Garden designers like ourselves spend a lot of time thinking about the big issues; the sweep of a garden; how it will relate to the wider environment; how best to design a satisfying layout. But for this blog I want to go micro and look at some of the beautiful and often diminutive flowers from the verdant Springtime hills of south-west Spain.
This was a return visit for me to a remarkable and remote-feeling part of Spain, a world away from the crowded beaches and bars of the coast.
These little Iris sisyrinchiums aka Barbary Nut are quite common around the Mediterranean, often seen at roadsides or in sandy patches of soil. When you get close you can see the pretty white and yellow blotched falls.
The annual rock rose Tuberia guttata may look familiar to us, with its flowers reminiscent of a miniature cistus. The leaves are slightly hairy, which helps stop the sun’s heat crisping them. And their linear indentations channel any dew down into the centre of the plant.
Limestone karst is a disappearing environment. In Yorkshire, where I live, the area around Malham Tarn with its famous limestone pavement is the best-known example. There, as in the area I visited in Spain, the climate is unforgiving, and many plants nestle into niches in the rock to shelter from the elements.
In south-west Spain the extreme heat and drought of summer add further stress and you would imagine that only robust, armoured plants could cope with these conditions.
But in fact a lot of the plants take a completely different strategy, with delicate blooms that delight the eye in the few and fleeting weeks of Spring. One such is the scilla, a beautiful little flower with its unusual and vibrant purple stamens.
The flowers of Ornithogalum umbellatum are seen in profusion on hillsides in April, earlier than here in the UK where various of their relatives are known as Star of Bethlehem. Their grassy, grey-green leaves make a neat backdrop to the little flowers. I photographed this one by getting down to ground level and lying on my tummy!
These are bulbous perennials, returning year after year and spreading through basal offsets into little patches. In the UK you may see these or related bulbs for sale accompanied by a note saying they can be invasive – not so here in their native hills where conditions are much harsher.
On the high karst slender blooms battle courageously against a harsh climate and rocky environment, and make miniature magnificence. These diminutive narcissi are easily recognized as related to our own daffodils, but their growing conditions couldn’t be more different. While I didn’t manage to get a particularly sharp photograph, the contrast between their delicate form and the rocky environment is extreme.
I was astonished to spot these beautiful orchids growing out of a rocky wall of limestone. I found most of them on a north-facing part, limiting their exposure to the strong sun, and out of the way of hungry sheep. Orchids are of course rare and protected in the UK, but seemed locally abundant in this spot in the Andalucian hills at around 700m. Mindful of the depredations of UK orchid- enthusiasts in earlier centuries, I took photos only, not even touching the plants, and stepped most carefully to ensure not even a small stone was disturbed.
These plants work hard to attract pollinators during their few weeks of flowering, then set quantities of tiny, dust-like seeds to be dispersed around on the wind.
Withering away quickly in the summer heat and drought, nevertheless all these plants during their short season provide us with a wonderful visual spectacle.
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