Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Iberia III

From loquats and bitter oranges in Seville to the Patio Festival in Cordoba, via a French-English-Spanish garden at Moratalla. More blogging-lite from the Iberian Peninsula. 



The bitter orange in situ in Seville, with the cathedral in the background


Ceder of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) patterns in the Seville Alcazar. Note that this species is now endangered in its native habitat in eastern Mediterranean, partly due to exploitation for building cathedrals and other such buildings.


Grotesque, outside the rooms with the emblematic tiles.


And to continue with my pomegranate fetish, here is one skewered by a spear as part of the support system for Christopher Columbus' coffin, in the Seville cathedral. The symbolism is again around Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinando, and their desire to rid Spain of the moors.


This is the garden at Moratella, owned by the the Duke of Segorbe and designed in part by French garden designer Jean-Claude Forestier. It's a mix of French, neo-Arab and Spanish influences. I also noticed a little English in their.


Finally, the patio festival in Cordoba was a hit. Plenty of Pelagonium mascarading as geranium, and the second picture is how some of the courtyard keepers water their pots (it can take 2-3 hours).




Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Iberia II

From the streets and breakfast table of Seville, Spain, it's more blogging-lite from the Iberian Peninsula. 

This time it's 2017 (7 May), loquat (but sadly not naranja) season.


Somethings remain the same (see last week): a bit of South America (jacaranda) in Seville. This time, though, I can put the new Sevilla Tower (near Triana) in the background.


A bit of Australia in Seville - gum and grevillea.


A few plants in a Royal coat of arms, including a pomegranate at the base of the top oval, an olive branch perhaps in the bottom left oval and a laurel of laurel weaving through anchors in the middle.


And above it, some more plant material, perhaps a laurel of a laurel again?


And this Albizia, I think, in the street near the Triana Bridge. Or is it an acacia. Perhaps I should just call it 'mimosa'.


This is a picture of a palm, with the Catedral y Giralda as a backdrop.


And, of course, potted plant...



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Iberia I

As I travel through the Iberian Peninsula over the next few weeks, it's blogging-lite: a few images and captions only. For the first few weeks I'm leading a tour (Gardens in Spanish Culture) in southern and middle Spain, then holidaying through Portugal and north-western Spain. 

Today, a few pictures from the region I'm in now, Andalusia, in the south of Spain. I'm just settling in so these are from my last visit, in May 2008.

The South American jacaranda in Seville:


Roadsides in Adalusia (sunflowers, wheat, olives, cork oaks, native pins):


 Geraniums (Pelargonium) in Cordoba:


Alhambra, Granada


Finally, cypress in the city of Granada:

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Del nuevo mundo


The New World! A romantic and thoroughly Europe-centric term for the Americas, coined in the sixteenth century, when up to that time the known world (to the Europeans) was Europe, Africa and Asia. Australia of course was well known to the people living there at the time but not to the Europeans.

This is my final post before I drop into travelling mode, posting a few images and captions as I travel through the Iberian Peninsula... 

Spain and Portugal led the European exploration of the Americas, although of course it was an Italian, Christopher Columbus, who found the Bahamas and hence the edge of the 'new world'.  His trip, though, was funded by the Spanish monarchy.

This is not the place to document the dramatic impact of the Spanish on the people and environment of the New World, so I'll stick with the relatively safe world of plants. The botanical discoveries (from a European perspective) began in 1570, when Philip II (a keen gardener and plant enthusiast himself) sent Francisco Hernández to America as a 'medical examiner'. After seven years Hernández returned with botanical 'samples' and wrote up his discoveries about Mexican medicine and botany in a 16-volume treatise which remained in manuscript until parts of it were published in 1784 and 1790, and other bits in 1959 and 1960. Sadly, in the seventeenth century and start of the eighteenth, interest in botany and botanic gardens faded.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Spanish monarchy sponsored three botanical expeditions to the Latin American part of the New World. The first, in 1777, was to Peru and Chile, served by botanists Hipólito Ruiz, José Pavón and Juan Tafalla. The second, in 1787, took the botanists Martín Sessé, José Mariano Mociño, Juan Castillo and Jaime Senseve further north, from Cuba to California. The big one, though, was the Malaspina expedition in 1789.


This five-year journey led by Alessandro Malaspino and José de Bustamante y Guerra, was devoted, at least initially, to science. It ended a unhappily for its primary leader Alessandro Malaspina, who was jailed on return for conspiring to overthrow the government but the botanical discoveries were substantial, if in some cases delayed. Botanists came and went on the expedition, including the Czech Thaddäus Haenke, the 'Franco-Spanish' Luis Neé and the Guatemalan Antonio Pineda.

All of them, and others, collected a vast array of plant material for herbarium (preserved) collections and for the gardens of Spain. As you see from their route, above, they also dropped in at Port Jackson (by then a land somewhere between the Old and New Worlds), in 1793.

Neé named and described a dozen or so oaks, including Quercus agrifolia, the California (or Coastal) Live Oak. He also championed plants already known but soon to become very popular. The massive Maguey or Century Plant (Agave americana), described by the father of plant naming, Carl Linnaeus, in 1753, was a favourite. Neé said he would 'make it so well known that Spain would not long be without it'. My picture at the top of the blog is Agave americana growing wild now in Gran Canaria, part of the island territories of Spain. You can find plenty of references to agaves in my previous posts, including Agave americana

Malaspino and his crew reported not only what the plants were but also what they were used for. Agua miel (honey water) was extracted from some agaves, and fermented to make pulque (a fairly basic kind of alcoholic drink). In the 1780s about 16.5 million gallons of pulque were produced each year in Mexico.

There were variations to the brew, including some made with palm leaves, peaches, eggs, pineapple and worms. The latter are presumably taking us into the territory of mezcal, which I've also covered before in this blog. And of course these days we also consume the sugar without all the fancy fermenting.


Succulents seemed to be popular, presumably due to their striking form and potential as a garden plants in those parts of Spain with hot, dry summers. (Some plants weren't suitable outside the tropics and 400,000 cinnamon trees transplanted by the Spanish within Central America to establish plantations for supply of this popular spice.)

Pineda said that 'when all the newly discovered plants had been presented, they would augment the inventory of the vegetable kingdom by at least one-third …' He estimated at the time that 7,000 distinct plants (species) had been collected.

Neé's final tally was 10,600 flowering plants, plus mosses, algae and fungi making a total of 15,990 dried specimens for the herbarium back in Madrid. Today (or at least in 2011) in Madrid's botanic garden (Real Jardín Botánico) you can now see the fruits (so to speak) of their labours, in collections such as this of American succulents.


Further south, in Malaga, another of the cities I'll be visiting shortly, the local botanic garden (Jardín Botánico-Histórico La Concepción) is proud of its collections from the rainforests of Central America. Of course we in Australia also grow Monstera deliciosa, via Europe, via their expeditions to the New World.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The city of pomegranates


Pomegranate, Punica granatum, is thought to have been native to Iran through to the Himalaya in northern India, but was widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region during Ancient Greek and Roman times. It has a particular connection to the Andulacian region of Spain that I'm visiting in coming weeks.

The city of Granada, home to the hauntingly beautiful Alhambra, is said to have been named after the pomegranate, which in Spanish is called granada (from the Latin word for seed, granta). Alternatively the name of the city is a corruption of its Moorish name Karnattah, or Gharnatah, meaning something like 'hill of strangers'. We'll assume the former for the purposes of this post but the Moors had a special connection to this place, holding until 1492 and after the rest of Spain had fallen to the Christian invaders.

The common name, pomegranate, is a century or two older than the fall of Granada. As you might have guessed, the pome refers to an apple and its origin is Old French, from around the the start of the fourteenth century it seems. As I've mentioned, granata (grenate in Old French, grenade in modern French) means seed, so it was quite reasonably termed the 'apple with lots of seeds'.


According to a decidedly pro-pomegranite site, POMWonderful, Queen Isabella I (who with Ferdinand II reclaimed the city) is said to have 'stood with a pomegranate in her hand and declared, "Just like the pomegranate, I will take Andalusia seed by seed". It turns out Andalusia was easier to conquer than it is to seed a pomegranate (although I've found that squishing sides together a few times then tapping on the back with a wooden spoon works pretty well).

The plant, or at least its fruit, is clearly evocative when it comes to place naming. The north African city of Carthage was originally called Punica by the Romans: it was said to be the source of the best pomegranates at the time.

With its woody outer layer, the fruit travels well, and was carried through the deserts of this region as source of refreshment. It is of course added to various parts of a meal to add colour and bling.


The plant itself is tough and long-lived. Specimens at Versailles are thought to be 200 or so years old and you see the scrubby remains of bushes around old homes in Australia that are presumably a century or so in age.

Various parts of the plant are used to treat diarrhea and stomach problems, and tannins have been extracted from bark, leaves and fruit. Not surprisingly, the fruits and flowers are a source of red dye. 


It's an odd plant botanically, classified in its own family, the Punicaceae. Other than Punica granatum, there is only one other species, Punica protopunica from the island of Socotra (home to lots of other weird and wonderful plants such as the Dragon Tree, the giant succulent tree Dorstenia gigas and Frankinsense). 

I've always found the fresh green colour of the leaves and the bright red flowers attractive, even though the form of the plant is often a little untidy. The flowers also remind me a little of the underground orchid-like flower, Thismia. I'm not sure anyone else makes this association but it adds to the encounter. As will visiting Granada once again, discovering the image of the pomegranate fruit on flags and 'manhole' covers throughout the city.



Images: the fruit is from a local supermarket, and the flowers, cultivated plant and view of Alhambra are from Granada in 2008. The Coats of Arms are repeated repeatedly on the web.



Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Pinsapo on the edge


On day seven of the Gardens in Spanish Culture tour, we rock (sorry for the pun) into Ronda, perched scenically on the edge of this canyon called El Tajo.

A highlight of our visit to the Palace of the Marqués of Salvatierra will be, for me at least, the 200-year-old Pinsapo in the garden. The sixteenth century building, renovated in the eighteenth century, should provide the perfect backdrop to the 'National Tree' of Andulasia (the name given to this southern region of Spain).


The Pinsapo is a fir tree, Abies pinsapo, sometimes also called the Spanish Fir or even Hedgehog Fir (a reference to its overall form when young I think). The botanical epithet pinsapo is a corruption of the Spanish local name, Pinapares.

Its native habitat is in southern Spain and Morocco, but you can see it in parks and gardens in southern Australia. A cultivar with waxy blue leaves, called 'Glauca', is widely grown and there are others such as 'Fastigiata', 'Pendula', 'Argentea' and 'Aurea' (the last two leaf colour variants).

Pinsapo was discovered in 1837 by Swiss botanist Edmond Boisser. He discovered it in the mountains of Andalucia, in the south of Spain, which look a little like this.


It's a fir, Abies, because the needles are soft and flattened, and attached to the stem by a spherical 'sucker' (when you remove the needle the stem is rather smooth). A spruce, Picea, on the other hand has stiff, pointy needles with a knobbly bases that extends along the stem and remains as a bump when you remove a leaf. As firs go, the Pinsapo has relatively short needles.

Although there are no firs in this picture of the Sierra Nevada, limestone outcrops in the nearby Sierra Bermeja and Sierra de las Nieves are home to two of the three remaining populations of Pinsapo in Europe (the third, according to Kew's Plant, is on serpentine rock in an unprotected area). Across the Mediterranean in northern Morocco, there are two distinct varieties found naturally.

In the geological record there is evidence of Pinsapo around the Mediterranean during the Tertiary period, from 65 to about 2 million years ago. The climatic changes occurring during the following million years, including the last major ice age, were not as intense in Andalucia as elsewhere in Europe.

In the mountains outside Ronda, not far from the Marqués' garden, is part of the Pinsapos remaning strong hold. Having survived this major climatic event its existence became precarious over the last few centuries due to extensive land clearing. In 1964 there were just 700 hectares of pinsapo forests remaining.

Things have improved over recent decades. With replanting and careful management, there are now over 5000 hectares. Although more secure, the remaining European populations of Pinsapo are susceptible to fire, goat grazing and most recently a fungus, Heterobasidium annosum.

It's thought more recent changes in the climate may well have weakened the species' resistance to the fungus. So Pinsapo may have survived the last ice age and the axe, to succumb to the side effects of human-induced global warming.

Given a chance, the Pinsapo grows to 30 metres tall and, as we know from Ronda, can live for at least 200 years. Don't panic though, baring fire, fungus and feral animals, you may have another 100 years or so to visit the Marquis' tree: word is (Gymnosperm Database), the oldest specimens are 300 years old.


Images: The pictures of Ronda are from 2008, my last visit. Those of the Pinsapos are copied from the Gymnosperm Database site, both from trees growing in nature and taken by Jose Angel Campos Sandoval.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Deadly roadside beauty, in season


Oleander is a well known but hardly loved garden plant in Australia. You see it out the front of rental properties and blocks of cream-brick units, or more recently in dwarf form on motorway verges and median strips. Key attributes are its gaudy pink flowers, tolerance of the most extreme of growing conditions, and ability to kill pets and small children.

Stuck in my head are stories of a child dying after digesting a single leaf and a group of soldiers (with Alexander the Great, or Napoleon - take your pick) who roasted a pig on a Oleander spit and suffered horrid deaths. The reality seems to be that 5 to 15 leaves can cause a fatal poisoning, but there are varying reports of tolerance and toxicity among the young and old.

All parts of Nerium oleander are toxic, due to something called a cardiac glycoside. These heart-stopping chemicals are most concentrated in the seeds and roots, followed by the fruits and leaves. Red-flowering forms have more cardiac glycosides than white-flowering forms, and there is more of it at flowering time.

First-century Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder mentions the flowers and the poisonous qualities. His countrymen also knew it as a cure for hangovers - although in the wrong quantity it would seem to be a permanent cure. Used medicinally since at least Roman times, these cardiac glycosides have deleterious side effects and of course in the wrong dose will kill you.

So you have to be careful with this plant. But then there are many toxic plants out there so unless you are growing a known vegetable or other food plant, don't nibble any leaves.


The classic flower colour is pink but they come in all kinds of red and white tones. In full blush, they can look attractive. Out of flower, it's a personal thing I guess. Better perhaps than concrete.

Like any plant (or thing) they can be evocative in the landscape. I have fond memories of whizzing past them in my hire car when touring through southern Spain back in 2008, through countryside like this between Cordoba and Granada.


Apart from its landscape attributes and deadly contents, is there anything else you should know about Oleanders? Well, it is even more common in Spain than Australia, which is why it's in my special series of pre-Spain-tour posts. Not only is it widely planted on roadsides and in gardens, but it seems to be native to the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean region more generally, as well as further south into northern Africa, and west into Asia.

There are plenty of cultivars, accounting for the various flower colours and forms, as well as shrub heights. The flower I've posted at the top is a double-flowered form, probably Nerium oleander 'Splendens'. On mass, as I said, they can impress.

I personally haven't taken much notice of the seedpods but the beautiful photographs by Anne Laurent at Print Magazine reveal another side to them, and their fluffy seeds.

As to the vegetative plant, perhaps the most interesting thing is the way they are joined to the stem, in groups of three with the stalk of each expanding at the base to join with the other two. Other than that, watch out for the milky sap when pruning and remember to wash your hands.


Images: From southern Spain in 2008, except for the close ups of flowers and leaves, which are from the Melbourne Gardens in February 2017.