If the overriding fragrance in late March in the southern Spanish city of Granada is that of wisteria (four weeks ahead of Greater London!), that in Cordoba is of orange blossom. Orange trees, many bearing both blossom and fruit, line the squares and avenues of this elegant city. Those growing on Calle Claudio Marcelo, where our Air BnB apartment was located, were laden with waxy white flowers and were planted closely together to create a cooling, shady environment for the busy office workers who seemed to frequent this district, a ten minute walk from the famous Mezquita. A temperature on the day we arrived of 25 degrees helped to pump out the sweet scent onto the street, having the practical effect of masking the less than fragrant odours emanating from the large recycling bins opposite the door to the apartment building.
Previous readers of this blog may have noted the writer’s penchant for salmon-pink geraniums. Just a cursory exploration of the secluded patios and calles of Cordoba revealed dozens of terracotta pots attached to available vertical surfaces: white-washed walls, metalwork balcony railings and external staircases: almost all spilling over with geraniums ranging from pale pink to magenta, via salmon-pink and scarlet. Clearly little or no frost affects the colourful displays. In a few secluded patios, glimpsed through wrought iron grilles known as ‘cancelas’, orange Clivia Miniata is visible, its spectacular trumpet like flowers thrown into vivid relief against the strappy dark green leaves. To this Northern European visitor, used to seeing the ‘Bush lily’ in glasshouses or conservatories, this was a truly exotic sight: in March AND outside! I read recently on the Kew Gardens Facebook page that this South African species, also commonly known as the Natal lily, is threatened in the wild by over-harvesting for both horticultural and local medicinal uses. The latter includes the treatment of snake bites.
Citrus trees also feature in the courtyard gardens of the Palacio de Viana, a mansion dating from the sixteenth century in the district of Santa Marina in the north east of the city. Twelve patios and a central garden are embedded within the extensive buildings of the palace, each courtyard inspiration for a small formal city garden. There are central pools with fountains in most of the courtyards, each of which is named for a predominant feature (Courtyard of the Well, the Pool and the Chapel) or historic association: hence the Courtyards of the Cats and the Madama. The planting is distinctive in each patio with an emphasis on container planting in most of the smaller areas. The range of plants is very extensive. A corner in the reception courtyard features Monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese Plant, in terracotta pots. Assorted half pots filled with the Sprengeri asparagus fern, Asparagus sprengeri, decorate a nearby wall. Intricate patterns of pebble mosaic cover the patio floors around the central fountains and doors and shuttered windows painted a muted shade of turquoise open tantalisingly off each patio.
In the Courtyard of the Bars, intensely blue and purple Senecio cruentis (commonly called Cineraria) is displayed in a theatrical tableau against one of these doorways: another example of a plant which is more usually seen at home as an indoor or conservatory specimen. The formal structure of the large square garden is created with four quadrants each comprising four beds bordered with box hedging (not a hint of box blight to be seen), some of the top surfaces clipped into hemispheres. Here a Date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, towers over the citruses: lime, lemon, grapefruit and mandarin as well as sweet and bitter oranges.
Function also plays its part in this little corner of paradise, in the form of the Courtyard of the Gardeners, where the gardeners used to store their tools, and the Courtyard of the Pool with its glasshouse used for propagation and pool containing water from the well in the neighbouring Courtyard of the Well which is served by an underground stream and supplies enough water for all twelve courtyards.
The design principle of a house constructed around a central patio is evident in the site we visited in the countryside to the west of Cordoba, Madinat Al-Zahra, where archaeologists have uncovered and partially reconstructed an Arab city dating from the tenth century. Rooms in the houses in the upper part of the site are arranged around wide square patios. An introductory video in the visitor centre at the foot of the hillside upon which the ancient city is located, helped me to envisage how these homes would have looked. In the March 2019 edition of the RHS magazine, The Garden, an article about garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith’s ‘Le Jardin Secret’ in Marrakesh contained a useful summary of the elements which symbolise the Islamic vision of paradise: ‘fourfold layout, water (the essence of life), enclosure and shade, a private space and symbolic, indigenous planting’. Madinat Al-Zahra survived for barely 75 years before power struggles within the ruling caliph’s family brought about the destruction of the city. Six centuries after its demise, the builders of the Palacio de Viana used these elements in the design of the many courtyards of the palace.
Next time I visit Seville Cathedral and discover a link with a tree in the garden at Osterley.