Madeira’s inhabitants are avid gardeners. Besides relaxing in parks and cultivating lush private gardens, they are also dedicated to reviving their primeval forests.

"A trabalhar!" a voice cries out – to work! It is an early Saturday morning, but the sun is already blazing down on the Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third-highest mountain that rises to 5965 feet (1818 m). About thirty men, women and children, ranging from four to eighty-five in age, are at work on the mountain’s barren slopes. The volunteers are busy digging and hacking holes into the rocky terrain, where they will plant ragged seedlings and water them, and then surround them with protective stones.

“We will keep on until we have transformed the mountain desert into an oasis,” Raimundo Quintal explains. The geographer with a PhD is omnipresent, giving advice and pitching in. As part of the “Association of Friends of Funchal Ecological Park” founded in 2002, Raimundo is determined to make the summit of the Pico do Arieiro green again. So far, Raimundo and his team have planted some indigenous trees and bushes: laurel trees and Juniperus cedrus, tree heath, Paris daisies and prides of Madeira that immerse the mountain slopes into a sea of soft purple in spring. "We work without any subsidies and without EU funding,” Raimundo Quintal adds with a feisty tone to his voice. Which also means they do not need to pander to voters. Raimundo is the island’s most renowned environmentalist. He has written books on Madeira’s flora, has made regular appearances on TV and served as town councillor for the environment in the capital, Funchal, for eight years – until he threw in the towel, fed up with politics.

Photos: Oliver Gerhard

Rebuilding nature

The barren vegetation of Madeira’s mountains is the result of centuries of misuse. When Portuguese seafarers took possession of the then uninhabited island in 1419, it was covered in primeval forest – thus the name "Madeira", which is Portuguese for "wood". And then the discoverers lit fires to clear the forests, to create fields in their stead. If some sources are to be believed, the fires burned for seven years. The colonists used the hardest woods to build ships and houses.

Lunch break! The kitchen team hands out thick slices of white bread with hard cheese and "uva-da-serra" (blueberry) marmalade. The blueberries are picked from bushes that may grow up to four metres high. The volunteers clearly enjoy the food as much as they relish the sweeping views of the jagged mountain peaks, the rugged gorges and the glistening ocean in the distance.

Blossoming Madeira

Meanwhile, Raimundo Quintal allows himself to be chauffeured down the serpentine road to the valley – to the other Madeira: flowering Madeira. In a sleepy hamlet, the geographer steps onto a footpath that is set between walls of natural stone. Sweet potatoes and bananas grow here on narrow terraces, and wild garlic sprouts up under grapevines. The white blossoms of the marsh calla run wild like weeds along the edge of the path and are speckled with bright red chili peppers. Spider webs shimmer between tangerine and olive groves, the air is filled with the scent of eucalyptus oil and burned wood. So this is it, the opulent picture-book island that adorns itself with sobriquets like "Flower of the Ocean" and "Island of Eternal Spring". Two thirds of the island are natural conservation areas.

Mother of the Levada

The path continues into the famous laurel forest. Water trickles through moss and fern. It ripples in streams down the steep slopes and tumbles vociferously in a waterfall into a moss-bedecked rock amphitheatre. Stone walls capture the water and redirect it to mini-canals. “This is the mother of the Levada,” says Raimundo Quintal. The canals, known as "Levadas", were laid to deliver water to the dry south of the island. Today, Madeira’s irrigation system encompasses more than 1250 miles (2000 km) of these waterways. The "Levadeiros" see to it that every farmer and every gardener receives his share of water. This is why, along with the pastor and the teachers, these men were once considered the most important people in the village. Even nowadays, they sometimes have to appeal to the conscience of water thieves who use hoses to secretly tap into the Levada.

A garden with a dream

Clinging to the slopes below the forest there are farmhouses. Their front gardens are awash with richly coloured roses, lilies and birds of paradise. The ground is covered in a carpet of fallen azalea flowers that crunch quietly under one’s feet. "Our gardens are our business cards,” Raimundo Quintal explains. "We Madeirans have always had green fingers."

Over the centuries, due to Britain’s significant role in the trading of Madeira wine, this tradition was influenced by the art of English horticulture. Wealthy merchants built themselves magnificent manor houses, known as "Quintas", vying to see who had the most exotic gardens. One of the loveliest gardens is located in the capital of Funchal on the premises of the “Quinta do Bom Sucesso”, which became the site of the Madeira Botanical Gardens in 1960. The garden’s botanical splendour is watched over by Rosário Vasconcelos. She started working when she was just fifteen: "Back then, I never dreamt of becoming a gardener. My family needed the money to survive." But she soon developed a passion for it, Rosário recalls, pulling weeds from bromeliads. The work is harder now than it used to be, she adds: "The sun is more intense, it rains less, and so the plants wither more quickly."

Crowds of visitors admire the biodiversity of the gardens that are home to araucarias from Chile, aloes from South Africa, camellias from Asia, redwoods from North America, kauris from New Zealand and jacarandas from Brazil. Over the course of the centuries, mariners and immigrants brought the seedlings to the island from all over the world.

Living in an oasis

For Rosário Vasconcelos, her passion for flowers transcends to her free time: since she does not have a garden of her own, she spends her weekends roaming the island and visiting flower festivals and gardens. Numerous owners of private gardens have begun to open their gates to visitors. Some even invite them to stay, including the "Quinta da Casa Branca": originally a vineyard, then a banana plantation, it is today a blossoming garden hotel. "The plantation was our playground,” says Afonso Tavares da Silva, dressed in an elegant suit, as his gaze wanders across the flowering park. The current owner of the “Quinta” recounts his childhood in distinguished British English. "We built huts and swung on long ropes on hot days." Adults were only called for in an emergency. "Once, the gardeners had to rescue my brother from a tree,” Afonso Tavares da Silva reminisces with a smile.

An Australian soap tree?

When the banana business became unprofitable, the family decided to have a design hotel built in their garden. Inspired by the works of star architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a modern edifice made of stone, glass and wood was built. Today, when the hotel guests step out onto the terrace, they are in the midst of a sea of flowers.

Sometimes Raimundo Quintal will visit the hotel as well, flustering the staff with his impromptu botanical questions. "Is the Peruvian peppertree in flower yet?” he wants to know. Or he will venture to explain when the best time is to make compote from the red Butia fruits. Besides spending several months cataloguing the plants in the park, he also gave lectures to the staff – from the chambermaid to the receptionist. "They don’t need to become botanists, but they should develop a feel for the plants so that they can explain them to the guests,” he says.

That is no easy feat, given that the expert has catalogued as many as 280 species. Just one tree remains a mystery. "I believe it is an Australian soap tree. But the ultimate clue is in its fruit.” Which means waiting until the fruit on the tree is ripe. "Every garden is basically like a child," Raimundo Quintal explains. "Each day you have to see how it develops, where it blossoms and where it suffers.” So in the evenings when he has seen to the botanical gardens and his work in the wilderness is done, Raimundo Quintal tends to his own garden situated high above the cliffs. And, with a bit of luck, he may just find the time to sit back in a deckchair and listen to the wind whispering through the exotic trees.

Author‘s Choice

A magic forest of centuries-old laurel trees –ostensibly the oldest on the island– on the northwest coast of Madeira was spared from the axe. In fog, the gnarly, moss-covered giants look like primeval creatures stretching their arms out to the visitors. When the sun shines, sweeping views of the steep coast can be enjoyed from the grove.

The forest is situated on the Fanal plateau, on the country road ER 209 between Paul da Serra and Ribeira da Janela. Vehicles can be parked at the Fanal forestry house. Picnic tables are an enticing invitation to sit and rest.

Text: Oliver Gerhard