1996, Sarah Higgens, Travel Scholarship Spain

Mediterranean Maquis and Grenadine Gardens

By Sarah Higgens

In April 1995 I went to southern Portugal, to a part of the region in south west Europe that is the centre of distribution for the genus Cistus. There, with Flora Iberica as a companion, I encountered seven of the c. 20 species in the genus, including the low-growing subspecies of C. ladanifer surviving on Cape St. Vincent. I also became familiar with other plants of the Mediterranean maquis of which Cistus is so characteristic.

The impetus for my expedition, sponsored by the Kew Guild, was a systematics project on Cistus. Identifying species in the wild and seeing the natural range of variation was an effective way of grasping the taxonomy of the species, and gaining confidence in checking the identification and labelling of cultivated collections.

I pursued my interest further during a four week visit to Andalucia, Spain, in April 1996. The trip was funded by a travel scholarship from Hozelock Ltd. and sponsorship from the Merlin Trust and Kew Guild.

For the first week I joined Robert Page and Jean Pierre Demoly, both enthusiastic Cistus experts. Robert Page has a National Collection of Cistus in Leeds. Jean-Pierre Demoly also has an extensive collection, in the Charentes-Maritimes. They arranged a series of excursions from our base in Marbella, to investigate references made in books or journals to sightings of Cistus and its near relative, Halimium. My aims were to get a feel for Cistus hybrids and to see species, such as C. clusii and C. libanotis, that I had not seen before in the wild.

For the second week I met a new companion in Granada, to explore its carmens, campos and patios. We decided to see the Alhambra on the last day, suspecting that it would overwhelm any other experience. However, I enjoyed changing views of the fortress from the streets below as we walked around the city, more than our tour of its interior. The two famous patios and the tiled walls were superb. But there was such a crush of visitors moving as an irresistible stream through the one-way system, and such a clicking of cameras from every angle, that the only place to pause in admiration was overlooking the market garden, sandwiched between the Alhambra and Generalife.

We were able to take a more leisured stroll around the patios of the Hospital de San Juan de Dios. The outer patio was surrounded by frescoed arches, had palm trees at each corner, a central fountain and scattered pots of Aspidistra. At four o’clock the same day we met a Spanish family rapping on the gateway to the Real Monasterio de San Jeromino and we followed them in when it opened. We walked around the plain white cloister with dark wooden benches, alcoves holding pots of Agave, and floor tiles entombing 500 monks. The patio here had rows of lemon and orange trees, a raised pond in the centre and jasmine climbing up the corner pillars. From an interior chapel we could hear the nuns of the closed order singing.

I had read about the Carmen de los Chapiteles in a book on Spanish gardens, but when we arrived at its gate found it to be a private residence. We rang the bell and after some clumsy communications on our part, the gentleman who answered very kindly allowed us in. The garden was laid out on a series of terraces descending from the house. The upper terrace had a wisteria-covered arbour, tiled pavement and geometric box hedges. From there we had views into carmens on the opposite hillside, views which are tantalisingly beyond you at street level.

For the final two weeks I joined the Reading University Ecology Field Course, which started at Las Negras, near Almeria. There were botanising walks through a range of habitats, with discussions on Mediterranean ecology. We started by the sea, walked along dried out ramblas, saw the desert of Almeria and moved up through maquis and cork oak woods to the snow of the Sierra Nevada. Many of the species we saw had adaptations to the environmental stresses of intense light and heat, little water, high salinity, fire and grazing.

The field trip ended with a dash to see the last remaining stands of the endangered Abies pinsapo near Ronda, with colleagues Harvey Stephens and Dave Waldren. The beautiful countryside around Grazalema is one of my most vivid memories of what was an eye-opening expedition. I am looking forward to meeting more of the wild and garden flora of southern Europe in the future.

Recently I went to Kew’s museum of economic botany to see a ladanisterion, a rake used to extract resin from wild-growing bushes of Cistus ladanifer. I also saw the dark, dense coils of the dried resin, which is still used in perfumery. On my next visit to south Portugal or Spain perhaps I will have the good luck to see someone out collecting ladanum gum.

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