The Mediterranean Look

Mediterranean colors warm this modernist interpretation of the classic Spanish patio. Famed Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho employed minimalist geometry for this Majorcan house. Enclosed on three sides, the patio concentrates the scents of wisteria and jasmine. The vines will soon lap the top of the metal arbor and provide shade for the patio and arcade. Potted boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) relieves the expanse of concrete steps. Photograph by Lucinda Lewis

Mediterranean colors warm this modernist interpretation of the classic Spanish patio. Famed Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho employed minimalist geometry for this Majorcan house. Enclosed on three sides, the patio concentrates the scents of wisteria and jasmine. The vines will soon lap the top of the metal arbor and provide shade for the patio and arcade. Potted boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) relieves the expanse of concrete steps. Photograph by Lucinda Lewis

To open this issue devoted to plants and gardens in the mediterranean climates of the West Coast, Jan Smithen provides an overview of the look, the mood, and the aroma of the mediterranean garden, in a chapter excerpted from her soon-to-be-published book, Sun-Drenched Gardens, with photography by Lucinda Lewis.

If we were to be set down in a Mediterranean garden on an early summer’s day just as the sun rises, the colors of the garden would be our first impression. Early morning light glows warm as it shines on the earthy hues of stone and plaster that form the walls, paving, and paths. Painted surfaces are most often shades of blue, from pale to dark, but always with a soft, milky quality.

The colors of the garden plants themselves would also disclose just where in the world we were. From trees and shrubs to smaller, more ephemeral plants, the foliage is generally in shades of gray, with myriad undertones all the way from green and blue to rust, and even red. Green foliage has a yellowish cast and the backs of many leaves are coated white with a natural fuzz called indusium. All this combines to drape the garden with a soft, shimmering appearance, as if a mantle of the sheerest silk had been thrown over it.

The visual texture of the garden is fine. So many mediterranean-climate plants are needled. or have small leaves, as an adaptation for conserving what moisture is within them. They give the garden a fine-grained look, which is best set off by contrasting them against bold, stark forms. Fine-needled rosemary. tiny-leafed correa, and silvery sandhill sage (Artemisia pycnocephala) accented with the dramatic forms of agave, large aloe, or the huge rosette of Echeveria agavoides make telling combinations. Other foils for fine foliage could be interesting rocks, small sculptures, or large terra-cotta pots. A creative way to use a cracked or damaged vessel is to place it within a planting scheme, lending a patina of age to the design.

As the sun rises higher in the sky on the summer’s day, we begin to feel the hard, bright light that is common to all mediterranean climes. Pale flower colors fade to white, and white becomes so reflective we must turn away. The hills in the distance become blue with haze, and everyone looks for the relief of cool shade. Shade itself takes on another color, darker and deeper green, cooling to the eyes. As much a feeling as it is something seen, shade is essential to every garden.

We would look for water as well—perhaps a still pond, narrow rill, or dribbling fountain. It does not have to roar, cascade, or even splash, because just the sight or faintest trickle of water prompts a feeling of comfort and relief, as it has for thousands of years.

Afternoon is the moment for those bright, intense flower colors so widely planted in mediterranean gardens. Because the harsh clarity of mediterranean light washes away pale pastels and delicate tints, the eye longs for strong flower color. Fully saturated colors come alive under drenching brilliant sunshine: the brilliant reds of callistemons, bougainvillea, or California fuchsia (Zauschneria, or Epilobium); the glowing orange blooms of pomegranates, many lantanas, or lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus); the intense golden yellows of flannel hush (Fremontodendron californicum) or Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii); and the vivid violet blues of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, or woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanata).

Now too, the nose begins to sense the defining scent of those aromatic plants that grow so well in this climate. As the heat of the day releases the fragrant oils contained in their leaves, these plants add another dimension to the garden, beyond their good looks. These are not the sweet perfumes of flowers, but leaf smells; pungent, spicy, menthol, nose-wrinkling smells, thought by botanists to be a protective adaptation against grazing animals. Plants such as rosemary, rockrose, Cleveland sage, santolinas, artemisias, nepetas, and even cypress, myrtle, and lavender beg to be crushed between fingers and held to the nose. The small, enclosed courtyards so typical of the mediterranean garden concentrate these heady waves of scent, wafting them in through open windows and doors.

We cannot see these arresting aromas in a picture; nevertheless, they epitomize the mood of the mediterranean garden more emphatically than much that is seen. Once experienced, these scents are never forgotten and will always have the power to conjure up that memory of a long summer afternoon in the mediterranean garden.


The Mediterranean Look was excerpted, with permission, from a glorious new book celebrating the mediterranean garden. Sun-Drenched Gardens, with text by Jan Smithen and photography by Lucinda Lewis, will be published in October 2002 by Henry N Abrams, Inc. With Lucinda’s slides, Jan will be a featured speaker at Pacific Horticulture’s fall symposium, Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies.