Sustainable beauty thrives in drought

Last updated 15:29 17/08/2012

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Dreaming of the lotus-eating lifestyle and daily dips in the Med, I took myself to the Greek island of Hydra last month after visiting family friends in Greece.

And what a wonderful place Hydra (pronounced “Idra”) is. If you haven't heard of it, Google and you'll see what I mean.

Although now a favoured weekend retreat for well-off Athenians, Hydra was once the getaway destination of choice for people with way more cool than I'll ever hope to have. Among them was a young musician named Leonard Cohen who stepped ashore in the 1960s, met a girl named Marianne and stayed for a decade. Before that, a beautiful Italian actress by the name of Sophia Loren was there to film Boy on a Dolphin.

But before any of these modern-day celebs sailed to Hydra, it was a stronghold of Greek resistance against the ruling Ottoman Empire and pivotal in the 1830s fight for independence, still celebrated each summer with battle re-enactments during the Miaoulis Festival.

Rather than battles, though, I went in search of warm waters, cold beers and a few days wandering the streets and steps of the island's only harbourside town and, of course, to check out their sense of garden style.

That I might have heard a musician named Leonard playing at a local cafe would have been a bonus.

Instead, I discovered glorious-coloured bougainvillea, flame-coloured campsis and prickly pears cascading over whitewashed walls and courtyard gates.

Like most of Greece, Hydra has no rain for about five months of the year. Only those plants that thrive in the intense summer heat, averaging in the late 30 degrees Celsius, can survive. Combined with dry, stony soils and salt-laden winds off the Mediterranean, the conditions dictate a limited, but distinctive, palette of plants.

Mixed with the iconic Greek island architectural style of plastered buildings and the trademark blue and white colours, it makes for a harmonious landscape, the likes of which we don't see in New Zealand where we're spoilt for choice of plants and any architecture goes.

Enforcing strict design codes to maintain the distinctive Hydra style has prevented inappropriate, bad taste encroachments on the island's landscape which, combined with pedestrian traffic where mules are the only form of transport, ensures a high amenity factor.

The island is now a dry, parched and barren land, but it was once covered in cool, moist mixed oak and pine forest, remnants of which linger high on the Hydra hillsides and in the protected gullies. It was only a few hundred years ago when the trees of Hydra and those of much of Greece were plundered for their precious timber that the landscape and ecology was forever altered, making olives the tree of choice.

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But among the introduced vegetation of figs and oleanders were also tall cypress, pungent-smelling junipers, tropical loquats, azure blue plumbago, exotic melia and, of course, highly scented citrus.

And, everywhere on doorsteps and patios were brightly painted pots or old tins containing herbs, particularly the small-leaved, spicy scented Greek basil, Ocimum basilicum minimum, used in salads and over fish dishes.

For any gardener, it's always good to see plants growing in their native habitat, which is why I loved seeing caper plants, source of the pickled culinary flower bud, tumbling out of rocky crevasses all round the island. Capparis spinosa ( kapparis is the Greek word for caper) has, as the specific name suggests, nasty sharp spines hidden under the soft grey-green foliage to foil would-be browsers and naive caper pickers.

While the delicately scented, soft pink flowers were either long gone for the summer, or had been picked still in the bud for pickling, some had matured in to seed heads, the source of that other familiar culinary delight, the caper berry.

Similarly, what caught my attention were the tiny purslane plants, Portulaca oleracea, growing everywhere among cracks in the paving. Although available here, purslane remains largely unknown, but there it is the essential, piquant ingredient in Greek salad.

I couldn't resist a daily visit to the neighbourhood store to admire the deep purple aubergines and bright-coloured peppers and feast on the almost-iridescent lime green and purple figs.

All of the produce is brought to the island by ferry, including water. Although the island is self-sufficient in water for washing from winter rains and grey water is recycled on to the garden, bottled drinking water is barged in.

Watching the little mules carry their almost ridiculously huge loads off the boats each morning as I sipped deliciously sweet Greek coffee, I couldn't help but think how fortunate we are to have an abundant water supply.

I also couldn't help but think about how much we send down the drain, sprinkle on the garden or, worse, wash the car with it.

Limited water on Hydra meant only those plants suited to the summer drought of island life could thrive there, the ultimate answer in sustainable gardening.

And, despite days of hanging out at cafes, sipping Greek coffee and trying to look cool, in a 70s kind of way, I never did see any singers called Leonard. Maybe next time.

- Nelson

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