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Mediterranean Gardening Association in Portugal - Spring Conference 2016
Dry Gardens in the Mediterranean - ‘an undiscovered diversity’
Pre-conference tour, Sintra 19-21 April
Conference, Lagos 22-25 April
(in association with Mediterranean Gardening International)

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Cape St. Vincent
Click on the images below to enlarge them

Under no circumstances can Sintra be described as having a Mediterranean climate. Its elevated position and the effect of the moist winds blowing in from the Atlantic give rise to vegetation that can only be described as “lush”.

All three gardens we visited illustrated this very well. The first was at Quinta dos Lagos, one of a number of Sintra homes constructed by royalty in the late 19th century as places of escape during the hot summer months. A large area of grass surrounded by trees sweeps downwards from the house. There are mature specimens from around the world, including an ancient Ficus macrophylla, a Magnolia grandiflora and cedar trees from the Himalayas and from Lebanon.

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Quinta dos Lagos
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Phytolacca dioica

The owner of the property, a hands-on gardener, took us on a tour which encompassed a rose arbour, a large, spring-fed bassin, an art nouveau greenhouse, carefully maintained as it would have been when it was constructed in 1907, and woodland pathways winding through trees to follies and shady seating places. We were all struck by the beautiful neoclassical tiles used to decorate the many garden features and could easily imagine how the garden might have been used in its heyday, with the nobility strolling around and resting on the hidden benches in the shade.

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Art nouveau greenhouse
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Tiled seats overlooking the bassin
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A shady nook with sculpture
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Neoclassical tiled bench

Next, we set off for Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point in Europe, stopping on the way at Verdeal da Roca to visit a garden and nursery on the site of a 15th century water mill. Water courses still run through the garden which was packed with colourful plants including proteas, strelitzia and a lovely anisodontea. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hung from tree branches and the planting was interspersed with pots and interesting 'objets' including a shaped stone formerly used for making ricotta cheese.

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Proteas in a mixed border
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Strelitzia reginae
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Anisodontea 'Elegans Princess'
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Tillandsia usneoides

The star of the show though was not a plant, but Greca, over 100 years old, and one of several tortoises who make the garden their home.

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Greca

A last stop before lunch was the windswept point, Cabo da Roca, from where the Atlantic Ocean stretches out towards North America. The headland was carpeted with wild flowers including natives Armeria pseudarmeria and Pallensis maritima, but also the beautiful but invasive South African ice plant, Carpobrotus edulis.

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Armeria pseudarmeria
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Pallensis maritima
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Carpobrotus edulis

Lush vegetation was also in evidence at our third garden, the park of Montserrate. The whole garden is full of the sound of running water, while deep green underplanting flourishes under the enormous trees. The gardens and parkland were landscaped in Victorian naturalistic style to suit the fancy of its English owner, Sir Francis Cook, and include an impressive waterfall and a cromlech designed by English writer and art collector William Beckford.

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Beckford’s waterfall
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Ferns growing on an unstripped cork oak
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Rhododendrons flourish near the waterfall

There are many flowers in the park, but the overwhelming colour is green. A huge variety of trees from all over the world are to be seen: Cork Oaks, California Redwoods, Pohutukawas from New Zealand, a Norfolk Island Pine thought to be the tallest tree in the park, Swamp Cypresses, Monkey Puzzles, Chilean Wine Palms, an Australian Banyan, a Montezuma Cypress and a Mourning Cypress, all underplanted with rhododendrons, camellias, dark green Vinca major, bergenias, dazzlingly white arum lilies, primroses and deep pink foxgloves.

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Arum lilies
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Rhododendron
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Foxglove

One area with a special microclimate houses an abundance of tree ferns, while a large lake provides ideal conditions for exotic aquatic plants such as papyrus and water lilies. Pink Geranium maderense, orange clivias, jasmine, wisteria and strelitzias with heads like exotic birds border the path up to the Palace, built in fantastical Moorish style and surrounded rather incongruously by an English lawn. Eclectic artefacts (an intricately-carved chimera, an Indian Arch, a Roman Arch, a Boulder House) add further touches of eccentricity.

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Geranium maderense with buff-tailed bumble bee
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Strelitzias guard the palace
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Corridor in the palace
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Chimera

On Thursday we were in the Lisbon area, kicking off with a private visit to the palace and gardens of the Marqueses da Fronteira. A pinkish-red arcaded and colonnaded palace leads on to huge water-tanks and galleries tiled in azure blue azulejos, fronted by a formal renaissance–style garden of clipped box and classical statues. An intricate geometrical design of squares, triangles, cones, semi-circles and circles bewilders the eye. Red roses were just beginning to flower inside the box-edged beds, the Lisbon skyline providing a considerable contrast in the distance.

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Parterre...
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...with statue
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A rose among the green...
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Araucaria bidwilli

The huge water-tanks are home to carp, terrapins and a whole family of ducklings. We were led away from the formal garden, up grand staircases and along galleries decorated with more colourful azulejos depicting allegories of the arts and sciences, cats, porcupines, hunting scenes and people partying. Statues include figures portraying the seven classical planets, as well as busts of the Kings of Portugal. The overall effect was overwhelming.

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Water tank
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Line astern... ...almost
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Nearer to the house, the planting becomes shady and more naturalistic, reflecting a softer, more romantic spirit. A tiled and shell-studded grotto sits in a small courtyard containing a fountain with an elaborately curlicued design. Inside the palace, not all of which is open to the public, we were shown the Room of the Battles, which has tiled panels representing the Portuguese War of Restoration and the pleasing library overlooking the parterre, with its polished wooden floor, globe, piano and impressive shelves of books.

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We were lucky enough to be guided by Dr. Cristina Castel Branco, a distinguished garden historian, on this visit and the next one, which was to the Ajuda Botanic Gardens. After a very agreeable lunch, we were free to wander round and marvel at the variety of plants and trees on view. The upper part of the gardens contains labelled specimens, while the lower part consists of two flower-filled parterres with allegedly four kilometres of box hedging, separated by a large formal fountain decorated with snakes and other water creatures.

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Aloe ciliaris
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Aloe debrana
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Callistemon speciosus
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Dombeya cayeuxii
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Dracaena draco (Dragon tree)
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Echium candicans
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Erythrina x sykesii (Australian coral tree)
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Eugenia involucrata
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Ficus macrophylla
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Genista canariensis
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Lavatera arborea
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Limonium perezii
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Nolinare curvata (Elephant’s foot)
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Rumex lunaria
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Schotia afra
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Sophora japonica
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Spiraea betulifolia Pall.var. Corymbosa
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Washingtonia robusta
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Head Gardener

Our afternoon visit started off with a very quick nip round the splendid exhibits in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, highlights of which for me were a collection of Alexander the Great coins, some lovely Egyptian cats, wonderful illuminated manuscripts and various Monets, Manets and Renoirs. Then we were given a guided tour of the garden.

The complex of buildings housing the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has been designed to integrate perfectly into the surrounding landscape and to blend with the naturalistically-planted park. The somewhat grim concrete of the main building is slightly softened by wildflower planting along the balconies. It comes as rather a shock to realise that one-third of the garden is planted on the roof of the underground car-park, mature trees and all. The design requires some ingenuity when it comes to dealing with water run-off: trees absorb some of the overflow and much of the water is channeled into a series of water-features.

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Calouste Gulbenkian and friend
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Nature in the city

The park is large and peaceful, completely cut off from the city bustle. Paths wind through the undergrowth, leading visitors through a series of ever-larger ponds planted with yellow flag irises, narcissi and water-lilies. Dense woodland is planted with tree ferns, Acanthus mollis and blue echiums while the lawns are edged with a variety of grasses and small flowering bushes.

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Dicksonia antarctica
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Echium and acanthus
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Small pond – irises and narcissi
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Large pond – water-lilies

Visitors push their way through the shrubs bordering the narrow paths, to arrive eventually at a daisy-starred lawn sloping down to a small lake bordered by grasses and yellow irises. The grass looks very inviting to both people and wildlife.

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End of a long day
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Irises round the lake
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Invitation to wildlife (Egyptian goose)...
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...and courting couples

Leaving Sintra with some regret, we travelled down to Lagos for the main conference, the highlight of which was a most interesting and informative talk by Olivier Filippi about lawn alternatives. (Full details of the conference programme can be found here). The two afternoons were occupied by guided wild-flower walks, the first to Amoreira Beach on the Atlantic coast and the second to the promontory of Cape St. Vincent, the extreme south-western point of Portugal. Conditions varied: at Amoreira beach the mist came in from the sea as we were walking, while at the Cape, a very busy wind was blowing. However both are sites of extraordinary biodiversity and we were overwhelmed by the vast and fascinating variety of wildflowers.

Below are two slide shows of some of the wild-flowers that we saw on the two walks.

Amoreira Beach
  • Amoreira Beach dunes
  • Amoreira Beach landscape
  • Anchusa calcarea
  • Antirrhinum majus (Snapdragon)
  • Armeria maritima with Zygaena
  • Centaurea pullata
  • Cistus ladanifer
  • Cistus salvifolius
  • Cynomorium coccineum (Maltese Fungus)
  • Dipcadi serotinum (Brown Bluebells) crop
  • Dorycnium hirsutum (Canary Clover)
  • Fibrous roots of Carpobrotus edulis (Hottentot Fig)
  • Leaves of Eryngium maritimum (Sea Holly)
  • Leaves of Pancratium maritimum (Sea Daffodil)
  • Matthiola sinuata (Sea Stock)
  • Medicago marina (Sea Medick)
  • Papaver somniferum
Cape St. Vincent
  • <i>Anagallis monelli</i> (Blue pimpernel)
  • <i>Astericus maritimus</i> (Yellow Sea Daisy)
  • <i>Bellardia trixago</i> (Bellardia)
  • <i>Calystegia soldanella</i> (Sea Bindweed)
  • <i>Campanula lusitanica</i>
  • <i>Centaurium erythraea</i>
  • <i>Cerinthe major</i> (Cream Honeywort)
  • <i>Cistus palhinae</i>
  • <i>Daucus halophilus</i> (Wild Carrot)
  • <i>Lavandula stoechas</i>
  • <i>Linaria algarvensis</i> (Algarve Toadflax)
  • <i>Lupinus angustifolia</i> (Narrow-leaved Lupin)
  • Rosemary
  • <i>Thymus camphoratus</i> (Camphor Thyme)
  • <i>Tuberaria guttata</i> (Spotted Rock-rose)

Finally, huge thanks to Rosie Peddle and all her team for a splendidly organised and highly enjoyable week in Portugal, with a special mention for Teresa Chuva who looked after us so well in Sintra.

Text: Michèle Bailey & Christine Savage
Photographs: Michèle Bailey, Ian Davis, Roland Leclercq & Christine Savage