I have just come back from a wonderful holiday - an escorted tour of the gardens and flowers of Madeira, with HF Holidays What made it for me was that we had a tour leader, who not only took us round but who was extremely knowledgeable of all the plants. He could name virtually everything that we saw and was more than happy to talk Latin names. It really was a perfect holiday. I felt like an excited, trainspotting, schoolboy. I was seeing loads of plants that I had heard of, but never seen – or seen in flower, and was furiously ticking them off mentally. Madeira was a deserted island until it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1415. It’s made up of a chain of extinct volcanoes, which grew directly out of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Over millions of years, rain has worn away deep valleys in the side of the mountains, which explains why the picture above is so typical, showing roads as consisting of a series of tunnels through the mountain connected by viaducts across the valleys. I never saw a flat field. Jim, our guide, explained that that the climate was very mild and is often described as being “perpetual spring”. It is this and its mountainous aspect that explains the wide diversity of plants that grow on the island. As you go up the mountain the temperature drops and so you get a series of climate zones, with sub tropical at the base, rising to temperate higher up where they can grow potatoes and at the very top there they can even have snow in winter. A good place to start is the flower market in central Funchal, with this lovely African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) outside. These have been introduced from tropical Africa and are a popular street tree, flowering over winter to late spring. Because Madeira falls so steeply into the sea, cruise liners can dock within walking distance of the centre of Funchal. And the flower market had plenty of cruise fodder in the form of cut flowers of different Protea and Strelitzea (Bird of Paradise flower – 10 blooms for 2 Euros), as well as many other bulbs and rhizomes. I managed to buy some Watsonia, Ixia, a large Heliconia rhizome, and a huge Musa acuminate corm weighing several pounds (2 Euros). Agapanthus grows like a weed, though it was barely in flower yet. It is used as ground cover with a 1000 or more plants grown under a tree. They must look marvellous in full flower. In the countryside I bought 3 very large Agapanthus rhizomes for 1 Euro (79 p). My day was made when I went upstairs in the market and discovered a lovely lady, who spoke excellent English, who sold serious plants. Pyrostegia venusta (Flame Vine). This picture was taken near our hotel. It’s a vigorous vine from South America, flowering in autumn, winter and spring. It has been on my hit list for some time, but no one in Britain seems to supply it. So I was delighted to be able to buy one. Blue Ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora) – strictly speaking it’s not a ginger though it resembles them in growth and habit. This picture was taken at one of the gardens we visited. I have only seen it once in Britain, but no one sell it in the UK. So I was delighted to pick one up. Even our guide didn’t know what it was. My greatest surprise was to be offered a Thunbergia coccinea. Eat your heart out @longk. It’s similar to T. mysorenses but is a pinky red colour. Whilst I had heard of it, I had never thought to ever find one so it wasn’t even on my wants list. It fitted very nicely in my suitcase. I never did see this anywhere else in Madeira – so I have never seen it in flower. The picture is from the internet. I was also offered this – Petrea volubis. It's a woody vine form Central America, with harsh sandpapery leaves. Also pretty vigorous. I had to turn this down as I didn’t have space in my conservatory for my existing purchases – let alone one more. This picture was taken in one of the gardens we visited. I liked this trailing plant supplied by my friend to the café just round the corner in the market. She didn’t know the name – but could it be Sedum morganianum? Trailing things is about all I have space for now. The Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitzia reginae), was so common that I didn’t even bother to take a picture. It’s almost a weed, and was in flower everywhere. At the Botanic Gardens we saw Strelitzia nicolai in flower. There is a huge one in the RHS Wisley glasshouse. Because it’s out of the wind the leaves are intact and it just looks like a massive version of S. reginae. But the ones we saw outside in Madeira had their leaves torn to shreds by the wind and looked far more like a banana. We saw this in another garden – Strelitzia junceae – very strange.