From The Madeira Island Web Site
Chapter 1: Introduction
By Florence Du Cane
May 2, 2007 - 7:43:12 PM
The very name of Madeira (or island of timber, as the word signifies) brings to the minds of most people a suggestion of luxuriant vegetation flourishing in a damp, enervating climate. Such, indeed, was my own mental picture of Madeira before my first visit to the island. I expected to find every garden with the aspect of a fernery, moisture dripping everywhere, and the hills clothed with the remains of the primeval forests. The latter might possibly still have existed had it not been for the zeal of the discoverers of the island in making use of their discovery from a utilitarian point of view, and cutting clearings for the cultivation of the rich and fertile land. In order to clear the ground of the forests, which we are told clothed the island to its very shores, the drastic measure of setting fire to it was resorted to: hence the destruction (as old historians assert that the fire raged for over two years) of all the forests on the south side of the island.
Some feeling of disappointment entered my mind when I first looked on the Bay of Funchal. As compared to the wooded appearance the north of the island presents, the south side, viewed from the sea, appears to have much less vegetation. Large stretches of pine woods, it is true, have been replanted, and though they are used for timber, and are felled before they attain any great size, regulations exist which oblige any person who cuts down a tree to plant another in its place. Though I should imagine it is more than doubtful whether this regulation is carried out to the letter, the plantations are replanted, or the stock of timber would otherwise soon become exhausted. The fact that the south side of any island is naturally the most suited for cultivation has also led to the destruction of the woods, and on approaching the island it is very soon seen that every available inch of ground is cultivated in some form or another. The cultivation may take the form of some cared-for garden, where trees, shrubs, and creepers from the tropics may be flourishing side by side with more familiar vegetation, or may merely be the little terraced patch of ground surrounding the humblest cottage, where the harvest of the crop — be it sugar-cane, batata (sweet potato), or yam — is eagerly looked forward to, in order to eke out the very slender means of its habitants.
The feelings of Edward Bowdick, as described in "Excursions to Madeira and Porto Santo in 1823," must often have been re-echoed by many a visitor who sees the island for the first time: " To those who have visited the tropics nothing can be more gratifying than to find the trees they have there dwelt on with so much pleasure, and which are decidedly the most beautiful part of the Creation ; to be reminded of the vast solitudes, where vegetable nature seems to reign uncontrolled and untouched ; to see the bright blue sky through the delicate pinnated leaves of the mimosa, whilst the wood strawberry at its feet recalls the still dearer recollection of home; to gather the fallen guavas with one hand and the blackberry with the other; to be able to choose between the apples and cherries of Europe (which are so much regretted) and the banana — it is this feeling which makes Madeira so delightful, independent of its beautiful scenery and the constancy and softness of its temperature."
Any feeling of disappointment that the traveller may have experienced from his first cursory glance at the island must surely be quickly dispelled on landing, especially if this should be in the month of January, when, having left the snows and frosts of Europe behind, after travelling for four days he is basking in the almost perpetual sunshine of so-called winter in Madeira. Lovers of flowers — and to those I most recommend a visit to the island — will find fresh beauties even at every turn of the street: the gorgeous-coloured creepers seem to have taken possession everywhere. Hanging over every wall where their presence is permitted will come tumbling some great mass of creeper, be it the orange Bignonia venustus, whose clusters of surely the most brilliant orange-coloured flower that grows completely smother the foliage; or the scarlet, purple, or lilac bougainvillea, whose splendour will take one's breath away, with its dazzling mass of blossoms. The great white trumpets of the datura, combined possibly with the flaunting red poinsettia blossoms, will quickly show the fresh arrival the bewildering variety of the vegetation —so much so that I cannot fail again to sympathize with Mr. Bowdick, who, writing on the subject, says: " The enchanting landscape which presents itself flatters the botanist at the first view with a rich harvest, and not until he begins to work in earnest does he foresee the labours of his task. What can be more delightful than to see the banana and the violet on the same bank, and the Melia adzerach, with its dark shining leaves, raising its summit as high as that of its neighbour, the Populus alba ? It is this very gratification which occasions the perplexity, at the same time that it confirms the opinion, that Madeira might be made the finest experimental garden in the world, and that an interchange of the plants of the tropical and temperate climates might be made successfully after they had been completely naturalized there."
Since the above was written (1828) no doubt much has been done in the way of naturalizing plants from other countries, chiefly by the English, who are the owners of most of the principal gardens in and around Funchal. Many a plant and bulb from the Cape has found a new home in Madeira, and has spread throughout the length and breadth of the island, straying from gardens until they have now become almost hedgerow flowers; while at a higher altitude than Funchal, plants from England and other parts of Europe have also found a new resting-place.
It is not only to lovers of flowers, who, should they become the happy possessors of a garden in Madeira, will find in it a never-ending source of enjoyment, but also to those who wish to explore the natural scenery of the island, that I heartily recommend a visit to Madeira. Probably no other island of its size has such grand and varied scenery. The island being only some thirty-three miles long and fifteen across even at the widest part, most people look incredulous when told of the inaccessibility of some of its more remote parts, picturing to themselves the possibility of seeing the whole island in one or, at the outside, two days by means of the now ubiquitous motor car. These impatient travellers had better stay away from Madeira, for their motor-cars will be of little use to them, the gradients of the roads being too steep for any but the most powerful of cars, even if the roads themselves were not paved with the most unlevel cobble-stones. To anyone who has leisure to spend in exploring the island, merely for the sake either of admiring its scenery, or making a collection of the many ferns which adorn every nook and cranny of the deep ravines, I can promise ample reward; always supposing that they are sufficiently good travellers not to consider comfortable hotel accommodation as being an essential part of their expedition. Away from Funchal few hotels exist in Madeira; but if it is the right season of the year, and a spell of fine weather is reasonably to be expected, tent-life must be resorted to, or the primitive accommodation afforded by the engineers' huts in various districts, or rooms in the most primitive of village inns.
Enthusiastic admirers of the scenery of Madeira have compared its grandeur to that of the Yosemite Valley in miniature: its mountain-peaks, it is true, only range from 4,000 to 6,000 feet, but the abruptness with which they rise gives an impression of enormous depth to the densely wooded ravines. In an article on Madeira written by Mr. Frazer in 1875 it will be seen that he also compared its scenery to some of the grandest mountain scenery in the world. Writing of an expedition to the north side of the island, he says: "The beauty of the scene culminated at the little hamlet of Cruzinhas, whence we looked into a labyrinth of dark precipitous ravines, formed by the gorges of the central group of mountains, whose peaks, fortunately unclouded for a time, resembled in their fantastic ruggedness those of the Dolomites; but their sides being densely wooded with the spark ling laurel, and the ravines themselves more tortuous, we, I need hardly say, reluctantly came to the conclusion that even the Dolomite gorges could not equal them. There was none of the splendid rock-colouring of the Dolomites, but for deep-wooded ravines of deep mysterious gloom, descending from pinnacled mountains, it is a great question whether the Tyrol must not yield to Madeira."
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