Madeira, a jewel in the Atlantic with a balmy, maritime climate, is known as the ‘Island of flowers‘ and every year, particularly in early spring, British gardeners arrive on its shores to savour the joys of landscapes awash with wild flowers and gardens burgeoning with blooms. The major town, Funchal, (so called because early Portugese discoverers found the area covered in Fennel) is interwoven with a maze of narrow streets. Gardeners head to the bustling market place early in the morning to admire the Island‘s finest fruits; avocado‘s three times the size of those in British supermarkets and unusual fruit like guavas and the delicious fruit of the ‘Swiss Cheese Plant‘, it‘s worth visiting the fish market too for a glimpse of the scary-looking ‘Espada‘ fish that is hauled up from the deep.
The flower market is ablaze with colour; ‘Belladonna‘ lilies, Strelitzia‘s and orchids abound and it‘s the ideal place to buy local bulbs. I bought Scilla peruviana from one of the many ladies dressed in traditional costume who are passionate and knowledgeable about their plants, it has spectacular blooms with a dense cone of up to one hundred starry violet-blue flowers that dries to become a flower arrangers dream. They should be planted in autumn at the base of a sunny south facing wall, in free draining poor soil; we‘re in the middle of the bulb planting season and now‘s the time to plant tulips, daffodils and spring flowering bulbs. It is better to leave ‘Snowdrops‘ until the spring as they are better planted after flowering or ‘in the green‘. Another of my purchases, three plump bulbs of glorious, dark candy-pink flowered Nerine sarniensis, are flowering now, they‘re not reliably hardy in Hertfordshire, so I grow them in a pot of John Innes no 2 with added horticultural grit to improve the drainage, they over-winter in the greenhouse and go outdoors in spring once the danger of frost has passed and come indoors before the first frosts of autumn.
It is worth trying bulbs of borderline hardiness outdoors, particularly in warmer areas of the UK, keeping a few in the greenhouse as ‘back up‘ stock in case of failure. Many bulbs come from parts of the world with a Mediterranean climate with cool wet, winters and hot dry summers, dig to three times the depth of the bulb when planting; smaller bulbs should be at least 2″ below the surface to prevent them from drying out. Among the exceptions are late summer flowering Nerine bowdenii, with a starburst of sugar pink flowers and Amaryllis belladonna with pretty pink trumpets that are planted with the tip of the bulb on or just below the surface. If you are buying Cyclamen or Snowdrops make sure they are not collected from the wild as many species are now endangered through over collection. Most bulbs flourish with minimal care; let the leaves die back completely before removing them, don‘t knot the foliage of daffodils and feed with sulphate of potash in spring. Plant some now and let bulbs illuminate your garden next spring!