"We're not out of the woods yet," said a friend, who enjoys the disasters in his garden more than the delights. We'd been walking around looking at things that might be dead. "Too early to say," I hedged, as he pointed to another stretch of frost-blasted climber. But I wasn't saying what he wanted to hear, and irritated by my Pollyanna-ish attitude, he threw out this hope that even worse weather might yet be in store.
And yes, it might. Certainly, last year, the worst damage in our garden was brought about not by the long weeks of sub-zero temperatures, but by a late-March fall of heavy, wet snow that tore branches from trees and left our free-standing Magnolia delavayi stripped almost to its bare trunk. You often see this big old magnolia tied in against a house wall; I'd always wondered why. It doesn't seem to mind the cold and with its huge leaves, is not an easy thing to manage as a wall shrub. Now I understand the advantages of growing it in this way. You can give the branches support, make it less likely that they'll be torn apart by snow.
But whatever winter damage you may be looking at – seared solanum, crisped summer jasmine, browned-off bay, mushy agapanthus – I'd still say "wait". As likely as not, climbers will sprout again, and when they do, you can clear away any dead growth, cutting back to the boldest shoots you can find. Similarly with bay. Our mopheads have fringes of burnt-off growth at the top, where the newest leaves got cut back by low temperatures. But none of the established trees have actually died, and cleaning them up, snipping off the brown bits, is easily done some time next month.
It's more difficult to know what agapanthus might be doing, under those messy heaps of melted leaf. So much depends on the kind of agapanthus (the broader the leaf the more tender the plant) and the situation they are in. Plants in pots will have suffered more than plants in the ground. Even our biggest pots were frozen solid for weeks, which doesn't seem to have fazed the tulips, the first of which are in flower now. Agapanthus, with its South African blood, would not be so forgiving.
The most obvious winter victims in our garden are the big euphorbias: E. mellifera, E. stygiana and their offspring, the superb 'Roundway Titan'. All are evergreen, and I've been used to them making big, bold clumps at least six feet high and wide. During winter, they are especially valuable and I love them as much out of flower as I do when they produce their strange terracotta-coloured blooms.
If they weren't such important landmarks in our garden, they wouldn't now be such hideous eyesores, the thick stems with their whorls of leaves reduced to a single furled point at the top, with ragged, red and brown-burnt leaflets drooping down underneath. But, but, but (and I'm longing to point this out to my pessimistic friend), these big euphorbias constantly throw up new shoots from the base. If I cut back all the stems to the ground some time this coming month, I can hope that they will produce new growth.
But if the stems are cut down every winter, these euphorbias will never get to the size I've been used to and which, in this garden, I need. And, if regularly battered back in winters to come, will they eventually give up altogether? Euphorbia mellifera is from Madeira. E. stygiana is from the Azores. I don't suppose they ever wanted to be here in the first place.
Looking at plants in their natural habitats sometimes makes you feel guilty about what you've given them as a substitute. I felt like that, looking at the beautiful euphorbias flowering now in Mallorca. Fed up with feeling cold and tempted by flights costing just £26, my husband booked us for a long weekend in a little hotel close to Valldemossa in the northwest corner of the island.
I'd never been to Mallorca and didn't know it had much to offer except bars and beaches. But the northwest is mostly mountain, the Tramuntana range, dominated by Puig Major at 1,445 metres. The almond orchards were in bloom, plantations of oranges and lemons in full fruit, rosemary flowering all along the verges, with tall spires of creamy-white asphodel in between. And the hotel, (classed as an Agriturismo), was a triumph: eight rooms in a stone building, wonderfully quiet, wood fires. The huge olive press dominating the tiny dining room suggests that this is how the place once earnt its living. Old drystone terraces and olive trees still drop steeply down to the road. Mirabo, as it is called, is one of the most relaxing places I've ever stayed.
We'd come to walk and this little place was well placed for that. Picking up an old stone-lined mule track behind the school in Valldemossa, we climbed north into the Parc Natural de Son Moragues. This early in the season, there were few other visitors about, but the sun shone and the warmth (temperatures veered from 14-2C) seemed to unlock the soul, clamped in iron this long winter. The track leads up through olives into scrub of evergreen oak, myrtle and pine, past the huge circular stone hearths built by the charcoal makers who used to work here. As the track gets higher, the trees thin out, giving views up to an enormous rock bluff, with ravens wheeling around in front of it.
By the time we finished climbing, we were above the ravens and the (very stony) track, had swung round to the left, bringing us eventually to a viewpoint so vertiginous I dared not look over. Mirador de Ses Puntes it is called and from it, if you can't look down, you can at least look out to the glittering sea and to Deia, further on up the coast. We were on top of the bluff that had been looming vertically in front of us ever since we set off.
From this high point you can swing round to the right and make a big circle, taking in the stone-built refuge on top of Veia. At 869m this is nowhere near Puig Major's height, but it's enough to give you long, jagged views up the coast to the north and across the plunging valley to Caragoli. Euphorbias grew between the rocks here together with sheaves of the broad shiny leaves of sea squill (Urginea maritima). What on earth is the squill finding to eat, that allows it to make a bulb as big as a canteloupe melon? They squeezed improbably out of narrow cracks in the rocks, always eye-catching because of the lushness of the leaf in this harsh, stony environment. I've never seen it in flower though. It blooms in July, after the leaves have withered away, and produces a stem five feet high studded with white star flowers. But in the heat of July, I won't be climbing up this track to see it. It's sold by several nurseries in this country. But would it survive a winter such as the one we've just had? Almost certainly, no. Still, predicting its demise would at least make my gloomy friend happy.
Mirabo, 07170 Valldemossa, Mallorca, 0034 661 285 215, mirabo.es. Footpaths are rarely marked, so for walking you need good maps. For the southern end of the mountains we had Mallorca-Tramuntana WKE1 scale 1:50,000 (Freytag & Berndt), for the northern part Mallorca Tramuntana Nord E-25 scale 1:25,000 (Geoestel)