|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Costa Blanca Branch of the MGS
The Botanical Garden of the University of Valencia has a long and interesting history from its origins as a medicinal garden to the setting for the mature and extensive plant collections that we can see today. In 1567 the municipal government of the city gave the university a site where plants necessary for the teaching of medicine could be grown, but in the 18th century the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ came to Spain with the new Bourbon monarchs, who encouraged the expansion of scientific knowledge. The university then proposed a comprehensive botanical garden and separated the teaching of botany from that of medicine. Those interested in local crop improvements also pressed for a site for research and in 1798 the city yielded to all the demands and work was begun, only to find that the chosen site was unsuitable. A new and better-irrigated site was finally offered in 1802, close to the river Turia, and these 4 hectares form the basis of the current garden.
The new garden suffered during the Napoleonic invasion, but by the middle of the 19th century it was the leading botanical garden in Spain and was used to test the acclimatization of new plants being brought back by expeditions to South America. This led to the need for a glasshouse to protect the exotic plants, a challenging project which was completed in 1862. This ‘Tropical Glasshouse’ now houses rainforest vegetation.
Before the end of the 19th century another large greenhouse was built to house frost-sensitive palms, and four smaller ones were added to hold collections of orchids, ferns, bromeliads and carnivorous plants. In 1900 the Shade House was opened, an iron lattice construction inspired by the glass canopies of railway stations of the time. This building was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt following the original plans in 1990.
The garden unfortunately suffered a decline in the 20th century and was damaged by the flood of 1957. Some restoration took place in the 1960s, but it was not until 1987 that a comprehensive rehabilitation was begun by the university which ended with the construction of a research building in 2000. Today the garden contains 4,500 different species of plants, a library and a herbarium. It holds conferences and classes, houses exhibitions and plays an important part in the life of the city.
Our visit to the garden, on June 10th, began in the oldest part of the garden, the Botanic School, where the evolution of plants is explained. It also houses some of the oldest and largest trees, up to 160 years old, which are very impressive specimens. There are also intriguing rarities, such as a pair of Podocarpus macrophyllus, of which the female tree was hung with blueish fruits.
We visited the areas holding plants native to the Mediterranean region, where there is a fern collection in the shadier and damper part, and a rock garden of drought-resistant plants such as Phlomis, lavenders and Scabiosa cretica, which has interesting spherical seedheads. As we neared the Tropical Glasshouse (which was replanted in 1990), we noticed a huge and ancient multitrunked Phoenix reclinata (Senegal date palm).
Next to the Tropical Glasshouse is the distinctive Shade House, which is attractively planted with some very beautiful shade-loving plants, among which we especially admired clumps of Alpinia zerumbet in full flower and colourful Chamaedorea palms.
Some of the most recently developed areas contain plants from specific geographical areas such as South Africa, California and Australia. We were pleased to see several different Australian Melaleuca species with flowers of mauve and white, an interesting South African Indigofera, and beautiful white Dietes grandiflora in flower.
The part of the garden devoted to succulent plants is also segregated geographically, so that plants from the warm dry areas of America and Africa are grouped separately. In the American section we saw huge Washingtonia palms towering over very large agaves, cacti, flowering specimens of Yucca rostrata and Dasylirion.
Above the aloes, aeoniums and crassulas in the African area we saw trees of Moringa peregrina and Dichrostachys cinerea, with its amazing pink and yellow flowers which we had admired on a previous visit. Completing our route back to the entrance, we passed through the collection of Valencian flora and part of the extensive palm collection.
After leaving the Botanical Garden, we had the opportunity to appreciate several of the important architectural features of the city. Our route took us through the impressive Torres de Quart, one of the two remaining vestiges of the medieval town wall, with a great wooden doorway flanked by two huge semi-circular towers. We next investigated the 15th-century Silk Exchange, or Lonja de Seda. The manufacture of silk (including the culture of the silkworms and the growing of mulberry trees, Morus alba, to feed them, as well as the weaving of the silk threads) was the main industry of Valencia from the 15th to the 18th century and provided work for half of the population. This magnificent building, which has World Heritage status, is in three sections, the largest of which is the ‘Contracts Hall’ built in the Valencian gothic style. The twisting marble columns fan out like palm leaves when they reach the high, vaulted ceiling (which was originally painted blue with gold stars). There is also a small garden with orange trees and hedged beds of herbaceous plants.
Nearby we encountered a more modern example of Valencian architecture, the Central Market, an eye-catching building finished in 1928, whose architects tried to capture the Valencian spirit in their design, using the colours of the Valencian flag in the windows.
After a short time inside the market, exploring the many food stalls, we left that busy area and walked to the peaceful gardens of the art museum (MuVIM) where its excellent restaurant provided us with a very enjoyable lunch and a chance to relax and discuss all that we had seen. Our thanks were given again to Salvador, our enthusiastic guide and perpetual source of information.
Text by Carol Hawes
This important nature reserve, in the north of the province of Alicante contains 2,300 hectares of the best-preserved Mediterranean forest in the Valencian Community. It lies roughly east to west along the Bética mountain range between the towns of Ibi and Alcoy. It is famous for its high level of biodiversity: a book describing and illustrating the species of plants found in the reserve identifies 922 species.
Several distinct types of forest exist within the reserve, depending on the orientation of the site, the precipitation received and the altitude. On the drier, southern face of the mountain there are some areas of evergreen oaks (Quercus rotundifolia) at low levels, but on the northern face, where it is more humid, the lower slopes are covered by dense forests of these trees. Above about 1000 metres, deciduous trees become dominant, especially Fraxinus ornus (flowering or manna ash) and Quercus faginea (Portuguese oak), although on the most sheltered, humid and highest slopes Fraxinus ornus is accompanied by Acer granatense (small-leaved or Granada maple), Sorbus aria (whitebeam) and yew trees (Taxus baccata). Among the 25 different tree species which grow naturally here, the rarest are Quercus cerrioides (an unusual hybrid oak with interesting large leaves), with ten specimens, Sorbus torminalis (just 14 trees) and Juniperus thurifera, of which this is the only example in the province of Alicante.
Our visit on May 20th began at the impressive building known as ‘Font Roja Natura’, which was built in 1926 as a hotel but which now houses a scientific research station, part of the University of Alicante. The Visitors’ Centre provides information displays about the reserve and hosts events and courses open to the public. Next to it is the 19th-century church (the latest of several buildings replacing the original of the 17th century), known as the ‘Santuario’, which was built to commemorate a local vision of the Virgin. Nearby is the spring, after which the area is named, and here we saw a rare endemic plant growing in the shaded stone wall, Saxifraga corsica.
We all strolled along the side of the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy the panoramic view of the Polop valley. Our guide, Salvador Pastor, whose grandfather had lived in the valley below us, gave us some interesting insights into the history of the area. He told us that the valley floor had been cleared of its trees to provide pasture for sheep, and later used for vineyards until phylloxera destroyed the vines.
We then began our slow ascent of the north-facing hillside, past the church and the ruins of the houses once used by workers in the hotel (soon to be restored). As we walked, Salvador explained the immense importance of the forest ecosystem. Not only do the trees stabilise the soil, preventing erosion, they also provide nesting sites for birds (which control insects causing damage to the trees) and they drop their leaves, which build up into a layer of vegetable matter. It is this material which provides food and cover for worms which oxygenate the soil, and for other insects, which break down the fallen leaves and return the elements to it. In this way, through the process of photosynthesis, trees extract carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the earth.
As we climbed the slope we passed a spectacular specimen of Quercus rotundifolia (the species of oak which prefers this warm climate). This oak is an important element of this forest as it resists snow damage better than Pinus halepensis. Significant damage was caused in areas of the reserve populated by this type of pine during the unusually heavy snowfall of last winter.
We passed through the shady picnic area, which is much appreciated by local residents, and progressed upwards through the oak forest to the beginning of the deciduous forest. Here we saw many examples of Quercus faginea and Fraxinus ornus. Among the deciduous trees we were pleased to see some flowering shrubs, such as Cistus albidus, and smaller flowering plants including Saponaria ocymoides, Globularia vulgaris, Linum narbonense and Lotus corniculatus. We were especially interested to find the flowers of two plants endemic to this area and rare elsewhere, Ononis aragonensis and Cytisus heterochrous.
Other aspects of the walk which we enjoyed included the chance to climb into a gap between the slabs of rock which form the face of the cliff to experience the draught of cold air emerging from fissures through the mountain. This feature is known locally as ‘the frozen cave’.
We also appreciated the information displays about the production of charcoal and lime in past times and the replicas of a charcoal heap and lime kiln. The lime, mixed with sand, gravel and water, was essential for making mortar for building, and the charcoal was used in the houses as fuel.
In all, there was a great deal to think about and to discuss as we retraced our steps down the path to the restaurant, where we sat in the shade and enjoyed a lengthy and delicious lunch. We had all learned much from Salvador’s explanations and offered him our thanks for making the day so interesting and enjoyable.
Text by Carol Hawes
The weather in the south-east of Spain during the winter and spring of this year was very unusual: there was far more rain and snow than is normal for this region, and while some of us rejoiced in the prospect of a bountiful display of wild flowers, others suffered from flooded houses and damaged gardens. Snow fell on the beaches, a rare and interesting sight, but also on inland areas unaccustomed to receiving it, causing widespread damage to trees, especially pines (Pinus halepensis) and olive trees. Oscillations of temperature, both by day and night, spurred some plants into early growth, while others were damaged by frost. On one day, spring might seem to have arrived and summer to be just a short time away, only for dull, cool winter days to return again. However, plants in general have appreciated the extra moisture, the soil has been cleansed of residues left by irrigation with treated water and gardeners have begun to repair any damage suffered. And yes, the wild flowers have been especially beautiful and widespread this year.
On April 29th we met up at a large and impressive garden centre near to the first garden to be visited that day, that of Edward and Beth Kendall, near Muro de Alcoy. After we had taken advantage of the opportunity to investigate the displays of well-labelled plants, and to purchase some of them, Edward led us in convoy to his garden. Beth and other members welcomed us with warming drinks, as this was an unusually cold day and the house and garden are on a shady, north-facing slope among pine trees. Luckily, the ground was not as muddy as they had feared it might be after the recent heavy rain and we were able to explore their grassy terraces, looking for the last of the orchids (Ophrys scolopax) and discovering other treasures such as Aphyllanthes monspeliensis and a double white banksia rose climbing an old almond tree.
Beth explained that the attractions of the site – its tranquillity, views to the cliffs above the house and the profusion of wild plants - more than made up for occasional problems with flooding.
When we had all gathered back by our cars, Edward led us the few kilometres to the house of Maggie and William Pack, who formerly ran the ‘Oasis’ Garden Club. They had invited many former members and friends to join our group for a barbecue lunch and to view the latest developments in their garden. When we first arrived, it was a pleasure just to stand on the main terrace, enjoying the panoramic view across the wide valley to the distant hills; afterwards, when we looked down, we noticed the many planted areas and garden features below us and wanted to explore them.
We followed the sinuous gravel paths downwards, noting the good mixture of flowering plants, such as osteospermums, lavenders and other silver-foliaged plants, with shrubs, palms, yuccas, agaves and different trees interspersed among them for their interest and shade. Groundcover plants and spreading succulents were used to clothe areas of sloping ground in order to prevent erosion of the soil, and terrace walls of stone, slices of tree trunk and other materials added interest as we looked back upwards towards the house.
Eventually, we reached the attractive pool and pagoda fountain. Here too is a new trellised rose arbour, with a seat (made by William) facing the pool. Nearby, on this lower level, were some exceptionally beautiful clumps of bearded irises in full flower.
When we finally returned to the main terrace behind the house, everyone was gathering to enjoy the magnificent three-course lunch (especially welcome on such a surprisingly cool day for late April).
It was difficult to believe that both of the gardens that we had visited had suffered considerable damage from flooding during the heavy rains of the last winter. Obviously, much effort must have been made by the garden owners and by Maggie and William’s garden helper, Lyn Ring, to ensure that order was restored in time for our visit. However, keen gardeners do not rest for long, and we learnt that already William has a new project in mind.
Text by Carol Hawes
Elche is a very beautiful and unusual city whose historic Palm Grove, the largest in Europe, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. Three hundred thousand date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) surround the old city centre in various parcels of land known as huertos, which are the last surviving examples of the ancient agricultural system initiated by the Moors. It is thought that the Phoenicians brought the date palm to the area at least 2,500 years ago, but it was the Moors who developed systems of irrigation to take advantage of the fertile soils of the region, using lines of palm trees to enclose and shade the ground where fruits and vegetables were grown. The history of the Palm Grove and the lives of those who lived and worked in it are fully illustrated in the interesting Palmeral Museum, a renovated traditional 19th century farmhouse, which also houses wonderful examples of palma blanca (bleached palm fronds) and explains the processes involved in their production.
The creation of palma blanca is unique to Elche, where they are carried in the Palm Sunday procession through the city. Some of the fronds are hand woven by traditional methods into intricate ornaments and each Easter the most beautiful specimens are sent to the Pope and other notable people. The museum also houses a workshop where the craft of weaving the palm fronds is demonstrated and a recreation of a traditional huerto with its planting areas and irrigation system.
The most famous of Elche’s huertos is undoubtedly the Huerto del Cura, named after the priest who owned it until 1918. It is still a private garden but welcomes visitors from all over the world, as it did in the past, when many important people came to see the famous Imperial Palm. One of the past visitors, in 1894, was the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, after whom this palm was named.
This extraordinary specimen is unusual because the main trunk produced new shoots, not at ground level, as is usual, but over one metre higher, so that the current eight trunks are all fed by sap from the main trunk. The tree is now 165 years old, and requires considerable structural support to ensure its future survival. The garden contains a considerable number of well-labelled palms of many genera as well as an outstanding collection of succulents and cacti. There are also attractive pools and paths that wander between beds of shrubs, bulbs and ferns of many types.
The branch visit by our group of sixteen on 1st April began with an hour exploring the Huerto del Cura, followed by another spent enjoying the information displays in the museum and strolling through the recreation of a typical huerto, complete with flowing irrigation water. We then walked the short distance to the Glorieta, where we lunched at one of the many restaurants and bars which surround this attractive square with its distinctive tile-faced raised beds of flowering plants among more palms. Afterwards a short stroll brought us to one of the most recent innovations in the city: one of the walls of the 12th-century Calaforra Tower has, in the last two years, been transformed into a ‘vertical garden’, which also houses a small bar.
We took the opportunity to rest here and enjoy drinks or ices while hearing about the work involved in the construction and planting of the garden. We just had time to view the outside of the Basilica of Saint Mary (site of the mosque when the town was conquered by King James 1 in 1265) and to admire the distinct architectural styles of its various façades before retracing our steps to our cars for the drive to the Moorish Tea Garden, near Crevillente.
This garden, properly known as the Carmen del Campillo, is astonishing, not only for its great beauty and interest, but because it is situated in a very quiet and secluded location, among fields of olives, almonds and pomegranates, and some groves of oranges. When we all arrived there and entered this ‘oasis’ of very tall palms and cypresses, shut off from the surrounding countryside behind its enclosing walls, it was like entering another world, another time.
The garden is open to the public on most evenings and one is allowed to wander through the gardens and explore some parts of the house (which itself is almost a museum) before settling in one of the many different gardens to enjoy traditional teas (of many flavours) and delicious pastries. We all explored the many fascinating corners of this Moorish house and garden, enjoying both the excellent architectural features and the clipped hedges, pools, fountains and wide variety of plants. Some of us lingered until the early evening, unwilling to leave such a beautiful place.
Text by Carol Hawes
"My wife Carol and I have always enjoyed visiting gardens and also planning, planting and caring for our own. My career in computing gave us the opportunity to spend time in Australia and Singapore, where we came to love the exciting tropical and subtropical plants. We made a ‘subtropical garden’ on the south coast of England (growing some of the plants in pots and sheltering them in conservatories during the coldest months). It was featured in several magazines and was open to the public under the ‘National Gardens Scheme’. The only way to expand the growing of our favourite plants, when taking early retirement, was to move to somewhere with a warmer climate. So we chose a suitable plot of land in south-east Spain and began to design and create our current garden in 2003. The garden is now quite mature and gives us great pleasure, as do the visits from gardening groups with whom we enjoy sharing the results of our efforts. For several years were have greatly valued our association with the Costa Blanca branch of the MGS and now look forward to the challenge of ensuring its continuation, with the help of some of our enthusiastic Spanish members."
"Mi esposa Carol y yo siempre hemos disfrutado visitando jardines y también la planificación, la plantación y el cuidado de nuestro propio. Mi carrera en la informática nos dio la oportunidad de pasar tiempo en Australia y Singapur, donde llegamos a amar a las emocionantes plantas tropicales y subtropicales. Hicimos un 'jardín subtropical' en la costa sur de Inglaterra (creciendo algunas de las plantas en macetas y abrigandolas en invernaderos durante los meses más frios). Apareció en varias revistas y fue abierto al público en el marco del "Plan Nacional de Jardines”. La única forma de expandir el cultivo de nuestras plantas favoritas, al tomar la jubilación anticipada, era para ir a algún lugar con un clima más cálido. Así que elegimos un terreno adecuado en el sureste de España y comenzó a diseñar y crear nuestro jardín actual en 2003. El jardín es ahora bastante maduro, y nos da mucho gusto, al igual que las visitas de grupos de jardinería con los que nos gusta compartir los resultados de nuestros esfuerzos. Desde hace varios años apreciamos mucho nuestra asociación con la sucursal de la Costa Blanca del MGS y ahora esperamos con interés el desafío de asegurar su.continuación, con la ayuda de algunos de nuestros miembros españoles entusiastos."