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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS - Portuguese Wildflowers

By Jim Bishop, for Let’s Talk Plants! May 2022. In mid-April, Scott and I traveled to Portugal for a bike tour. Getting older, we opted for e-bikes which makes several days of bike riding much easier as well as making hill climbs feel like level ground. The tour visited two locations in Portugal-Alentejo, a rural inland area and Algarve, the southern coastal area. The purpose of the trip wasn't to view wildflowers, but we found plenty.

The Alentejo

Rural Portugal with rolling hills, cork oaks, and blue Echium plantagineum.

At first glance the Alentejo with its rolling hills, wildflowers, and cork oaks looks a bit like rural farming areas of California's central coast. More developed farming areas have large olive orchards and vineyards.

Cork Oak, Quercus suber. The dark bark is the area that has been harvested.

The cork oaks have been harvested for hundreds of years. You can learn more about cork oaks from a YouTube video of the San Diego Horticultural Society March 2021 meeting All About Cork, Natural & Renewable presented by Pam Hyatt.

On first day of riding, we recognized several commonly used garden plants from the Mediterranean region. One that covered entire hillsides was Cistus. Mostly it was the large Cistus lanifer with sticky foliage and white flowers featuring five deep magenta spots and a bright yellow center. However, we occasionally saw smaller flowered hot pink or entirely white flowered ones.

Cistus lanifer, Gum Rockrose, Five Spot Rockrose.

Cistus crispus, hot pink rockrose.

Cistus monspeliensis.

Cistus albidus, the grey-leaved was seen closer to the southern coast in the Algarve.

Frequently seen growing with or nearby Cistus was Genista hirsuta. It is a very spiny plant in the Fabaceae (pea) family and sometimes called hairy broom. It's a very attractive plant when in bloom and covered with golden-yellow flowers.

Genista hirsuta.

Genista and Cistus.

In all rural parts of Portugal we saw hillsides and fields covered with Spanish lavender, Lavandula stoechas, with its pineapple shaped flowers. In some areas the plants were over six feet tall, though frequently shorter. In the recently burned areas of the Algarve it was often the dominant shrub.

Giant bush of Lavender.

A deeper colored Lavender.

An entire hillside of Lavender with a windmill at the top.

Similar in color to the lavender were fields of the blue to purple-flowered Echium plantagineum as shown in the first photo of this article. Up close the flowers aren't very good looking, but when in mass they create a beautiful blue tint to the fields.

Closeup of Echium flowers.

Another wildflower that filled fields was Glebionis coronaria, formerly Chrysanthemum coronarium, ranging in color from pale to bright yellow. This annual plant is native to most of the Mediterranean region, but unfortunately has become an invasive in much of Southern California. Still, fields of it mixed with other wildflowers were a lovely sight.

Glebionis coronaria and cork oaks.

Often seen near houses and churches were masses and fields of Papaver rhoeas, more commonly known as the Flanders Poppy. The bright red color was a real attention getter and contrasted with the more subtle colors of the other wildflowers. These seem to grow almost everywhere in western Europe.

Papaver rhoeas.

A field of Papaver rhoeas.

A roadside stand of Papaver rhoeas backed by a field of Glebionis coronaria.

Somewhat variable in height, flower size and flower density was Galactites tomentosa. Mediterranean thistle is often seen as singular plants but occasionally in some masses.

Galactites tomentosa.

A large mass of thistle plants.

We also saw occasional fields of bright yellow Lupinus luteus. It was most frequently seen growing as the only plant under olives or other cultivated fields making me suspicious that it was planted on purpose even though it is native to most regions of the Mediterranean.

Lupinus luteus.


Most exciting was on our first day of cycling when Scott and I made a roadside stop to look at the wildflowers close up and discovered species of terrestrial orchids. I had noticed the purple one a few times while riding, but was much surprised when we stopped for a closer look and noticed the other two species in close proximity. In spite of my enthusiasm I couldn't generate much interest from the other cyclists in our group.

The purple orchid was likely Anacamptis laxiflora, but it may have been the closely related Anacamptis palustris. Whichever it was I am still so excited that I've included two photos.



Nearby we noticed Serapias lingua which for obvious reasons has the common name of tongue orchid.

Serapias lingua.

Serapias lingua.

Well, after doing some research, it turns out that my third orchid isn't an orchid at all. It is Orobanche, commonly known as broomrape and is a a parasitic plant without chlorophyll. We saw this plant in many places throughout Portugal. Knowing this now, I guess I'm glad the other cyclists weren't paying attention saving me from embarrassment.



Other Notable Wildflowers of the Alentejo

Only spotted a few times was Campanula patula.

We noticed Asphodelus in many places, some plants looking taller and more robust than others. A species of Asphodelus has become invasive along Interstate 5 from La Jolla to north county.

Grown occasionally in gardens here and seen occasionally growing along the roads of Portugal was Silene colorata.

Allium roseum, rosy garlic, was spotted frequently growing in small groups. Interestingly, it was formerly in the lily family but recent taxonomy changes now place it in the amaryllis family.

Annual Tuberaria guttata was occasionally seen throughout Portugal. The plant is more common northward along the Atlantic in Western Europe and as far north as Iceland.

Tuberaria guttata.

Yellow Bartsia, Parentucellia viscosa, was only observed in a few locations and usually as a solitary plant. It likes damp places and is more common further north.

Parentucellia viscosa.

Knautia arvensis, Scabiosa, with its pincushion flowers was seen intermittently along road sides. I've grown relatives of this plant many times in the garden.

Knautia arvensis.

I'm not certain I have this flower correctly identified. There are a lot of look-alikes on the internet. It also appears that similar looking plants have recently been renamed. So maybe this is Schenkia spicata, or maybe not. It's beautiful and eye-catching though, whatever the name is.

We observed several stands of the European redbud.

Cercis siliquastrum, leafed out with a few flowers still remaining.

We need a break from individual wildflower photos. Here's some bearded irises in front of a grove of olives looking for all the world like something van Gogh would paint. Though I don't believe these bearded irises are native to the Algarve, we saw them growing wild near cultivated areas. Growing with them is Mediterranean thistle.

Much like our native and non-native bindweeds, the gardeners and farmers in Portugal hate the field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, as much as we do. However, it displays beautiful large pink or white flowers. The flowers only open when sunny, but can be quite beautiful when covering large areas.

The Algarve

For the second half of the tour, we shuttled south closer to the southern coast of Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean. The first day we rode through very hilly areas with extremely strong winds, making the riding somewhat scary. It was here also that the olive and cork oaks were replaced in many places by non-native Eucalyptus trees. The trees had been planted in dense mass forests starting in the 1800s as a profitable cash crop for paper and pulp. However, they dried out the land and were blamed for massive wildfires in 2017. Portugal has started reconsidering the overplanting of Eucs and replacing them with cork oaks and natives that are slower growing and somewhat less likely to cause wildfires.

A remaining forest of Eucalyptus trees. The surrounding hillsides were still mostly barren from recent wildfires.

Well, if you've ever wondered where that ear-worm 1960s song "Crimson and Clover" came from, this is the plant, Trifolium incarnatum. Native to most of Europe, it is used as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop.

Crimson Clover.

Spotted frequently along roadsides in Portugal was Gladiolus illyricus, native to most of the Mediterranean countries.

The Gladiolus illyricus really popped out of the landscape along the roads.

Native to the southern Iberian peninsula, Phlomis purpurea, purple phlomis, was growing in large masses in wind-sheltered areas. Coincidentally, I had purchased the same plant at Home Depot earlier in the month.

I wasn't expecting to see the same plant I had recently planted back home growing in the wild.

Just like in the Alentejo, we found Asphodelus growing in the Algarve.

With the clearest of deep blue flowers, Lysimachia monelli, the blue pimpernel, is a common European weed. Oddly, in my home garden, we only have the orange form, the scarlet pimpernel. I'll never be able to successfully remove all of it from the garden.

Just like in my home garden the bright, almost white, grey of Helichrysum stood out against the darker greens of plants.

We were a bit too early for the flowers of Helichrysum stoechas to pop.

Overlooking the south Atlantic coastline, we found Helichrysum stoechas mixed in with other low growing herbs on the rocky cliffs.

I'm not entirely sure this is fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, but we frequently viewed the bright umbrels in many places.


A nice hillside covered with what looks like fennel.

I wasn't expecting to see this plant because I didn't know it existed. I assumed these were Dutch irises that had escaped cultivation and naturalized along side the road. However, it turns out that they are one of the parent plants of the hybrid Dutch iris, Iris xiphium, Spanish Iris. In spite of its common name it is also native to Portugal.

Another deep blue plant that is also commonly used in gardens is Glandora diffusa (also known as Lithodora diffusa). I recently planted the cultivar 'Grace Ward' in our home garden.

Glandora diffusa.

Our final day of cycling (the next day had heavy rain), we started at Sagres, near Cape San Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente), considered the end of the world in centuries past. This was the last land that sailors saw before crossing the Atlantic to the new world. The rocky headlands are the most southwestern corner of the European mainland.

Cape San Vincent.

The plants here changed to grow much closer to the ground and many of them were common herbs. It reminded me much of the headlands on Sonoma County.

I haven't been able to figure out what this plant is. The flowers look like alyssum, or something in the cabbage family but the leaves are succulent. It is certainly cute though.

This little lavender-flowered plant also confuses me. It may be thyme which is native to Portugal, but the leaves look much more succulent than anyThymus species that I know.

This might be the same plant not in bloom.

And this plant, not far from the others, is definitely thyme.

Another surprise find growing on the wind blown cliffs of Sagres, was Gold Coin Plant, Pallenis maritima (syn. Asteriscus maritimus). I've been growing it for over two decades and it volunteers in parts of the garden.

Pallenis maritima.

I thought this little yellow flower, Helianthemum marifolium subsp. origanifolium, looked vaguely familiar. We have a native species of Helianthemum that grows in our local chaparral. This one, also called yellow rockrose, however, it is native to the western part of the Mediterranean.

Helianthemum marifolium subsp. origanifolium.

Another mysterious yellow-flowered plant. Looks like a Genista (broom), but is missing the spiky foliage.

This is Genista blooming a bit brighter and more compact than the ones we saw in the Alentejo. Growing behind it is thyme and a native low growing juniper.

Portuguese Sea Thrift, Armeria villosa, growing on the cliffs of Algarve. It closely resembles other Sea Thrifts seen growing on headlands around the world including California.

Armeria villosa.

Sedum brevifolium.

Another plant growing on cliffs right above the ocean was Antirrhinum majus ssp cirrhigerum. This is a local subspecies of the very common Snapdragon. Of course, Snapdragons had to be native somewhere, but I didn't know that this was the place.

Snapdragons perched atop a steep cliff.

Snapdragon bearing an almost identical appearance of the common garden variety.

Another ground hugging plant in the cabbage family, Aethionema.

Moving away from the coast, the vegetation changed and we saw a few new species of plants.

The lovely lacy-flowered plant was growing in damp areas. It is likely in the carrot family, but it is shorter and has smaller, with brighter white and flatter flower heads than carrot.

Semi-succulent Centaurea pullata.

Large bushes of European Honeysuckle, Lonicera etrusca, lined the roadsides in places.

I was expecting to see more salvias in Portugal. They may have been there, but we missed them. This clear deep blue one, with large leaves, was the only one we got a close look at. It appears to be Salvia verbenaca, Wild Clary.

Salvia verbenaca.

A few plants of Scolymus hispanicus were seen, but all in just one area. In much of southern Europe this plant is commonly used in cooking. It must be a tough plant to be growing in cracks in the road.

Scolymus hispanicus.

Looking like wetlands in many places of the world, this Juncus was growing in a boggy area. We cycled down that very steep hill with 20% grade in the background.

This thistle, backed by the unidentified white umbrel mentioned earlier, had the most beautiful flower of the many that we saw.

We saw this very tall Stachys just above the wetland. The common garden plant, lamb's ears, is a close relative.

Stachys flowers being visited by a bumblebee.


Let's end with one last orchid. This time a real orchid. We passed a number of these stunning flowers while riding quickly downhill, so couldn't get a close look. I assumed they were some sort of bulb. Luckily we found a few more in a flatter area on a quiet road and could stop and get a closer look. They are the appropriately named Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis. It is common throughout much of western Europe.

It was great to see so many common California garden plants growing in their native environment. I did the best I could at finding species names. If you find any errors or know the names of any unidentified flowers, please let me know.


Jim Bishop in his native habitat.

Jim Bishop is, among other things, the SDHS Horticulturist of the Years 2019-2020, past president and current publicity chair. He lives and gardens in Mission Hills, CA.


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