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Madeira - Tree Fern Island

If Tree Ferns are your thing, then a trip to this wonderful island could just be the holiday you've been dreaming of.
Kai Weigner, Eschstr. 25a, 32257 Bunde, Germany
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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I am sure every member of EPS and everybody who reads Chamaerops knows tree ferns but anyway, first let me introduce these wonderful plants.

The tree ferns are subdivided into six genera: Cibotium, Coemidaria, Cyathea, Dicksonia, Nephelea and Trichipteris. Most of them have a palm like shape with more delicate fronds.

Tree ferns grow in a very wide range of habitats, from Scotland in cool temperate terrain i.e. Dicksonia at Logan Botanic Garden (Chamaerops No 9) to tropical habitats. Most thrive in warm temperate to subtropical situations, so that Madeira offers the ideal climate. The annual average temperature fluctuates between 165C and 225C. The water temperature is between 165C and 205C. It rains from October till March and the air humidity is about 80% the whole year, even in summer. Nevertheless, the higher parts of Madeira are cool to cold, and snow on Pico Ruivo (1862 m) is not unheard of.

The most popular tree fern in cultivation there is Cyathea cooperi (syn. Sphaeropteris cooperi) which grows from sea level up to some 1100 metres. The highest altitude where I found them is Rabacal (1064 in). I was there in September and the weather was drizzly, misty and cool - around 135C I guess. Nevertheless, the tree ferns looked really healthy, trunks were up to 4 m high and densely covered with lichens and moss.

On Madeira, tree ferns are cultivated in public parks, private gardens and many hotel front gardens. I even saw them planted in the middle of a market place. Some people cultivate them in huge terracotta tubs as striking green door-keepers on both sides of their front-doors. Plants adapt very well to cultivation but consider a few simple rules: Tree ferns need plenty of water and regular fertilizing. A longtime/slowrelease fertilizer is beneficial even in winter if the plant is making new fronds. The soil should be very well drained to prevent infestation with root rotting fungi. I prefer a mixture with equal parts of friable loam, sharp sand or clay granules and medium sized pine bark chips. Most tree ferns resent full exposure to summer sun especially when they are young. However, on Madeira I saw many plants growing in sunny situations. I think the main problem is dark winters and then full exposure to sun in late April. I'm sure even the hardiest tree fern will be damaged by this procedure. Dry air is detrimental to most tree fern leaves so, indoor cultivation isn't easy.

Allow me to introduce parks and botanical gardens I visited on Madeira. Public park of Monte: Tree ferns are growing on slopes amidst many flowering plants like Agapanthus and Hibiscus. A really amazing view is a huge fern growing beneath a high bridge. Many fern trunks are covered with climbers and the whole park runs something wild but this is the particular charm. Cyathea cooperi and Dicksonia antarctica are growing there. Jardins Monte Palace: This is a necessity for every tree fern and cycad lover who is visiting Madeira. Hundred of tree ferns and bread-trees are growing in this impressive botanical garden. They cultivate tree ferns in all sizes. The biggest ones are sprouting on small islets in a pond in the middle of the park. They have reached a height of some 7 metres and are fertilized naturally by swans. The cultivated tree ferns are the same species as in the public park of Monte. The main attraction of this park is a cycad collection. Many of the rarest species are growing in this garden. Even the entrance is lined with Encephalartos inopinus and E. latifrons. Jardim Botanico Funchal: It's a really famous garden too. There are growing the two mentioned tree fern species, furthermore they have a very handsome Mexican tree fern: Cibotium schiedei. In addition to many other wonderful plants they cultivate a fantastic Angiopteris evecta. This is a primitive fern, it's natural distribution is Southeast Asia and Australia. There it is called Giant Fern because of it large, heavy arching, bipinnate fronds. Quinta Das Crazes: The last garden I visited during my island stay is the botanical park of Quinta Das Cruzes. The English definition for Quinta is estate and this estate is an ancient place, some parts are 500 years old. The park is planted with Cyathea cooperi, a few cycads and many orchids. The park curator is very friendly. He offered me a potted tree fern as a gift.

Finally I can recommend this Portuguese island to everybody who loves nature, hiking and a very remarkable flora.

Readers Comments:

Dear Kai
It was a pleasure to read your article about the palms, ferns and gardens of Madeira. I am a newcomer to the world of palms and ferns and have been greatly influenced by my recent holiday to Funchal and have now begun researching what our climate here in the UK will allow me to grow!
The gardens of Madeira really are wonderful and my wife and I particularly enjoyed strolling around the public gardens in the centre of Funchal and in the outlying townsˆ these are neatly designed and the palms and flowers remarkable (I have now developed a great enthusiasm for Agapanthus too!). The numerous terraces of banana plants are quite amazing too.
We intend to return again to Madeira next year and I shall now approach all of these plants with greater interest and with far more background knowledge!
I totally agree with your final comments about taking a holiday in Madeira ˆ there is indeed much to offer for plant enthusiasts and the scenery from the mountains is spectacular. I would love to tackle some of the Œlevada‚ walks too!
By Arthur William Murfitt (9th September 2003)

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