The poet, William Wordsworth wrote about daffodils, “besides the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze…” and here in Southern Portugal, we have a vast array of wildflowers that come springtime carpet the ground in colour, a sight to behold in the hills around Monchique.
Walkthrough the trees or look up to the terraces and Bermuda Buttercups scatter the landscape and pretty little flowers peek out from rocks and walls, and the cherry blossoms are bursting in full bloom. Enough to inspire any poet or artist to reach for their scribe or easel, but now there is also growing evidence to suggest the scent of plants in nature can be good for our wellbeing too.
Research is being done into the science behind why spending time in green spaces can reduce stress, bring down cortisol levels, and calm the mind. Results from an experiment in Sweden which tested natural environments and how they affect physiological stress found the smell to be the strongest sense to regulate stress in the body.
The study’s co-author Johan Lundstrom, a neuropsychologist at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, says, “It’s unique among the senses because it is not first processed by the thalamus—the brain’s switchboard. Instead, the smell signal is sent straight to the hypothalamus, a brain region involved in stress responses”.
The direct wiring of smell to the brain may help reduce stress faster but it is the type of smell or odour that is key. We experience pleasure through our eyes when we see flowers and greenery, or through hearing – listening to birdsong and the sound of leaves gently moving in the breeze, but according to the findings, natural scents from nature has the biggest impact on our bodies and in reducing nervous activity.
Follow Your Nose
Rock Rose, Cistus sp
This pure white flower with its yellow centre and sticky leaves fill the hillsides to the west of Monchique and all the way down to the coast. It gives off a resinous, amber-like scent and is often used as an essential oil to combat stress and anxiety.
Iberian Peony, Paeonia broteri
A sweet fragrance is carried by this pretty petite flower with its striking magenta coloured petals. You can find the peony amongst the pine and oak trees or popping out from behind rocks. Named after the Portuguese botanist, Felix Avelar Brotero.
The Portugal Iris as it is known comes in white, shades of purple and blue- violets and it is considered a rare species, so tread carefully and not for picking. The flower omits a pleasant fragrance and it loves rocky hills. I often spot them on my walks above Caldas de Monchique.
Portuguese Wild lavender
The national flower of Portugal, lavender and the essential oils that are extracted from it have long been used in aromatherapy as a scent to aid relaxation and sleep. It is all over the Monchique area and grows close to rock roses so one plant should guide you to the other. It’s sometimes mistaken for rosemary (which also smells good) you may have noticed jars of local honey baring the label, ‘rosmarinho’ this means lavender and not rosemary, as is a common mistake.
When the white flowers blossom on orange trees the heady aroma is intoxicating. There is isn’t any shortage of orange trees in the Algarve but if you head in the direction of Silves you will see lines of orange groves. Step inside and walk among the trees where permitted, take in a feast for the eyes and inhale the scent that signals, spring is well and truly here!
From an article, I wrote for Tomorrow Algarve March 2020