Southern Portugal, the Alentejo and the Algarve are a joy to visit in the spring. This is the peak season to see the natural colourful wildflower displays which cover roadsides and fields, hills and coastlines.
The payback for the recent wet winter is the response of the wildflowers, and the continuing green aspect of the landscape. For those lucky enough to live in these areas, the displays are literally on our doorstep.
The interrelated influences of geology and climate allow the definition of three broad geographical regions of the Algarve: Littoral, Barrocal and Serra, each with its own characteristic vegetation and flora.
The Littoral consists of the land running along the south coast and up into the west. It has a mixed geology of sedimentary rocks, alluvia, and sand of relatively recent origin.
Inland, the Barrocal is an area of rolling hills, composed principally of limestone, that increase in height upon moving north, where they merge with the mountainous Serra.
The Serra is composed of older rocks, particularly shale and syenite, mainly carboniferous in origin.
The flora of each of these regions has distinct plant communities and now is the very best time to explore. The differing regions have valuable lessons for gardeners wishing to make sustainable gardens from the native plants of the region. Match your soil types and conditions to the surrounding natural areas and make your own spectacular spring display with minimum intervention.
Coastal (Littoral) zones are under huge pressure from development, and this makes the rare natural areas even more precious. The alkaline soils of the coast and the Barrocal are the best places to see an incredible biodiversity including a range of wild orchids in abundance as well as the rock rose family (Cistaceae).
Lime-intolerant and acid-loving plants are confined mainly to sandy areas with neutral soils and shale outcrops.
By contrast, the acid Serra is dominated by plants that prefer the lower pH soils, for instance Ericaceous species such as tree heath (Erica arborea) and the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) together with sheets of the iconic rockrose, Cistus ladanifer, the large white petals each with a distinctive purple blotch. Stands of the green lavender, Lavandula viridis mingle with the tree heath (Erica arborea) and the yellow broom (Cytisus scoparius).
Probably the best place to see the full potential of coastal plants in challenging conditions is to visit Cape St Vincent in the spring months – a mix of sand dune and shrub-dominated vegetation known as ‘matos’. The dunes have the salinity of the sea winds but still hold a rich community of aromatic herbs, bulbs and small shrubby perennials.
Stipa gigantea and Ammophila arenaria (Marram grass) support populations of bright, yellow-flowered Lotus creticus. Evergreen Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens, forms brilliant white pincushions from early April onwards and is generally accompanied by bright pink sea stock, Matthiola sinuata, as well as thyme and purple snapdragon Antirrhinum majus. The dominant cistus here is the lovely white-flowered Cistus palhinhae.
The protected nature park of this area gives us an amazing and uplifting spectacle at this time of the year and is well worth the journey.
Barrocal zones have their own distinct displays: Cistus albidus, Lavandula stoechas, Phlomis purpurea and the glorious butter-yellow Genista hirsuta giving a mix of pinks, purples and yellow with the white Cistus monspeliensis.
Roadsides are plastered with the bright daisies of Chrysanthemum coronarium and the small shrubby Coronilla glauca with yellow pea-like flowers. Iconic spring flowers of the Barrocal region include the large blue flowers of the Scilla peruviana bulbs and the lovely native peony (Paeonia broteri). A visit to the protected area at Rocha da Pena is recommended.
Wherever you are making a garden, there will be opportunities to introduce native species which are suited to your conditions. April is a great time of year to be inspired to make plans to have a spring display of native plants in your own Algarve garden.
For more information on wildflower walks in all the regions of the Algarve see https://www.algarvewildlife.com/walks-intro.php
For Algarve wildflower books in English, visit https://www.mgaportugal.org/BooksGB.html
By Rosie Peddle