In John's Garden

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Portuguese Invasion

This week I arrived home from Portugal and all its natural beauty. Having spent a week wandering its cobblestone city streets, impressive mountain ranges and arid plains, Portugal not only proved to be a geological paradise but also a horticulturist’s dream.

‘Indigo Morning Glory’ – the beautiful Portuguese weed. John Norman Photo

Here lush urban gardens, vineyards, wineries and unique arid landscapes abound all within a relatively small nation.

I came to this Iberian country for an international geology conference, as a representative for Newfoundland and its aspiring GeoPark on the Bonavista Peninsula.

Between field research and conference lectures, time allowed for some serious sight seeing, exploring and photography of Northern Portugal, and the bordering states of Spain.

Based in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Oporto, or Porto as it is known in Portugal, I toured medieval city parks, walked along riparian (riverside) environments through the city center and noted the stunning beauty of Portuguese ‘weeds’.

I am always astounded when travelling, by what other corners of the world consider weeds and invasive problem plants – often species we would prize for floral arrangements, garden specimens and rarities of the house plant world.

In Newfoundland and throughout North America, the common Dandelion and Hawksbill flower are both nuisance garden weeds but in other countries these flowers are garden specimens and herbs.

In Portugal, they work to remove stunning Indigo Morning Glory, Giant Pampas Grass and Eucalyptus climbing the city walls, flanking the suburban highways and invading the highly-productive rural lumber forests.

At first glance many of the city streets of the historic downtown core of Porto are bare of vegetation. However, nearing the mouth of the Rio Douro, shoreline trees stand in a row and wineries sit elegantly across the bay in neighboring municipalities blanketed in vines of all grapes imaginable.

Down near this riparian environment one catches the first glimpse of stunningly bright indigo blooming vines, climbing their way around harbour bridges and gabion retaining walls, used to catch small falling foundation stones from the precariously placed centuries old stone buildings above.

As you can see in the photograph, these valued annual vines of North American gardens are everywhere in the northern urban centers of Portugal and Spain, where they self seed and grow enormously large as a result of the long and hot growing seasons.

The unofficial weed of the city, Indigo Morning Glory, is colorful beyond belief and astounds North American travellers, of which there were few (likely due to the fact this region is relatively undiscovered by the international market and under siege, like Lisbon, by protesters and riots surrounding austerity measures taken by the government).

Those tourists we did encounter also found these vines to be showstoppers since they also felt the need to photograph.

Leaving the city and driving to Arouca, a small urban center in central Portugal, any gardener would immediately notice huge South American Pampas grass mounds flanking suburban highways, a prized ornamental grass for North American gardeners who often try in vain to grow this specimen.

Here these non-natives have naturalized and out-competed smaller native grasses and wildflowers to take over roadsides. Again I love the look of these amazing plants, growing taller then the average human male but in this nation they are often eradicated due to their threat to native species.

If you have not seen Pampas grass you should look up an image online, since their seed stems are like nothing you would have ever seen in Canada. These grasses are also often farmed in the Southern USA for dry ornamental purposes for arrangements and fall decor.

Finally, reaching my conference base of Arouca , one encounters Portugal's ‘Most Wanted’ of flora species, the Eucalyptus tree, another species often used in dry flower arrangements here in North America.

In the Iberian region this small tree species was first introduced onto lumber farms for fast lumber production since these trees, in this climate, mature very quickly. Unfortunately, they were too successful and spread far beyond farm limits and now some regions are faced with Eucalyptus forests the governments cannot even pay lumber yards to cut and clear fast enough.

On the bright side, if there is one, the lumber from these trees has offered cheap wood for home and furniture production in the country, which has revitalized the economy of some rural areas.

So this week we have learned a little about the beauties of Portugal’s weeds and wonder just how we were stuck with the Dandelion. I guess beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

If you have questions regarding international flora or simply gardening in our Newfoundland environments please email me at ‘

Organizations: North American, UNESCO

Geographic location: Portugal, Newfoundland, Iberian Spain North America Northern Portugal Oporto Lisbon Canada

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