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‘Summer’ is not as far away as you may think

Bird of paradise is grown widely on Madeira. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Bird of paradise is grown widely on Madeira. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

With temperatures hovering around 5C and Christmas celebrations approaching, this fellow longed for the summer warmth and flowers, even if just for a few days.

That was not going to happen, but he could get the lady of the house on board in a search for the lost summer.

Amazingly, we found it, and colourful gardens to visit, without too much trouble. It lay just four hours’ flight from Newcastle – Madeira.

The primeval woodland of the island’s mountainous interior is a World Heritage Site and, despite a hilly nature, the plant offering is diverse, thanks to a myriad of terraces.

Irrigation is achieved by a complex series of narrow channels (Levadas) that transport water from the heights. These vary in distance from 7km to 22km, have pathways and make interesting walks. Robust trainers are worth packing.

Banana plantations are widespread, some in small domestic gardens, and they were dripping with bunches. Date palms displayed their fruits, and plants we’ve toiled to grow to maturity under cover back home were here in their full glory.

Most revelatory was Monstera deliciosa (the monster plant) trained up walls and bearing long fruits, which are sold at market. Growing it in the UK as an indoor foliage plant, with huge, perforated leaves, tends to mask the fact that it’s raised commercially in warmer climes.

Although in the same time-zone as home, we’d left behind 5C, dusk at 4.30pm and late autumn dormancy to enter a world of 21C, dusk at 6.30pm and late summer displays.

Plumbago, bougainvillea, hibiscus, strelitzia, tibouchina, brugmansia and magnolia blooms greeted our arrival, and iconic pot plants struggling for greenhouse warmth at home flourished outdoors.

We’ve used Chlorophytum comosum variegatum (spider plant) sparingly in containers at home, but here full-scale groups thrived.

I’d never dream of chancing Cuphea ignea (cigar plant), Beloperone guttata (shrimp plant), Pilea cadierei (aluminium plant) and Tradescantia fluminensis (wandering sailor) in high-profile outdoor displays, but it worked in that climate.

No wonder friend Syd talked so enthusiastically about the island when he produced a packet of Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) seed and said it was worth growing.

It demands a heated facility in the UK and takes an age to germinate. On Madeira it’s used as a hedge, and although colourful in daylight, the flowers in silhouette at dusk were reminiscent of heron poised motionless in the River Aln estuary.