Driving from the airport into Funchal, capital and biggest town, already I got excited on seeing the myriad of exotic plants and flowers: Bougainvilleas, Jacaranda trees, bananas, passifloras, agaves, Flamboyant (Delonix regia), African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata), Bird of paradise (Strelitzia), Trumpet vine (Campsis), Barbados pride (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), Coral tree (Erythrina), Bauhinia, Plumbago, Brugmansia, Oleander, Hibiscus, frangipani (Plumeria), Hydrangea, Agapanthus, ginger lily (Hedychium) - and these are just some of the most showy. You name it, it's there - or so it feels. Plants from all over the world have been brought here and thrive in the mild climate.
"Next morning, Monika stepped into paradise. All the flowers of the North and the South bloom there and Monika for the first time understood why Adam and Eve couldn't resist eating from the forbidden fruit. God by now seems to have forgiven man the sin of his forebears and gifted them the island of Tenerife where they can eat all the fruit at once which otherwise only exist individually and dispersed over the entire earth. Bananas and grapes, strawberries and peaches, apples and pears, mangos and pineapples and many others of which Monika didn't even know the name.
Monika, who just a few weeks ago had cried about bare birches in the rain, wandered through forests of bananas and sugar cane, listened to the rush of warm winds through bamboo groves, inhaled the bitter almond fragrance of thousands of white and red flowering oleander and rested under laurel trees who grew as big as oak trees. (...) And butterflies the size of birds stood trembling in mid-air before they sank their proboscis into purple coloured bindweed. The two travel companions wandered hand in hand through the glowing fairy-tale splendour right into the silence of the high mountains. They saw the surf break on the cliffs but didn't hear the rush anymore ..."
And then: all those plants we mollycoddle indoors as houseplants here. In Madeira they grow outdoors, of course, in gardens and parks. Like the giant Monsteras, for instance, who climb tree trunks or cover entire walls. Some are even used like bedding plants: peace lily (Spatiphyllum), spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Clivia, croton (Codiaeum), sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), Ctenanthes or Kalanchoe blossfeldiana (which I know by the name of Flaming Kate), to name but a few.
It's not fair. Your own brave plants on the windowsill all of a sudden seem a pale imitation only. And, of course, they are. I have several hibiscus plants at home and if there's a bloom we'll draw each other's attention to it at the breakfast table. In Madeira, there are hedges of them everywhere, with hundreds or thousands of blooms every day! And you are supposed not to get envious??
But then, that's the same feeling as going to, say, the Palmhouse in Kew Gardens. You sigh, you admire, envy and grieve a bit, and then you just enjoy and accept that you can't have at home what this huge institution has. In Madeira, it's not the resources of an institution but the climate, of course. But if it is really nagging, you can try console yourself with the thought that at least they probably won't have a good display of Christmas roses (Helleborus) and snowdrops as well since these need cooler climes. (Not that my own garden could boast many...)
I was quite disappointed: it's the only truly white-flowered hibiscus plant I've ever seen and I had longed for a cutting all those years, going on holiday with the intent of getting one from this precise shrub. True, I could search online for plants of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis "Albus". But where is the romance in that?? So please, Mr President, should you happen to read this - would you be so kind? :-)
You'll be more successful purchasing souvenirs from Funchal's famous market Mercado dos Lavradores. Which, of course, I couldn't resist. The display of fruit and vegetables is incredible, especially on a Friday when Madeira's farmers come to sell their produce. But even on other days there is more than enough to delight the senses. Among figs, grapes, melons etc. we also bought five different types of passionfruit which went just by the name of what they looked like: banana passionfruit, orange passionfruit, lemon passionfruit, apple passionfruit and maracuja.
They were delicious, though eating them whilst trying not to swallow all the seeds is a fiddly business. For the rest of the holidays I dried these seeds on a paper towel (so they won't go mouldy) and now can't wait to sow them. We've done it before and for some time had a nice lattice of passiflora leaves covering a window, the fast-climbing plants trained up strings, instead of net curtains. I think a holiday from us did it for them back then (not enough water). Anyway, it is more the fun of seeing the seed germinate and grow than the hope of having them forever as they are unlikely to flower much or yield without a greenhouse or conservatory in our climate.
I would have loved to get Monstera fruit again on the market, but though some few were on offer they seemed to have been picked too early. Monstera deliciosa - "deliciosa" referring to the edible fruit - can only be consumed when really ripe, i.e. when the scales start to pop off. What a pity! Our first attempt at growing the seeds, about fourteen years ago, was so successful the plants finally had to be given away as they didn't fit the flat anymore - true monsters :-).
This time I will try my luck with some shrivelled pseudobulbs of the orchid Coelogyne christata - bought dry, i.e. without any soil or moss or even roots. Not sure, but we'll see... And I had to have frangipani! Two small plants, rooted in sawn off plastic bottles, are my holiday trophy: Plumeria alba and Plumeria rubra. (Since I mentioned their perfume in my last post: on direct comparison I find I much prefer the smell of Trachelospermum and Stephanotis, but the blooms are incredibly sensual.) I know full well that the best I can hope for is to keep my frangipanis healthy, I don't think they'll ever flower for me. Well, I do hope of course - but it's not likely.
So can a gardener turn green with envy? Of course! But fortunately, for gardeners this usually means attempting to grow the object of desire to the best of their abilities at home. Now, how do I mix volcanic soil?