Home from a week in Andalusia and the Algarve, luckily in a warm spell after a cold winter – there, not here. It was 29C in Seville and the plane trees were straining to leaf out. Orange trees are, of course, the Seville speciality, lining the streets and squares; at this time of year you have to pick your way among the windfalls. Soon the air will be tangily sweet with the white blossom among the sumptuous green leaves.
In the Algarve, the windswept meadows around Cape St Vincent, the bottom left hand corner of Europe, are painted yellow, sharp invigorating yellow, by the rampant Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. How this South African native wood sorrel encircled the globe (or at least its temperate middle) is a cautionary tale. I remember admiring its shamrocky leaves and picking a vase full of its long-stalked elegant flowers years ago on the Côte d’Azur, wondering what exotic jewel it was. Then I remembered sieving out the tiny bulbils that its pink cousin flung around in our kitchen garden. It has Dead or Alive posters up now from the Mediterranean to California.
We were in the brief season when grass covers the hills; greener, tenderer-looking grass than any northern lawn, every blade distinct on the tawny ground. On the downland towards the Spanish border, the wandering river Guadiana and the dams that cluster round in sudden little valleys, dots of brilliant white mean the cistus is coming into flower, its new shoots gleaming bright sticky green and each wide white petal stamped with a maroon blotch. Slim graceful asphodel grows head-high among the cistus; ‘French’ lavender is already bright purple and succulent tufts mean tulips are on their way, their colours still unrevealed.
A thousand miles south of London spring seems scarcely more advanced, but then there no one plants precocious ornamentals. The excitement is concentrated in the vegetable plots; a patch of succulent spinach is worth more than a camellia.