Casal dos Balaus from Bendafé, February 2012
Usually a dismal month, with dull days and cold nights. But the wave of cold weather which hit most of Europe also extended to Portugal, where we had bright sunny days and frosty nights continuously for weeks on end. Not good for the garden plants, of course, but then the most sensitive ones had already been eliminated by frost in previous years! Under these conditions most plants were still waiting for more clement conditions to start growing and flowering. But we had lots of birds at the bird tables. Most remarkable was a pair of bramblings, finches which do normally move southwards within Europe in winter, as many species do, without truly migrating. The intense cold seems to have driven them even further south. Our books say that this species only turns up in Portugal in exceptional winters.
Orchids are always a bit special, and this one is remarkable in three ways. Firstly, it is the earliest orchid species to flower in Portugal, starting even in December, though February is the peak period. Its purple spikes stand out in the otherwise rather colourless countryside. Secondly, as its English name indicates, it is a very robust species (said to reach over 1 m in height, though we have not seen any nearly that big). Thirdly, it is supposed to be generally rather scarce, but there are lots of them around here. It is related to the lizard orchid (H. hircinum), which is rare in England though not uncommon in France. The young flower has an interesting shape, like a little man, or perhaps a penguin. Unfortunately, though spectacular, especially in bud, the spike finishes up as a rather tatty dirty purple thing, without the elegance of many orchids.
This periwinkle grows in extensive colonies on shady banks, flowering in early spring in much the same way as its sister species Vinca major and Vinca minor in northern Europe. It has distinctly paler blue flowers. It is native to southwest Europe, and indeed all the Vinca spp. are originally from southern Europe. They have been widely introduced as medicinal and garden plants since ancient times.