|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Costa Blanca Branch of the MGS
For a list of this Branch's Future Events, as well as reports from more recent Past Events, click here.
Both of these gardens were created in the 19th century on land that was then outside the city and was used for farming, orchards, for nurseries or for growing cut flowers. Although they are now surrounded by urban developments, they are important green oases, full of mature trees and interesting garden features, and free access to them is very much valued.
The Monforte Garden is one of the most important Neoclassical gardens in Spain. It was created for the Marquis of San Juan, Juan Bautista Romero, a rich silk merchant, and the mansion and garden were completed in 1859. On the death of the owner it passed to a close relative, Josefa Monforte Parrés, from whom it takes its current name. The original garden has been restored and enlarged several times but always the design aspects of the first plans have been respected. During the last thirty years, modern methods of irrigation and garden maintenance have been introduced in order to conserve this historic gem.
The three-storey mansion, in one corner of the plot, dictates the layout of the garden. The northern face overlooks the severely Neoclassical Old Parterre and at ground level it opens out on to a semi-circular patio featuring busts of important men of ideas, such as Dante and Petrarch. Two domesticated lions, symbolizing the dominance of man over nature, guard the gate to the geometrically-designed Old Parterre. The four areas of topiary hedges on each side of the main axis surround statues representing the four continents and at the crossing of the paths there is a central fountain with a statue of Daphnis and Chloe, as a reminder of the power of love. Two more areas of topiary contain statues representing Winter and Spring. All of the many fine statues of Italian marble were made in Rome by a Valencian sculptor.
After this point the design of the garden becomes much less formal, with winding paths in a more Romantic style, all part of the original desire of the architect to reflect the idea that in some areas nature should be allowed to rule instead of man. Almost at the furthest point from the house there is an artificial mound, which was constructed partly out of the necessity to conceal a large reservoir of water at a level higher than the rest of the garden for irrigation purposes, but it is surrounded by attractive paths circling it and leading to a Mirador at the top. There are many mature trees in this area, some of them original, including huge specimens of Pinus halepensis, and later plantings of trees such as Magnolia grandiflora, Ceiba speciosa, Ginkgo biloba and Bauhinia variegata.
Between the mound and the mansion there is a large circular pool, ringed with weeping evergreen trees, two of which are the rare Cupressus funebris and Casuarina. It contains clumps of Papyrus and it is surrounded by hedges of Pittosporum tobira.
Nearby is another informal area leading back towards the eastern façade of the mansion and the impressive arch which separates the Romantic and Neoclassical areas. This arch is surmounted by statues of mythical seahorses and it has been restored to its original colours. On the other side of the arch, the formality of the design returns and the patio on the eastern side of the mansion features many small statues of children or cherubs surrounded by the original paving made of small stones laid in attractive patterns.
The mansion and garden remained the property of the Monforte family until 1971, when they were acquired by the City Council. Some land adjoining the garden was also bought and planted following the themes of the original garden, and later the mansion itself was restored. Now both mansion and garden are important components of life in the city.
The Ayora mansion and garden created for José Ayora at the end of the nineteenth century are also important today to those who live around them. The mansion is used for educational purposes by the ‘People’s University’ and for social events; the old garden has been restored and many new species have been introduced. Recently a new metro station nearby prompted the redevelopment of another part of the historic Ayora garden and the inclusion of a new landscaped open space and sports facilities.
The mansion was built to a square plan in the Modernista style, with attractive facades of natural stone and contrasting red brick, ornamented with ceramic plaques in blue and white. Its most outstanding feature is an impressive square tower above the four-sided hipped roof, topped with a cupola covered in tiles with a copper-coloured metallic sheen. It stands in the most northerly part of the current garden and it was used as a family home until the 1960s, after which its condition deteriorated and it was bought by the City Council in 1976. It was saved from the threat of demolition and instead declared a ‘Building of Cultural Interest’ in 1983. After being used by the council in various ways, it was recently thoroughly restored and opened to the public.
Immediately surrounding the mansion there are many tall Phoenix canariensis and Washingtonia filifera palms, which frame and complement the building and form part of the original plantings. Another screen of trees, including many jacarandas, follows the boundary walls with an opening into a section where some original plants such as orange and lemon trees remain among others which were part of the redevelopment of the area in the 1980s, including an impressive Araucaria columnaris.
The largest and most richly planted area is reached through another opening in the wall around the mansion. It is a large rectangular space enclosed by high walls and it was also bought by José Ayora when he bought the site for his house. It was at that time a plant nursery and contained some trees which still exist, including clumps of Ficus macrophyllaf. columnaris with gigantic trunks.
Large parts of this garden were replanted after its purchase in 1976 so there are now many mature trees which offer welcome shade to the visitor. Many sinuous paths wind between hedged beds containing a wide variety of trees and shrubs, underplanted with attractive flowering plants. Some of the most interesting and beautiful examples are huge trees of Ceiba speciosa, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, Casuarina cunninghamiana, Livistona chinensis, Grevillea robusta, Magnolia grandiflora, Metrosideros and Hibiscus. Underplantings include many Brugmansia, Acanthus and Crinum plants. There are ceramic benches on which to rest, fountains and a rose pergola, all of which help to make this garden an enticing place in which to linger.
Outside the original wall, to the west of the mansion, another area was redeveloped to provide an open space for public enjoyment and games, enclosed by a huge curving pergola covered in Bougainvillea, and planted with Jacaranda trees and many palms. More developments are under way to landscape the new metro station and sports facilities, which will enhance the already highly popular Ayora Garden.
On June 9th a group of local members was privileged to be guided around the Monforte and Ayora Gardens by one of our members, Salvador Pastor, who is one of the city’s head gardeners. His knowledge of these gardens is extensive and inspiring. Our visit to Valencia ended with a delicious paella lunch in the beautiful Viveros Gardens and we all felt that we had experienced a very special day.
Text by Carol Hawes
The Vall d’Albaida, or the valley of the Albaida river, is an area which lies just to the north of the Province of Alicante, at the southern edge of the Valencian community. It enjoys a typical mediterranean climate, with hot summers and relatively cold winters and some snowfalls. The two gardens that we visited are situated towards the eastern end of the area, in gently undulating countryside planted mainly with olive trees, which were especially beautiful when we saw them as they were in full flower. While the two gardens are only separated by a few kilometres, they are quite different in appearance: each reflects the personality of the owner and the length of time it has been established.
The garden of Laetitia Ashford-Brown, near the village of La Pobla del Duc, where we began the day, was started about ten years ago on a level plot of around 2000 square metres, which at that time contained only the house and four mulberry trees. Laetitia planned the garden carefully, with the aim of creating an elegant, shady garden full of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs. She has gradually added artistic elements such as a small fishpond, attractive fountains of stone or ceramic, touches of colour in the form of painted trellis, glazed plant pots, tiled panels and small statues of geese or amusing figures.
From the front of the house one looks out over a peaceful mixture of shrubs, such as Photinia, Teucrium, Philadelphus, Salvia, lavender, rosemary and roses, among trees which include Cercis chinensis, Magnolia grandiflora, Cotinus coggygria, mulberries and cypresses. The ground is mainly covered with white pebbles, giving a pleasant surface on which to wander, but in the centre is a raised area paved with grey stone, which adds interest. On it sits one of the fountains, in the form of a stone ball on a pedestal, next to the paved path which leads to the terrace at the front of the house with its three arches framed by Trachelospermum.
On one side of the house there is a small, colourful sitting area with the soothing sound of a gently bubbling ceramic fountain, while at the back of the house there is a large tiled patio covered with a strong timber-framed roof and fitted with elegant cream blinds for shelter in cooler times. This attractive outdoor room, with its stylish bamboo furniture, was where Laetitia, her sister Victoria and some friends offered us refreshments during our visit.
From here, a wooden walkway leads into the rear garden, which is less formal than that at the front of the house and contains some interesting and taller trees, such as a weeping mulberry, Sophora, Celtis, Albizia, Arbutus and Tamarix. Among these are planted some yuccas, cycads and small palms, irises, lilac, Hibiscus syriacus, and a Caesalpinia gilliesii, with pittosporums and more cypresses used along the garden boundary.
A special feature in the rear garden is a raised area of gravel under a large wooden pergola which shades a small stone-edged fishpond (home to a turtle and a pretty mauve water lily), surrounded by shade-loving plants and a small statue. A Trachelospermum climbs over this pergola, and other examples were to be seen in many places in the garden. This beautiful climbing plant is obviously a favourite.
It thrives here and survives the cold winters, and it is clear that over the last ten years Laetitia has learnt (by trial and, sometimes, disappointment) which plants will adapt to the local conditions. The result of all her efforts is a very attractive garden which we all much enjoyed seeing.
The second garden of the day, that of Salvador Pastor and Paco Mengual near Ráfol de Salem, is one that some members have visited before, both a little earlier in spring and in autumn to enjoy the colourful autumnal foliage of the deciduous trees and shrubs. This garden occupies a larger site which slopes down to a stream in a small wooded valley. Planting began about twenty-five years ago and the trees in Salvador’s interesting collection are now satisfyingly mature. At the entrance to the garden there are many tall cypresses, some of which shelter the garden from the westerly winds and others which form an avenue leading to the top section of the garden where we began to see some of the unusual trees which Salvador has planted.
A tall Cotinus coggygria was in flower, stunning against the blue sky, near large bushes of both blue and pink Ceanothus, and soon afterwards we saw a magnificent oak tree, a local clone of an American oak (Quercus macrocarpa), which, unusually, always has leaves on its trunk.
Next, we paused by a tall Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis), with its long needle leaves and lots of male cones. As we began to descend along the path that winds down the slope, past colourful bushes of Berberis thunbergii, we passed under a tree with eye-catching silky purple seed pods. Salvador told us that they belonged to a Fraxinus ornus tree, and that they are only briefly this unusual colour and would soon fade to green.
A very large white poplar tree (Populus alba), with its silver-backed leaves, caught our attention as it made such a contrast to the darker foliage all around it, just before we arrived at the level area in the centre of the garden where Salvador and Paco had arranged snacks and drinks for us under a vine-shaded arbour.
After we had individually explored the nearby areas, enjoying the last irises, roses and shrubs, we set off in a convoy of cars to a local bar, where Salvador had arranged for us to share a paella lunch on the pleasantly-shaded terrace. This relaxing meal proved to be a perfect way to end a very interesting and enjoyable day.
The pointed top of the old aviary can be seen, sheltered from the wind by dense hedges of cypresses, also a large specimen of Picea abies. The view is from the top floor of the museum, which provides a different perspective of the garden design.
Large cypresses and classical statues guard the entrance to the pergola, which is lined with potted red cordylines and balls of box. At the centre there is a circular sitting area and a drinking fountain, beneath an ironwork cupola covered with both yellow and white double banksia roses.
This pool was an essential part of the design of the garden because it stores the water needed to irrigate it. When the garden was made, a new large tunnel, 2 km long, was excavated from the spring which supplied the village with water to the garden, so that the garden could be flooded with water for 24 hours once each week without reducing the supply to the village itself. The irrigation system used an ingenious layout of small channels to allow water to flow through one area of the garden and on to the next, as in the old Arabic gardens, and this form of irrigation is still used today.
There was also a greenhouse, where tender plants were housed during the cold winters, which used the heat from decomposing manure under the shelves of plants to raise the temperature. Seeds were also gathered and stored for the future in sealed glass jars. An attractive small house, built for use during the construction and enjoyment of the garden, stands near the entrance and is now a museum containing many relics from the early days of the garden, including original planting plans and seeds, as well as information on the design and construction of the garden. The restored greenhouse now houses an orchid collection and other tender plants.
Although the garden was enthusiastically cared for by several generations of the family, and their gardeners, it gradually fell into a decline until 1986, when the current owner agreed to give the property to the village authorities. The mayor organised the thorough restoration of the garden, which was reopened to the public in 2002. It is open free of charge at weekends and has excellent facilities for visitors, including a picnic area. It is also possible to follow the pleasant cypress-shaded walk (which was part of the original garden project) to the village, to visit one of the restaurants or simply to admire the many well-preserved buildings in its historic centre.
Our informal branch visit on April 28th allowed members who had never seen this garden the opportunity to learn about its history, to explore its diverse attractive areas and to experience the calm atmosphere which pervades this special garden.
Text by Carol Hawes
Alan and I were pleased to welcome 25 members and friends to our house on November 18th. Many people brought plants, bulbs or seeds to exchange at the plant fair tables, some of which were immediately snapped up by the eager hands of those who arrived early. We were especially happy to receive some rarities from nurseryman Toni Pont and some exciting tender plants from Judith and Bernhard Bauer, whose garden we visited in October.
We all gradually moved indoors to enjoy coffee and cakes, and some of the newer members were interested to watch a slideshow of photographs showing the development of our garden over the last twelve years. Once everyone was assembled, Alan gave a presentation about his visit to California to take part in the 2017 AGM programme organised by the Southern California Branch. While there he took advantage of the opportunity to see many of the gardens which we had only read about in some of the inspiring books about gardening in California that we have in our collection. He showed us photographs of his favourite gardens and gave us all a taste of his exciting and action-packed ten-day trip.
At the General Assembly, on the Sunday of the AGM, Alan gave a presentation about the 2018 AGM which we shall be hosting here in the Costa Blanca. He showed photos of some of the gardens which we plan to visit, which provoked great interest, so that we hope to see many international visitors next year.
Alan also showed these photos to us, and described the event, which will be based in Alicante and will run from the 25th to the 28th of October. There will be three days of garden visits in different areas, including the General Assembly in the Albarda Garden. There will also be a separate four-day tour of gardens in Mallorca before the AGM, from the 19th to the 23rd of October, and a three-day tour of gardens in Valencia following the AGM, from the 29th to the 31st of October. Of course, MGS members from our branch are entitled to attend some of the social events which form part of the main AGM programme, and we hope that they will do so in order to meet the visitors from abroad. Some of the gardens to be visited during the AGM tour are shown below.
Next, Alan presented some initial plans for garden visits in the coming year and asked members to offer further ideas for visits or other Costa Blanca Branch activities. Several people had suggestions to make or offered to research possible gardens to visit. After this, everyone was ready for some time outside in the warm sunshine, and Alan led a tour around the garden for those interested. Others chose just to wander about or to revisit the plant tables to see what was still on offer.
Meanwhile, all the contributions to the buffet lunch were laid out, and there were many interesting offerings. Groups of people settled on the terrace, on the shady patio or indoors and enjoyed lunch together, with plenty of opportunities to exchange news and opinions.
At the end of the afternoon everyone collected their new plants and the remains of their lunch contributions and gradually took their leave. Alan and I thank all those who made the day a happy one, and we especially thank Karen and Pauline, who keep the refreshments coming and the kitchen chaos under control. We hope that next year will be as successful as this one has been – it promises to be a very interesting challenge.
Text by Carol Hawes
The rain in Spain stays mainly well away from our dry gardens in the Costa Blanca region, which is now suffering from a prolonged period of drought. Irrigation is necessary for many gardens, including the two visited on this day. The contrast between them provided a wonderful illustration of the different results which can be achieved according to the irrigation possibilities available. The land at Finca la Cuta, known as ‘The Lavender Garden’, near Lliber, relies on irrigation water delivered by tanker lorries to supplement rainfall, which is a very expensive method. Only the extensive use of drought-tolerant plants, and careful attention to their individual needs, has allowed owner Susanne Semjevski to create such an attractive and interesting garden, with its many quiet corners and a tranquil atmosphere. She also manages to grow enough lavender plants to produce her own lavender oil and other lavender-based products.
The garden belonging to Judith and Bernhard Bauer, not many kilometres away, has an altogether different appearance and contains a very wide range of tender plants. They benefit from a daily and relatively ample supply of irrigation water piped to the garden. Judith and Bernhard also have a more favourable microclimate, and a good, if stony, soil, but they dedicate much thought and effort to the choice and care of their plants, protecting the most delicate during the winter. They make use of prunings for compost to mulch the soil, and they fertilise the garden with animal manure. The drip irrigation system is extensive and very attentively monitored to ensure that the plants receive only the water, and sometimes soluble fertiliser, that they really need. It was fascinating to be able to see both gardens on the same day.
Our visits, on October 7th, began at the ‘Lavender Garden’, where we gradually gathered and spent time wandering about and exploring the different parts of the garden before we met up to enjoy coffee on the terrace.
We then split into two groups, each of which visited two local nurseries and Judith and Bernhard’s garden, but in the reverse order. This arrangement allowed Judith to give each small group a guided tour around their astonishing garden.
The long south-facing wall of the house shelters a large number of tender plants, including an orchid collection, a huge Passiflora quadrangularis, Costus species, Dichorisandra, Plumeria, Spathodea campanulata, a papaya tree and several varieties of banana.
Nearby is an extensive collection of succulent plants including Aeonium and Kalanchoe species, aloes and some cacti, making the best use of an area of shallow soil which covers a water-storage tank. Further along the path by the house the ground is shaded by a huge pine tree, and in this area we found many plants which appreciate the shade, including potted collections of Begonia, Haemanthus, Hoya, Cyclamen and Epiphyllum.
Moving away from the house we found a set of huge Brugmansia shrubs, some with variegated foliage and others with white, pink or gorgeous double red flowers. Following the curving path, we entered a large semi-circular pergola, which was engulfed by vigorous shrubs and climbers such as Wisteria, Ipomoea, Abutilon, Duranta, Bougainvillea and the rarely seen Holmskioldia sanguinea.
Around the pergola were many attractive groups of Hedychium, Alpinia, bromeliads, Salvia, Hibiscus, Canna and Hemerocallis in many varieties, giving a kaleidoscopic effect of flower and foliage colour. Near to an impressive tree of Erythrina caffra, from Africa, we found another rarity, the Australian ‘Firewheel Tree’, Stenocarpus sinuatus, in flower.
Descending to the lower terrace, we explored the area devoted mainly to the growing of vegetables and, especially, fruits, which are a high priority for Judith and Bernhard. They have a great variety of citrus and other fruit trees and twenty different grape vines. Through the different seasons of the year they can enjoy home-produced bananas, papayas, guavas, chirimoyas, mangos, apricots, plums, grapes and many different citrus fruits.
On the journey between the two gardens we stopped at a nearby garden centre and at the nursery of member Toni Pont. Many of us took advantage of the opportunity to view and buy some unusual plants and to exchange information about them with other members of the group.
We all arrived back at the ‘Lavender Garden’ eager for lunch. Because of the threat of some afternoon rain, Susanne had laid places for us all at tables indoors, so we were able to enjoy the very rare experience of eating delicious meals in comfort while rain poured down outside the windows. Susanne was so delighted by the downpour that she ran outside afterwards to read her rain gauge and reported a fall of 10 l/square metre, enough to spare her the need to irrigate the garden – at least for the next few weeks.
Text by Carol Hawes, photos by Lesley Whayman.
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