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Madeira: The Floating Garden

by Stella Harding & Megan Toms
photographs by Megan Toms

For the full text of this article see The Mediterranean Garden No 53, July 2008

Many of the plants to be seen on Madeira are familiar to mediterranean gardeners: strelitzias, aloes, agaves, palms, cycads, bougainvilleas, solandra, campsis, oleanders, hibiscus, echiums, agapanthus, plumbago and even roses all grow and flower in profusion on cliff tops, along roadsides, in public plantings and front gardens alike. During their visit to the island in January, Stella Harding and Megan Toms were particularly struck by the colours, so flagrantly intermingled, of the various climbing plants: brilliant purple and cerise bougainvillea intertwined with orange Campsis radicans and the striking primrose and magenta Chalice Vine (Solandra maxima). Seeing these plants in flower at this time of year was all the more exciting because in mediterranean climates their flowers and colours are usually experienced in the glare and heavy, oppressive heat of summer. Here the blooms were fresh and vibrant in the clear, soft, winter light of a warm temperate island.

Many exotic species from around the world were first brought to Madeira by plant hunters during their voyages of discovery. The island was then used as a ‘nursery bed’ to trial new plants before they were transplanted to the conservatories and hothouse borders of Europe’s botanical gardens.

Among the plants to be seen in the Monte Palace Tropical Garden in Funchal, Madeira, is the tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica), everywhere complemented by companion plantings of palms, cycads, yuccas, giant taros (Alocasia macrorrhiza), climbing monsteras and philodendrons, epiphytic stag’s horn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) and smaller ferns to give the impression of a lush tropical rainforest. The overwhelming greenery is relieved by exotic splashes of colour provided by the layered under-storey and groundcover planting, for example the soft gold of an overhanging trumpet of Brugmansia aurea, the velvety purple petals of a spreading shrub-sized Tibouchina urvilleana, the rich pink droplets of Fuchsia boliviana or a dense under-planting of arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica), steely blue Agapanthus africanus or strap-leaved, orange-flowered Clivia miniata.

Elsewhere in the garden, another striking plant is one of Madeira’s few remaining indigenous trees, the dragon tree (Dracaena draco), so called because when cut it exudes a red sap known as dragon’s blood.

In the Japanese Garden, commemorating Portugal’s trade links with Japan in the seventeenth century, carved stone figures and Buddhist symbols enhance a particular planting or draw the eye along a vista. A small carving of a lion’s head, for example, overgrown with mosses, nestled amongst a simple planting of green Ophiopogon japonicus and maidenhair ferns (Adiantum) backed by ivy-covered rocks.

In the lower part of the garden below the Monte Palace a series of long horizontal terraces includes one devoted to hundreds of orchids arrayed on shaded staging in identical shallow terracotta pots. The cymbidiums, with their range of rich colours, exquisite markings and flawless, waxen perfection were indeed desirable but most striking was a subtle primrose and green slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum) with its slightly sinister quiet charm.

A slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum)

In the Japanese Garden: a lion’s head surrounded by Ophiopogon japonicus.

Cacti and succulents

More succulent plants with an aloe flowering in the background


Bamboo, alocassia and monstera

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