I have come to the conclusion that the Algarve does not have a real winter.
First it has an autumn, which lasts two months or so and is marked by the first rains after the summer drought. In most temperate climates, autumn is the time when growing things start winding down for their winter hibernation. In the Algarve, autumn is when the landscape starts coming to life. The brown, sere fields suddenly transform to bright green as the grasses and Oxalis species emerge. The trees, shrubs and perennials all sparkle with their leaves freshly washed of the summer dust, and the very air is crystalline.
Autumn is swiftly followed by winterspring. I date this year’s beginning of winterspring to last year, actually: Christmas Day. That’s when I spotted my first paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus) blooming next to a natural spring.
Two weeks ago, the first almond blossoms started popping. By last week, some trees were already in full bloom. I’ve also seen (and heard) my first siskins and pied wagtails, returned from their winter vacation in Africa.
Last week also marked my first sighting of the possibly native white iris, Iris albicans, which may or may not have been introduced from the Arab world many centuries ago. (How long does a plant have to be happily thriving in the wild before it can be considered native?) According to my reference book, I. albicans is supposed to bloom in May and June. Hah, not here. This is the magical Algarve winterspring!
After winterspring comes spring, which features a veritable explosion of wildflowers, a host of returning birdlife (most notably the swallows and martins), and really spotty weather that can go from thunderstorms to glorious sun in ten minutes. It’s also the season of orchids. That’ll start late next month.
One of the best spring blooms is the yellow hoop-petticoat daffodil, Narcissus bulbocodium. I photographed one of these last March on the steps of the Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra, and only later figured out what it was.
This is the tiniest daffodil you will ever see. I should have put a coin next to it, but you can get an idea of the size if I tell you that its leaves are one millimeter wide. The entire length of the flower bell is only 12–18 millimeters. (That’s 0.5 to 0.7 inches for you metric-challenged folks.)
In a head on photo, you can see the “hoop petticoat” in all of its undeniable cuteness. This is first daffodil I have ever wanted to pet.
After spring comes springsummer, when the weather is regularly the sort of thing one taunts one’s northern friends with (“I’m wearing shorts today, how about you?”), the wildflowers finish their blooming and start producing seeds and fruits, and the birds are raising their chicks as fast as they can. This is also when I see my first swifts and various raptors.
Finally, summer hits in July and everything comes to a screeching halt. The only plants brave enough to bloom through the stifling heat and unrelenting drought are the thistles. Everything else shuts down for the season — the real “winter” of the Algarve — until sometime in October, when the rains return and I look forward to winterspring again.
So, let’s do the math: from late December through June, it’s some form of spring in the Algarve. Six months of spring! No wonder people call this place paradise.