A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 08 February 2017 by John Richards
Algarve in winter. Entry 331.
Off to the sun
As has frequently been the case over the last decade or more, the Richards have escaped January blues by migrating south, however briefly. This time we ventured into territory quite unknown to us, and indeed a country whose borders I had not previously penetrated, Portugal. Like so many Brits (and Irish, and there are a lot of both down there at the moment) we whiled away a couple of weeks in the Algarve. This sheltered haven for winter helophiles has, perhaps, a slightly tawdry reputation. A brief familarity with resorts either side of Faro, some ultra-luxurious and ringed by immaculate golf-courses, others less so and frankly tatty, tended to uphold my prejudices.
What a contrast then our chosen haven, Tavira, recommended by some good friends, as was the small friendly hotel (Residencial Mares) on the waterfront. Tavira has the reputation for being the prettiest resort on the coast, and it is certainly the least spoilt. From our hotel room overlooking the river we could watch an ever-unfolding drama of fishing boats coming and going, and traditional daily life in all its complexity. Thoroughly recommended. Not least of its merits was the walk out to the point, perhaps two km distant where one reaches what passses for the sea (in reality it is a fleet, inside the outer barrier islands which characterise so much of this coast). The birding on this walk is truly spectacular. Flamingos, spoonbills and white storks are ever-present, there is a huge variety of waders (I recorded 23 species), and Audouin and Slender-billed Gulls are regular, as are Caspian Terns which fish outside the hotel. Paradise!
Here is an early-morning view from the hotel window.
However you will be less interested in the flesh-pots, and more interested in what flowers can be seen in mid winter (the last week of January and the first week of February). Perhaps the most conspicuous and showy bulb is the wild paperwhite narcissus, N. panizzianus. This differs from the cultivated paperwhite N. papyraceus in its smaller flowers and a generally neater disposition. The latter is more widespread, but may be native nowhere and merely represent populations escaped from many centuries of cultivation. The Algarve plant is unquestionably native, occurring far from habitation in unspoilt habitat. It appears only to grow on limestone, although some of the sites are distinctly marshy and it seems to have a fondness for riversides.
The next picture shows a population at the well-known beauty spot of Fonte do Benemola, where it occurs in quite marshy vegetation. Note also Ranunculus ficarioides.
One disappointment was that we failed to find any sign of the other three narcissi that grow thereabouts. I guess that we were simply too early for them. Although we enjoyed reasonable weather, it has been exceptionally cold before our arrival.
During our second week, Romuleas started to appear in some quantity in sandy areas by the coast. I think they were all R. bulbocodium, but this is a variable plant and varied from white to quite a deep blue.
We were pleased to find Dipcadi serotinum in the woods in the reserve just west of the rather unsightly town of Olhao. This reserve is perhaps the best site for the maritime flora that we found. This inconspicuous plant, like an orange bluebell, has a real charm when viewed closely.
Not technically a bulb perhaps, but we were both pleased and rather surprised to find Iris lutescens ssp.subbiflora growing by a road not far from Castro Marim, almost on the Spanish border. This is much smaller than flag irises, I. germanica, and has straight leaves and unbranched stems. Possibly it is not native here, although it is a native plant of neighbouring Andalucia.
Arisarum vulgare, the friars cowl, is extremely abundant on the limestone, but seems mostly to flower in the autumn here. We did find a few inflorescences.
However on coastal sands we did find a smaller version with very tubby upright 'bells' which I think must be the local Arisarum simorrhinum. I confess to not having heard of this little aroid before and thought it charming. Doubtless it is invasive in cultivation.
This is quite a rich area for orchids, at least on the limestone which is rather limited in extent, being best seen around Santa Catarina and Moncarapacho. Almost no orchids were yet in flower or even headed. Thus it was a surpise on our visit to Fonte do Benemola on the last day of January to find substantial numbers of two rather similar ophrys. O. fusca has a smooth flat lip.
In contast the convex hairy lip of O. dyris has a marked 'thumb' and has been likened to a boxing glove.
Time for some other flowers. I was greatly taken by two large heaths, neither of which was I familiar with. We only found Erica australis twice. It has remarkably large flowers, and in many ways resembles some of the South African species.
Erica lusitanica was mostly not yet in flower, but very striking when we did find some flowering at the end of our visit.
A very common and showy plant in all the acidic areas is Eriophaca baetica. I used to know this as Astragalus lusitanicus and had seen it before in the Mani, S Greece. Apparently it is extremely toxic which may explain its success on grazed road verges.
Really, it is surprising how much colour there can be at the end of January. The small localised gorse Ulex argenteus is very typical of the region. On the coast, the rather similar Genista triacantha is also starting to flower. This picture is of the gorse.
I was also delighted to find that the local form of 'Heavenly Blue' was a common plant of acidic uplands, usually growing amongst cistus, although also in coastal dunes. This rather straggly upright form is Lithodora diffusa ssp. lusitanicus.
Growing nearby on sandy seaside pine woods it was surpising to find French Lavender, Lavandula stoechas already in flower.
I cannot close any account of the flowers without mentioning one of the great flower spectacles. Travelling north to the fringes of the Algarve, towards the Alentejo, the uplands become covered in January with countless billions of white daisies, like snow stretching for miles onto the horizon. This is Chamelum fuscatum (although in damp spots the annual daisy Bellis annua can also make a localised show), and it is well-worth it to make a trip of many kilometres to take in this vision.
Our day visit to the Alentejo had a purpose. We took the Lisbon motorway as far as Castro Verde and following suggestions made on-line drove towards Santa Barbara and took off towards Guerreira. We never expected to find the Bustards we were looking for, but scarcely had we entered the target area when I espied a Dutch lady with a telescope. She was looking at a party of Great Bustards ! (but, typically, at great distance). Serendipity! But later, by ourselves down a remote track, we were able to approach within about 200 m of a party. What a thrill! It sealed a splendid winter holiday.