Spanish Plants for the Mediterranean Climate

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe. Active gardeners, authors and broadcasters living in Spain for over twenty years who aim to share their experiences with others.

What’s different about Spanish Gardening to UK gardening?

The Mediterranean coastal plain where most expatriates buy properties in Spain is hot every summer and sunny most days of the year. Rains come mostly in the autumn and spring(sometimes). Most of the coastline is frost free except for some north facing mountainsides but frosts can be experienced in the coastal mountain valleys just fifteen minutes from the coastal plain and 300 metres up. The most colourful and exotic gardens in Spain are therefore found along the narrow coastal plain between the eastern coastal mountains and the warm Mediterranean sea.

This benign climate makes it possible to grow a wide range of subtropical and even tropical plants in private and public gardens, within urbanisations and around golf courses.

What plants are available in Spain?

Twenty years ago good garden centres were few and far between and often the available choice was limited, special plants being sold out fast. Today new garden centres have sprung up all along the coast to service the rapid growth in the ownership of coastline properties by both foreign and Spanish families.

In our book Your Garden in Spain –From planning to planting and maintenance published in 2007 (see our books pages) we list and describe some four hundred of the most popular easily obtained plants with guidance on colours, sizes, perfumed or not, and where and how best grown etc… Most are illustrated with photographs. Frost and drought resistances are given for all as there can be summer water shortages and some are not for the frosty inland valleys.

Spanish plant names

Many newcomers to Spain struggle with plant names since English names will be rarely found in nurseries. The nurseries tend to use a mixture of local Spanish names and botanical names –sometimes foreshortened. We have therefore given all three names for each plant in the book to help readers in their selection and purchasing of `plants.

What are the most popular plants in Spain?

Palms and cordylines

Tall palms and the shorter palm like cordylines are essential features of the garden landscapes inherited from the moors. However many palms are being attacked by palm weevils for which there is as yet no cure.

Seasonal flowering trees

There are dramatic flowering trees for all seasons.

The earliest being the almond and winter flowering wattle/acacia followed by the mexican flame, Judas and orange trees around Easter. Early spring is also the time of the dramatic blue flowered jacaranda, pink tamarix and large white flowered evergreen magnolia. Summer brings out the exotic flowers of the bead, bird of paradise/devil’s tongue, silk, orchid and grape myrtle trees while the most exotic of all the deep pink and white flowered varieties of the floss-silk /chorisia tree grace gardens even lining the drives of larger properties through late summer and autumn.

Spectacular climbers

Bougainvilleas are undoubtedly among the most spectacular whether trained up house or boundary walls, over gazebos or trimmed as hedges. We will never forget some of the four or five metre hedges of mixed reds, pinks, oranges, yellows and whites that we have passed by. The hardiest and most compact growing purple bracted glabra variety can be pruned as standards and into other topiary shapes.

Bignonias are another group of colourful climbers but growing more rampant than bougainvilleas and therefore not used for hedges. There are spring summer and autumn flowering varieties.

Other favourites are exotically coloured south American passion flowers, mandevillas/dipladenias, and jasmine – especially the most perfumed pink tinted variety. The latter often planted alongside entrance gates to give a special Spanish welcome to guests.

Flowering shrubs

Our favourites fall into two categories. Those that flower for most months of the year and some outstanding seasonal plants.

The long flowering bushy shrubs include hibiscus, lantanas, oleanders, angels trumpets. Each come in a range of hot colours – reds, oranges and yellows – and more subtle pinks, creams and whites. All can be planted as individual specimens or as colourful hedges. Lantanas are among the longest continuously flowering shrubs and in our view are preferable to short seasoned roses. Although very characteristic of Spain the latter are best assigned to a dedicated side garden.

Spring flowering gems include the squat and spire like blue, white and if lucky red flowered varieties of the Pride of Madiera echiums and red flowered bottle brushes.

Summer special effects include the highly perfumed frangipanis and the lady of the night, continuously flowering plumbagoes and the marmelade bush streptosolens, while the yellow spires of cassias add distinction to summer and autumn flower beds and banks.

Perennials

The most reliable and exotic include the long flowering lion’s ear/leonotis, African daisies, pineapple and candelabra sages, lavenders, cascading rosemary and of course geraniums/pelargoniums.

Succulents and cacti

Naturally many succulents, cacti and agaves thrive in the hot dry climate. Although the six metre high flowers of the agave century plant only appear after eight to ten years other varieties will flower annually. Our favourites include aeoniums whose yellow conical shaped rosettes of flowers are held high above the exotic leaves around Christmas time, the colourful flowered aloes including the medicinal aloe vera, the orange red flowered cotyledons, the red flowered cabbage like echeverias and the exotic flowered epicactus and orchid cactus/epiphyllum -even though the flowers of the last two wither in less than a day.

Ground cover

Ground cover plants are important for continuity of colour from trees, shrubs and perennials to pathways and terraces, for covering banks and underplanting trees. In each case spreading low growing plants such as purple and white flowered lantanas, messems and giant pig face help reduce the extent of capillary evaporation from the sun baked surface of otherwise exposed soils.

Colourful often perfumed hedges

Hedges are still important along the coast to give shelter from hot winds from North Africa, storm carried salt, security and privacy. Many property owners opt for something more exotic than the very serviceable cypress and good for nothing/gandula hedges by planting flowering hedges. Among the most popular are bougainvilleas, hibiscus, oleander, lantana, bitter orange and the Japanese mock orange, pittosporum – the latter three being pleasantly perfumed. Prickly pear cacti hedges will still be seen in undeveloped areas acting as a firebreak, intruder/animal deterrent and a source of fruit for jams and liquors.

Sun ripened fruits and nuts

One of the main advantages and indeed thrills of the most sheltered gardens within the subtropical coastal strip is that exotic fruits can be grown. These include avocados, bananas, dates, guavas, lychees, mangoes, nisperos, papayas, macadamia and pistachio nuts and even pineapples can be successfully grown as well as delicious figs, sweet Moscatel grapes and the full range of citrus fruits – oranges, mandarins, grapefruits, kumquats, limes, lemons.

Perpetual lemon trees that flower every six to eight weeks are very popular as they bear yellowing lemons throughout the year. Some call them the ‘gin and tonic’ trees!

Bulbs

Unfortunately many bulbs that grow in inland Spain suffer along the coast from slug and worm attacks during the drier months. However clumps of agapanthus, Madonna and Asiatic lilies and society garlic (grown in rich, damp and semi shaded conditions) can be summer eye stoppers as are clumps of Dutch and Spanish irises and freesias in the spring.

Indoor plants become outdoor plants

One of the delights of living in Spain is that the house plants one grew in centrally heated rooms and conservatories in Ireland are grown in the garden, courtyards and patios and on apartment terraces. Albeit often in pots and in semi shade or areas shaded for a good part of the day during the summer months and with regular watering – sometimes twice a day. Popular plants include aspidistras, bromeliads, orchids, flamingo flowers, codiaeums, snake plants and stag horn ferns.

Annuals

They have not been forgotten but do not have the pride of place in Spanish coastal gardens where many are burnt up by the scorching summer suns even if watered twice a day. The most reliable in semi shaded but still hot summer positions are petunias, sun plant/portulacas, zinnias and busy lizzies. For winter months petunias, pansies and violas tend to be the favourites.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe February 2008.