Do you know why the first discoverers in 1419 called Madeira, Madeira?
Well, Madeira is the portuguese word for wood and it was named that because the island was so densely wooded that they were even afraid to come on land the first few days as they stared at the lush green depths of the forest and imagined the dangerous creatures the foliage could be hiding. There are even written reports that they caught a glimpse of a two meter tall rabbit with long fangs hopping around in the shadows! A testimony to what months at sea combined with rum and a healthy imagination can do.
This forest, nowadays only covers 20% of the island, mainly on the north coast, but is still the largest preserved area of Laurissilva in the world. Laurissilva translates to forest of the laurels, because it is mainly made up of different species of trees from the bay leaf family. The laurissilva is dated to the tertiary period, so somewhere between 66 and 2.6 million years ago! It used to cover great areas of the south of Europe and the Mediterranean, but it was killed off in the last ice age. The ice, however, did not reach the Atlantic Islands that comprise the Macaronesian Islands: Azores, Madeira, Canaries and Cabo Verde. So this jewel of a forest survived and Madeira Island is where there is the largest area and biggest diversity of this very ancient woodland.
Madeira would not be the paradise it is if it were not for the laurissilva, especially if we are to consider the weather, the fauna and flora. This forest is responsible for trapping the water that comes on the northeastern sea breeze on its leaves and it is said that as it is pushed up the mountains to cooler areas it causes a fall of condensation of up to ten litres per square meter of water per day. This water is then absorbed by the rich earth and collected in riverlets and taken all over the island to where it is needed for agriculture by our famous Levadas. A study by the University of Madeira on hidden rain, calculated that the water accumulated in this way is equivalent to about 10500 mm a year, which is more than six times what we get from rain every year on Madeira Island. That is a lot of water that the forest gives us!
There are more than seventy species endemic to Madeira that occur in the Laurissilva and almost forty that are endemic to the Macaronesian Islands. These are species that occur nowhere else on the planet, utterly unique.
Here we have chosen to talk about the biggest and strongest of these species, justly naming them, the Guardians of the Forest.
Barbusano (Apollonias barbujana)
This gentle giant can get up 25m tall (82 feet) and its genus name comes from one of the most complex greek gods: Apollo. This deity was known for his beauty and he is considered the god of archery, music, poetry, healing, truth and light.
This beautiful tree was common on the south side of the Island of Madeira and its oldest and biggest were felled to make ships and farm equipment like parts of the wine press. The older it becomes, the harder the wood, making it all the more useful for building.
It is endemic to the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands and is sometimes referred to as Canary Laurel. Its sweet smelling blooms are present between October and May.
Laurel (Laurus novocanariensis)
Imagine you mixed your stews with a wooden spoon made from laurel tree wood? How much tastier would it make everything? Now you see why our traditional Espetada, those juicy chunks of beef, are grilled on a skewer that comes from our forest.
Laurus novocanariensis is the scientific name of this tall, dark, handsome tree that can reach the height of 20m (65 feet). In portuguese we call the tree Loureiro, and the wood that comes from it, Pau de Louro. We use the leaf (equivalent to your ordinary bay leaf) in a lot of our soups and stews.
Another part of this species which is used by man is the berry. It is cooked and crushed and then the oil extracted and purified. It takes about 250 kg of berries to produce 10 liters of oil (Azeite de Louro). It is a precious liquid and one needs a special permit to go into the forest between September and November to pick the berries. The price is approximately 150 euros per liter, but you can also get it in capsules in health food shops. However, it’s a good investment because it can cure so many ills: reumatism, scarring, liver problems, circulation, sore throat, bad stomachs and even gangrene and tetanus.
This beautiful tree is one of the most emblematic of our forest and mostly what gives it its signature scent: living in Madeira we are lucky, as we boil our kettle of water for coffee in the morning, the steam smells of the forest and that makes us smile every day!
Til / Fetid Laurel (Ocotea foetens)
Such an unfortunate name, but the truth is that the oil extracted from this tree is very smelly indeed. These colossi can reach up to 40 meters (130 feet) in the right conditions and they are absolutely beautiful. There is one unmissable place on the island where they have been sculpted by the wind into eerie and magical shapes: Fanal. The wood of old til trees is very resistant (though stinky), so it was used to make farming instruments like windmills, wine presses, troughs and even looms. It was also considered the best coal to fuel the cauldrons to make rum and sugar. If you boil the leaves you get a very good lotion to calm any rash on the skin.
The berries it produces (which look like miniature acorns) are one of the favourites of the endemic Columba trocaz, our endemic wood pigeon, who also functions as an excellent spreader of the seeds throughout the forest.
Vinhático (Persea Indica)
This magnificent tree is endemic to the Macaronesian Islands and can grow up to 20m (65 feet) in height. If you look closely you will see some similarities with its cousin the Persea americana, the one that gives those delightful green fruits so necessary to make guacamole or to spread on toast with a fried egg on top. Yes, the avocado. However, the Vinhático’s fruit is not as impressive and looks more like an olive.
It has large leaves that begin their life as pale green and then go bright red as they age.
The wood is very precious and was used for centuries to make sturdy and ornate furniture, and is often referred to as Madeira mahogany. Still today you can find gorgeous chests and cupboards and tables made with this wood which ranges from pale yellow to a rosy brown, and they fetch very handsome sums when sold at auction.
Having described these magnificent creatures mostly from the human perspective, describing the uses they have had and still have through history, it is very important to mention that they have much more use growing freely where they are in the forest. They constitute ecosystems which are our most valuable asset and that should be preserved and cared for by and for generations to come.
We must all do everything that is in our power to preserve this treasure, our Laurissilva Forest, which was considered by the European Council a Biogenetic Reservation in 1992 and was classified as World Heritage by UNESCO in 1999.
To get up close and personal with them, we suggest a few trails that will keep you in awe:
Levada do Rei (PR18)
Levada do Furado (PR10)
Levada Fajã do Rodrigues (PR16)
Vereda do Fanal (PR13)