Winter flowers for a Mediterranean Garden

We can now look forward to the mid-winter months in the garden, with the cooler nights bringing welcome heavy dews. This year the Algarve is in severe drought and many plants are still waiting to come fully back to life after the long hot months of summer. Even the ever-present Oxalis pes-caprae (known as Bermuda buttercup but from South Africa) is struggling to make its green carpets, but did you know that there is a lovely double form with copper-tinged flowers? It occurs in nature and is not as invasive as the single form. As with most double flowers, they last longer than the single.

In a garden with no irrigation, it is the real stalwarts of the Mediterranean climate that show their worth under these challenging conditions. Tender lavenders are now forming their flower buds. Lavandula dentata candicans has silver foliage with pale lilac blooms.

Colour can come from flowers and from foliage, but it is winter flowers that make hearts sing and attract our attention. The iris family has plants for practically every month of the year and in December, January and February you can have a range of colours from Iris unguicularis.

Coming from the high Atlas Mountains of Morocco, this plant tolerates cold and heat through the year and needs no irrigation. The delicate blue shades of flowers with gold lines make this a real stunner for the winter months. It is evergreen and provides long tough leaves as a contrast for other plants through the summer. Apart from the species, there are some lovely selected varieties such as ‘Ann Barnard’ with a darker blue flower and ‘Walter Butt’ with a pale lilac colour as well as a lovely white form.

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is a succulent and native to Madagascar. It is known by the English common name Christmas kalanchoe. They are easily available here in various colours and make good container plants, both indoors and outside.

The bright red of poinsettia used as shrubs and hedges is also common in the Algarve – the long-lasting colour produced by the bracts. Don’t try to plant out the many new colour forms and double flower types as they will have been given growth inhibitors in the nursery. Try to find the simple species, Euphorbia pulcherrima, for garden planting.

There is a Mediterranean snowdrop – an echo of the many North European species but adapted for a shady spot in warmer climates. Galanthus reginae-olgae is native in Greece and Sicily and from similar conditions to the Algarve. It flowers in January with well-formed waxy white bell flowers and wide grey green foliage. It should naturalise but mark the spot so that you do not disturb the bulbs when they are dormant.

Clematis is another family that can surprise by having Mediterranean species adapted to Algarve gardens. The creamy white flowers of Clematis flammula and Clematis cirrhosa (natives) appear later in the year, but Clematis balearica flowers through the winter and is in flower now. There are some wonderful garden hybrids from this Spanish native such as ‘Jingle Bells’ – a very appropriate name for winter flowers!

We will not have to wait long before the first almond blossoms appear – the classic winter flower of the Algarve. There are schemes to encourage planting more trees for their blossom, so consider adding almond trees to your garden for their winter flowers.

If you are lucky enough to have acid soils, then the must-have winter flower is the camellia. It is possible to have these in containers if your soil is chalky but take care with your watering.

There is a Camellia Festival in Monchique planned for February 2020 – a great place to see a range of flower types and colours. Some are flowering already so check for varieties that will give you flowers through the winter.

Another Christmas classic, the cyclamen group has some species that are good for Algarve gardens. Cyclamen persicum grows well in shady situations and flowers through the winter. If you are lucky, it may even seed around and naturalise.

Have fun planning your winter garden and don’t forget that many of these plants are also highly scented, another bonus on sunny winter days.

By Rosie Peddle

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Camellia festival in Monchique in 2018
Galanthus reginae-olgae
Iris unguicularis
Oxalis flowers
Poinsettia hedge
C. ‘Jingle Bells’