Tuesday 29 January 2013

The Levada walk!

When we walked the mountain slopes of Funchal we were able to inspect terraced vegetable plots. With the reduced economic climate here, many overgrown or abandoned plots are being reclaimed. Some of the terraces are on very precarious slopes! 
By no means non-diggers, the local gardeners and growers continuously grow plants, albeit most of them weeds. With the soil so minimally disturbed to sow seeds or plant vegetables, it is seen to be black with organic matter and has naturally-aggregated crumbs. 

Complete ground cover of sweet potatoes interplanted with brassicas

...Two days later
Today we have been on a bus ride around the island. We have examined the true nature of the vegetable plots and small farms (there is barely any difference between them). Every manner of cultivation technique can be seen, some good, some bad! There is even evidence of ample use of that wretched soil destructor, the rotavator. I think it must have been the wine and the poncha that made me sentimental about the rural idyl described above! What I took as inspired soil management was just a lazy gardener.

In just this last week, there has been greatly increased activity on the vegetable plots here. Sowing and planting is in full swing. The only difference to us at home is that here you can more readily take multiple crops of exotic vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and yams, and grow them all year round. They also have a very interesting water supply…

…Levada walks
Almost unique to Madeira, levada canals criss-cross the island to distribute water from the mountains and wetter places. Introduced by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the ones used today are concrete channels that cling to the hillsides as they bring water down to ground level. Usually the gradient is small and the paths alongside them have created beautiful walks through the mountain countryside. The island boasts 250 levadas, total length 1350 miles, of which 23 miles tunnel under the mountains. Some run alongside perilous slopes! Apparently the levada-man is a very important figure in local society. You have to be very nice to him to ensure your year-round water supply! A typical ‘deal’ for a larger grower or a hotel, is to take water to their private tank every two weeks for a period of perhaps 15 minutes. I am not sure about small local gardeners, perhaps they just dunk out water in their watering can? (I think not!).

We are home now

Friday 25 January 2013

Growing bananas in Madeira

Going bananas in Madeira

The nation was confused when a famous TV gardening-guru declared that banana was a herb, but he was right! In the botanical world, banana is a herbaceous perennial, it is therefore a herb. 
In horticulture we get used to the dual uses of words.
To most of us a herb is defined as a plant grown for
(examples of herbs are given)

  • medicinal use, comfrey and Aloe vera (
  • culinary use, tarragon and mint
  • scent, lavender and thyme.
A herb (as normally defined - sorry TV guru) may be any category of plant such as a
  • tree, bay-tree
  • herbaceous perennial, mint
  • shrub, sage
  • hardy biennial, parsley
  • hardy annual, coriander
  • half hardy annual, basil
  • bulb, chives (chives is a bog plant too!)
Gardeners on holiday tend to ponder these things!

Funchal fennel
 Funchal is renowned for its fennel but these were the only plants we saw, although we also smelt their rich aroma as we  walked mountainside paths. It is widely used as a flavouring here. The fennel flavoured sausage was not to my taste but the hotel fennel mints were superb.
Aloe vera

Aloe vera is a medicinal herb. It is a wonderful salve if you slice a piece and apply it to a wound or a sore. It thrives outside in the UK in summer but is not frost hardy.

Aloe africana is Vera’s big brother. He is rather a handsome fellow. Agave attenuata appears rather fond of him

Bananas are as much of a botanical herb as any plant in a herbaceous border. Not winter hardy in the most of the UK, it thrives at sea level here in Funchal. They are grown as a crop in private gardens, for ornamental purposes, and as hotel planting. Mike tells me that when they started to visit the island before residential development thirty years ago, these gardens were a much more important local industry than they are now.
It takes about fifteen months for a banana to provide fruit. The top of the plant then dies, but propagates itself by suckers. At home, if grown as a conservatory plant, it might take as many as three years to fruit. I have never eaten as delicious a banana as those that grow here. The commercial variety grown is called ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ but we have also bought in the the markets ‘apple-bananas’ and ‘silver bananas’ which taste even better!

Bananas produce a large male flower bud which rarely opens. Pollination never takes place and the banana develops  parthenocarpically without seed. Some members of the banana family such as Ensete have hard black seeds. Mike and myself ‘in our cups’, over the sangria speculated how mankind over the millenia would have selected for bananas without seeds. What is generally accepted is that because bananas are only vegetatively propagated the ‘genetic pool’ is small and the future of the commercial banana is decidedly insecure worldwide.

Banana split

The split banana leaves are a natural wind protection and are induced by high wind. Contrary to some references on the net, this is a beneficial adaptation and is not detrimental to plant health.

Potted-up  banana suckers.
Cut back banana  + sucker + miscanthus, sugar cane

Because the suckers are well developed when the parent plant is cut down growers get a crop about every ten months. No longer a source of commercial sugar on Maderia, sugar cane is experiencing a revival as a result of the rise in popularity of the popular drink poncha (which I enthusiastically recommend).

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Patrick’s Garden

Still at the orchid farm 
The garden is charming. Its management might be described as neglected, but this hides the artifice of its clever naturalistic management. Overlooking Funchal, the garden is crammed with beautiful temperate plants. Were it not for the lovely lady relaxed in her wicker-chair at a table on the lawn working on her computer, we could have believed we had been transported back a hundred years. It is the family’s own garden and although open to the public is in no way commercial. Our friend Cathi at home would die for the cakes!
Differential mowing provides a ground cover of grass under the plants

I love succulents and I fell in love with Agave attenuata, the swan neck agave, which might be described as a signature plant for Madeira in the month of January.

The monarch butterfly is a migratory species. It enjoys Madeira so much that its stays here all year round

Passion flowers thrive
 This agave makes a fine garden ornament. It is as dead as a dodo…..
...its very hard wood makes a beautiful ‘boat’ for native flowers displayed at our hotel
Poinsettia makes a permanent long flowering shrub
Cassia didymobotrya The popcorn plant. Brush you hand through the leaves and it smells of popcorn.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Orchid farm

The number 42 bus was due to arrive at an indeterminate time and place! When an enterprising taxi driver offered to take us for the same fare, we said “yes please”. Within ten minutes, via back streets, un-negotiable by bus, we were there at the gate of the orchid farm, perched above Funchal. It had fantastic views of sea and town. Mike, who ‘could talk for England’ about plants was greeted as an old friend by Patrick Garton. I wish I had had the nerve to take a picture of Patrick. Rugged, bearded, handsome, wearing shorts you could imagine him as  the contented owner of a Victorian, Indian, rubber plantation. The orchid nursery consists of  unheated shade-houses which are surprisingly dark. The orchids are planted in bark compost and displayed in terra cotta clay pots. 
Thinking of bloggery I asked Patrick if he had a computer. He replied that he did, and that they  had electricity too….

Patrick's pictures

No interest whatsoever in orchids

The importance of cold

Not all the plants were orchids. Years ago at Askham Bryan College we had a jade vine in the tropical house. It never flowered, until one day the boiler broke down, and the jade vine produced a huge inflorescence. Patrick explained that this plant if given cold frost-free nights, bursts into flower  one month later.

Many orchids are epiphytes. That means in nature, they might grow perched in the trees. The family bromeliaceae includes many epiphytes. 

A new meaning to 'curtain plant'

Tillandsia  usneoides, known as Spanish moss might be described as an extreme epiphyte, it grows without any rooting media at all. Mike tells me that in hot humid countries that this aerophyte is to be found dangling from telegraph wires!

I recently posted on another epiphyte, the christmas cactus.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Window on Madeira

Bougainvillea, the importance of light
Back home, my bougainvillea has dropped most of its leaves and bracts. Described as semi-evergreen, it is virtually deciduous! But all is well, fat buds are swelling and it will soon burst into growth. Without transpiring leaves to dehydrate the compost it has been very important not to water too often - and yet never to let it dry out!

Not so in Madeira. Here the winter light is good and on the coast, just like my conservatory, it never gets frost.In these conditions bougainvilleas retain their leaves and flower all year round. Mike, my botanist friend, tells me that where the soil and and rocks are penetrable, bougainvillea roots will easily go down two meters to find water. Unlike my conservatory in summer, there are no problems with drying out!

Colours of bougainvillea.
Bougainvilleas have enough vigour to cover a cliff

These friendly feral cats love the ground-cover on the cliff

Many woody scandent climbers can also be pruned as a hedge. This variegated variety makes a fine conservatory plant at home.
Those botanically inclined will recognise the small central flowers and the colourful bracts

You might want to check out my recent bougainvillea post.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Home thoughts from abroad

O to be in England
Now that April's there

We are on the first day of our holiday in Madeira but I am still thinking of my gardens back home!

I will be able to post about some wonderful plants.

The first of my narcissus at Worsbrough.

I am glad I managed my monthly Worsbrough visit before I left.

I am not sure all my plants are appreciated in Barnsley.

Pity the witch hazels will be past it when I get home.

Brenda won’t miss the wonderful over-powering sickly pervading smell.

I wonder what the weather's like...

Hope I gave the houseplants enough water…
Wonder if it will get too cold for them...
Hope Poppy's ok...
Did I lock the door!

And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning unaware
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England now!

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