Plant power

The Algarve is full of wild herbs and flowers. And apart from pretty, these shrubs are also useful. Herbalist Fernanda Botelho travels across Portugal, sharing plant stories, creating herb gardens in schools and bringing back herbal memories in old people´s homes. She’s an expert on the healing power of plants and has published various books on the subject. Here, she tells Enjoy the Algarve about her six favorite Algarve plants and their uses.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

All pictures courtesy of Fernanda Botelho unless otherwise stated



Rockroses (Cistus sp) are beautiful Mediterranean wild shrubs. Very common in the Algarve, they adapt well to dry, rocky, poor soils. One of the prettiest, the Cistus ladanifer or gum rockrose, has a strong fragrance and is used to extract the essential oil of ‘esteva’. In the cosmetic industry, this oil is used in anti-aging creams, whereas in the perfume world, it enhances the aroma of other floral substances.

You can make your own massage oil at home by filling a jar with esteva leaves and then adding vegetable oil, like olive oil. Leave it in the sun for three weeks with the lid on and then wring out the plant. What’s left is very aromatic oil that can be used to hydrate and nourish your skin after a day at the beach. Because its resins are very inflammable, people in the countryside use the esteva shrub to light their wood ovens when baking bread.


Portuguese wild lavender

Portuguese wild lavender (Lavander stoechas), called rosmarinho in Portuguese, can usually be found growing next to rockroses. Wild lavender also gets distilled into an essential oil, which is often used in aromatherapy. It works as a relaxant to the nervous system, against skin problems, as a wound disinfectant and healer.

In some traditional Algarve villages, people use it for culinary purposes and add it to their rabbit stews. Rosmarinho is a great garden plant as it requires very little water, flowers for a long period of time and isn’t demanding at all. Like rockrose, you can macerate the leaves and flowers and make massage oil out of wild lavender, which can then be used as a wound healer.



Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), or alecrim in Portuguese, is mostly used as a culinary herb. However, it’s also good in tea as it instantly lifts up your mood. Rosemary opens the heart and brings the sunshine inside, dispersing sadness and making you cheerful.

Try it for yourself: next time when walking in the Algarve mountain regions such as Monchique or Caldeirão, have a sniff of wild rosemary and feel the effect. Like the smell? Bring some twigs home, put them in a jar with vinegar and use this as a hair rinse. It will make your hair shiny and strong and will prevent hair loss.



Rock-samphire or funcho–maritimo (sea fennel) is another very common plant in the Algarve and all along the Portuguese coast. It´s a succulent plant that feeds on sea breeze and little else, therefore it’s commonly found suspended on cliffs or coming out of fissures and crevasses.

Rich in minerals and vitamin C, this herb was taken on board the sailing ships going across the Atlantic as a preventative against scorbutic attacks. In the Azorean island of Pico, rock-samphire is still very much used in a pickled form. This is easy to make yourself at home and has a delicious taste of raw carrots.



The mallow, or malvas, is the most widely used plant in Portugal. It’s a relative of the marshmallow and one of its many uses is to make tea of the flowers and leaves. Due to its high mucilage content, it’s efficient to treat inflammatory conditions of the gut like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers.

Chewing the seeds before they’re dry is an old folk remedy; children would pretend they are little cheeses, when in fact the seeds are a great relief against mouth and gum ulcers when chewed. You can also use the edible pretty flowers in salads and other dishes. Used externally as poultices or washes, mallow leaves are a good remedy against conjunctivitis and skin irritations like eczema and psoriasis.



From March to May, the Algarve road side, wild fields and olive orchards are invaded by these upright, elegant white spiky flowers. They’re called asphodel or silverod, gaimão in Portuguese. The bees love them, as do the wild boars, who like to dig out the roots. The roots of the asphodel were used in the old times to make glue. Nowadays, the sweet tasting flowers are sometimes eaten in salads.

Picture below by Isidre blanc


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

Posted in Features, People.