Horticulturalists are flocking to Madeira

– so what’s its secret?

Horticulturalists in Madeira

Thanks to Maurice Reed for a link to an article in Telegraph Gardening reporting that “Horticulturalists are flocking to Madeira – so what’s its secret?” A lot of readers do not have a subscription to the Telegraph, so I have replicated it here:

Madeira may have a sedate reputation, but its wildflowers and lush landscapes make it a dream destination for horticulturalists

Increasingly I find that every trip abroad provides a moment of total contentment: a singular crowning point, usually fleeting, in which all things – location, weather, atmosphere – seem to fall into step. In Sardinia, last autumn, the moment came beside waves; in Madeira, most recently, it was in the company of glossy geraniums and a thin mist of cloud, some 3,280ft above the Atlantic.

Among the great host of plants native, if not endemic, to the comparatively tiny Macaronesian island of Madeira – date palms, marguerites, big bush echiums, orange foxgloves and that enormous British garden favourite, Euphorbia mellifera – two geraniums of horticultural renown are found in varying abundance: G. maderense and G. palmatum, both sizeable biennial cranesbills with sprays of magenta flowers raised over shimmering, heavily divided leaves (both RHS Award of Garden Merit, no less). The former, which stands distinctly tall on the previous years’ hardened leaf stalks, I have grown on and off in pots for years; the latter I came to know during the lonesome days of the first lockdown, flowering its heart out for an audience of one in the gravel beds at the Garden Museum. Self-set seedlings of those fantastic biennial flowers spent 2021 developing broad rosettes that, now appearing full and fleshy, remind me that a great display is on its way again this summer: promise for the new year.

The Telegraph reporter writes that as a hortculturalist Madeira had been on her travel list for almost as long she has gardened. “Yes, it is true, the island has something of a sedate reputation, but it is also true that Madeira is as changeable as its weather, and one can quickly slip away from the catamaran cruises and cucumber sandwiches and follow thrillingly perilous old roads into an ancient evergreen forest”.

Upholding at least six of writer Paul Theroux’s 10 golden rules of travel, I went alone to the island, ignored the smartphone and packed light, taking a map, a notebook and a novel. The novel, Evelyn Waugh’s darkly comic Scoop, felt particularly apt: the hapless provincial English nature diarist of a leading broadsheet, William Boot, finds himself suddenly alone and in a landscape “where huge trees raised their spongy flowers”. Indeed, “Plants & Places” is not so far off the fictional Boot’s “Lush Places”.

Horticulture: Madeira’s rugged relief has enabled its giant cranesbills to evolve differing characteristics
Madeira’s rugged relief has enabled its giant cranesbills to evolve differing characteristics CREDIT: Alamy

Madeira’s ancient forest is the Laurisilva, a remaining fragment of virgin greenery dating back some 15-40 million years. It comprises enormous tree heathers and dripping laurels, arching shield ferns, spotted orchids and a multitude of subtropical perennials – very much a “lush place”. Staying at the recently opened and ultra serene Socalco Nature Hotel in pleasant Calheta, to the west of the island, I was well placed for hikes up into the thick of things; in particular those tracks extending out into the forest from the high central plateaux of Paul da Serra.

One penetrates the Laurisilva – which blankets hazardously steep valleys – by following one of many “levadas”, stone-lined channels diverting high elevation mist and natural spring water from the north towards municipal and agricultural areas elsewhere. The levadas were begun as far back as the 16th century, installed by Portuguese colonialists to irrigate crops grown for export in Madeira’s fertile volcanic soil. As the forests were gradually replaced with agricultural pens and terraces, the waterways fed slave-grown sugar cane, then wine, then bananas, as trade markets rose and fell. Today, the levadas are state-run, a 1,350-mile network supplying not only crop water but hydroelectric power to the island – and, as a by-product, leading walkers along compelling pathways towards enchanting plants, waterfalls and mountain vistas.

Another of Theroux’s 10 rules is to make a friend, which I did in Fabio, a Madeira guide with similar horticultural excitement levels to mine. Fabio it was who led me to that moment in the clouds I mentioned at the start. Hiking towards the clear pool that feeds Levada do Alecrim in Rabaçal, passing great trunks of old-growth heather with a steep valley drop to our left, we paused at the high-pitched cheeping of foraging Madeiran firecrests: tiny endemic birds revealed in orange flashes. Sprouting beneath them, open to the sky, grew a large cluster of exuberant geraniums. “So this is where you live?” I remarked to a fat and familiar G. palmatum – “What must you think of London?”

Preceding the Ice Age, the Laurisilva covered much of southern Europe, including the Iberian Peninsular. Today it is restricted to just the Canaries, Azores and mainland Madeira, which, according to Unesco, retains the largest surviving area, with original laurel forest still occupying 20 per cent of the island’s landmass. At Madeira Botanical Gardens, above the capital city of Funchal – reached by scenic cable car – senior technician Carlos Lobo described to me the forest’s rare status.

“Because the Macaronesian Islands had the buffer of the Atlantic, the Laurisilva survived here,” he tells me. “Madeira is only around 270 square miles in size, but what’s interesting is how so many different species evolved here.”

View of the tropical gardens surrounding the  Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel
View of the tropical gardens surrounding the Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel CREDIT: Belmond

Lobo attributes this to the island’s rugged relief: “In a very short space – five or 10 feet – you can go from sea level up to 5,905ft. The deep valleys provide many micro habitats, so species were able to develop in a small area”.

Geranium palmatum and G. maderense are separated by some 984ft in altitude; enough to have evolved differing characteristics, such as the reddish stems and conspicuously domed inflorescence of G. maderense.

There are sites in Madeira that are exquisitely unique, such as Fanal in the north, where epiphytic ferns and silvery lichens engulf vast veteran laurels. In visiting these environments, you quickly realise the injury of historic agricultural clearances, and the concern over invasive introductions – advancing cacti, South African agapanthus and river reed; towering Australian eucalyptus trees. Among the most pernicious, however, Lobo listed Spanish broom (Spartium junceum), gorse and Acacia dealbata, “which is gaining areas widely”.

On my final day I made a loop of the stunning gardens surrounding the famous Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel, where decorous verandas and panoramic ocean views were a winter favourite of Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw.

Reid’s thriving palms, fountainbush, kniphofia and euphorbias, fragrant and colourful, exhibit the island’s unparalleled horticultural prowess. But looking up at those high elevations – up beyond the running acacia and the bright red agave – you sense something truly remarkable lingering in the sea mist. And I have my geraniums to remind me of it.

How to grow Madeira’s giant cranesbills

The horticulturalist explains that both G. palmatum and G. maderense are biennial, with leaves that often remain evergreen through winter and dramatic flowers in their second summer. Palmatum is the hardier of the two species, withstanding UK temperatures below -5C, while maderense is more easily knocked by prolonged cold weather. The latter can be grown in a pot, therefore, and moved to shelter during periods of heavy frost – the roots are compact and will tolerate the confined space. The showy pink inflorescences exceed a metre high, so individual plants are best spaced at least 50cm apart.

Site and soil

The reddish stems and brilliant pink flowers of Geranium maderense
The reddish stems and brilliant pink flowers of Geranium maderense CREDIT: Alamy

G. palmatum prefers a sunny position, while G. maderense will cope with semi shade. Free-draining soil is essential – on heavier soils mix plenty of grit into the planting hole.

Maintenance

Remove yellowed or spent leaves, cutting leaf stalks at the base. Avoid too much trimming with G. maderense, however, as the plant uses these for structural support when flowering. Little watering is required once roots have established.

Propagation

Grow from seed in early spring, sowing onto compost before covering with a layer of grit. Allow plants to self-seed for future blooms, moving seedlings into preferred positions during the cooler months.

COVID-19 in Madeira: daily updates can be found in an earlier post

Travel latest: requirements for entering and leaving Madeira: is kept up-to-date on a previous post

New restrictions: a detailed updated explanation of the latest regulations can be found here

2 thoughts on “Horticulturalists are flocking to Madeira”

  1. It’s not surprising really. The temperate climate of Madeira is ideal for plants from just about everywhere else on the planet. No extremes such as droughts or frosts mean plants(and people) can flourish.

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