An island of flowers – Part 6: The Levadas

Madeira’s landscape is dotted with over 2000 km of levadas, which are unique irrigation channels bringing water down from the mountains to fields and coastal towns. Started in the 15th century, the network of levadas has been extended and improved (the first ones were built in wood!). These narrow (20-100cm wide) channels following the contours of the landscape are flanked by maintenance footpaths, which are now very popular with hikers:


We chose to walk the Levada da Serra do Faial, a popular daytrip from Funchal offering plenty of viewpoints and an interesting flora. The 20 km walk starts off a hilly road, and runs for a little while among houses. Madeiran inhabitants grow a very diverse range of flowers, from temperate hydrangeas to cacti and succulents, such as these stunning carpets of pink Delosperma:


Madeira’s climate is extremely favourable, and a lot of plants introduced to the island have therefore become invasive. Pretty Nasturtiums are covering entire fields, while the South African groundcover Oxalis pes-caprae is competing with native arable weeds:


The walk continues into an oak forest…


…and the garden flora quickly gives way to wild plants. There are over 130 endemic plant species in Madeira, such as the now rare (but recovering) groundcover Sibthorpia europaea. Along the levada, several Sonchus species can be spotted, here the Madeiran endemic Sonchus fruticosus.


There are also typically Mediterranean plants, like the showy Echium plantagineum (much smaller than its cousins E. candicans or E. pininana!), or the three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum):

Echium plantagineumAllium triquetrum

In the 19th century, Eucalyptus species (mainly E. globulus) and Acacia (A. melanoxylonA. mearnsii), were introduced from Australia to the island to produce timber. These fast-growing trees have since become invasive, altering the soil composition and encroaching on native laurisilva forest:


A lot of small annuals are growing along the dry paths of the levadas. This is the stunning Lathyrus sativus var. cyaneus (the grass pea), a wild relative of cultivated peas which has gained much interest in the past years, as it could behold interesting genes:


The Acacia and Eucalyptus forest has a very exotic feel (and smell!), and for a moment it becomes hard to believe that this is still technically located in the European Union! Note the enormous Agapanthus on the left side: introduced from South Africa, they are now growing along every road and footpath in Madeira.


Of course, despite the abundance of introduced plants, the forest is still home to many native species. Under Eucalyptus trees, the tree heath (Erica arborea) is very common. In wetter parts of the forest, under Lauraceae trees, the shrubby Rubiaceae Phylis nobla steals the show with its glossy leaves:

Erica arboreaPhyllis nobla (2)

Sadly all good things must come to end, and after a fantastic, botanically-rich walk, the descent over Madeira was in sight again:


The next post won’t feature plants but underwater creatures. Watch this space if you want to know more!


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