This is the time of the year that the Maine Gardener checks out plants in other parts of the world.
During three weeks of cruising port cities in Europe – mostly the Mediterranean – Nancy and I found few plants that weren’t familiar to us, but we did see plants used in a lot of different ways.
We didn’t tour anything that would qualify as a botanical garden, but did see several large, formal gardens and plants decorating public places in different ways.
The largest garden we saw was Alhambra, outside Granada, Spain. Alhambra was created by the Moors and was the last Moorish outpost in Spain, having been reconquered by Christians in 1492, the same year Columbus made his first journey to the Americas.
The architecture of the Moorish buildings is still in place. The Moors came from the African deserts, and water meant everything to them. Reflecting pools dominate the interior plazas of their dwellings. The gardens, located outside the walled city, have even more pools, with fountains in most of them.
An Italian influence has taken over the gardens, however. Tall, skinny chamaecyparus are planted everywhere, and tall hedges are sheared into rectangles. Light violet morning glories cover the walls, and they were still blooming strongly in late November. We also saw morning glories on a trellis in Jerez, Spain.
The gardens also had roses, dahlias and a wide range of annuals and perennials. We even saw feverfew – which pops up like a weed in our Maine vegetable garden – growing in a small, otherwise vacant plot.
Our tour guide said the Moors left their gardens more informal, emphasizing aromatic plants and low-growing blossoms rather than the formal, pruned look that remains. The Moorish gardens we did see included everything from catmint to salvia, all colors of perennials, but the plants are kept short and sprawling so that they make splashes of color when you view the gardens from the surrounding walking areas.
The garden we toured in Capri, Italy, was on the top of a steep hill, reached by a sort of cog railway. Terraces dominated the design, and datura and bougainvilla bloomed just about everywhere, the plants growing about 8 feet tall. We saw one lone gardener weeding terraced gardens, putting the pulled plants in large bags, and wondered how far he would have to haul the trash before he could find some compost bins.
Outside the famed casino in Monte Carlo, the interior part of a large rotary had grapes planted. Other sections of that same circle were bedded out with cyclamen and flax. Nancy spent more time looking at plants there than I did, because I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Lamborghinis, Porsches and Bentleys, including one rare Bentley coupe.
We saw some impatiens growing in Granada, and they looked bad – but that was because they had experienced a frost, and not because of the impatiens downy mildew that we had in Maine.
Throughout Spanish cities, orange trees are used as decorative street trees. The oranges are bright and gorgeous, and they are harvested by city employees at the end of the season. The reason passers-by don’t pick the oranges to eat is that they are all sour oranges. After it is picked, the fruit is sent to England, where it is made into marmalade.
Olives are also used as street trees, in Italy as well as Spain, although no one told us whether they harvested the street olives. The trees themselves are very attractive since their leaves are blue-green on one side and silver on the other.
We toured some pyramids in Tenerife. Some locals claim these pyramids were created by farmers in an effort to get rocks out of the fields but, as Maine gardeners, we doubted that a gardener would take the time to make pyramids out of stones. Stonewalls work well enough in Maine. But Thor Heyerdahl – of Kon Tiki fame – came to the area late in his life, studied the pyramids and claimed they were aligned with the sun at the summer solstice and similar to pyramids built at the same time in Egypt and Mexico, as well as other places. The pyramid museum also had some good gardens with bird of paradise plants and some of the largest Scotch broom we have ever seen.
Begonias were planted everywhere, in pots and in the ground on city streets. We saw angel-wing begonias and wax begonias everywhere.
In Jerez, Spain, on the way to a sherry tasting, we saw cyclamen growing in half sherry barrels, with the half barrels stacked diagonally on top of each other. They could probably grow all year long in that section of the Mediterranean since we were told that the temperatures get neither too cold nor too hot.
Palm trees grew everywhere, and many of them were brought back to Spain from the New World, our guides told us.
The only thing I probably want to add to our garden is about 10 stacked barrels, filled with cyclamen or some other constantly blooming annual. I think the structure would look good between the driveway and the vegetable garden. Nancy, on the other hand, was very impressed with vines growing on trellises over patios, so I may be making some patio trellises this spring.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at (207) 767-2297 or at: