A while ago, when we were newly arrived in Athens, I joined The Mediterranean Garden Society (or MGS as it is abbreviated). For some time now, I had been aware of the society and its far flung branches in Greece, Italy, Provence, Catalonia, Portugal, California, Southern Australia…to name a few. Although I never thought I would take anything except an academic interest in Mediterranean gardens, I now find myself in the Med with a garden. It seemed appropriate – almost imperative – to join, particularly since the Attic hillside garden, Sparoza, where it all began was just a 20 minute drive away from our home in central Athens.
The garden at Sparoza was conceived and originally planted in the 1960s by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, a former professor at Harvard well versed in regional and town planning. Jaqueline was an advocate of the (then) emerging field of Ekistics, the science of human dwelling that takes into account myriad ways of conceiving space such as geography, ecology, human psycology, culture and anthropology. Her house and garden in the Attic landscape reflect those principles. Her efforts at Sparoza are chronicled in a book published posthumously called Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside, edited by the present incumbent of Sparoza and founder of the Mediterranean Garden Society, Sally Razelou. It was my pleasure to meet Sally and other members of the MGS when I recently visited the garden with its meandering paths, terraces, secluded nooks and spectacular plants.
Plants and landscape design show a particular regard for the climate. Cacti and succulants work very well in this arid, hot and sunny environment.
Prickly pear fruits are deep red and ripe this time of year. The large plants make a statement on the edges of the rocky terraces.
Other native plants abound. A special plant to me is Cretan Origanum dictamnus – or Dittany as it sometimes called. It is a round leaf, furry member of the oregano family. Folklore has it that tea made from the dried leaves can cure digestive complaints and poltices made from it applied to open wounds. Given its name, it comes from Crete and is found on the slopes of Mount Dikti – the mountain birthplace of Zeus, the head of the ancient Greek pantheon of gods. It is a rare protected species.
Many varieties of salvia are in bloom this time of year.
In fact, the months of November and December are sometimes referred to as Attica’s second spring. Many colourful flowers can be found throughout Sparoza at this time of year – cyclamen, crocus, anemones to name a few.
The indigenous Quercus coccifera or kermes oak is a relatively small tree, or rather a stubby shrub, with spikey holly-like leaves. In early modern times, the tree was important to the economy of the region. The caps of its acorns were exported for use in tanning. But more significantly, the tree is also the food source for the kermes scale insect, from which the sought after crimson dye, cochineal is made.
A wooden rendition of an Athenian owl, probably the small Scops owl whose call sounds suspiciously like electronic beeping, graces the water garden.
The rough sculpture is very similar to images of owls on ancient Athenian coins. In fact, Athenian tetradrachms were colloquially called γλαύκες, meaning owls.
Silver tetradrachm issued by Athens, ca. 450s BC © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5 See Wikipedia for image details
The placename Sparoza, according to a footnote in Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside, is thought to mean ‘the place of the spáros‘, an Albanian dialectical word for a type of bird – an unspecified bird, but wouldn’t it be lovely if it was an owl. All in all, a wonderful day out exploring bella Sparoza, giving me ideas for the garden here in central Athens.