The Mediterranean Climate: Where Summer is Winter
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 16, 2008. our comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Broadly speaking, the mediterranean climate is characterized by mild, wet winters and warm-to-hot, dry summers. The climate zone is found around the Mediterranean Sea, central Chile, southwestern South Africa, southern and southwestern Australia, and the central Pacific Coast of North America. Depending on the location, the dry season can last from 2 to 8 months or longer. Imagine - absolutely no rain for months at a time and it's like that every year. The amount of rainfall varies from region to region, from an average of less than 10 inches to over 50 inches. It can also be very variable from year to year. For example, where I live, the average annual rainfall is 16 inches. However, in the 10 years that I have lived in this house, I have seen annual rainfall totals ranging from 4 inches to 40 inches. Plants must be able to handle both the drought years and periods of excessive rainfall.
Only 2% of the earth's land surface experiences the mediterranean climate, but the Mediterranean Sea region is of great historical importance. In spite of whatever rigors the plants must endure, humans have thrived. It is the climate of classical Greece and Rome and many of the events in the Bible. Aristotle thought that civilized life could only exist in the mediterranean climate. It is only natural that references to the climate should turn up in the traditions and literature of the region.
In Greek mythology, Persephone was a beautiful young woman who was kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was totally distraught and would not allow anything to grow until she found her daughter. With the help of some of the gods, she found Persephone. Hades was persuaded to allow Persephone to go back to the earth but because she had eaten some pomegranate while she was in the underworld, she was required to spend part of each year in the underworld. During this time, Demeter would mourn and no crops would grow. The way I learned the story in grade school in Pennsylvania, Persephone spent six months in the underworld and those were the winter months. Actually, as the story was originally told, Persephone spent four months in the underworld and that corresponded to the hot, dry Mediterranean summer.
2 Samuel 21 tells the story of King David and the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites asked David to turn over to them seven of King Saul's sons to be hanged. This was allowed and apparently the bodies were not permitted to be buried. Rizpah was the mother of two of the men and she went to where the bodies where hanged, spread out a piece of sackcloth and sat upon it and watched over the bodies so the scavengers would not scatter the bones. She stayed there from the time of the barley harvest until it rained. She didn't sit there for five days, or two weeks, or even a month. She would have been there for 3 to 4 months, from early summer until some time in the fall. When word of her dedication reached David, he gave the bones a proper burial.
Song of Solomon relates a more pleasant event.
For lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land. (Song of Solomon 2:11-12)
Here is an event taking place in late spring, for it says that the rain is over and gone. It is not a reference to the end of one rain storm, but to the end of the rainy season. It is probably May. The land has warmed and the flowers are blooming and soon it will be time for the early harvest. It is a festive time of abundance and pleasant weather.
The Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) takes place 50 days after Passover, which means that it occurs in late May or early June. In the Bible, it is referred to as the feast of harvest, where the firstfruits of the harvest were presented at the temple as an offering to God. This puts the primary harvest time, and thus the end of the growing season, in early summer.
Many agricultural and horticultural plants are native to the Mediterranean Sea region. After all, this was among the first places where agriculture was practiced. Most people will never have much experience growing figs, olives, or pomegranates, but many common crops are originally from the Mediterranean region. These include lettuce, garlic, peas, radishes, cabbage, and wheat. If you have ever grown any of these, you might have noticed that some have a tendency to go to seed quickly in hot weather. This is an adaptation to the mediterranean climate. Hot weather signals to them that the dry season is coming and they are trying to finish their life cycle while they are still able.
Some spring bulbs are also native to the Mediterranean Sea region - flowers like narcissus, "Dutch" hyacinths, anemones, and some crocuses. These plants show their adaptation to the mediterranean climate by going dormant in hot weather. You might say that they are spending the summer in the underworld with Persephone.
This past year, we got our last appreciable amount of rain in February. In all likelihood, it will not rain again until October, November, or even December. I tell people that I get my "bad" weather in the summer. I think the plants would agree, but they've seen it all before, every year for thousands of years past. In a future article, I will discuss the strategies that plants use to survive the mediterranean summer.
In this article, I use mediterranean to refer to the climate wherever it occurs, and Mediterranean to refer to the Mediterranean Sea region.
Photos from top to bottom:
California grassland in mid-summer;
Fuchsia-flowering gooseberry showing "fall color" in June;
Persephone and Hades © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons;
Barley in southern California, late May;
Spring wildflowers in Italy;
Paperwhite narcissus in November;
California live oak woodland in mid-summer.