Madeira in May
With the annual spring Flower Festival taking place in Madeira, usually during May, it is arguably one of the best times to visit the island of Madeira, especially if you are a garden and flower lover. Spring is celebrated Madeiran style, when communities and families come together and the streets alongside the wide sea facing promenade are brimming with a sumptuous procession of floats adorned with colourful and exotic flower displays. Troupes of children and adults are equally adorned in bright and imaginative floral costumes, each bearing a flower tiara, corsage or bouquet. There are pavement flower carpets, floral street murals, competitions for best dressed shop windows and many flower stalls, all making a hugely vibrant and scented spectacle. So, with a tourist book of gardens to visit, I flew to sub-tropical Madeira in May with a fellow gardening friend, both of us keen to enjoy a week visiting some gardens, take in the ambience of Madeira and generally relax by the hotel pool and catch up.
Having imbibed some pink fizz on the 3½ hour or so plane journey (late afternoon by the way, not early morning) from Birmingham, we were not unduly perturbed when the captain announced just before landing that because the wind had changed direction, he would have to circle a few times and then approach the one and only landing strip from a different angle. However, landing in Madeira can be quite tricky if it’s a tad windy. The sea is on three sides of the short runway and a rocky hill on the other. Good thing we were ever so slightly tipsy and sleepy - the final approach was rather like being thrown around the waltzer at the funfair, nothing to do with the excellent pilots, but the rather erratic gusty breeze. I have since read that, occasionally, flights cannot land at all and are diverted either to the nearby island of Porto Santo, the Canary Islands or mainland Portugal whilst the winds subside, or worse still, back to the UK.
I knew Madeira was an island in the Atlantic Ocean but wasn’t quite sure where, to be honest. (It is 540 miles southwest of Portugal and 360 miles west of Morocco). Temperatures remain fairly constant all year round varying between 17˚/25˚C , making perfect conditions for a wide range of sub-tropical plants and trees to thrive; plants that we can only dream of growing in most gardens here in the UK and then only in the summer. Bougainvillea, King Protea, Angel’s Trumpet, Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise) and Agapanthus were all in full flower in May, not just in the well-kept municipal gardens but lining the streets and roadside banks too. Brazilian Jacaranda trees also line the main avenue and become a sea of bluey mauve petals in spring and they looked magnificent.
The much photographed carpet bedding display, which the Jardim Botanico is well known for, is a neat blaze of colour, patterns and shapes and all this achieved with just leaves, no flowers. Iresine herbstii of the Amaranthaceae family is kept closely clipped by the team of gardeners and is flanked by a hedge of the paper-like bracts of Bougainvillea, which are also scrambling up the warm walls and white and pink Begonias that we grow as summer bedding annuals in the UK were 3-4ft tall and lining a cobbled pathway; such a pretty frothy sight with the delicate but brittle stems held in place with wire supports.
Our next garden was the beautiful Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro, a twenty minute coastal taxi/bus ride away from Funchal. Quintessentially an English garden, it has had English owners since 1885. John Blandy bought the estate, from his fortune made as a supplier to the ships that called into Funchal. Prior to this date the previous owner, the Count of Carvalhal, bought the estate in 1804 and because he loved the English landscape had already planted woodlands and grassy meadows.
We took tea in the Tea House after strolling through the pretty stepped terraces, the rose garden complete with David Austin roses, the stream garden, and the very English looking long borders, that were brimming over with herbaceous plants mixed with exotic orchids and Angel’s Trumpets, (Daturas).,
Our favourite garden, however, was the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, set high on the hillside above Funchal. An oasis of calm with a magical mix of oriental and tropical planting, Monte was originally a healthy retreat for the wealthy, who would take to the hills to escape the hustle and bustle of the city below. It still has the atmosphere of tranquillity with its lush planting of palms that tower above the fountain water gardens. Take a jumper though because much of the garden is shady and the lake and waterfall add to the cool atmosphere. The red painted Japanese bridges and walkways give views over the gardens and glimpses of other areas to discover and I could have stayed there forever, gardening of course!
However, all good things etc… etc… I highly recommend a visit to Madeira if you love all things gardening and I have a feeling I will back there before too long to explore more of the tropical paradise in the Atlantic Ocean, even if the landing is bumpy!