneys. The plant knows much better than us what it takes to survive and is ready for the first autumn rains when it will once again open out and start the growing season in good shape. There are many other lovely Phlomis species which also thrive in our conditions.
Almond trees also have a great strategy to survive and thrive. If the conditions are bad, they drop their leaves but, if the conditions are good they retain their leaves for much longer through the season. Their natural state is to have a very black and dry looking outer bark. This is fine and does not mean that the tree is dead. It is always worth keeping trees and seeing them through to the following season, it is amazing how they survive and suddenly produce more foliage when things improve.
Another strategy common among plants is to have a swollen root, rhizome or bulb which will happily survive underground during hot summer days and then respond to shorter days and moisture by starting to grow. One of the first signs of the end of the summer is the appearance of Drimia maritima, Sea Squill.
A classic Mediterranean bulb which puts up a long flower spike topped with white stars with a purple vein. Tough, lovely and thrives on neglect, what more does any gardener want? Plant the right plants in the right place and enjoy the seasonal differences. Your brown crispy plants are not dead (like the unfortunate parrot) they are just having a sleep. Leave them to snooze.
By Rosie Peddle