Blue skies and parched hillsides, Póvoa de Pegas, August 2012
After the hot dry weeks of July in Portugal, the ground vegetation has mostly died down. It is raked up in the fields to stand in dry heaps, to be burned later in the season when the risk of forest fires has gone. The days are shorter, but the sun is lower in the sky, so the walls and windows of the house catch the hot evening sun. Plants around the house suffer more, since they are more exposed than in high summer, when the veranda protects them. There is not much work to be done in fields or gardens, so this is the season for village festivals, the numbers of participants swollen by the returning “emigrantes” from France and Luxemburg, come back for the holidays to show off their smart cars.
Fennel is the commonest large umbellifer in Portugal. It is the wild plant from which cultivated fennel is derived. It differs in having a much stronger and more bitter flavour, and overwintering leaves which are not swollen at the base. Through the early part of the year, the young plants with their finely divided blue-green leaves hardly stand out from the surrounding vegetation. Then, in high summer, the plants shoot up to 150 or 200 cm, in dense stands along the roadsides, covered with small umbels of bright yellow flowers. An interesting feature of fennel flowers is that, as in many other umbellifers, they are very attractive to insects, and accumulate masses of brightly coloured bugs, beetles and wasps , ideal for photography.
In general, Portugal doesn’t have native shrubs with brightly coloured flowers in summer. Any you see are likely to be imported exotic garden plants. However, the Mediterranean range of oleander extends to Portugal, so it is a native plant here. But for every wild specimen that may exist in Portugal there must be hundreds of planted specimens of garden varieties, with single or double flowers of all shades from white to cream, to pink, or to deep red. They are robust and undemanding plants, found in gardens, parks, roadsides, indeed everywhere in urban environments. Their attractive appearance belies the fact that all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous, but also so bitter that they are hardly likely to be eaten. The myth goes that barbecuers have been poisoned by the foolish use of oleander shoots as skewers for meat.