One of the first of the cool season wildflowers to bloom in the highlands of Valencia is the Spanish, or more accurately, the Mediterranean heather (Erica multiflora). Heather? As in the stuff that grows in the moors in Scotland? Indeed, yes. The first time I came upon it last year, I found it hard to believe, as it was growing together with rosemary in the back roads of Ametlla de Mar, in Catalonia. I had always assumed that heather preferred acidic, moist soil, and rosemary is most definitely not a lover of moist conditions. And yet there they were, happily blooming together with other Mediterranean endemic wild herbs in the vicinity of a carob tree. Mediterranean heather, unlike Scottish heather, is a lover of limestone soil. And unlike its acid-loving relative, it can grow up to 2 meters, if not more, and can resemble a small, rather delicate-looking tree.
As soon as the weather in our mountain hamlet had cooled down in late September, rosy flowers started popping up on shrubs along the mountain road. The Mediterranean heather’s flowers look like puffy clouds from afar, as they grow so closely together. Their colour ranges from the palest rose, almost white, to startling pink. They start blooming at the lowest heights first, and the chronological progression of their blooming is a reliable measure of the corresponding descent in temperature as one ascends the mountain. In my garden there are two bushes that are just getting into their stride, while those down below have been blooming for weeks.
On our walks along the southern flank of Safor (also known as Azafor), the highest mountain in this area at 1013 meters, the heather makes cheerful pools of pink among the dense impenetrable green hummocks of lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus, its berries not quite red yet), rosemary with its pale blue flowers, juniper, pine, and wild olives (acebuche). In patches further up, there are sparse stands of holm oak (Quercus ilex) with cistus at their feet. The cistus will bloom in white and pink much later, in late winter and spring. Close to the ground are the pink and purple cushions of wild thyme now in bloom, their perfume pleasantly scenting the air immediately around. These wild flowers and shrubs are the highlights of the Valencian highland matorral or tomillero (a shrub- or thyme-dominated ecosystem, also more widely known by the French term garrigue). (Click on images below to enlarge.)