Green new growth under a cloudless sky, Alcabideque, May 2012
This month has seen a rapid succession of the spring plants of Portugal, falling over themselves to catch up after the unpropicious conditions of the preceding weeks, at first too dry and warm, then too cold and wet. Since the weather reverted to normal there have been a few days with temperatures in the thirties, and the upper layers of the soil soon dry out, at least on our exposed hillside. It’s time to start sorting out the irrigation system, which has surely developed a whole lot of new leaks over the winter months.
This striking orange-flowered little plant is a widespread weed of cultivated land. It occurs in enormous numbers, all flowering at the same time and making a carpet of colour. Like many annual weeds, it adjusts its size to its situation. On poor sandy ground, it grows barely to 5 cm, producing one tiny flower head with only a few seeds. It is barely recognizable as the same plant as its sister on good rich soil, up to 30 or 40 cm, with lush green foliage and masses of brightly coloured flower heads. Its seeds are very characteristic, bent into a half-moon shape, just like those of the closely related garden marigold Calendula officinalis (a European plant not known in the wild state).
Portugal has lots of leguminous shrubs with big yellow flowers (“brooms”). They seem to grow along roads everywhere, and even more along motorways, where some are no doubt planted and one can’t stop to have a look anyway. One of the commonest is S. junceum, which has upright bright green shoots with hardly any leaves (reminiscent of rushes, as the name junceum suggests). Other brooms have drooping ridged shoots, bearing at least few little trifoliate leaves, like Cytisus scoparius, the broom which is common in northern Europe and also occurs here. The plants of Spanish broom form massive yellow clumps, visible from a distance. Curiously, the Spanish Flora claims that this species is native only in Andalucia, and naturalized everywhere else in the Iberian Peninsula. It is hard to believe that this is true in Portugal, where the plant occurs so widely and naturally. Maybe this is just a piece of Spanish nationalism; the Flora acknowledges that the point is controversial! It is certainly true that S. junceum is widely cultivated as a garden plant, and planted along French motorways.