Tag Archive | Weeds

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


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!


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!


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.


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.


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!


Gardening in Portugal – Weed and Write

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic, 1878.


Algarve Wild Flowers collected for identification

I have spent my gardening life fighting for the rights of “weeds.”   I have met people who hate weeds with a complete vengeance and twitch whenever they pass one in my garden and I have met people who have said to me “If I know its name, it’s not a weed”. One thing I have learnt is that if you let weeds make you unhappy for a minute, they will. If you learn live with them and even to  love them, at least a little, you will be more at peace and happier in your garden. Or at least, that’s how I feel. However,  I  must add that I am not the most thorough of gardeners, so this philosophy is partly a defence!

I had the great fortune to spend eight years gardening on an allotment in South London.  It had an active allotment committee and on the whole, not full of rules and regulations as some are, but we had regular debates in the potting shed at monthly meetings about how to define a weed and how tolerant we should be of them on people’s allotments. As you walked around, there were some plots with not a weed in site, all the vegetables growing in serried rows and others where the nettles were growing in profusion amongst the spring cabbages, the rosebay willow herb billowing amongst the fruit trees and  bindweed scrambling over the trellises alongside the runner beans. Interestingly, in terms of production, the vegetable gardens which were slightly weedier, often produced the best vegetables. The birds ate the raspberries from the tidy plots where they could see them better, the sun beat down on the bare ground and shrivelled up the lettuces and the blackfly went for the beans more readily on the neater plots. I fought hard for my rights to have nettles on my plot and comfrey. Without these I would have not been able to make the nettle  tea fertiliser I used all the time, or attract the benefical insects. I even ate the nettles occasionally.  The weed resisters amongst us were fervent in their protests. They must die! Kill the weeds! The gleam in their eyes scared me on occasions. I sometimes felt weeds were a hanging offence!  Mind you, I have to confess to being a bit of a wind up merchant.  Allotment committee meetings sometimes needed spicing up and to be fair, I was a naughty, laid back kind of gardener, whose weed seeds regularly encroached onto my long suffering neighbours’ plots!


“Weeds”-my garden last Spring.

As a child, I loved to walk along the banks of the river Wye, popping the Himalayan balsam pods and laughing as they exploded everywhere. But it is an invasive monoculture, and damaging to the banks of the river, causing  erosion, and detrimental to other, less invasive species. My sister-in-law  and brother are  busy growing a native wildflower meadow near to the river and  they are very choosy about their weeds!

One of our regular allotment agenda items was “The Japanese  knotweed is coming out of the woods!” These huge giants are almost impossible to kill and we had regular workparties to try to stop them encroaching on our plots. There is a similar situation in Portugal, with plants such as Agave Americana, Mimosa and Pampas grasses romping away at the expense of slower growing indigenous species.

So, a line has to be drawn. Here in Portugal, some beautiful plants have been considered invasive and a danger to the native species and this is where, I guess, we have to stop and think.  There are obviously some weeds which are so invasive you can’t have them all over the place.  On the allotment, couch grass was one of these;  here in my garden in the Algarve, even though it is beautiful,Chrysanthemum Coronium is one,wild spinach is another.

ImageChrysanthemum Coronium in my garden

I don’t use any weed killer in my garden, so what to do? The spinach is fine. The chickens love it, but they don’t eat the chrysanthemums, so I have resolved to let them grow, just not fifteen feet tall as they did last year. A gentle strim every now and then suffices. In the vegetable garden, I am trying to keep weeds at bay with a straw mulch, which seems to be working fairly well. I also use the chicken bedding, which is wood shavings, mixed with chicken poo, being careful to rot it down first. Although the shavings can rob the soil of nitrogen, I reckon the chicken poo puts it back. So we end up evens. And where I really want things to get a head start, I have used permeable weed suppressant material and a thick mulch of gravel. This keeps the weeds out and the water in (called Brita here) A word of warning though, if your soil is very heavy clay as mine is, as the roots can get waterlogged. Put some gravel into the hole first before planting for drainage.

In my quest to understand the flora and fauna of the Algarve, I have made some wonderful discoveries about the “weeds” in my garden.  I have found Alexanders, a beautiful plant, edible in all its parts (Although great care has to be taken in identification, as it is in the umbellifer family and related to the deadly Hemlock) I have left them to flourish in a corner of my vegetable garden.Wild asparagus, a prickly, but beautiful plant with edible shoots is present  and Borage growing everywhere…a great bee attracter. I even have some wild Delphiniums and six feet tall Mallows! I  have left areas for the natural flora and fauna to grow as it will, although I have had to protect it from the chickens (see last post)


Alexanders (Smyrium Olusatrum)

To the aged and wise Portugese “Donnas” who live in this little village, the “weeds” are their medicine chest and their flavourings …this one’s leaves  as a tea for constipation, that one if you can’t sleep, this one has roots that you can use to bring down a fever, that one for flavouring your olives.


A mulched area in its infancy, planted with succulents, and other drought resistant plants

It’s a race against time whether I can learn enough Portugese to try and understand their wisdom in these things. And sadly, you have to be very wary nowadays where you pick your medicines. The men are already out with their yellow tanks on their backs…spraying things to hell.