Portugal roughly lies in the equivalent of USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8-10, which might help when choosing plants for your garden, with the south experiencing Mediterranean weather of mild winters and hot summers. Further north, the coast is warmed by the Gulf Stream, summers are still warm and winters are mild. More inland summers are hotter but colder in the winter.
Once you know your hardiness zone, it makes it easier to find plants that will be suitable for your particular neck of the woods, and the following are all suitable for the zones mentioned.
Acalypha wilkesiana (Jacob’s Coat or Copperleaf) (zone 4-9) is one of my favourites, and one I find also grows nicely in a pot if you haven’t got a garden but were thinking of your balcony or terrace. It is very easy to take cuttings from - and in fact mine were ‘stolen’ cuttings (with permission granted), and all rooted beautifully. It has brilliant colours of copper, red, gold or even pink leaves, which are heart-shaped, glossy and serrated. The leaves stand out well in a burst of colour amongst greener plants. They may grow between 180-300cm in height and do well in full sun to partial shade in moist well-drained soil. No regular pruning is needed, just pinch to control size and shape and to promote bushiness. You can take softwood cuttings in early spring or semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer.
Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) (zones 5-8). There are many colours to choose from, varying from yellow to burgundy and can range from 60cms to over 9m tall in forms that can be weeping, rounded, dwarf, mounding, upright, or cascading, depending on the one you select. Most are slow growers and can handle temperatures to -15F without much trouble, and all Japanese maples are best planted in full sun or dappled shade location and, in fact, tend to colour up better when they are in dappled light. What most people experience is summer heat stress due to infrequent (or lack of) water when the tree needs it, especially during the heat. If you're planting them in a pot, you can use a multipurpose potting soil, but put plenty of drainage material in the base of the container.
Agave, though not strictly a shrub but a succulent, is particularly well suited to a shrubbery in Portugal’s climate and is actually within the 5-11 hardiness range. There's a lot of variety in the agave genus, from large, stiff specimens that can grow to over 3m in height and width, to smaller, dish-sized agaves, with a few having soft leaves and no spines. Agave foliage colours tend toward blue-green in hardier varieties and a grey-green in warm-climate types, with some being variegated with gold or white markings. When agave matures after several years or even several decades, a tall flower stalk often grows out of the plant's centre, and for most agave species, the plant dies once the flowers produce berry seed pods. Just for interest, the juice of the Weber Azul agave, cultivated primarily in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, is used to make tequila. Others traditionally were believed to have medicinal properties. The giant ones you see take around 7 years to get that big.
For something nearer the ground, Ables amabilis 'Spreading Star' is a low-growing, evergreen conifer forming a widely spreading mound adorned with thick, overlapping, horizontal to arching branches, with long, green, fluffy needles with a silvery underside. It is slow growing, no more than 7-10cm a year and is good for a 6-8 Hardiness Zone, and will grow in full sun, partial sun or shade.
There is no doubt that we are experiencing climate change and getting warmer summers and winters, so we should be looking at plants that need minimal water. Crassula altura- often called a Money Tree, is also a succulent and a good choice (zones 10-11). Slow growing, with round fleshy leaves and miniature pale pink-white blooms in the spring, it requires very little care, and can be potted or put straight into the ground.
So don’t beat about the bush – get yourself a shrubbery!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.