Madeira’s Laurel Forests

David Beeson, February 2023

A rugged coastline and high hills covered in laurel forests – the north coast.

Many people visit the Portuguese island of  Madeira for winter sun or summer lounging, yet the island has an interesting geology and some important conservation areas.

Madeira is located off the West African coast in the Atlantic, level with Moroccan Agadir. It is 800 square kilometres in size and of volcanic origin, although the dome generated by that activity has thrown up sedimentary rocks that sit beneath the lava flows and are exposed by weathering.

The total height of the island is really 6Km, as this is total elevation from the seabed … but, yes, only a maximum of just over 1.8Km sticks out!

The top of the island

Beyond the coast the land is mountainous, rapidly reaching 1800m – which was totally cloud-covered and very cold in early February. So, no botanising happened for us. For adventurous folks, there are numerous signed walks heading from this location.

Madeira is a well-watered island and the landscape is sliced with steep deep valleys that naturally support laurel forests. The predominant trees are Laurus azorica, Ocotea foetens, Persea indica (a relative of the avocado plant), and Clethra arborea (lily-of-the-Valley-Tree). The first three are laurel species. Laurus grows to 15m and Ocotea to 40m.

The laurel forests are now mostly protected but difficult to access, being situated on north-facing steep valley sides with almost zero easy access. Such areas also exist on Tenerife and the deserted islands off the Madeiran coast. We had a brief exploration by wandering along a manmade water course called a  levada. (If you want to try our access point, head to the trout farm – Ribeiro Frio, and walk downhill until you encounter the levada on your left.)

With the rain mostly falling on the north of the island, and the population on the south, levadas were constructed to move the water.
Laurel forest
Wonderful. No people!

With the dominant laurel trees overhead the ground is moist, cool and shaded. Perfect conditions for some of the little, ground-hugging, non-flowering plants such as liverworts, club mosses, mosses and ferns. Also, the habitat of the giant Madeiran cranesbill (geranium) – Geranium maderense, that reaches 150cm.

Streamside vegetation
The levada is in the channel to the right on this image.
Gennaria diphylla – I hope!
Mosses and liverworts dominated some rockfaces.
Mosses, club mosses and ferns.

(Many in the UK know laurel as an evergreen hedging plant. The usual species is Prunus laurocerasus – so not the Madeiran plant.)

Homepage is: for 150+ ad-free knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: