Madeira may be small but this volcanic subtropical island packs a lot of flower power. Often referred to as the 'floating flower pot,' Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, but closer to North Africa--it sits 378 miles off the coast of Morocco. Part of an archipelago in which only two islands are inhabited, Madeira has an alluring median year-round temperature of 68 degrees, and a spectrum of micro-climates that gives rise to a huge breadth of botany.
Everything grows here. Two-thirds of the 13-by-35-mile island is a national park, ornamental gardens abound, and someone with a green thumb resides in virtually every home.
Madeira was discovered in 1419 and became an important outpost for Portuguese ships under the command of Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, as exploration of uncharted territories grew.
''As trade routes between Europe and distant lands were established, Madeira's location made it the perfect first and last port for fresh water and provisions," said Isabel do Portugal, whose family tree has deep roots here. ''The sailors introduced a huge variety of plants from all over the New World. As a result, you now see Australian bottleneck growing alongside Siberian bergenia. The Madeiran people are keen on plants -- 'tis nature, lush and spontaneous."
According to Raimundo Quintal, a botanist who credits his career choice to his upbringing on a small Madeiran ''quinta," or farm, the island is home to more than 3,000 species of flowering plants. Across the centuries, more than 400 varieties were introduced to Madeira by immigrants from the world over, including Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. There are also 780 species of native plants, 160 of which are exclusive to Madeira, including the deep cobalt viper's bugloss, Madeiras pride.
The altitude permits a great variety of vegetation. Rising 6,105 feet above the sea, the countryside resembles a verdant wedding cake, layered with thousands of terraced gardens built by settlers beginning in 1422. From the heights, clusters of red-tiled roofs in the villages below resemble tiny decorative rosebuds.
Created to make the steep mountain slopes farmable for local sustenance, these gradients that capture rainwater and runoff from mountain springs were later used to cultivate a lucrative sugar-cane export business that created considerable wealth for some in the 1500s. Today, residents still plant produce and flowers for their families or to sell through cooperative unions.
''The farmers may have 20, 50, 70 different plots of land," said Martinho Macedo, whose family has been here for more than five generations. ''In Porto da Cruz, they grow lots of grapes for wine they make themselves. If grapes are good, they can sell to the cooperative for the Madeira wine."
Generally, Madeira wine is made with the island's tinta negra mole grape and blended with varieties from other local vineyards. Madeira originated when 16th-century merchants began fortifying wine for sailors so that it wouldn't spoil on long voyages. Crews found the taste improved further into a hot journey. Essentially cooked to enhance the aging process, Madeira today is largely consumed as an aperitif or with dessert.
The Mercado dos Lavradores, the ''workers' market" in the capital of Funchal (''fennel" in Portuguese), is where many come to sell their bounty. In a building on the cusp of Funchal's historic district, farmers, fishermen, basket weavers, and flower growers proffer tropical fruit, produce, wicker wares, and exotic flora from colorful stalls flanking the perimeter of three floors, with a huge mass of purple bougainvillea dominating the open courtyard.
In the cheery red traditional costume of her trade, Isabel Pereira has sold flowers here for 51 of her 66 years, as her mother did before her, and her daughter does now. It has been a family business for more than 90 years. ''There are now a dozen stands, from one, worked by daughters, mothers, grandmothers," she said. ''Before, only the rich could afford to buy flowers, yet they had their own gardens. Now more and more people move into the city, live in apartments and have no land, but can afford flowers."
Across the street is Patricio & Gouveia, where countryside labor yields Maderian embroidery, so renowned for its finery that a stamp is affixed to authenticate pieces produced here. Like the island's flowers, some of the pieces are pale and delicate while others are stitched in bold and vivid colors.
This cottage industry was introduced to the outside world in the 1850s by a British wine merchant's daughter, and it became prized art. While the custom continues to be handed down from one generation to the next, the practice is declining as Madeira, population about 300,000, becomes more modernized through its burgeoning tourist industry.
Patricia Sousa, a long-time employee of the store, appreciates the humble artistry of the craft.
''The embroidery is done by old women," she said. ''Not so many young want to do it. It is hard work -- on the eyes, the back. One woman comes in for the patterns for all those in her village." Sousa said depending on how elaborate the embroidery is, the same size tablecloth can take six months to three years to complete, and range in price from $1,100 to $3,500. Pieces with ''sand stitch," so-called because the stitches are ''tiny, like on the beach," she said, are among the more expensive.
''Madeira" means ''timber" in Portuguese and the island is so named for good reason. Laurissilva Forest, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 because of its biological diversity and level of preservation, spans nearly 55,000 acres. The forest is covered in laurel and mimosa trees, lily-of-the-valley, flowering shrubs such as yellow foxglove and Wollaston's musschia, and various types of orchids, heather, and holly.
In vivid contrast to the rugged beauty of the prehistoric Laurissilva, the formal Monte Palace Tropical Gardens were conceived in 1897. Covering 17 acres, the gardens feature a maze of pathways amid native and other flora. Monte Palace houses one of the biggest collections of cycads in the world -- 60 of the 72 known species of these ancient plants.
Just around the corner is another Madeiran institution, the Monte sleigh ride, one likely to accelerate your pulse after the serenity of the gardens. Here about 40 drivers await passengers. This one-mile toboggan ride plummets down a steep street in seven heart-pumping minutes. One descends on a wicker sofa on wooden runners, steered by two men in white flannels and straw boaters, who brake with their feet.
While stories abound of how or why this novel activity came about, it's agreed it dates to the mid-1800s. The mode of transport is a little less baffling: Wicker furniture-making is a significant industry on the island.
Traveling from the sea to the mountains in Madeira, you can find all types of trees and plants. Driving just the 10 miles back to Funchal, you see the poisonous white oleander, native of the Mediterrean; match me if you can, a deep red waxy shrub original to New Zealand; birds of paradise from South Africa; Indian fig trees; native Brazilian bougainvillea, which flourishes here in eight colors; and the blue and white hydrangea we identify with Cape Cod, but which is indigenous to the Himalayas. The self-seeding agapanthus, in violet-blue or white, and Christmas firecracker, both from South Africa, are so prolific as to be considered invasive.
Orchids, on the other hand, are among the world's most prized flowers, symbolizing purity, fertility, and perfection. They are easily spied in the wild here, and orchid cultivation is a profitable local business. Of the 25,000 species of orchids in existence, 6,000 can be found at Funchal's Jardim Orquídea. Combining science and aesthetics, Josef Pregetter breeds orchids in this hilltop laboratory and exhibits his collection in an adjacent greenhouse. His family has been propagating orchids for more than a century.
As much as we enjoyed touring the island's formal gardens, we can see Martinho's point when asked his opinion of Madeira's many ornamental horticultural displays: ''Why pay 10 euro when the whole island is a garden?"
On Madeira, nature and nurture have combined to create a plant lover's paradise. Whether shopping in Funchal, hiking along the irrigation canals, or driving the dizzying heights of mountain peaks, Madeira flexes its flower power and pervades your senses with colors vibrant and soft, and aromas sweet and pungent.