If you walk around Lagartera in spring, you can see real botanical jewels, which bring us joy after the austerity of winter.
There is, for example, the broom (Saromanthus scoparius L.) which can be seen here in full bloom. Brooms are a marvel because they signal the arrival of spring with their intense yellow colour and are a source of food for bees. Moreover, as it is a legume, it helps to fertilise the soil, fixing nitrogen. It reproduces by seed.
The broom is an indigenous shrub in most of the Iberian Peninsula, although in the Canary Islands it’s classified as an invasive alien species. The same is true in Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and certain states in the USA.
In the past, the plant was used to make brooms for sweeping outdoors. Dried branches are used to light the fire in our homes.
Like many wild plants, broom extracts can be toxic, or have medicinal uses, depending on the dose, and the condition of the patient. Traditionally, the flowers were used as diuretics. Today, the branches are used by the pharmaceutical industry to extract sparteine, an alkaloid used to treat certain heart disorders.
French lavender (Lavandula stoechas L.) also begins to flower in March. It withstands the hot, dry summers of central Spain well, as well as the cold, although it is not as resistant to prolonged frosts as other lavender species found in northern Europe. It is an indigenous plant in Spain, although in Australia it is classified as an invasive species.
The flowers are beautiful, the plant has a pleasant smell, and it also produces a lot of nectar which attracts bees. French lavender is abundant in our countryside, especially in semi-wild areas where no pesticides are applied, and therefore bees are plentiful.
Lavender also has medicinal properties. Traditionally it was used to combat respiratory infections and as an antiseptic. The smell is soothing for both humans and dogs.
Where lavender grows, Montpellier cistus (Cistus monspeliensis) also grows. It belongs to the same family as the gum rockrose. Like the gum rockrose, it has a very pleasant balsamic smell.
The Montpellier cistus needs warmth, and the hot summers of Lagartera do not affect it, although it can be sensitive to prolonged frosts. It is a native plant in central and southern Spain, especially in Mediterranean areas. It also grows in north-west Africa.
The plant flowers in spring, when new green leaves grow. It stops growing during the summer, when the leaves change colour to almost black (hence its Spanish name jaguarzo negro), and resists drought. It grows again in autumn. It burns in wildfires, but the seeds are very resistant to heat, so the plant easily re-colonises burnt land, making it a good tool against desertification. In addition, the resin has antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Angel´s Tears (Narcissus triandrus L) are bulbous plants that prefer more humidity, so they grow best in shady, north-facing soils, and where trees provide some shade.
They are so beautiful that the flowers used to be picked in big bunches and taken home. They are now a protected species. They do best on land which is not grazed much, although esparto grasses offer some protection against sheep, so Angel´s Tears are often found growing alongside esparto grass.
This wild narcissus is found all over the Iberian peninsula and in France, although in areas with very dry and hot summers, as in our region, it is only found in those habitats most protected from the summer heat.
The wild narcissus usually grows in groups, while another bulbous plant found in Lagartera, the tassel hyacinth (Leopoldia comosa) often appears as a solitary plant. Like the narcissus, the tassel hyacinth prefers moist soils. It is a relative of the cultivated hyacinth, and part of the grape hyacinth family.
It is a native plant in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. In some countries, the bulbs are eaten, although the taste is quite strong, and in Lagartera these small bulbs are not plentiful enough to make it worthwhile eating them.
The blue lupin (Lupinus Agustifolius) also likes humidity. It is a relative of the ornamental varieties grown in northern Europe. It is native to Spain and much of the Mediterranean, where it is valued for its ability to fix nitrogen and so improve soil fertility.
Interestingly, although sheep do not eat lupin plants, the seeds are edible and can be used in livestock feed. They have also been part of the human diet in parts of the Mediterranean and Latin America. They have a bitter taste because they contain alkaloids, so are soaked in water before cooking to make them edible.
In some countries, lupins are grown for their fruit, using varieties with low alkaloid content. The seeds can also help livestock and humans to expel internal parasites.
The foxglove (Digitalis thapsi) found around Lagartera is a smaller version of Digitalis purpurea, a biennial relative found in places with more rain. The smaller versions of the plants, whether daffodils or digitalis, tend to cope better with the hot, dry summers of our region. Nevertheless, Digitalis thapsi plants are often found not only on north-facing slopes, but also on the north side of stone walls where they have better protection from the sun.
The Spanish name for digitalis is ‘dedalera’, which, like ‘foxglove’, refers to the flowers, though they are likened to thimbles rather than gloves for foxes (a ´dedal’ is a thimble)!
The foxglove is well known for its medicinal properties, but also for its toxicity. Depending on the dose, drugs derived from the plant can cure heart problems, or can kill. Our ancestors, who had studied the medicinal properties of plants in depth, could calculate doses with some precision. Even so, without modern techniques, it is difficult to calculate dosages accurately, and it is riskier to use plants as medicines than to take manufactured drugs derived from them.
Here are seven of our spring flowers. There are many more, and if you are interested, you can use this link to identify them and find out more for yourself:
José Garcia, Lagartera, Toledo, April 2022.
Photos: José Garcia and Alison Lever
To find out more:
About medicinal plants in general:
Broom (Cytisus scoparius or Sarothamnus scoparius)
French lavender (Lavandula stoechas L.)
Montpellier cistus (Cistus monspeliensis)
Blue lupin (Lupinus Agustifolius)
Foxglove (Digitalis thapsi)