I have always jokingly referred to high summer in the Algarve as ‘The Dead of Summer’. It is our least favourite time to be in the region because, like the dead of winter in the UK, there is very little to see in the countryside. Even if there were, hiking to any of our favourite spots with temperatures in the mid 40s would be torment. The summer of 2017 has been particularly punishing, and you could forgive holiday visitors who endured the heat for concluding that here are no wildflowers in the region, that rivers simply don’t exist, and that the only activity that Algarve residents ever indulge in is sitting in the shade and panting!
But now we move on from the hot dry summer to the mild wet climate phase of the fabled Mediterranean region. Water equals life, and this week I have received a report of the first appearance of Autumn Lady’s-tresses Spiranthes spiralis, spotted in a pine woodland in the far west of the Algarve. Further north in Europe, this plant flowers in August and is the final flourish of the wild orchid summer. Here in the Algarve, however, this lovely flower wisely waits for the first rain or heavy dew of autumn to dampen the surface of the ground wherein it has been lying low throughout the drought. Then, in October or even November, up pop these pioneering orchids, floral sentinels as though signalling to other wildflowers that there is life after the deadly summer heat and that it is safe to begin the cycle of flowering and setting seed for the next generation.
Once the rain arrives, the Algarve bursts into life and numerous wildlife wonders return to compete for our attention. On a warm but not too windy day in November, a little bit of wildlife detective work could lead to finding a group of spectacular Monarch butterflies; they will feed on nectar from garden flowers provided they are growing fairly near to the larval food plant Bristle-fruited Silkweed. Up in the mountain woodlands wondrous species of fungi spring up everywhere; some of them are edible delights, but many more are spectacular enough for us to simply enjoy seeing them. Even at lower altitudes, the odd rain shower encourages our gardens to play host to beautiful fungi. We start to see the amazing-to-look-at but awfully smelly Red Cage Fungus Clathrus ruber and several species of brilliantly coloured waxcap mushrooms, so spectacular that they are often referred to as the ‘orchids of the fungus world’.
By Christmas the land is covered in Bermuda Buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae. This introduced plant may cause gardeners and famers to curse, but in my book the bright yellow of its flowers beats the monochrome white of snow any day. December and January bring numerous other wildflowers that cheer up our days as they brighten the landscape; included in these is the lovely purple Wild Clary, a particular feature of coastal grasslands. While our fellow Europeans further north are locked in the jaws of winter, we Algarvians are in the middle of spring.
Our rivers, many of which all but disappear during summer, are now being fed by crystal clear rainwater and are flowing freely again. Despite the effects of summer, Algarve rivers support numerous species of plants and animals. Seldom seen during the day is the Fire Salamander, but more easily found are the Marbled Newt and several species of frogs including the delightful Parsley Frog. Terrapins, including the European Pond Terrapin and the Spanish Terrapin also make their homes in our rivers, streams and ponds. Less welcome are the Red-eared Sliders*, originally imported from America in response to the craze, driven by children’s films, for pet Ninja Turtles. Among the many plants that rely on our streams for their very survival, one the most beautiful is Water Crowfoot. This streamer weed creates dense mats of brilliant white flowers on the surface of watercourses in April and early May.
Battered and bruised by last summer we and the countryside may be, but all the best lies ahead of us: it is now time to get out into the natural world and marvel at the regeneration job that Mother Nature carries out every year.
* In order to minimise the impact that Red-eared Sliders are having on native species, Lagos Zoo will take in any specimens that are removed from our rivers and ponds.
Sue Parker is author of Wild Orchids of the Algarve, how when and where to find them.
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