Tag Archive: mediterranean

vitexI’m getting close to the end of the alphabet, and it doesn’t get any easier…so today’s feature tree (or large shrub), is the interestingly named Vitex agnus – castus…

Common name:  Vitex, Chaste Tree, chasteberry, Abraham’s balm, lilac chastetree, or monk’s pepper.

Native areas: Vitex agnus-castus is a native of the Mediterranean region and China. It is one of the few temperate-zone species of Vitex, which is on the whole a genus of tropical and sub-tropical flowering plants. It has a long history in the U.S.A. where it was first cultivated in 1670, and since that time it has become naturalized throughout the Southern part of the country. Many southerners use it as a replacement for lilacs, which don’t tolerate hot summers.

Historical notes: : Theophrastus mentioned Vitex as agnos (άγνος) in ‘Enquiry into Plants’. Vitex, its name in Pliny the Elder, is derived from the latin vieo, meaning to weave or to tie up, a reference to the use of Vitex agnus-castus in basketry. Its specific name repeats “chaste” in both Greek and Latin, and was considered to be sacred to the goddess Hestia/Vesta. In folk legends the tree is associated with Greek hagnos, ‘pure’, since it was strewn in bedchambers during Thesmophoria, the Greek religious festival when Athenian women left their husbands’ beds to remain ritually chaste-   “to cool the heat of lust”. At the end of the thirteenth century John Trevisa reports “the herbe agnus-castus is always grene, and the flowre therof is namly callyd Agnus Castus, for wyth smel and vse it maketh men chaste as a lombe”. More recently, this plant has been called monk’s pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. There are disputed accounts regarding its actual action on libido, with some claims that it is anaphrodisiac and others that it is aphrodisiac. Because of it’s  complex chemical action it can be probably be both, depending on the concentration of the extract and physiological variables. Today, Vitex agnus-castus is used to alleviate the symptoms of various gynaecological problems.

Features: Vitex blooms from late spring until early autumn with long, upright spikes of butterfly- attracting pink, lilac and white flowers (depending on variety) in late summer in cooler climates. It also has delicate-textured aromatic foliage. It develops small hard berries that ripen to a dark colour and look like peppercorns. It grows to a height of 1–5 metres.

Uses:   Whether left to grow as a large, multistemmed shrub, pruned to a standard tree or cut back annually for a more compact look, this selection is a winner. Fine, lacy leaves are glossy and green. Bright blue flower panicles begin to form in early summer and continue through the heat of the season and into autumn. This is a reasonably cold-hardy, deer-resistant woody plant. Vitex, also a traditional plant in Africa, is a little-known fruit plant that has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.

Growing conditions:   It requires full sun or partial shade along with well-drained soil. It’s best not to plant them in soil that is rich in organic matter because these soils hold too much moisture close to the roots. Chaste trees do very well in dry gardens. Under ideal conditions it is hardy to -10 degrees Fahrenheit and will grow in South West England (and possibly in suitable micro-climates and sheltered parts of gardens eleswhere) and the more temperate zones of north America. Wildlife shuns the seeds, and it’s just as well because you’ll have to remove the flower spikes before they go to seed to keep the plant flowering. You’ll need to prune annually to control the shape and size and encourage branching.

Further information:


How to grow Vitex (U.S.A.)

Vitex agnus-castus- The British Gardener

Old School Gardener

olive potsThe ‘O’ in my A-Z of garden trees is a tree that has grown in popularity in the UK in recent years, though is a little tender. I have an olive tree growing in a pot in the courtyard here at Old School Garden. It’s a couple of years old and though producing fruit, these have not yet developed into anything edible….

Common name: Olive

Native areas:  found in much of  Africa and the Mediterranean basin, the arabian peninsula, southern asia and has been naturalised in many other places.

Olive characteristics from the Kohler Medicinal Pflanzen

Olive characteristics from the Kohler Medicinal Pflanzen

Historical notes: The olive tree as we know it today had its origin approximately 6,000 -7,000 years ago in the region corresponding to ancient Persia and Mesopotamia. It later spread from these countries to nearby territories corresponding to present-day Syria and Israel.

Olive oil has long been considered sacred. The olive branch was often a symbol of abundance, glory and peace. The leafy branches of the olive tree were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures as emblems of benediction and purification, and they were used to crown the victors of friendly games and bloody wars. Today, olive oil is still used in many religious ceremonies.

 Features: Olives grow very slowly, and over many years the trunk can attain a considerable diameter. One was recorded as exceeding 10 m (33 ft) in girth. Olive is an evergreen tree or shrub. It is short and squat, and rarely exceeds 8–15 m (26–49 ft) in height, and are generally confined to much more limited dimensions by frequent pruning. The yellow or light greenish-brown wood is often finely veined with a darker tint; being very hard and close-grained, it is valued by woodworkers. 

Uses:  As a small tree with a rounded form, the olive can take on an attractively gnarled appearance as it develops and is a good choice for small gardens. It has small, but attractive leathery grey-green leaves and small,  fragrant white flowers. They can be grown as half standards pruned to the classical Tuscan shape, or as full standards as well as more natural forms. They can benefit from a severe biannual prune in April, but as the fruit develops at the tips of the previous year’s growth you’ll sacrifice one year’s crop. These look especially good in teracotta pots and in Mediterranean style gardens.

An Olive Tree in a garden setting

An Olive Tree in a garden setting

Growing conditions:  If you have a protected city garden or live in a mild area, olives can be grown outdoors as long as you give them a sunny position and plant them in well-drained soil, for example, against a warm wall would be ideal.  In cold or northern regions winter protection in a conservatory for example, will be required.

Once established they are extremely drought-tolerant, but plants will do better if watered regularly in dry spells during the growing seasons. To encourage strong growth, it’s a good idea to feed each spring with a general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4. Olives naturally shed their older leaves in spring (April in the UK) as new growth begins.

Olives are not entirely hardy in the UK, and will be damaged by temperatures below -10°C (14°F). So, in colder areas of the country, you can grow olives in large (60cm, 24ins) diameter and depth) containers. Plant in a well-drained mix of compost, such as loam-based John Innes No 3 with 20 percent by volume added horticultural grit. You can place containers outdoors in summer and then move into a cold conservatory, porch or greenhouse over winter.

Olives ready to eat- Picture by K'm

Olives ready to eat- Picture by K’m

Although they can cope with dry periods, olives in containers need regular watering and feeding to produce fruit. During the growing season keep the compost moist and feed with a balanced liquid fertiliser such as Phostrogen or seaweed, every month. In winter, you can reduce watering, but don’t let the compost dry out completely.

Olive trees can live for several centuries and can remain productive for as long if they are pruned correctly and regularly. 

The Olive Tree of Jerusalem mural

The Olive Tree of Jerusalem mural

Further information:


RHS- Olea europaea

Barcham trees directory- Olea europaea

‘The Olive Branches Out’- Daily Telegraph

Old School Gardener

Patio, Cordoba, Spain

Patio, Cordoba, Spain


Verbascum 'Gainsborough'

Verbascum ‘Gainsborough’

1. Verbascum ‘Gainsborough’- flowers from June until August

2. Helictotrichon sempervirens (blue oat grass)- an evergreen blue-grey grass

3. Sedum telephium ‘Vera Jameson’- flowers in August/September

4. Acanthus spinosus– white flowers with purple bracts from April to July

5. Oenothera speciosa ‘Rosea’- white and pink flowers from June until September.

6. Landula angustifolia ‘Imperial Gem’- deep purple flowers in mid to late summer

7. Euphorbia palustris – bright green flowers May to June.

Old School Gardener


Old School Gardener

A panorama of the Cortijo where we stayed

A panorama of the Cortijo where we stayed

Over our week in Andalucia, we visited the nearby town of Archidona a few times (it had a rather good supermarket). But one day we took our time…

Archidona lies in the foothills of the Sierra de Gracia. Andalucia.com describes the town:

‘… Bordering on the Granada Province, Archidona sits at the very centre of Andalucia, 660 metres above sea level. This rural community dominates the valley over which it presides……

The municipality covers an area of approximately 187 kilometres and has a population of around 10,000. Although, as with many Andalucian villages in the 1970’s, there was a grand exit from the countryside and into the larger cities, Archidona is once again a thriving little town, whose economy still depends to a large extent on the olive groves that surround the area, which yield a very high quality of olive oil…

Although Archidona has grown from a tiny village into a small town, many of today’s inhabitants still remember the days when they played marbles and hopscotch in the narrow streets. In the area knows as “Los Caños de las Monjas“, older residents in Archidona reminisce about gathering together in the hope of finding work in the olive groves, being paid at the rate of 15 pesetas a day. Woman took their washing to “Los Caños” – the public wash place. In those days, if a widow or widower remarried, the young people of the village would stand outside the house of the newly weds and make a dreadful din, often resulting in the groom chasing them down the road, firing rifle shots in the air to scare them off. Things have changed in Archidona and there is more modern housing and good facilities, but the general layout and structure of the town has remained largely unchanged…’

We made for the centrepiece of Archidona, it’s octagonal square, where we ended up having a superb lunch after looking a little further afield, including up to the mountain top church and monastery which overlooks the town…


Well, that just about sums up our week in central Andalucia, apart, of course from the actual place we stayed, alongside our welcoming and helpful hosts, Michael and Lisa. So, to round things off, here are a few pictures of the Cortijo which was a beautiful house in a wonderful setting, where I especially liked picking fresh figs and eating newly harvested almonds. It was also a joy to lie in a hammock- something I haven’t done for a long time and which felt almost foetal in its gentle two-way sway and tight wrapping…oh, and I mustn’t forget the warm red wine which we sampled, and sampled, and sampled…

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Old School Gardener

WP_20140918_17_52_44_ProWhilst on a trip to nearby Antequera we made our way out of town (eventually, given a one way system, roadworks and a spanish-speaking Sat- Nav)  to see the nearby limestone landscape of El Torcal. Andalucia.com says:

‘El Torcal Park Nature Reserve is known for it’s unusual limestone rock formations. … within El Torcal Park’s 17 square km are some of the most beautiful and impressive limestone landscapes in Europe. The whole area was under sea until one hundred million years ago.

Then the violent movements of the Earth’s crust forced it upward into hills and mountains up to 1.300 m, the limestone still kept its layered horizontal formation. Because of this, over the millions of years the rain and wind have been able to chisel away at these layers to form incredible shapes…’

Of the three marked routes around this fascinating ‘Karst’ limestone landscape, we opted for the shortest, which took us around 30 minutes…..

The landscape was reminiscent of our recent ‘Tor Challenge’ in Dartmoor.  But here the fantastic rock sculptures (many of the more shapely ones being named after well known objects and animals) are Limestone instead of Granite, and here there was so much more exposed rock crammed tightly together, but again set within another dramatic landscape.

 Old School Gardener


‘Lovers’ Leap’ in the distance- or maybe a slumbering giant?

We took two trips to the town of Antequera, about 45 minutes away. Andalucia.com describes Antequera as ‘the crossroads of Andalucia’:

‘A visit to this historical Andalucían town is a journey almost 5,000 years back in time, beginning with the Bronze Age and the native Iberians. The timeline is there to be followed in this fascinating city’s profusion of burial mounds, dolmens, Roman baths, a Moorish Castle, Gothic churches, Renaissance fountains and baroque bell towers.

The first sighting of Antequera in the distance is that of a typical medieval town, with the spires of her many churches and the walls and towers of the great Moorish fortress silhouetted against the sky. Spread out in the valley below lie rich farmlands irrigated by the Guadalhorce River. For centuries this has been one of Andalucía’s most fertile areas, and is currently a leading producer of asparagus, cereals and olives. In summer, its fields turn brilliant yellow with sunflowers.

The enormous crag of limestone of 880 metres high, that overlooks the town and valley of Antequera (see picture, top) is known as La Peña de los Enamorados, or “The Lovers’ Leap”. The name comes from a local legend about an impossible love affair between a young Christian man from Antequera and a beautiful Moorish girl from nearby Archidona, who were driven to the top of the cliff by the Moorish soldiers, where, rather than renounce their love, they chose to hurl themselves into the abyss.The romantic fable was adapted by 18th century poet Robert Southney in his poem Laila and Manuel about two lovers: a Muslim girl and her father’s Christian slave.

The mountain is also sometimes known as “Montaña del Indio” due to its resemblance to a native Indian from certain angles.’ (It does rather look like a slumbering giant?)

Prior to a rain-soaked walk around the town (ending up with cream cakes and afternoon tea in a rather good cafe), we first visited some of the ancient dolmens on the edge of the town; megalithic burial mounds, dating from the 3rd millennium B.C. The reception building and associated explanatory video were excellent.


The dolmen called Menga is thought to be the largest such structure in Europe (25 metres long, 5 metres wide and 4 metres high), and was built with thirty-two megaliths, the largest weighing about 180 tonnes. After completion of the chamber (which probably served as a grave for the ruling families) and the path leading into the centre, the stone structure was covered with earth and built up into the hill that can be seen today. When the grave was opened and examined in the 19th century, archaeologists found the skeletons of several hundred people inside.

Later in the week we explored the town more properly (again seeming to be on auto pilot for cakes and afternoon tea). The old fortress and it’s environs were especially interesting and well-restored, with some good quality, sympathetic newer housing alongside…

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Several of the nearby houses had front door curtains in fabrics in jolly patterns including the story of Don Quixote…

So having seen more of the local area, as well as the ‘jewels in the crown’ of Granada and Cordoba, what more could we fit in before the end of the week in Andalucia?


Old School Gardener


By now we had settled into our week-long home in the mountains of Andalucia. We were even getting used to driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road.

Today’s trip was to be our furthest afield, taking a couple of hours by motorway. It is a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time, principally because of the Mezquita (the former mosque) now the city’s  Cathedral- Cordoba.

Having found some parking we made our way into the city, even going past one of the old gates in the city walls, which said ‘you’ve arrived’. We stumbled upon a horse show in the buildings originally used to train up horses for the Spanish Royal family. After winding our way through the narrow streets we came out onto the banks of the River Guadalquivir and the stately old bridge which arrives at the edge of the Mezquita and other notable buildings. Later in the day we had a delightful ‘mooch’ around the old jewish quarter of the city and even found a couple of stylish patios (courtyards) which whetted my appetite for the spring festival that celebrates these – that will have to wait for another visit…..

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Andalucia.com describes the City:

‘Cordoba was founded by the Romans and due to its strategic importance as the highest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River, it became a port city of great importance, used for shipping Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Ancient Rome. The Romans built the mighty bridge crossing the river, now called “El Puente Romano”. But Cordoba’s hour of greatest glory was when it became the capital of the Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus, and this was when work began on the Great Mosque, or “Mezquita”, which – after several centuries of additions and enlargements – became one of the largest in all of Islam.

When the city was reconquered by the Christians in 1236, the new rulers of the city were so awed by its beauty that they left it standing, building their cathedral in the midst of its rows of arches and columns, and creating the extraordinary church-mosque we see today.

As well as the unique mosque-cathedral, Cordoba’s treasures include the Alcazar, or Fortress, built by the Christians in 1328; the Calahorra Fort, originally built by the Arabs, which guards the Roman Bridge, on the far side of the river from the Mezquita, and the ancient Jewish Synagogue, now a museum. Cordoba’s medieval quarter, once the home of the Jewish community, is called “La Judería” (The Jewry), a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets, shady flower-filled courtyards and picturesque squares such as La Plaza del Potro. In early May, homeowners proudly festoon their patios with flowers to compete for the city’s “most beautiful courtyard” contest.’

 The Mezquita was undoubtedly the highlight of the day, its sheer size (both outside and in) taking my breath away. The inside was a fascinating and beautiful mix of Islamic and Christian symbols and art. The contrast between the relatively simple Islamic decoration and the gold-leaf splendour of the cathedral created within it was startling; and also evidence of the rather brutal way in which the Catholic church muscled in and sought to out do the evidence of Islam. This even extends into the large paved space outside- the original mosque wash basins set into the surface have been filled in and orange trees now fill them with their roots. It was the simpler, but exquisite architecture of the mosque that somehow left the most powerful impression on me, and which also probably appealed more to my own artistic taste…


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After this we took a tour around the royal palace (the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos), that sits nearby and is one of Cordoba’s major landmarks. Originally built in the 8th century as a caliphate residence, this complex of buildings and gardens reached major significance during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella lived there.

The Alcázar is a composition of massive fortress and royal palace and has some impressive water gardens; complete with statuary, topiarised Box and Yew, a series of arched fountains reminiscent of the Generalife in Granada, and some curious red flowers. I think they were some sort of Celosia but were quite tall and showing distinct evidence of fasciation– when a fault in the growing tip of the plant causes the stems and the flowers to flatten and become fan-like. Apparently some varieties of Celosia are raised especially for their dependably fasciated flower heads, for which they are called “cockscomb” …

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Rather numbed by the day’s series of wonderful sights, we made our way back along the motorway and mountain tracks and once more to another late night supper by the pool. Could we manage any more beauty on this scale?

Old School Gardener

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