This article followed a trip to Madeira as a guest of Madeira Islands Tourism.
Because of the richness and diversity of its plant life, Madeira has been described as a garden floating in the Atlantic. The islands of its archipelago, together with those of the Azores, the Canaries and Cape Verde are known collectively as Macaronesia, the Fortunate Isles. According to Greek mythology, it was to these islands that the gods brought the heroes when their lives of adventure were over.
Despite their relative proximity to Europe and Africa, these archipelagos have never been part of the continental mainland. They were formed by volcanic activity during the Tertiary geological period, which began around 65 million years ago, when the tectonic plates moved the thin oceanic crust over hot plumes of the Earth’s mantle.
The resulting basaltic islands stand as largely submerged mountains, with only their summits rising above the surrounding deep ocean.
Basalt dyke and heather forest
The Earth’s climate began to cool some 25 million years ago, leading into the Quaternary period of the past two million years, characterised by a series of Ice Ages, during which much of the northern hemisphere lay gripped by glaciers. The Macaronesian archipelagos were sufficiently isolated to escape the major effects of glaciation, so that they retained to the present day, the Tertiary forests that vanished from the rest of Europe.
Portuguese sailors first settled the ‘Ilha da Madeira’, or Isle of Timber, in the fifteenth century. They immediately began to clear the forests, for fuel, building materials and to make space for agriculture. They and their descendants did not complete this task, so that, unlike elsewhere in Macaronesia, Madeira still has large areas covered by the primeval forest.
The Laurissilva, or laurel forest of Madeira comprises some 15 000 hectares, or one-fifth of the land area, mainly in the northern part of the island. This is well over half of the world’s remaining total, 90% of which is confined to Macaronesia. So rich and valuable is the ecology of the Madeiran Laurissilva that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
This unique habitat is home to more than 700 plant species, the most prominent of which are several members of the evergreen laurel family. These include Tiltree, Vinhatico, Pau Branco, Barbusano and Madeira Mahogany. These are accompanied by two kinds of holly and numerous shrubs, such as Faia, Sanguinho and Folhado. Some plants, such as Bilberry, the heather, Erica arborea and Lily of the Valley have responded to competition from the laurels by evolving into variants that grow as tall as trees. The result is that the steep valleys and mountaintops of much of Madeira are clothed in a largely impenetrable jungle.
The Laurissilva attracts the moisture of Atlantic winds, so that the northern parts of the island are often misty and damp, while the south basks in sunshine. The climate can change over a period of an hour, or from one valley to the next. This moisture is released into a sodden soil, giving life to an almost unbroken carpet of hundreds of varieties of mosses, lichens, liverworts, ferns, fungi and flowering plants, many of which are found only on Madeira. And crawling through this richness are more than 500 species of insects, spiders and molluscs.
The water absorbed by the forest is harvested and transported by a system of channels, known as levadas, of such low gradient that the water flows as an almost silent trickle rather than a rush. The Levada do Caldeirão Verde, for example, falls only ninety metres over a distance of 6.5 kilometres. Many levadas follow tunnels or cross precipitous faces, with the maintenance pathways providing often the only means by which walkers can enter the forest. The total length of the levadas exceeds 1400 kilometres, and is more than double the distance covered by all of Madeira’s roads.
Laurissilva forest from tunnel on the Levada do Caldeirao Verde
The Laurissilva forest is only part of the Madeira Natural Park, which occupies two-thirds of the island, including virtually all land above the 300-metre contour. Within the park are several contrasting environments. To the west and south, the space left by the cutting of the laurels has been filled with trees from elsewhere: pines from Northern Europe, eucalypts and acacias from Australia. The climate is such that plants from almost anywhere can thrive here, so that trees and shrubs that are native of China, Madagascar, India and the Americas are found in abundance.
The same applies to the flowers, for which Madeira is world famous. Though these are best seen during spring and summer, many can be found in bloom throughout the year, and add colour to even the highest and most barren-looking mountain summits. There are Madeiran varieties of foxglove, vetch, geranium, thrift, buttercup and a yellow violet, as well as much rarer orchids, some of which hide away beneath mountain heathers. Most of the flowers, however, come from overseas: begonias, bougainvilleas, oleanders, anthuriums, wisterias. Some, such as the blue agapanthus, decorate the roadsides, while the Bird of Paradise flower has become an emblem of Madeira.
As well as a climatic north-south divide, Madeira also shows a more physical east-west separation, marked by the pass at Encumeada. To the east are the rugged central peaks, culminating in the 1800-metre-high Pico Ruivo. Some of these are tree-covered, others rise like pillars of bare, red rock above deep valleys, which give the scenery something of an Andean appearance. To the west is the high moorland of Paul da Serra, flat, misty and windswept, with a sparse covering of bracken, heather, broom and gorse. The plateau was once suggested as the site for Madeira’s airport, but the frequent mists and unstable wind conditions precluded this.
The isolation of Madeira is such that there are few land vertebrates. Apart from sheep, goats and cattle, and the rats and cats that arrived on ships, mammals are represented by three endemic species of bat. The only native reptile is a small lizard, which is largely confined to coastal areas, but can be found in the forests and even darting across sun-warmed rocks in the mountains.
Birds, on the other hand, arrived early in Madeira’s history, and have had time to evolve into distinct variants of their continental relatives. On his visit to the Galapagos, an archipelago of similar origin and isolation, Darwin noticed variations among finches that must have shared a common ancestor. Similarly, the Madeiran chaffinch has evolved into a distinct subspecies, as have the linnet, rock sparrow, blackbird, spectacled warbler and firecrest. Berthellot’s pipit is a species found only on the Madeiran and Canary islands. Birds of prey include subspecies of kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard.
The most distinctive of Madeira’s native birds is the Trocaz pigeon, a large, blue-grey bird, which lives in the lower reaches of the laurel forest. Though its numbers are in the thousands, it breeds only on Madeira and is classed as vulnerable. It feeds on the fruits of the laurels, so its spreading of seeds is crucial to the forest ecology. Unfortunately, its presence near agricultural land can be deleterious, and it has often been illegally shot or poisoned. The Madeiran government allows limited culling, under strict control, a difficult balancing act, as the Trocaz pigeon has a high level of protection under EU regulations.
Some sea birds, such as Bulwer’s petrel, Cory’s shearwater and Manx shearwater are thriving, if not specifically on Madeira, then elsewhere in Europe. The exclusively Madeiran Zino’s petrel, however, is among the rarest seabirds in the world. In fact, until around 1970, it was thought to be extinct. As few as 60-75 breeding pairs have been recorded. Despite being a bird of the sea, this petrel breeds on some of the least accessible crags of the central mountains. It is vulnerable to predation by rats and feral cats and to degradation of its habitat by grazing animals. A programme of eradication of predators and removal of sheep and goats from the higher mountains has brought about a small recovery in numbers of this very rare bird.
Madeira is a tiny island, only marginally bigger than the Isle of Man. It has, nevertheless, significant areas of genuine wilderness into which a person can disappear. As we are now becoming aware of the concept of wilderness, and its indispensability both for our own well-being and the good of the planet, the preservation of this wild garden of the Atlantic must grow ever more important.