Saturday, January 29, 2011

Almonds, wattles and witches' weeds

The dominant colour in the Algarve countryside at any time of the year is green. There are a great many shades of green thanks to the myriad types of evergreen trees, shrubs and undergrowth plants that thrive here. Amid all this greenery, the most outstanding colour now is the pinkish white of the almond blossom and the yellow of the Bermuda buttercups and mimosa.

Almond blossom always first appears around Christmas. By the end of January and early February the countryside is awash with it. It is now reaching a crescendo.

The almond tree is not native to Portugal. It was introduced during the Moorish occupation, which started in the 8th century and lasted until the 13th. The nitty-gritty of how it came to be here in such abundance is revealed in a sweet little fable about a Moorish princess that has been repeated so often that we are not going to retell it here. Suffice to say that when the princess looked out of her bedroom window in the castle one morning and saw all the almond blossom it instantly cured her homesickness for her native land in the far north. The countryside looked as if it was covered with snow.

Well, almond blossom doesn't look that much like snow, so perhaps the princess had been chewing or smoking Datura leaves, as some people have been doing to get relief from the real world since ancient times. Datura is famously hallucinogenic. But more on that later.

In the old days when almond trees were extensively cultivated for their profitable nuts, there were great swathes of blossom all across the Algarve at this time of year, especially across the Barrocal central belt.

The blossom is still plentiful and on full view if you look seaward, for example, from the road that runs past Alte. It is not in the same profusion as yesteryear, however, because harvesting almonds is of lesser economic importance these days.

Many unattended trees, rows in former plantations, or just a few or individual trees in gardens or by the wayside, are still a glorious sight at this time of year.

The fruit of the almond tree – both bitter and sweet varieties - are ready for harvesting in September. A common sound as well as sight is that of men with long poles knocking the nuts from the branches. After their laborious collection, the fruits are laid out to dry in the sun. The leathery outer hull splits open, curls outwards and discharges the inner nut, which then has to be shelled.

Portugal is still one of the world's main producers and exporters of almonds. Processed almond oil is used as a flavouring essence and by the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. In the Algarve, almonds are used mostly in the making of traditional cakes and confectionery.

Like the almond blossom, mimosas are blooming earlier this year. Some are are already in full colour even though it is usually late February or early March before they are looking their best. Covered with their vivid yellow flowers, they look lovely lining the road from the Portimão area up to Monchique for example.
Otherwise known as acacias or wattles, they are highly invasive foreigners and not universally popular because of their tendency to barge their way through gardens and countryside, pushing aside indigenous or more desirable flora.

Datura is also both bushy and pushy, though not a feature of the wild countryside. Gardeners have mixed feelings about it because it needs a lot of water to flourish well. It flowers erratically and for fairly short periods at different times of the year. When in full flood, it looks magnificent with its large, trumpet-like blooms.

Datura is one of the 'witches' weeds'. Hell's bells, they say it's strong stuff. Ingest any part of it and you are liable to be off with the fairies – and perhaps off to hospital too. This might explain why the princess thought that outside her castle window suddenly looked like the land of Santa Claus.

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