For many visitors it is Madeira’s amazing range of flora that is one of the island’s major attractions, just as it has been for centuries. Few of today’s visitors realise that much of this sweetly scented luxuriance only arrived to Madeira in the 18th century, when the British wine merchants – many of whom, fortuitously. also happened to be keen gardeners – settled here. They brought plants from all over the world to adorn their brand new quinta gardens, and regularly held competitions to see who possessed the most striking botanical rarity.
During the winter the grand old quinta gardens are full of flowering camellias and the most noticeable plants are the enormous, vivid poinsettia bushes and at the beginning of the year, the camel’s foot trees with their delicate pink blossoms.
At the end of April, Funchal’s main avenues turn an electric-blue colour when the jacarandas bloom. Riverbeds and walls are suddenly lush with magenta bougainvillaea, in dazzling contrast to the African flame trees ablaze with bright red flowers.
Unlike most Mediterranean countries, Madeira has no dry season in summer, so blossom continues to grow in profusion. In the autumn the enormous kapok, or silk cotton trees produce their violet blooms (it is their seed cases, which resemble cotton – hence the name – which can be flying trough the streets in spring).
Away from Funchal’s carefully cultivated gardens and along the coast, the island presents a different picture entirely. The most striking plants in this zone are the colonies of prickly pears, a cactus introduced from central America in 1826 for the cultivation of the cochineal insect.
Amid the many different grasses and annual herbs introduced from the Mediterranean grow species such as spear-leaved spurge, a bush with gnarled branches and a poisonous milky sap, once used by fishermen to stun large fish. Other varieties include the tree houseleek with yellow blossoms, the shrubby globeflower, with its small, white flowers and the splendid “Pride of Madeira”, with its imposing steel-blue blossoms.
The fissures of the basalt cliffs and the streaky lava rocks are home to the ice plant, whose leaves glisten like ice crystal; the freshly leaved Hottentot fig; and the Madeiran sea stock with its lilac flowers.
Of special interest are the moist areas flanking the levadas, where the soil contains a wealth of nutritional substances. Particularly rich in plant life are the levadas on the southern side of the island. The levadas support a wild range of flora, from the wild chrysanthemum, the eupatorium and the Mauritius nightshade to the service tree and the Canary ivy, which clings to the trunk of the sweet pittosporum.
Water-splashed rock faces, with a thick covering of moss and ferns – some of which are so tall they look more like trees – alternate with dense thickets of shrubs, consisting of honeysuckle; the elm-leaved blackberry; climbing groundsel; the morning glory vine, with its purple-blue flowers that only open in the morning; and butcher’s broom. Places where land cultivation has been neglected for many years form a refuge for many plant species, which compete for control of the ground at their disposal.
The north of the island around Faial and Portela is where you will find extensive stands of indigenous laurel wood, the last survivors of those ancient forests burnt down by Madeira’s early settlers. The trees form the nucleus of an enormous national park created in 1982. They flourish at an altitude of 700-1,200 metres and enjoy an average annual rainfall of 1,500 mm, with high humidity and steady, moderate temperatures. Here you will find the indigenous species at their most prolific. Look out here for the imposing purple bush-shaped blooms of the Pride of Madeira shrub and the bright yellow sow thistle, along with the shrubby yellow foxglove. in the mountain zone, winter nights are freezing but daytime temperatures get quite warm, creating extreme conditions ideal for alpine flora.
Tree ferns are another striking feature of the forests; over 70 varieties of fern grow wild on the island, some reaching huge sizes. By contrast the rocky zone at the top of the central mountain range seems bereft of any vegetation apart from a few wind-battered briar forests, yet these shelter rarities like the shy Madeiran violet, a beauty that takes quite a bit of finding
Indigenous to Madeira, the distinctive Dragon Tree is now rarely found in the wild. The early settlers tapped trees for the bright red resin, used for dyes and medicines.
Orchids are big business in Madeira, with many thousands of plants exported every year to Germany.
Favouring river banks and moist, rocky slopes, the flamboyant red-hot poker is yet another immigrant from South Africa.
Of all the floral species growing wild on the island, approximately 200 are Macaronesian – that is, indigenous to Madeira, the Canaries, the Azores and the Cape Verde islands. What is truly impressive, though, is that around 120 of these are endemic to Madeira itself.
Thanks to its volcanic soil and long summers, Madeira is a botanists feast, rich in imported blooms and rare indigenous species.