The art of creating Mediterranean gardens with native plants
They have lived among us for several decades, hundreds of years and even millennia. They make up the landscapes of the south of Portugal, and during spring they are at their most splendid and exuberant. We are talking about native Algarve plants and trees, which amaze and delight people with their colours, shapes and scents.
In a region that stands out for its authenticity, it is crucial to maintain and preserve this natural heritage. But what plants and trees are native to the Algarve, and why should we strive to protect these endemic species? Essential Algarve posed these questions to one of the region’s top specialists and advocate for native flora, who also created a unique “bonsai olive tree.”
Jean-Claude Defrance, 57 years old, has lived in the Algarve for 30 years and penned several published articles on the importance of utilising local species and founded the Natura gardening centre and plant nursery, in Vale do Lobo, Loulé. The Frenchman exlains it was precisely the untouched beauty of the Algarvean native flora that made him decide to move from southern France to Portugal.
“The Algarve had remained wild and had huge potential. At that time, gardening trends focused on introducing exotic species, imported from other countries, and unfortunately the potential of the local plants was underestimated. In 1990 I had the pleasure of creating my first garden and I recall how challenging it was to be able to buy native plants. There were only two or three plant nurseries in the Algarve and they all sold exotic species only. This was one of the reasons I opened my own nursery,” he recalls.
“The typical climate of global Mediterranean areas amounts to just 5% of the planet’s biomass. It’s a drop in the ocean! And if we include in these figures the trees and plants mentioned in historic writings, which have survived through times, we narrow it down to just 1%. It’s a shame to see a country with this 1% of such special, unique and un- touched trees and plants importing plants from Japan, China, South America or Australia,” he says.
For the founder of Natura, this invasion of exotic plants is becoming an environmental and ecologic issue, since they “spread aggressively, grow faster and kill native plants to survive,” reveals Defrance. “We must open our eyes to the natural treasures we have here in the Algarve and Portugal and protect them,” he says.
When asked which native tree best represents the Algarve, Jean-Claude does not hesitate: the olive tree (Olea europaea).
“We must always plant olive trees. They are amazing trees and an important part in preserving natural heritage […]. History tells us they have served men over the millennia: as food and a source of oil and wood. It is such a spectacular tree that it is even mentioned in sacred books such as the Bible, the Quran and Jewish scriptures,” he explains.
He also highlights the “bonsai olive trees,” which the botanist started developing around 15 years ago in the Algarve and became a resounding success. “One of my clients had a very modern house and thought the olive tree was too rustic and that it would clash with the house so I decided to reinvent it, making it more contemporary, sculpting its branches like a giant bonsai.”
The Frenchman’s passion for these trees even influenced him into buying a house because it had an olive tree over 1,000 years old. “It makes me very happy to think that, over its existence, for a period of 20 years, I had the opportunity to contribute in some way to help it prosper,” he says. The olive tree is a “very adaptable tree and has a phenomenal ability to survive the passage of time,” he explains.
However, in his opinion, there are other fascinating native trees, such as the cork oak (Quercus suber) and the holly oak (Quercus ilex), although they are harder to find and transplant. “They also grow quite slowly and have a harder time adapting.” The stone pine (Pinus pinea) is another of his favourites, and it “grows quickly and is great to purify the air, thanks to the essences it releases.” Jean-Claude also highlights other typical local trees, such as almond trees (Prunus dulcis), fig trees (Ficus carica), pear trees (Pyrus communis) and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo).
According to the botanist, some of the Algarve’s most popular endemic plants are French lavender (Lavandula dentata), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and oleander (Nerium oleander). As Defrance explains, the Algarve’s native species can “better withstand temperature changes and survive both the heat and a dry climate and the cold, as well as intense rain”. They also require little maintenance: “Some only need a yearly pruning.”
In addition, he also highlights cotton lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus), which stands out for its large size, intense green colour and copious yellow flowers that bloom all through spring and summer.
In the ideal setting, says the French botanist, anyone should be able to understand where in the world they are just from the type of vegetation they can see from their home window. In Portugal, there are over 4,000 native and wild species, many of which have great ornamental potential. These trees and plants are a big part of the local ethnobotanical heritage that represents the history and identity of a country — and they are always the prettiest to look at through the window.