Category Archives: Flora of Southern Spain

Aromatic Inula

In September, a slight increase in humidity brings forth the appearance of the yellow-flowered Aromatic, or Sticky Inula, which is similar in appearance to Ragwort. It’s not the most beautiful of plants, but it brings some welcome colour back to the otherwise bleached brown landscape ahead of the eagerly anticipated autumn rains and provides a good source of nectar for butterflies.

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic or Sticky Inula Dittrichia viscosa

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Aromatic Inula – Dittrichia viscosa – the flowers are similar to those of ragwort

Numerous yellow flower heads and sticky leaves are characteristics of this plant.

Flowers in the late summer-autumn months in a variety of habitats, on woodland edges, along roadsides, in uncultivated fields and as in my photographs, even at the back of  beaches.

As its name suggests it has a pleasant aroma, a bit like camphor, and the plant was traditionally used as a dye of a greenish yellow shade.

Sea Daffodils

The height of the holiday season. Populations of the mountain and coastal towns and villages increase manyfold now, both with the influx of foreign tourists and of Spanish families opening up their holiday homes, seeking escape from the intense heat of inland towns and cities. August days are hot, often very hot with thermometers soaring to 40° or more inland. On the coast the temperatures may be lower, but there is often a misty haze over the sea and the days can be heavy and humid. Nights are drawing in and late nights and early mornings can feel quite chilly if there’s a sea breeze blowing.

The landscape is dry and dusty, grass is scorched and bleached of all colour. Most of the smaller rivers run dry, their rocky beds exposed. But in many places trees and shrubbery hold their colour, being largely evergreen and evolved to withstand the heat and drought. Forest and grassland fires are a serious risk and in some years raging fires inflict serious amounts of damage to the cork oak woodlands and in some cases houses are consumed and homes are lost.

Wildflowers are few, but if you are heading to beaches, particularly those backed by coastal dunes or vegetation, you may be surprised to discover daffodils in bloom! Not your common-or-garden yellow ones, but lovely scented exotic-looking white ones. These are the blooms of the Sea Daffodil or Sea Lily Prancaium maritimum.

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Not really a daffodil at all , but rather a member of the family Amaryllidaceae, these glorious flowers bloom from August until October and are a distinctive species of the Medterranean coastline.

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

It is amazing that such a lovely plant not only survives, but thrives growing in salt-laden sand, regularly blasted by sandy, salty winds. The flowers open fully in the late afternoon and remain open through the night and into the following morning as they are pollinated by a night-flying hawkmoth.

Sea daffodil blooms are

Sea daffodil blooms are fragrant 

You may well have noticed the green, strap-like leaves of the plant in previous months – they stay green until late in the summer, just until the flowers are ready to open, when they turn brown and wither.

Sea daffodil leaves - April-Cape Trafalgar

Sea daffodil leaves – April-Cape Trafalgar

The fruits are large and at first shiny black, like small pieces of polished jet, but they have no weight to them and are readily picked up by the wind and carried away to spread the species.

The fruits are shiny black

October-The fruits are shiny black-Sotogrande

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground where many  are picked up and scattered by the wind

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground from where many are picked up and scattered by the wind

 

Hot summer blossoms

Thanks to the winter rains carrying on until later than usual and the cooler temperatures of the late spring, flowering in general was a little delayed this year, but has also been prolonged. The vegetation along the roadsides is turning brown now, and most wildflowers have set seed, but the exotic shrubs that characterize many hot sunny Mediterranean places are ablaze with abundant colourful blossom.

Oleander

Oleander is probably the most familiar flowering shrub, it is drought resistant and is planted widely to line roadsides and as an ornamental shrub in public and private gardens. It has also naturalised and is commonly found growing along the banks of rivers and streams. Its toxicity ensures it is not grazed by animals.

Oleander - Nerium oleander

Oleander cultivar with double flowers

Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the   family Apocynaceae, and is toxic in all its parts.  It is most commonly known as oleander, from its superficial resemblance to the unrelated olive Olea, but has many other names. It is so widely cultivated that no precise region of origin has been identified, but may perhaps be southwest Asia. The ancient city of Volubilis in Morocco took its name from the old Latin name for the flower.The oleander is the official flower of the city of Hiroshima, since it was the first to bloom again after the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945.

Oleander is one of the most poisonous of commonly grown garden plants,in fact it is one of the most poisonous plants in the world, and contains numerous toxic compounds, many of which are deadly to people, especially young children. There is a story that in Spain, in the times of French occupation by Napoleon’s troops, an invitation to share a meal was extended by the Spanish to French soldiers. In the preparation of the meat, peeled oleander cuttings were used as skewers to roast it, resulting in the death of many of the Napoleonic troops.

Oleander Hawk-moth - Daphnis nerii

Some invertebrates are known to be unaffected by oleander toxins, and feed on the plants, one such being the caterpillars of the beautiful Oleander Hawk-moth Daphnis nerii, a large moth found in wide areas of Africa and Asia. It is a migratory species, flying to parts of eastern and southern Europe during the summer. (I have yet to see one of these beautiful insects for myself but people I know have told me they are found here, so I’m hopeful). The adults feed on nectar of a great variety of flowers. They have a preference for fragrant species like petunia,jasmine and honeysuckle. They are especially active in the twilight time, hovering over the flowers after sunset.

Bougainvillea

19/6/11-Bougainvillea - Bougainvillea glabra, growing in my garden in Sotogrande

Bougainvillea  is a genus of flowering plants native to South America from Brazil west to Peru and south to southern Argentina.The plant was classified by Europeans in Brazil in 1768, by Philibert Commerçon, a French botanist accompanying French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville during his voyage of circumnavigation and for whom the plant is named.

The yellow-white flowers

They are thorny, woody vines growing anywhere from 1-12 meters tall, scrambling over other plants with their spiky thorns.  The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow. Bougainvillea glabra is sometimes referred to as “paper flower” because the bracts are thin and papery.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Hibiscus  is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. It is quite a large family, containing several hundred species that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Member species are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known as hibiscussorrel, and flor de Jamaica. The flowers are large, conspicuous, trumpet-shaped, with five or more petals, ranging from white to pink, red, orange, purple or yellow, and from 4–18 cm broad.

Hibiscus, especially White Hibiscus and Red hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), is considered to have medicinal properties in the Indian traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda. Roots are used in various concoctions believed to cure ailments such as coughs. The flowers are boiled in oil along with other spices to make a medicated hair oil to prevent greying and hair loss. The red hibiscus flower is traditionally worn by Tahitian women. A single flower is tucked behind the ear to indicate the wearer’s availability for marriage.

I have not observed that hibiscus flowers are particularly attractive to insects, but they do get investigated by foraging Blue Tits.

A young Blue Tit investigating hibiscus flowers

Sunday afternoon in a pine forest

Pinar del Rey – The King’s Pine Forest, lies to the north of the town of San Roque. It was planted in 1800 by the Spanish Navy to provide timber for building ships; the planting consisting of a combination of Stone Pines and Cork Oaks. In 1804, following the defeat of  the combined navies of Spain and France at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Spanish no longer needed the timber and the plantation was gifted to the people of San Roque by King Ferdinand VII as compensation for losing Gibraltar 100 years earlier.

A path through the pine trees

The area has long been used by the local people as a recreational area and now there are picnic areas and barbecues set up in cleared areas beneath the trees, some of them quite extensive. The shady woods are a lovely outdoor ‘breathing space’ for families living in the local towns and villages, and are probably the most popular nature spot for miles around. Many families spend a day out in the country here, and it is especially busy on a Sunday, the traditional ‘family’ day.

On Sunday outings I normally steer clear of any area I know to be a popular family venue. Today, feeling in need of some fresh air and gentle exercise, and persuading Jon that he did too, I went along with his suggestion to drive out to Pinar del Rey, albeit with some trepidation on my part. It’s not too far from where we live and once through the small town of San Roque you are out in the countryside. It is still green, and colourful now with the tougher flowers of summer, purple thistles, patches of yellow Spanish Oyster plant and the lime green-yellow flowerheads of Fennel. Turning into the entrance to the site it was immediately apparent that although it was by now late afternoon, there were a lot of people here: families sitting chatting around the wooden tables, lingering over their picnics, children playing amongst the trees and people just strolling along the shady pathways. It is great to see folks out and about and making the most of this wonderful public space, but, very selfishly I know, we were hoping for something a little more peaceful where there may be a chance of seeing some of the wilder residents of the area. There is just one paved road for cars that eventually reaches an abrupt end and the only way forward is on foot. That is where we stopped today, in a spot where there were no other cars or people in immediate sight and close to the beginning of one of the marked footpaths, the ‘Sendero de las Aguilas‘.

Stone Pines backlit by the sun with Cork Oaks behind

This is a lovely path, pleasantly shady and the air fragrant with the fresh resinous scent of Stone Pines. A Blackcap was singing, moving from tree to tree as we approached but picking up the song each time he changed perch. I heard a Greenfinch calling and caught sight of a Blackbird, otherwise all was quiet. The track is almost on the edge of the part of the forest dominated by Stone Pines, its edge is marked by a water course bounded by other tree species and shrubs such as Oleander; and beyond it is more woodland comprised mainly of Cork Oaks.

There were several patches of some very pretty and delicate flowers growing alongside the path that I had not seen before, coloured in various shades from pale mauve to purple and magenta.

The little purple flowers are held on very thin stalks

I discovered later that the plant is  a Campanula (Campanula specularioides). Apparently it got its latin name because of its similarity to the flowers of Venus’ Looking-glass, (sp. Legousia), which used to be called Specularia. (Betty Molesworth Allen).

A patch of campanula with bigger flowers showing several variations inn shade

While I was busy with the flowers, Jon discovered a very intriguing scene that was being acted out on another part of the forest floor; where ants were milling around a large hole and running back and forth over a pile of freshly excavated soil.Some of them were actually carrying grass seed heads and there were a great number of similar seedheads piled around the edges of the soil pile, clearly harvested by the ants, that were either being carried into or out of the hole.Perhaps the oddest thing was the presence of four beetles, a couple of which were being harassed by ants, while others seemed to be burrowing into the piled up seedheads.

An intriguing scene involving harvesting ants and round-bodied beetles

Meanwhile, up in the trees a Crested Tit foraged around the pine cones. These lovely little birds are one of the most elusive species for me in terms of getting photographs and today was no exception. It was too shady there to get a decent picture anyway as I discovered when I attempted to capture an image of a pair of Blackcap in another treetop. A Jay was a little more obliging, sitting halfway up a better-lit trunk.

Jay - Garrulus glandarius

We heard a Robin singing and spotted him perched on a low branch next to the path, flying off as we approached.

A very large old Stone Pine with a double trunk

Many of the pine trees are huge specimens that are reputed to be those originally planted in the early 1800s, they are impressive and beautiful and present countless opportunities for photographs; the light and shade on the trunks, the textures of the bark, the sunlight filtering through the canopy and so much more. Part of the track runs parallel to the river bank and the damper conditions here support a different flora, amongst which is the dramatic Acanthus. It is not a common plant in this area, except on calcareous outcrops, but it is often cultivated, so I am unsure if it would have occurred naturally here.

Acanthus leaf with greenbottle fly. The leaves of this plant were patterns for the design on capitals of many Corinthian pillars of the ancient world.

Acanthus mollis - flower. The common name of Bear's Breeches comes from the shape of the flowers.

The shape of the top of the tree gives it the common name of Umbrella Pine

We took a different route home as I was keen to see the progress of the Stork families, so at the entrance/exit to the park, rather than turning left towards San Roque town, we turned right to go to San Roque Estacion. This is a very quiet road, particularly since the new stretch of dual carriageway was constructed, and is not in very good repair, but it is much more scenic and tuneful too – we must have heard at least half a dozen snatches of Nightingale song as we passed by. We saw a Nightingale too, very unusually perched on a power cable near the junction of this road and the new one. We saw Storks on their nests from here too where the road crosses the railway line, but had much better views once on the road driving towards Jimena. Most of the nests had at least two or three grown-up young, and many were crowded with the whole family jammed in at once.

This is always a busy road, but we risked a very quick stop so I could take this photograph:

Parent White Storks with their grown-up young. The adult hiding her face at the back and looking a bit tatty is most probably the mother!

Sotogrande spring catch-up

3rd -13th May

I was beginning to think Spring would be over before I managed to get to catch up on what’s been happening here in Spain since I got back from the UK, but here’s just one person’s very tiny glimpse of the most eventful season in the Spanish natural calendar.

The weather has been variable and at times dramatic; the day I arrived home being an example of the latter. Flying with Easy Jet from London Gatwick, our take-off was delayed by about an hour and a half as the plane had a flat tyre that had to be replaced while we all sat in it. As it turned out that was fortunate in respect of our landing in Gibraltar as due to very strong winds, flights arriving earlier had been diverted to Malaga and ours was the only one to land that day.

On the journey home it didn’t take long to start noticing the changes to the landscape. Still green and lush thanks to the late rains and cooler than usual weather, the masses of golden yellow Spiny Broom that covered the hillsides I left at the end of April had gone, replaced, although to a much lesser extent, by the later flowering Spanish Broom. Along the roadsides the broom  is augmented by frothy pink Tamarisk and darker pink Oleander.

The Spiny Broom & gorse have been replaced by Spanish Broom

It always takes a few days to get back into the rhythm of things, but I had a good start as Jon told me he had discovered a bird’s nest located hardly a metre away from our upstairs bathroom window, but higher up, so about 6 – 7metres or so above the ground. He had been attempting to cut back some of the more intrusive branches that were almost coming in through the window, but stopped when he realised the nest was there. He thought the bird may have been sitting on it for a week or so.

Chaffinch nest from the bathroom window, through the window grille

The nest is a beautiful construction with lichen on the outside of it. Photo taken from the bathroom window.

It’s a perfectly beautiful nest, fitted into the junction of some fairly sturdy branches of the overhanging Cork Oak tree and screened by twigs, tree leaves and by honeysuckle that has twined all the way up there and will be shaded from direct sunlight. The nest is deep and all you can see of its maker is a tail and sometimes a bit of a head, so I couldn’t immediately work out whose nest it was. I only realised it belonged to a Chaffinch pair when I saw the female fly back to it.

Before I left the cork oaks had begun shedding their old dry leaves, a very messy process at the best of times, but when the process is aided by heavy rainfall and strong winds it’s even messier and our drive is covered with a thick layer of them. The trees have flowered too, so the wind has covered every outdoor surface with a thick layer of their yellow-green pollen dust and the flower tassels are also falling. I love those trees, but don’t look forward to these few weeks of their annual spring-clean.

A Cork Oak tree covered in a mass of flowers

In the garden the privet is in full flower and attracting all sorts of insects, including butterflies. There have been Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, but most surprising was a Clouded Yellow that stayed feeding for quite a few minutes, then left to return several times over a couple of hours. They’re usually in a big hurry, rarely still for long, so it was a  bit of a treat to have its company for so long.

A surprising visit from a Clouded Yellow butterfly

There have been more moths around too, some of which I’ve come across outside in the daytime.

A LargeYellow Underwing on a curtain. I couldn't see its antennae, so don't know if it was concealing them - surely it couldn't have lost them both?

This rather faded Crimson Speckled moth settled on the lawn

It’s good to see House Martins darting around the skies again; I noticed they are in the process of rebuilding nests under the eaves of a house where there have clearly been nests before. People sadly do knock them down, but it’s also possible that the amount of torrential rain we had through the winter and in recent weeks may have been responsible for the damage.

8MAY-House Martins are in the process of rebuilding nests in a spot where it looks as though old ones have been removed

Since much earlier in the year I’ve seen Kestrels in the locality, often two together over-flying the area, then a single one that regularly perches in the dead eucalyptus tree I can see across the main road in Sotogrande ‘alto’. I’ve even seen them in the garden several times, usually flying away after I’ve disturbed them from a perch high up in a palm tree. So, I know they’re around and have assumed they are nesting somewhere close by, but I had a most surprising sighting early one recent afternoon: a Booted Eagle suddenly appeared flying low across the garden towards me, swerving quickly as it almost collided with the corner of the roof, closely and noisily chased by a much smaller Kestrel! It was another of those ‘did that really happen moments?’, but as my son was standing talking to me at the time, he confirmed it! Then lo and behold just a couple of days later the scene was repeated, but this time the pursued was a Black Kite and I although I was out with my camera was far too slow to record the speeding action, but I did manage a quick shot of the feisty little pursuer as it flew back, mission accomplished. I guess the birds chased away must have been on passage and strayed into the Kestrel’s territory.

Seeing the photograph afterwards I had another surprise; I think it may be a Lesser Kestrel and am hoping someone might comment on that. It does appear to have the longer projecting central tail feathers.

This Kestrel is afraid is no-one

Apart from that bit of excitement, the general bird population seems to be busy going about the business of raising families. Blackbirds have a nest in the bay shrub, the female hardly ventures out, so she may be sitting on eggs and I’ve seen the male very close by, singing from the top of the nearby hedge and foraging for food on the lawn and around the flower beds.

The wildflowers are this spring are rampant and, just glorious, there is no other word to describe them. It is difficult to convey the extent of them as photographs can’t come close to truly portraying the sights, but here are a few of a field that stretches from the back of Pueblo Nuevo de Guadiaro, behind the football pitch and up to the A-7 Cadíz – Malaga road.

This display mainly comprises purple bugloss, white ox-eye daisies and lime green euphorbia

There's not much grass between the flowers for the horses

A mass of wildflowers at the field edge including Purple Viper's Bugloss, Rabbit's Bread & Euphorbia

I will be following up with a more detailed post of the plants and adding some to my wildflower id page, but I’ve got more catching up to do first.

A hunt for early Orchids

Friday 1st April

My friends  generously rescued me from an otherwise lonely weekend and invited me to stay with them at their home near Jimena, which along with the hospitality also presented the opportunity to catch up with some of what is happening in that part of the countryside. As I’ve said before, I love the drive from Sotogrande down to the Jimena road always, but at this time of year it can be particularly special. I  was not disappointed, driving over last evening with the car windows down I heard plentiful snatches of songs of newly-arrived Nightingale and then reaching the bottom stretch of the road, the air was filled with the uplifting and heady perfume of orange blossom; a heavenly combination.

Later on we took a short walk down to the river where another Nightingale was singing from a tree at the top of the high bank that is surrounded by scrubby shrubbery and a tangled mass of brambles, another heavenly combination, but for the bird this time. There were Cetti’s Warblers calling from both sides of the river too, but as usual offered us only very brief glimpses of themselves as they dashed between covers.

Saturday 2nd April

We set off this morning with a bit of a list of things we hoped to see during the course of the day. We were heading up to Gaucín, our primary purpose being to seek Orchids, but then I also had a yen to find out if the Bee-eaters had returned yet to the nest-site I knew to be just beyond Jimena Estacion and additionally to maybe a  sighting of a Woodchat Shrike. A little greedy maybe, but I was anticipating leaving the country for a few weeks and hoping to see as much as possible before then; by the time I return the freshness of spring will have already passed into early summer.

The 'white town' of Gaucin nestles into the mountainside watched over by its castle

Our orchid hunt was to be along the same track we explored last April where we discovered a varied selection of the flowers.  That was on the 17th of the month, a couple of weeks later than now, so thought we may be too early, but we were delighted to discover an even better, fresher display today.

Spiny Broom, Grey-leaved Cistus, Periwinkle

Walking along this track on a sunny spring day is like walking through a beautiful wild garden, shrubs and flowers compete for the best patches of ground amongst the rocky terrain of the mountainside, interweaving to create artfully full and colourful displays that only pure nature could imagine. A photograph can only hope to highlight a tiny detail of the wholly glorious sight, no amount of words or pictures  can do it justice, you really have to get out there and experience it if you can.

Grey-leaved Cistus

The petals of the pretty flowers of the cistus resemble crumpled paper and last only a few brief hours. This one is being devoured by a chafer, its hairs stained with bright yellow pollen.

Blue Alkanet

A Yellow Anemone, Anemone palmatum hosts a murder scene- a tiny spider preying upon a hoverfly

A view of the mountains in the direction of another white town, neighbouring Casares

The Orchids

Some of the orchids are soberly coloured and surprisingly difficult to spot, until you’ve found the first ones.Once we began to pick them out today we were surprised by their numbers, there were a lot more individual plants than we had seen last year and some impressively large colonies too. There were very good numbers of Mirror Orchids, an attractive and distinctive species that is easy to identify.

Mirror Orchid

A large colony of Mirror Orchids together with other Ophrys species, growing in dry gravelly soil at the side of the track

Also plentiful, the Yellow Ophrys is again distinctive and unlikely to be confused with anything else.

Yellow Ophrys

Sombre Bee Orchid-Ophrys fusca

The Sombre Orchid (or Dull Ophrys) also grows abundantly here. First impressions are of a slender plant, often taller than the Mirror or Yellow Orchids. They have a dark-coloured lip and a two- lobed blue speculum. There are also other species growing alongside them that have a similar appearance, but that have subtle differences. One such is Ophrys iricolor

Ophrys iricolor is similar to Ophrys fusca

The two species are  very similar in their general appearance, but when you look closely you can see there are differences, most noticeably Ophrys iricolor has a more squared speculum with different patterning.

The species also cross-pollinate and produce sub-species, so there are even more variations to be found, but naming them is another thing!

Quite unique, the fascinating Man Orchid is easy to identify:

The Man Orchid is unlikely to be confused with any other species

There were fewer specimens of the pretty and more showy Sawfly orchid to be found, but we did find a few, including this lovely large fresh specimen sited on a rocky slope and with other species behind it.

Sawfly Orchid

There was so much to enjoy on this walk, the warm sunshine, the glorious sight and wonderful scent of masses  of golden flowered broom, the orchids and other early spring flowers and then an unexpected bird treat. Sitting quietly for a few minutes while I was photographing flowers, Jill heard two birds calling to one another as they worked their way towards us through the branches of a pine tree. When one popped out of cover she saw they were Crested Tits; I arrived to get a quick glimpse and a very quick photograph just before the second one flew out and away.

A little Crested Tit amongst the cones of a pine tree

Griffon Vultures circling overhead are very much a feature of this mountainous area and we had several sightings of them today. We also saw a few other migrant raptors including Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles. We were pleased to hear our first Cuckoo and when we first arrived a Nightingale, but   Sardinian Warblers were our most seen and heard birds throughout our time here today.

(For further details of Orchids, including scientific names etc, please see page listed under Flora)

Glorious spring flora

7th March 2011

Following last Saturday’s high the week’s temperatures rapidly descended back to winter lows and we had rainy days, climaxing over the weekend with torrential downpours and thunderstorms. I have only ventured out for short walks during pleasanter parts of days, so for now I thought I’d do an update on some of the most commonly found plants that are presently flowering throughout the region.

Beautiful flowering shrubs and plants, many of which are widely cultivated and grown, or attempted to be grown in gardens throughout Europe, flourish here in some seemingly inhospitable places. Most thrive in a variety of different habitats, on dry sandy and often stony soils, in salty air by the sea and on rocky slopes. The plants compensate for the lack of available moisture with leaves that help to conserve it, these may be thick and felted, tough and leathery or needle-like. Many also protect themselves from being eaten by grazing animals with sharp spines or by producing chemicals that make them unpalatable. They flower early in the season to allow time to set seed before the summer drought begins.

Shrubs

SPINY BROOM – Calicotome villosa

An uplifting sight of bright yellow broom against a blue sky and sea

Shrubs are covered in a profusion of blossom

Flowering: February to April (May)

Habitat: Open spaces, especially dry hillsides with Genista and Gorse bushes and often in coastal places close to the sea.

A very spiny shrub that is often confused with gorse. The flowers are a rich yellow colour, very scented and are so profuse that when they are fully out they hide the leaves. The flowers almost always come out at the same time and a mass of the shrubs growing together is a spectacular sight. The formidable spines are 3-4cm long,  straight and tough, at the tips of the short leafy twigs and remain on dead wood.

*The spiny branches are so complexly interwoven that a stand of the shrubs is almost impenetrable and in the past, goatherds would cut bushes to use as fencing to corral their goats.

FRENCH LAVENDERLavandula stoechas

French Lavender – Lavandula stoechas

The colourful 'petals' at the top of each flower-head are actually bracts, the flowers are tiny and purple.

Flowering: Nearly all year round, but flowering is most profuse from late February to April/May.
Habitat: I used to struggle to grow this lovely plant in Wales, but here it grows in a wide variety of habitats. It is very common in sandy and acid soils; also in limestone areas, in light woods or in open places amongst open larger shrubs.
French Lavender is  a small woody perennial shrublet : all parts of the plant are slightly aromatic. The leaves are pale to mid grey-green, softly hairy and pointed. The flowers appear in elongated heads that are topped with purple to lilac or pink bracts varying in shape and length from about 1-2.5cm long. The flowers are tiny and usually purple in colour.
*During the intense heat of summer the normally pleasant scent of the plant tends to alter, taking on an almost ‘goaty’ scent. It is a very old medicinal plant and its essential oil was used here as an  antiseptic forwashing wounds.

A plant growing in light woodland amongst limestone rocks

TREE GERMANDER: Teucrium fruticans

TREE GERMANDER- Teucrium fruticans

Most common colour of this species are very plae lilac and almost white

Flowering: January to June

Habitat: A very common plant in a wide variety of habitats, woods, heaths, thickets, open spaces with other shrubs from the coast to mountains, on any soil type.
Tree Germander is a woody shrub that may reach a height of 2m, but usually much less. The leaves have  short stalks and are arranged in opposite pairs; the upper surfaces of fresher leaves is slightly downy, the undersides white felted.  The flowers are usually out two at a time on a twig end; colour is variable from pure white though pale lilac, pinkish or pale blue-lilac, very rarely dark blue. The plant is frequently cultivated, especially the deep sapphire-blue flowered form which originated in North Africa.
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Climbers

DUTCHMAN’S PIPEAristolochia baetica
 

DUTCHMAN'S PIPE -Aristolochia baetica

FLOWERING: Over a long period from autumn to early spring.

The plant takes its common name from the shape of its flowers

HABITAT: In almost any soil and a wide range of habitats, often in semi-shade on woodland edges, but also in more open places where it has support.

Dutchman’s Pipe is a robust, tall hairless creeping plant that will clamber high into trees, through shrubs or along the ground. The leaves are dull, blue-green and attractively heart-shaped.The flowers are about 7cm long, curved and a dull red-purple to brownish-red in colour: the plant takes its name from their  curious shape that are designed to entice in insects  to pollinate them, holding them captive until the job is done.

*The roots of the plant have been used in Spain since at least the 16th century for reducing fever.

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Bulbs & corms

STAR OF BETHLEHEMOrnithogalum orthophyllum (collinum)

STAR OF BETHLEHEM

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/May

HABITAT: A variety of locations including light woodland, grassy roadsides, rocky ground and sandy coastal places.

A beautiful bulbous perennial with quite large star-shaped white flowers, 30-40mm across. Commonly cultivated.

ONE-LEAVED SQUILL, SCILLAScilla monophyllus

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/ May

HABITAT: Light woodland, sandy and stony places.

A pretty, delicate-looking small bulbous perennial that produces a single long basal leaf that often bends over from the middle so the tip reaches the ground. The flowers are bright blue and star shaped, 7-9mm across and are held in compact spikes of 1-12 florets.

ROMULEA-Romulea bulbicodium

FLOWERING: January to March, April in the hills

HABITAT: Not fussy- sandy, stony or heavy rocky soils, open places or in light woods, coastal; very common.

Small, slender plants growing from corms, resembles a small crocus but does not have the deep green leaves with the central white line. Flowers open in the sun and range in colour from almost-white or pale lilac-pink to deep lilac.

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Pretty but pestilential

BERMUDA BUTTERCUPOxalis pes-caprae

Bermuda Buttercup - Pretty but highly invasive

FLOWERING: December to early May, later in hills.

HABITAT: Nearly everywhere, mainly open places, but can quickly become a pest in gardens too; covering fields and roadsides in vast patches and quick to take hold on disturbed ground. In our area it grows in any soil from the coast to limestone crevices at least to 500m.

This enormously successful plant, (not related to buttercups), is a native of South Africa that has naturalised in most Mediterranean countries, in Portugal, Florida & Bermuda and is ever-increasing its range. It does look pretty when it cloaks fields with its soft primrose-yellow coloured flowers, but it is a serious pest, covering many acres of agricultural land. The plants contain oxalic acid are not eaten by domestic animals. It is seriously difficult to eliminate as it has bulbs deeply buried in the ground, and new methods of controlling it are being sought.

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Herbaceous plants

COMMON ASPHODEL- Asphodelus aestivus

Common Asphodel against a background of Spiny Broom & the sea

Ashphodel with fruits & a visiting Violet Carpenter Bee

FLOWERING: January to March, April

HABITAT: Very common and widespread on rocky slopes, waste ground, woodland clearings, open coastal areas.

A tuberous perennial that often forms extensive colonies as it is unpalatable to grazing animals. (See post -GONHS  trip to La Janda) This is a very robust plant with tall stems that can attain 1.5m or more in height.  The flowers are white, 20-30mm across and the tepals have a pink-brown mid-vein. they are born in a much branched inflorescence that resembles a candelabra.

* The roots bear spindle-shaped tubers that are rich in starch, they are just edible and have been used as food in the past; they were also used to make glue.

ANDALUZ STORKSBILL – Erodium primulaceum

Andaluz Storksbill - one of the prettiest of the early flowers

FLOWERING: December to May

HABITAT: Sands, gravel and grassy fields; amongst scrub and in light woods; common across lowlands to hills.

A delightful, small annual plant that may grow to 30cm but is frequently smaller. The leaves are deeply cut and fern-like; the flowers are supported by long thin stalks with 2 to as many as 6 heads to each. Individual flowers are about  2-2.5cm across, with two petals larger than the other three, each having a dark pink mark near its base. The colour of the flowers ranges from pale to mid-pink, occasionally white. In early spring it can be more conspicuous when it forms large patches of pink in fields and on roadsides.

FIELD MARIGOLD – Calendula arvensis

FIELD MARIGOLD -flowers appear in a variety of sizes depending on location

FLOWERING: Almost all year round, but mainlyJanuary to May/June

HABITAT: Sandy, stony soils, often favouring disturbed and cultivated ground. Widespread across the region.

An annual plant with tiny flowers, 1-2cm across that range in colour from bright yellow to orange.

FEDIA – Fedia cornucopiae

Fedia is very attractive to butterflies and bees

FLOWERING: December right through to April/May

HABITAT: Grassy roadsides, damp pastures and disturbed ground.

A small, low-growing and spreading annual, very common and widespread plant and having a very long flowering period. The leaves are oval, quite a dark green and hairless. Flowers are borne on  stems that branch into two at their end, with two leaf-like bracts at the joint; each stem then bears a densely clustered flower-head. Flowers are about 1.5cm long pink to dark red in colour.

BORAGE-Borago officianalis

Borage is a good honey plant and is grown as a culinary herb in gardens

The flowers are gentian blue

FLOWERING: February to May.

HABITAT: Country roadsides, seasonally damp fields in sandy or rubbly soil; often cultivated; mainly located in lowlands.

An annual plant that grows to about 70cm tall, it is much-branched with hollow stems. All parts of the part except the petals are covered with short, sharp and pale-coloured hairs. The leaves have a puckered surface and are variable in size. The deep blue flowers  are held face-down on short bent stalks and are almost scentless, which is a pity as they are quite beautiful.

Jimena river valley walk

26th February 2011

RED ADMIRAL - Vanessa atalanta

A very warm morning had built up to an unseasonably high temperature  by the time I arrived for lunch at my friend’s house at Jimena. Before I even knocked on the door I had the camera out and pointed at butterflies and Violet Carpenter bees that were very strongly drawn to a flowering shrub at the front of the house. There were 2 Red Admirals, several Large Whites and numerous Carpenter bees, but it was also quite windy and very difficult to focus on them swaying around.

Borage in flower along the sides of the road leading down to the river

We had lunch sitting outside in the garden, debating where to head for to walk this afternoon. We settled on a walk along the pathway that follows the río Hozgarganta upstream through the Jimena valley, a walk we have done several times that is always interesting and enjoyable. Whilst eating we kept an eye on the sky; migration has been slow to get under-way this year due to the weather, so on a warm sunny afternoon, although the wind wasn’t blowing in a particularly helpful direction, we thought a few determined birds may make it across. Luckily for us we happened to be looking up as two Egyptian Vultures flew over, low down and in no particular hurry- so a good omen for the afternoon.

View from the bridge Río Hozgarganta, looking upstream

On the other side of the bridge a large Striped-neck Terrapin was out enjoy the sun

Alder trees growing on the riverbank in fresh foliage

Looking both up and downstream from the bridge there were no signs of any wading birds, but in the alder and other small trees growing in front of the bridge, and in the tangle of  undergrowth below there were a good number of small birds; Blackcaps singing, Greenfinches, a Chiffchaff and a Sardinian Warbler were all there.

A stone outcrop sculpted and scoured clean and smooth, shows how high the river has been

Once past the houses and the domesticated area of the riverbank you can begin to better appreciate the more rugged and natural scenery created by the river, the rock formations and the wild flora. I spotted bright yellow flowers off to the side of the path and headed off  for a closer look. I quickly found myself in a wet, muddy marshy area and was about to turn back, when I noticed little frogs were popping about all around me. The flowers were Lesser Celandines, as I’d hoped.

A little Marsh Frog hoping I hadn't seen him

Leaving the frogs in peace and making my way back to the track, I caught sight of a small Lizard scuttling across a large rock.

A small, nicely patterned Lizard scuttled over a large rock

We hadn’t walked far before spotting another, larger lizard; he had clearly lost the end of his tail at some point and although it had re-grown he will never regain his colourful scales.

A bigger Wall Lizard with a shiny new bald tip to his tail

Cork Oaks and shrubbery on the valley sides

We spotted birds hovering high up  in the sky that we could make out as Kestrels and wondered if they may be Lesser Kestrels as there were two close together. There was still a fairly strong wind blowing and the birds were making good use of it, their wings were extended as though to hover, but holding them still they were able to maintain an almost motionless position for impressively long periods. As we watched one of the birds flew into a hollow in  an outcrop of rock; as it happens this particular rock is one we have often commented on, as its shape and the hollow put us in mind of an animal’s raised head, mouth wide open…? Anyway, inside the hollow is a further smaller cavity and we located the Kestrel sitting on its edge. We continued watching as two more Kestrels appeared that seemed to have gone down on the other side of the outcrop. Now we had seen more than two birds we were happy to conclude that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels and that we had discovered their nesting place.

Looking up a rocky slope towards the outcrop where Lesser Kestrels appear to be nesting

Lesser Kestrel

We continued on our walk enjoying the dramatic scenery and the warmth of the sun, until we reached a spot overlooking the river that looked like a pleasant place to sit. It was a good decision to stay still for a while, as it gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate our surroundings and to notice the details of it. We timed our break well too, we spotted raptors flying over, a Booted Eagle (light phase) and a Short-toed Eagle, the first individual of the latter species that either of us had seen so far this year. The  Kestrels were very visible, flying back and forth over the ridge of hills in front of us and close enough for us to identify properly and confirm that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels.

The view upriver from our stopping place

The rocky scene immediately behind us

There were more sightings of a Short-toed Eagle; we thought at first that we were seeing the same bird that was circling around, but then decided that was unlikely and it was more likely to have been three individual birds on passage.

Short-toed Eagle - The views we had today were of birds flying too high for me to photograph effectively, so this is 'one I made earlier'

Some plants are flowering now, most abundant was French Lavender growing amongst rocks and bushes of bright yellow broom.

FRENCH LAVENDER-Lavendula stoechas, growing amongst rocks

As we moved off to begin our walk back I spotted a green Tiger Beetle scurrying over a rock. It stopped so I focused the camera on it and realised it was actually two beetles, a mating pair, showing the considerable difference in their sizes, the female being the largest.

Mating Tiger Beetles

 

A male Serin singing with gusto

Perhaps my favourite sighting of the day was of this male Serin, singing his socks off from the top of a shrub just a short distance away from us. He was in bright sunlight and very colourful.

Griffon Vulture-Gyps fulvus

You do have to be quite unlucky not to have sightings of Griffon Vultures in this area, but we had especially good views of these magnificent birds today when five of them flew in a straggly line along a low ridge to the side of us. We have no way of knowing whether they were part of the local flock or just passing through, but either way they were, as always a dramatic sight.

 

A bumper crop of Avocados hanging high above us

Arriving back at where the town meets the river, the wild flora begins to blend into the cultivated and there are fruit trees growing that may once have been in a garden or orchard, but are now untended. This Avocado tree has grown so tall, we only realised what it was because there were fallen fruits beneath it. Looking up we saw a heavily-fruited branch high above us, overhanging the path. They looked perfect, what a shame they’ll probably be wasted.

 

Oranges and lemons growing on the same tree

What appears to be two trees here, an orange and a lemon, is in fact one tree. Apparently it was common practise to graft one of each onto a single rootstock so both could be grown more compactly in a small patio garden. This particular one seems to have got a little out of hand but has produced abundant quantities of fruit.

Apple of Sodom plant with Jimena castle in the background

On the subject of fruit, this one is definitely one never to be eaten; it is the Apple of Sodom – Solanum sodomeum, a member of the Nightshade family and a fairly common plant on disturbed earth and waste spaces. The fruit looks attractive, but like all parts of the plant are very poisonous.

Back at the house, a lovely, very large Moorish Gecko sunbathed on the stem of a palm frond. Looks more like a baby alligator.

We got back to the house at about 6pm, admired the big gecko on the palm tree then took another cup of tea out into the garden. It was still very warm, the outside thermometer reading 19°C, 2° more than inside – Spanish houses are built to stay cool, even in the winter. Collared Doves, currently nesting in a tall cypress tree were very noisy and active, and there were a good few Barn Swallows flying around. Then the Cattle Egrets, having spent the day hunting in the nearby fields, began to pass overhead on their way to their night-time roost. There must have been at least a hundred of them, in parties of varying numbers and they were very close overhead. They looked so pretty, white birds tinted faintly pink by the lowering sun, against a still-blue   sky. Last treat of the day was a Buzzard, flying so low it almost skimmed the roof.

Are nesting wading birds killing Cork Oak trees?

My Dad mentioned an article he had read recently about birds killing off Cork Oak trees and I meant to research it earlier, but forgot about it. I don’t know what triggered the recollection this morning, but whatever it was led me to find this article on what seems to be an interesting website, new to me, that is produced by the Natural Research Environment Council and titled Planet Earth. The link is http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk and they invite comments on their articles if you think you know better! It’s an interesting article, although it does make it sound as though all the regions’ Cork Oaks are under this threat, rather than those growing in the immediate Doñana area.

Bird conservation leads to tree death

14 December 2010, by Tamera Jones

Conservationists have been so successful at protecting endangered birds in a Spanish nature reserve, that the birds are now killing the reserve’s ancient cork oak forest, say scientists. This may mean some colonies will have to be moved to protect the trees, some of which date back to the seventeenth century.

The trees are the last part of a huge cork oak forest which once covered south-western Spain, and provide food for deer, wild boar and small mammals. The endangered Iberian Lynx often also uses old cork oak trees as breeding dens.

Damaged tree

Damaged tree (image: Maria T.Dominguez)

Over the last 40 years scientists had noticed that trees used by wading birds during the nesting season seemed to die more often than trees not used by birds in the Doñana Biological Reserve – a World Heritage site – in south-western Spain. But they couldn’t be sure if firstly the damage could be blamed on birds, and secondly how the birds were damaging the trees. So Dr Luis García from the Instituto de Recursos Naturales y Agrobiología de Sevilla (CSIC), other Spanish scientists and a researcher from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology decided to find out.

In reserves where bird populations are protected, tree damage can often be blamed on bird populations that have got too big. So Garcia and his team reasoned this could well be happening in the Doñana Biological Reserve.The team analysed the health of 60 ancient cork oak trees, sampled leaves and soil, and worked out how many leaves were covered with poo. They write that, ‘an intense and persistent occupation of trees by colonial wading birds induces large changes in the soil composition and contributes to the decline of the centenarian cork oaks.’

They found that salts in the soil came from the birds’ excrement. Not only does excess salt stunt the trees’ growth, eventually killing them, but the birds break branches, tear off twigs for nests and their droppings are bad for the trees’ leaves. With around 70 nests in any one tree, the researchers found that the nesting birds produce so much poo it upsets the delicate balance of the soil which nurtures the oaks.

The birds’ faeces lead to high concentrations of salts in the soil, to which cork oak trees are particularly sensitive – the salt makes it hard for the trees to absorb enough water. The researchers found that cork oaks which are home to birds like the white stork, the spoonbill and the grey heron are in much worse condition than trees with no nesting birds.

‘If populations of these birds continue to rise, the effect will increase. The source will still be there,’ says Cristina Aponte from the Instituto de Recursos Naturales y Agrobiologia de Sevilla, and co-author of the study published in Biological Conservation. ‘New trees will be used by the colony as the occupied trees die.’

This case of one conservation success leading to the decline of other endangered species isn’t as rare as you might think. Problems crop up when different species have different needs and they live in the same habitat. In Polish forests, cormorants and protected wading birds have harmed ancient trees, elephants destroy endangered plants and trees in parts of South Africa, and the rare chamois in the Pyrenees feeds on the equally endangered larkspur plant.

For managers of the reserve, there is clearly a trade-off between maintaining the area for nesting birds and preserving the ancient cork oak forests. One solution to the problem would be to relocate the colony to a region where the trees aren’t as valuable or rare. But the size of the colonies could make relocation challenging.

As the climate changes, warmer temperatures could bring further problems.

‘Increased water-stress under climate change could exacerbate the problem, because trees won’t be able to get the water they need,’ explains Aponte.

Around 95 per cent of the cork oak forest in south-western Spain was devastated by human exploitation between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. But remaining trees were kept for producing cork, and to support cattle and game.

Now wading birds nest in the trees from February to July, with colony sizes varying from year to year from 150 to 13,000 pairs.

Luis V. García, Cristina Ramo, Cristina Aponte, Adela Moreno, María T. Domínguez, Lorena Gómez-Aparicio, Ramón Redondo, Teodoro Marañón, Protected wading bird species threaten relict centenarian cork oaks in a Mediterranean Biosphere Reserve: A conservation management conflict, Biological Conservation (2010), published online 3 December 2010, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.11.007