In honor of Greek Independence Day, March 25, I decided to write about Greek plants that do well here in the arid Southwest. First there are common food and herb plants such as olive, pomegranate, bay laurel, thyme and rosemary. Then there are more than 40 flowering perennials, not to mention all the shrubs and fruit trees. Way, way too many for a single post! Let’s start with four shrubs that come to our desert gardens via Greece.
Caper (Capparis spinosus) is a small shrub that grows to three feet tall with round leaves of glossy green and gorgeous white flowers. If you want the condiment “capers,” you will have to forgo the flowers, however. The buds are pickled for the capers we eat. Caper plants prefer some shade – they can’t take reflected sun or really baking sites. They do not tolerate temperatures much below 25 degrees in winter, so cooler regions can grow them in containers that are moved under cover in winter.
Rock rose (Cistus villosus) grows well on the rocky hillsides of Greece and in Southwest landscapes with some shade in low and middle desert (because Greece doesn’t get over 100 degrees for over 100 days). Striking pink or white flowers adorn the three-foot-tall shrub virtually all summer. The plant exudes a fragrant gum called labdanum (not the drug laudanum) harvested in Greece and used in the perfume trade.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is one great shrub for those that want glossy bright green in their landscape. The small fragrant leaves are slightly waxy to help resist drying. White flowers are followed by deep blue berries that can be used to make myrto, an alcoholic beverage. Standard myrtle reaches nine feet tall and wide. Plant the dwarf myrtle variety if you want the shrub to stay around three feet tall.
Loquat (Eriobotriya japonica) grows into a large shrub or can be pruned into a small patio tree of about 12 feet tall. The long, elegant, forest green leaves are fuzzy underneath, helping the plants conserve water. The delicious golden fruit is produced by January flowers, which means if we have a January freeze you may not get fruit, but the plant is a lovely addition to the landscape at any time.
So, not only can we thank the Greeks for the basis of Western culture, law, mythology and the concept of democracy; we also can thank them for cultivating a plethora of plants that have found their way into our cupboards and landscapes.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).
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