Botanical gardens are educational as well as entertaining. You can see plants that are native to a particular location, but you also can see plants that people have brought in that are well adapted to that location. 

My wife Nancy and I go to botanical gardens whenever we are traveling. Yes, we like to look at the pretty flowers. But we also enjoy learning different ways garden designers respond to the landscape and the plants they want to use.

The only botanical garden offered as a side trip on our recent Celebrity Equinox cruise from Rome, Italy, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the Madeira Botanical Garden. The garden is located in Funchal, the largest city in Madeira, a group of volcanic islands located off the African coast and part of Portugal.

As with many botanical gardens, the one in Madeira was originally an estate. William Reid came from Scotland to Madeira for his health at the age of 14. He lived, his health improved, and he developed a guest house and later a large hotel. He also built a home with extensive gardens, and that became the botanical garden in 1960.

We arrived at the Madeira garden by taking a bus up very narrow, steep streets from the port and then taking a cable car over a deep ravine. There is a shallow stream in the middle of the ravine, but nothing else except scrub brush, trees and rocks — very wild for the middle of a well-settled island.

Along the stream are wild plants, mostly native to the island, and the area is so steep and thickly planted that it would be difficult to walk.

Although Madeira is tropical, Mainers can learn many things from walking through gardens there. The garden is on a steep hill, and the hills are handled by creating a zigzag path back and forth along the cliff sides.

The paths are made with small pebbles from the local beaches. These islands are dormant volcanos, so the small beach pebbles are black. Set close together in the paths, they make a great non-slip texture.

We’ve seen this use of beach pebbles in a lot of locations in Italy and Spain. It’s very like the garden paths that Beatrix Farrand used in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and Frank Lloyd Wright would no doubt approve of using local materials in constructing garden hardscaping. The garden includes some walls and terraces, but for the most part, it uses the natural slope of the island.

The yellow/orange bird of paradise is Madeira’s most important flowering plant. To decorate several blocks on one of Funchal’s major shopping streets for Christmas, they installed two-story-tall lights in the shape of bird of paradise blossoms on regular municipal light posts.

The plants bloom all year long on the island, and they export the blossoms to florists all over Europe. These plants are not native to Madeira, having been brought in from Africa. However, there is a white-flowering bird of paradise that has much larger (20 feet tall, at least) and taller leaves than the more typical orange variety, and that one is native to Madeira.

Nancy has grown both the white and the yellow/orange plants for a decade or more. She has coaxed blossoms out of the yellow/orange plant just about every year, but we have not had one blossom yet out of the white one. 

At the botanical garden as well as in other areas of the island, the white birds were part of more natural-looking landscapes, but the orange ones were planted in long rows five and six plants wide to create a sort of low hedge.

One of the most important trees in the garden is the dragon tree, which is a native, slow-growing tree that it is illegal to cut down. It can be tapped like the maple trees of Maine, but when you tap it, you get a red dye used for dying textiles. The trees live for centuries.

The gardens are an interesting combination of native plantings mingled with British Victorian gardens. As you come in the main gate, there are azaleas planted as understory plants to the big white birds of paradise.

As you go along paths, you find beds containing giant angel wing begonias, wax begonias and other houseplants that Mainers would recognize. One striking area of the garden, very Victorian, is bedded out with green, red and yellow annuals sheared into an intricate design. In one part, the plants spell out “Jardin Botanico da Madeira.”

Many plants that we use as houseplants are perennials there. There were hundreds of different bromeliads in extensive beds. There were cacti, even though Madeira has a humid climate, and succulents. There were some orchids.

But there were also many plants that could be grown in Maine, including magnolias, azaleas and rhododendrons.

Although Madeira was the most intensely landscaped of the areas we visited, there were signs that people loved their plants everywhere. There were window boxes and rooftop gardens throughout Rome and Florence, but they were not as extensive as the ones we saw on a trip to Paris last year. In both Rome and Florence, they use orange and tangerine trees to line busy main streets.

In Aix en Provence in France, they prune the sycamore trees along the streets so vehicles can drive under them, but the canopy still provides shade when it gets above 100 degrees in the summer.

The public and historic areas of Barcelona and Cartagena, Spain, had extensive palms trees and tall, skinny cypress trees.

The gardens were a lot different from each other, but we were still able to get some ideas from them.

One thing we have learned is that, after 10 years of waiting for the white bird of paradise to bloom, we are done. It’s going into the compost.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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