Visit to Madeira

Just got back from a week visiting the island of Madeira - a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, just north of the Canary Islands.  About 33 degrees latitude, so about the same as San Diego, and it also has a similar climate - coastal, not too hot, but warm enough to appear semitropical.  It used to be a big producer of sugar cane, and you still see sugar cane growing and being harvested in spots around the island, but the bigger crop now is bananas, which have become a big export crop.  And of course vineyards, for the world-famous madeira wine.

 African tulip tree in Funchal's old town

African tulip tree in Funchal's old town

Since the climate is similar to coastal California, I was curious to see what trees were used in Funchal (the capital and largest city - really the only city of any size on the island).   We were lucky to be able to stay at a hotel (Quinta da Casa Branca, if you ever go) that was formerly an estate owned by a guy who was obsessed about tropical trees - the entire 4 acre property was covered with spectacular and unusual tropical and semitropical trees, all of them with identifying plaques with scientific name, common name (in Portuguese and English) and location of origin.   OK, so that might have had something to do with our choice of hotel. 

Once we got out into the city, the most spectacular trees were the African tulip trees (Spathodea campanulata) - all of them in bloom (we were there in early April).  The tree is native to tropical Africa, and not all that well suited to our cooler Bay Area climate - not sure I have ever seen one in the Bay Area.   The trees are amazing in bloom - football-size clusters of intense red-orange trumpet-shaped flowers.   

  Laurus novocanariensis -  closeup of leaves and flowers

Laurus novocanariensis - closeup of leaves and flowers

We spent one day hiking in out in the country, in the laurel forests of the island (also called laurissilva), a type of forest found in the Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores - areas with high humidity and relatively stable, mild temperatures.   This type forest is a remnant of what once covered big parts of Europe before the ice age.  The forest had a species from the Laurus genus (the genus that gives us Laurus nobilis, the sweet bay tree that is used in Mediterranean cooking).  The Madeiran species is Laurus novocanariensis, which is endemic to Madeira and the Canary Islands (meaning it exists only there), and was just recently declared a separate species - it was previously thought to be a variety of Laurus azorica.  Apparently it hasn't been around long enough to develop a common name, so I'll dub it Madeira laurel.  (The hikes in Madeira  are amazing - they typically follow irrigation channels called "levadas" that follow the ridge lines of the mountains and bring water from the wetter northern side of the island to the drier south.)   

 Dragon tree - Funchal botanical garden

Dragon tree - Funchal botanical garden

We saw lots of examples of Dracaena draco, the Canary Islands dragon tree.   The tree is native to Madeira (and to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and western Morocco), but we never saw any in the wild.  They were common in Funchal - perhaps evidence of some local pride in a native tree :-)   Unlike most trees, dragon trees are monocots, related to palms and grasses.  The largest example we saw was in Madeira's botanical garden (a real gem, by the way - not to be missed if you're visiting the island). 

 

 

 

 Queensland kauri in Funchal

Queensland kauri in Funchal

One of the big tree-surprises in Funchal was that the city's principal street was Agathis robusta - the Queensland kauri - a tree in the Araucaria family from northern Australia, closely related to Agathis australis, the more famous kauri from New Zealand.   The trees were very erect/fastigiate - perhaps a variety that's been bred for that quality?   I've never seen this species used as a street tree anywhere in the world, but they were very happy in Funchal.  Maybe something to experiment with in similar California conditions?  

 

 

And, of course, there were pride of Madeira (Echium candicans).  They weren't quite in season (surprisingly, since they're in full bloom in San Francisco).

 

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Canary Islands dragon tree - rare sight in SF!

I can't remember seeing one of these before in San Francisco.  My husband took me this past weekend to his new favorite dog park (our dog Mather, named after the San Francisco Sierra camp, needed a run).  It's a flat area in Corona Heights Park that you can access either from State Street or from Flint Street.   (If you're approaching from Flint, walk past the tennis courts; if you came up the driveway from State Street, walk past the basketball courts.)  You'll come to a dog park adjacent to some community garden plots. - and in between the two, this Dracaena draco - the common name is Canary Islands dragon tree.  

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The plant (not really a tree - it's a monocot with a tree-like growth habit) is native to the Canary Islands, Madeira, Cape Verde and western Morocco.  There's a beautiful example of this tree at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego; the two largest  in California are both in the Santa Barbara area - one at the Sotto il Monte Estate in Montesito, and the second at Mount Calvary Monastery behind the Santa Barbara Mission. in Santa Barbara.   But you don't see them often this far north.  I'll actually be in Madeira in two weeks, and will update this with new photos if I see some!

Spring must be here - Acacia baileyana in bloom

 Bailey's acacia - southwest corner of Grattan and Shrader Streets in Cole Valley

Bailey's acacia - southwest corner of Grattan and Shrader Streets in Cole Valley

I've been doing a "Cole Valley Tree of the Month" series for some time in the Cole Valley Facebook group, and when I walked by this tree yesterday at the corner of Grattan and Shrader Streets in Cole Valley, I grabbed my iPhone, shot this picture and made it the "Cole Valley tree of January" - only to be reminded that it happened to be the first of February!   It's just that I associate this tree - Bailey's acacia, or Acacia baileyana, with January blooms.   Bailey's acacia is the first tree to bloom in the spring (after 30 years in San Francisco, it still seems weird to me to call January “spring”), and the brilliant yellow flowers are eye-catching. The tree is native to Australia, where it’s called “Cootamundra wattle”, as it's native to Cootamundra, New South Wales, just west of Canberra.  (The town holds a 'Wattle Time' festival every year when the trees start to bloom.)  

Acacias do put out a good amount of pollen, but the pollen is only mildly allergenic, and it's heavy, which means it exists only in the immediate vicinity of the trees.   You're much more likely to suffer allergies from oaks, elms, pines, and and other wind-pollinated trees - the inconspicuous flowers of those trees don't get noticed, but they put out great quantities of lightweight pollen.   Trees with colorful flowers aren't as likely to cause allergic reactions since the pollen is heavy and sticky (it's designed to stick to insect pollinators, who are attracted by the flower's color).     

New Zealand Trip

 Monterey cypress north of Auckland, New Zealand

Monterey cypress north of Auckland, New Zealand

Just got back from a 2 week trip to New Zealand - it's been my #1 "bucket list" place for a long time.   I was especially excited to see trees that are San Francisco street trees (New Zealand Christmas trees, giant dracaena, tea trees, etc.) in their native habitat.  

One thing I noticed was LOTS of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Monterey pine (Pinus radiata, which the New Zealanders call "Radiata pine") in the countryside, used as windbreaks, shade for sheep and other livestock, accent trees, etc.  Which made big parts of the countryside look a lot like California!  There were also many stands of Monterey pine used used as lumber trees - without any evidence of pine canker that i could see.  

Northern hemisphere conifers (Douglas fir is a prominent example) have become naturalized in big parts of New Zealand, and have become invasive pests, taking over entire landscapes.  Interestingly, our Monterey pine and Monterey cypress are not invasive, because the cones of the tree typically only open and disburse their seeds where there is fire or extremely hot weather.   

 New Zealand Christmas tree in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

New Zealand Christmas tree in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I spent three days hiking through native beech forest on the Routeburn Track on the South Island.  It was very cool to see forests composed almost entirely of  different species of Nothofagus (a cousin of our northern hemisphere beeches) because they were so new to me (the only Nothofagus I can remember seeing here in CA was a giant specimen at Filoli, south of San Francisco).  One cool tree I encountered along the way:  the tree fuchsia - Fuchsia excorticata, the world's largest fuchsia, with distinctive papery bark (and recognizable fuchsia flowers).   

Of course, I made a point to find New Zealand Christmas trees (Metrosideros excelsa) on the North Island, although sadly by the time we got there on January 2, they were almost all out of bloom (these native trees seemed to be strict about blooming at Christmas time).   They're called by the Mauri name "Pohutukawa" in New Zealand, and the New Zealanders were very surprised to find that they were popular street trees in San Francisco.  

 Aerial roots on a New Zealand Christmas tree in Gisbourne, North Island, New Zealand

Aerial roots on a New Zealand Christmas tree in Gisbourne, North Island, New Zealand

Sadly we didn’t get to see any Nikau palms (New Zealand's only native palm, and one of my favorites of the palms) in their glory - saw a few of them planted as street trees (!) in Whangarei in the north island, and every once in a while saw one in the kauri forest on the west side of the north island.  I was surprised to find that the best places to see them in New Zealand were on the west side of the cooler south island.

It was a great trip - New Zealand is a great place to visit for many reasons, and interesting trees is definitely one of them!