Aristotle made no bones about it. Regions north of the Mediterranean Coast were not suitable for civilized life. His southern world was a warm, mild one that stretched across most of Spain and Portugal, southern France, all of Italy except the Alps, Greece and North Africa. There the moderate climate spawned a native flora of oil rich aromatic plants capable of withstanding a very long dry season in the summer.
It is these plants that define some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. The casual charm, redolent scent, culinary harvest, and vineyards make them intrinsically romantic. Their plants have become signatures of the good life in both ancient Rome and modern America.
Sadly, northern gardeners in love with the Mediterranean planting style find most of these species too frost tender to survive the winter. But there’s no reason to abandon the look. A group of plants from Turkey and Afghanistan that share similar looks and aromatic oils share a unique ability to weather the brutal winters of these mountainous countries.
Russian sage is not Russian at all, it’s an Afghan. The cold, dry winters of this region are well known by many American soldiers. This sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia is amazingly similar to lavender but cold hardy to Zone 4. Moreover it tends to prefer fast draining soils with limited fertility.
The Yarrows are coagulant herbs of the Roman Empire and were spread wherever the centurions marched. This vigorous aromatic herb, Achillea, has produced a wide range of hybrids hardy to Zone 3. A fern-like leaf produces large clumps that can be divided over time. The standard white or yellow flowers are now complemented by cultivars in orange red, pink and white. It is an everlasting, which means the flowers can be cut and dried in bunches upside down, and will retain their vibrant color for a long time.
The gorgeous silvery lace foliage of wormwood, Artemisia, is distinctly Mediterranean yet is found all the way to Russia. It’s cold hardy to Zones 3 or 4 depending on the hybrid. Shrubby in form, it is an exceptional source of that signature coloring that is outstanding when combined with rich blues and purple. Wormwood is a notoriously aromatic plant and natural pesticide named for its age old use of controlling intestinal worms.
Fuzzy lamb’s ear is a children’s favorite, but it also makes a fine groundcover for cold hardy Mediterranean gardens. Also from the Byzantine region of Persia, Stachys byzantia can take a cold and dry climate in stride to Zone 4. It’s not uncommon to find colonies of creeping lamb’s ear spreading out from the base of a sundial or classical statuary.
Among the largest of the cold hardy succulents is Sedum telephium, which originates in Russia and has withstood a great deal of breeding over the centuries. Autumn Joy is the most well known cultivar hardy to Zone 4, which contributes a decidedly warm Mediterranean appearance if combined with the above group of plants. It’s autumn flowering with many other hybrids that afford an excellent alternative to the tender aloes and succulents found in northern Africa.
The soft color palette of Mediterraneans has made them favorites of many forms of architecture. It is rich in the grey range, heavy with pubescent plants such as lamb’s ear which fights moisture loss with a dense coating of fur. These plants share another quality of becoming iridescent under moonlight.
Northern gardeners need not lament their separation from the warm winter species of the Mediterranean. The key is to seek alternatives from Asia Minor and Russia where a wealth of new plants are coming with fresh attention on this part of the world. Formerly closed to horticultural exchange by the Soviet Union, look east to find the answers to creating the rich landscaped character of French Chateaux, Italian Villas and Spanish stone homes in the rigors of the American north.