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Gardening in Portugal- If you know its name it’s not a weed!

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Patch or Alexanders, Self seeded Aconite (delphinium, very poisonous)  and Chamanthe

It’s raining again, oh Lord, it’s raining again! And you know what rain means? It means weeds!
But nowadays,  that don’t impress me much, because I know the name of most of them and as my gardening friend and Portuguese teacher often says, if you know the name of a plant, it isn’t a weed.

I’ve  had the joy and delight over the past few years of discovering that most of the weeds in the Algarve  are useful for something. Do you want to thicken cheese? Use the petals of a  cardoon, Cynara cardunculus, as a rennet substitute (although, what kind of domestic goddess makes cheese? Not me..well not yet anyway!)  Have you got a toothache? Chew on the leaves of the field marigolds, which are an anodyne.  And don’t bother buying fertiliser for your plants, just soak a few nettles , Urtica Dioica),  in water for a few weeks, water down the resulting liquid (holding your nose tightly as the pong is indescribable) and the job is done. Furthermore nettles are great in soup and if you’re feeling particularly strong, you can whip yourself with them to alleviate rheumatism!

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Nettle, Urtica Doica

Of course some weeds can kill you, so you have to be super careful, as there  isn’t much room for mistakes. Take the Umbelliferae family for example. The plants are very similar in this family and  whilst the Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum, brought here by the Romans,  can be eaten in all  its parts,  Hemlock , Conium maculatum,  is in the same family and is deadly!  Of course, this may be useful if you want to do your husband in, but since Senor Faz-Tudo is my beloved,  indispensable companion and hasn’t finished the greenhouse yet, that’s not likely in my case!  Even the experts don’t always seem to know definitively. I bought a book on foraging in which it said you can eat the flowers and leaves of Aquilegia, and told everyone in a gardening FB group you could eat it, making a total fool of myself, because it’s actually from the ranunculus  family and dangerous to eat. I hope I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death  (nervous laugh!)  So readers, this is a disclaimer. Please, check out any plant for yourselves before you eat them. This is a great place to do it: Plants for a Future What a labour of love that web site is!

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Alexanders, Smyrnium Olusatrum

I have left some areas in my garden specifically for the weeds to grow, especially in the vegetable garden, where the chickens don’t venture, as they are so useful for so many things. (I actually left them in the chicken’s half of the garden  too but they ate them all, although I suppose we got them back in their eggs) Nettles are quite hard to find in the wild around my house, as they prefer nutritious ground with some shade, so they are particularly precious to me and I only ever pick half of them to use, so I can be sure they will continue to drop their seed and come back next year. The local women used to dry them for use as very nutritious fodder for chickens and other animals as they are full of iron and other vitamins and minerals.They can also be eaten in soup, and as soon as they are boiled they lose their sting.  I have lots of dandelions too and I feed them to the chickens and also, when the leaves are very young, add them to salads, in small amounts as they are very bitter.

The  garden is overrun with Borage plants, Borago officinalis, again something I encourage, as they are very good for attracting bees as pollinators for my beans and fruit trees. The flowers are very pretty and look great put into ice cubes in the fridge to jolly up your cocktails, and although the leaves are edible, they are very hairy, you’d be unlikely to eat them unless you’re a goat.

Although the tradition is dying out a little now, local women all have their recipes for “chas” or teas using local “weeds” Malva Silvestris , the common mallow or wild hollyhock is still used in tea to settle sore stomachs, or the leaves boiled and used for a poultice on festering wounds or cuts as it draws out the poison and soothes and heals. Wild thyme and rosemary are both anti-bacterial and can be uses as “pick me up teas” in the morning. The wild thyme here is amazing and I have collected the seeds of several types from the wild in the hope of encouraging  them to grow in my garden.

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Malva  or Mallow

 

Interestingly, unlike in Greece, in my experience, Rosemary isn’t used much in the South of Portugal for cooking, with people preferring to uses salsa (parsley) or green coriander (coentro)

My friend is collecting  “dicas” or uses of common herbs, before the very considerable knowledge of the older countrywomen here is lost. It seems there are many beneficial plants, some of them indigenous to the Algarve and some imported from peoples coming into the Algarve, such as the Carthaginians, Romans or Moors  or brought back from the colonies of Portugal in Africa or South America  in more recent years.

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Patch of Nettles and Chrysanthemum Coronium 

But before you go out with your poison sprays or hacker and commit carnage, at least try to identify your weed and see if you can use them for anything, using the “Plants for a Future” database. It seems crazy we spend so much on cosmetics, remedies and leaf teas when any of them are derived from things we call weeds in our gardens. It’s lovely to wander around the garden and see teapot potential and bath bombs where once you just saw plants which made you cross!

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They call me Daisy…..that’s not my name!

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“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”…the problem is I don’t know any of the names of the roses in my garden. I bought most of them from a famous German supermarket in the sale for Eur 1.49 and I’ve thrown away the labels. I will be forgiven for this, I’m sure, they’re  not old roses or special roses after all. But I have a far worse problem, in that I’ve planted quite a lot of different plants, both bought, borrowed and occasionally even stolen, (albeit it only little pieces) and I don’t know the names of most of them. This is starting to cause me problems, as friends ask me the names of plants they particularly like and I haven’t a clue! Actually, that’s not strictly true. I know an Aloe from an Agave, or a Salvia from a Penstemon, I just don’t know what comes after that. It’s a shame really, as according to my mother, one of my first words was Aquilegia. Being a rather precocious two year old I corrected a visitor, who called the plant a Columbine. It’s all been downhill since unfortunately.

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When I was a teacher, I once had a class with four Jason’s. I could never remember their surnames, so I invented them. One was called Jason The Red (he had ginger hair) Another, Jason Basin (pudding bowl haircut) Jason Mouse (he squeaked a lot) and last, but not least Jason Fireraiser (He once set fire to the class notice board) Now I am doing this with my plants, in the absence of my ability to identify them correctly. I walk round the garden checking on their progress, I note Agave Biggus Spikus is getting bigger every day, whilst Agave Variegata Pipsqueaka is not really doing much. Penstemon Freebius Seedpacketia is bursting into flower, whilst Aloe Aloe Aloe Whatasallthisthenus, (which is what I imagined I might hear any minute as I was furtively half inching the cutting this plant grew from) has put up several baby plants.

Harebells from Canada

To complicate matters further, I am learning the names for plants in Portuguese as well. I can never remember the English for Coriander nowadays, because I am too busy thinking of it as Coentro. A lot of wild flowers are called Boa Noite, according to neighbours, which means Good Night and I am still thinking of some flowers by the nicknames we had for them in Wales, Snapdragons for Antirinhiums, Roarydumdums for rhododendrons and Wet-the-bed for dandelions. No wonder I get confused! Then, instead of fields of purple clover, there are fields of something which has similar leaves called Bermudan Buttercup, or whatever its proper name is, and Giant Hogweed is replaced by Alexanders, or Black  Lovage. Then there are the orchids, The Naked Man orchid (don’t ask!) the Mirror orchid, the Bee orchid and a myriad others.

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And I guess all this confusion is why I need to learn the proper names for things, although how I’ll remember them, I don’t know! I realise I have never really thought about how plants are classified, so after a bit of a Google session I discovered this:http://theseedsite.co.uk/class.html
Whoever thought it was so complicated? Plants have families, subfamilies and tribes!
And thirteen-barrelled names! And I have to remember to spell the name of the Genus with a capital letter! Gordonus Bennetius!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut for the sake of trying to at least sound like a real gardener, I am going to make a serious effort get to grips with calling things by their proper names, although it’s difficult identifying the plants I already have. I have found this tool from the RHS website https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/search-form ,which is quite useful and I’ve resolved to try to learn the proper names for one of the plants in my garden every day. I’ve posted some photos of plants I can’t identify throughout this post. If you know the proper names of any of them, it would be great of you could let me know. I’d love to be able to sail around the garden, with a glass of something cool in hand, reeling off the names of the plants we walk past, and although I don’t think I’ll ever manage it, I’m sure it will keep my ageing brain cells active for many years to come. To get us off to a good startI will tell you I bought a lovely Ballota pseudodictamnus at the Mediterranean Garden Fair this year. If only I could remember which of the twenty plants or so I bought was called that!