“Under the Mediterranean Sun” Plants
Following are short profiles of selected plants featured in “Under the Mediterranean Sun,” the Arboretum’s entry in the 2019 Northwest Flower and Garden Festival (February 20 to 24). See our full plant list.
Though often associated with the Mediterranean (think Limoncello!), the lemon is actually native to Asia. Its exact origins are unknown, but the tree is thought to have been first cultivated in China or northeast India. The lemon was brought to Europe in the second century AD, but it wasn’t widely distributed there until about the 11th century. A thorny, broadleaf evergreen with attractive glossy foliage, it grows from 10 to 20 feet tall. White flowers appear in late spring and summer and develop into large, oval, yellow fruits with a distinctive, sour juice that’s widely used for cooking and beverages. Not quite hardy here in the Pacific Northwest, the lemon can be quite productive here when overwintered as a houseplant and moved outdoors for late spring and summer, to allow pollinators to work their magic.
Also known as Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens is a medium-sized, evergreen conifer native to southern Europe and western Asia. In the wild, it typically takes on a broadly conical form with horizontal branching. In cultivation, mostly what are grown are the more familiar fastigiate or narrow-columnar selections of the tree, sometimes referred to as the Stricta Group. The straight species bears scale-like, dark gray-green leaves. The classic cultivar ‘Glauca’ offers blue-green foliage, while ‘Swane’s Golden’—also featured in our garden—is a narrowly columnar selection with golden yellow new growth. Globular, golf-ball-size fruiting cones add another dimension of interest. Hardy in the Pacific Northwest, Mediterranean cypress does best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil.
This tough, compact evergreen shrub from Southern Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey grows about four feet high and wide. It produces dramatic, upright stems with narrow, blue-green leaves. In early spring, dense bottle-brush-like clusters of green-yellow flowers are held above the foliage. Individual flowers lack petals, but have showy, petal-like, greenish-yellow bracts. Two subspecies are found in the Mediterranean Basin, E. characias ssp. characias and E. characias ssp. wulfenii, which is shorter than the straight species and has yellower flowers with purple nectaries. Both are well-adapted to our climate in the Pacific Northwest. Mediterranean spurge does best in full sun and well-drained soil and has good drought resistance.
Bay laurel is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean region (southern Europe and north Africa). Also known as the sweet bay, it grows up to 25 feet high and produces glossy, dark green, aromatic leaves that are used to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. The ancient Romans also used wreaths made from bay laurel to crown the winners of various contests, including poetry (laureate is Latin for “crowned with laurel,” hence poet laureate). In spring, the plant bears small, yellowish green flowers, which develop into purple-black berries on female plants. (The species is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female trees.) Washington Park Arboretum has mature bay laurels dating to the 1950s in its main Mediterranean Collection, just south of the Sorbus Collection.
Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’
The common name of this plant is a bit misleading—it’s not native to England but rather to the mountains of southern Europe. An upright, evergreen shrub growing from three to six feet tall, it produces small, narrow gray-green leaves and spikes of pinkish-purple flowers, sitting atop slender, leafless stems. Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers, which appear in early- to mid-summer. Both the foliage and the flowers are sweetly fragrant and are used for culinary, medicinal, and perfuming purposes. Dried lavender flowers are also used as a deterrent against clothing moths, which do not like their scent. Many cultivars are available, most of which are low-grounding plants, forming mounds of foliage just one to two feet high. ‘Munstead’ is a compact, early-flowering cultivar that typically grows to 12 to 18 inches tall and wide. Lavender does best in well-drained soil and full sun.
Olea europaea ‘Mission’
One of the first trees to be cultivated (2500 B.C. in Crete), the olive is a small, evergreen species native to much of the Mediterranean Basin and to southern Asia. It grows slowly up to 30 feet high and produces soft gray-green, willow-like foliage. Tiny but fragrant white, feathery flowers bloom on panicles in the summer and develop into small, oval drupes that ripen from green to black. The fruits are harvested (in the green to purple phase) for eating and for the production of olive oil. A large number of olive varieties are grown for commercial production, including ‘Mission’, a hardy cultivar with high-quality fruit that is also sold as a specimen tree for landscaping. The olive tree is generally winter hardy in the Pacific Northwest, but fruits may only ripen to maturity in summers with plenty of hot, sunny weather.
An iconic plant of the Mediterranean, rosemary is an erect, rounded, evergreen shrub with needle-like, gray-green leaves and tiny, two-lipped, pale blue to white flowers. It typically grows up to six feet tall or more in areas where it is winter hardy, such as the Pacific Northwest. A beautiful garden plant, it is also cultivated as a culinary and aromatic herb. The intensely fragrant foliage is commonly used to flavor food such as stuffings and roasted meats, as well as to add scent to toiletries and sachets. Flowering generally happens in summer, though it can be a year-round occurrence in temperate climates, and the blossoms are magnets for bees and hummingbirds. The genus name Rosmarinus is Latin for “dew of the sea,” a reference to the plant’s native habitat on seaside cliffs in the Mediterranean region. A tough, drought-tolerant shrub, it does best in well-drained soil and full sun. Numerous cultivars are available, including prostrate and trailing forms used for ground covers.
Photo credits: David Stang (euphorbia), H. Zell (lavender), BJ Schoenmakers (olive), Elena Chochkova (lemon); courtesy Wikimedia Commons. All others: Niall Dunne.