The Heath Hedgehog

Athens News


Prickly phrygana grows wild in thick, aromatic stretches throughout Greece

APRIL really is the glory time for Greek phrygana. Usually known as garigue in other parts of the Mediterranean, it is one of the most characteristic habitats of the region. A low-growing plant community commonly found on dry soil, it is composed largely of spiny or aromatic dwarf shrubs - the high proportion of prickles has earned it the name "hedgehog heath". I found this most appropriate when I recently was in Paros: driving back late one night through a wonderful stretch of phrygana, a real hedgehog scuttled across the road in front of me.

In many respects, phrygana occupies the same successional position as heathland does in northern Europe. There is quite considerable regional variation in composition, seeming to depend on the type of soils and geology, grazing pressure, the incidence of fires and exposure to sun and wind.

Typical Cistus Phrygana

Though botanically speaking there are several forms of phrygana, in layman's terms three main types of phrygana are discernible in Greece. The first is the typical phrygana: low, cushion-forming, spiny aromatic shrubs growing on dry slopes, coastal areas and in abandoned olive groves. Thorny Burnet is one of the dominant plants of this grouping. As shrubs go, it is rather pedestrian; however, Thorny Burnet had an important function in the past - the spiny branches were used for sweeping. In fact many widely used plants find their origin in phrygana, notably culinary herbs. Great swathes of pungently scented Thyme are widely encountered throughout Greece. Flowering later than most phrygana plants, usually in May and June, it makes dramatic drifts of purple on hillsides-already-fading-to-brown. (If you catch it contrasting with a late-flowering Greek Spiny Spurge - the quintessential hedgehog plant - the purple blooms make a wonderful contrast with the limey-green flowers. The spurges all carry these characteristic sharply coloured green and I find them a wonderful companion for purple and pink flowering plants.)

Other familiar aromatics belong to this community: Common or Garden Sage is usually found in small groupings though sometimes you see it in huge drifts. Last year in the Inner Mani I saw Sage in full flower growing in profusion through an old olive grove - the bees loved it. Another aromatic, the low-growing silvery Curry Plant, is less frequently seen, but it appears periodically, the silvery leaves covered in a fine down making it well equipped to cope with the midday sun.

Many phrygana plants have this ability to fend off UV rays, and their adaptations often result in interesting leaves. The oft-neglected Horehound is a marvellous foliage plant and makes a low mound of felty pale green which persists through the year. It is a perfect contrast for dark greens and pink/purple flowers. It's easy to grow (strikes very well from cuttings) and one wonders why this, like many other phrygana plants, are not widely grown in Greece. The low dense mat of Felted Germander is similarly equipped to cope with the sun - a ground-hugger, truly silver in colour, has the ability to grow in the rockiest ground.

Prasium majus grows in the shelter of
larger shrubs such as Mastic

The second type of phrygana is "Cistus phrygana". Common in lowland and coastal areas, it is also often an understorey in open pine woodlands. Cistus are better known as Sun roses, and they are very popular garden plants in northern Europe. They are becoming more widely available here now, but if you want to find some of the unusual ones, try Olivier Filippi's mail order service (Pepiniere Filippi - Plantes Mediterraneennes, Route Nationale 113, Meze 34140, near Montpellier, France. Tel (00 04) 67 43 8869, Fax (00 04) 67 43 84 59. Email: or see the website He has a large nursery in the south of France specialising in native plants but especially Cistus. There are many different kinds of Cistus growing in phrygana, but the two dominant members are Cistus creticus (flowering in pink) and white flowering Sage-leaved Cistus, Cistus salviifolia. Their rather delicate flowers belie their toughness. They are more than capable of taking on coastal winds and salt spray and with only a rocky substrate to anchor themselves in. With the benefit of a garden soil, you will find they grow to twice the size of their usual 50cm; they flower in continuous profusion for a couple of months, their lovely crinkly petals falling each day but replaced by new buds and flowers. They can get a little leggy with age, but you can keep shrubs compact by pinching out stem tips after flowering.

Though Sun roses are clearly the pre-eminent members of Cistus phrygana, you will also find Germanders, Juniper, Mock Privet, Heather and other typical phrygana plants.

The third generalised type of phrygana represents an intermediate stage in the development to maquis vegetation - the dense evergreen shrubland around 3-5 metres in height. At the developmental stage, you will typically find species from both communities, particularly Mastic, Kermes Oak and Jerusalem Sage, as well as Thorny Burnet et al.

Sage-leafed Cistus

Typical species

Anthyllis hermanniae
Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum)
Greek Spiny Spurge (Euphorbia acanthothamnos)
Felted Germander (Teucrium polium)
Fumana arabica
Horehound (Ballota acetabulosa)
Heather (Erica manipuliflora)
Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis fruticosa)
Juniper (Juniperus phoenicea, J. oxycedrus)
Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera)
Mastic/Lentisc (Pistacia lentiscus)
Mock Privet (Phillyrea latifolia)
Phagnalon (Phagnalon graecum)
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Thorny Burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum)
Thyme (Thymus capitatus)

Topical tips

When planting up a new container:

Choose a pot large enough to sustain the plant for a couple of years.

Use a soil-based compost for any plant that will stay in a container for some years.

Make sure the pot you buy has large drainage holes in the base and cover them with crock or gravel to stop waterlogging - yes, plants can suffer from waterlogging, even during a Greek summer.

Plant so the level of the compost sits about 5cm below the rim of the pot - this makes watering easier.

Water every other day during hot weather - but water very well, so that moisture permeates right through the pot.

Adding a liquid feed once a week gives the plant an extra boost. For a low maintenance approach, add 25 grammes of slow-release fertiliser granules when you plant.

Mulching the container with gravel or pebbles not only helps the plant make better use of the water you give it but also gives an attractive finishing touch.

Flowering now

Barbury Nut/Spanish Nut

THIS GORGEOUS perennial seems to enjoy heavy soil and full sun - I have often seen it growing in very clayey, wet patches in fields. This is no surprise as Barbury Nut (Gynandriris sisyrinchium) likes to have plenty of moisture when in growth during winter and spring but then needs to dry out completely in summer - and clay soils provide the perfect environment.

Barbury Nut is quite a common bulb in the Mediterranean region and extends as far east as Pakistan. The flowers are variable in colour ranging from a pale blue to a deep violet. It is also variable in height depending on its growing conditions - anything between 20 and 80cm. It is not yet (to my knowledge) available in cultivation in Greece, so you will need to look to overseas bulb suppliers to source it.

(Posting date 27 April 2006)

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