14 Nov 2018 1227

A garden of stories

There are 13,400 m2 of plants, fruit trees, flowers, herbs, and vegetables. But the gardens of the Vila Porto Mare resort, in Funchal, are much more than this . .. they are a mixture of colours, aromas and flavours that recount the stories, experiences and traditions of the island of Madeira.

You've probably seen the vibrant birds-of-paradise, the island's symbol, in various gardens on Madeira. But did you ever wonder if they might not be native to here ? In fact, these flowers were imported from South Africa !! This is one of the first lessons you'll learn when you take part in the weekly visit to the resort's gardens. Lícia Ferreira, a trained biologist in charge of the resort's guest relations,leads a group of guests among the dazzling greens, intense smells and twittering birds to the Eden Mar swimming pool. Next to the hotel's entryway, there are four banana trees. "The fruit is smaller; it's called the silver banana," she explains.
Below is a species of fern, Davallia canariensis, used to decorate Madeira's traditional nativity scenes (lapinhas). Also known as "cabrinhas", they are placed along with tangerines on a small stairwell with a Baby Jesus on Madeira's also very traditional embroidery".

Further on, there's the "fruit corridor" . .. there are papayas, guavas, figs, mangos, pomegranates, tangerines and "tiny tomatoes" called pitangas. There are also various grape varieties for Madeira wine: Terrantez, Verdelho, Malvasia and Bual. Lícia stops next to some thin plants with large leaves, and asks if anyone knows what they are called. "Sugar cane," they answer, without hesitating. "Do you know what is made from this plant ? Rum, which in turn is used to make poncha, a drink created by fishermen from the town of Câmara de Lobos," she explains, asking if they have ever tried it . .. laughter is heard, followed by a piece of advice : "you should always drink it in the island's traditional bars, where the locals drink it, where it is made traditionally (with rum, honey and lemon) and tastes better."

But this plant is also used to make sugar cane honey, the main ingredient in the traditional "Bolo de Mel" honey cake. This small cake has dried fruit and a dark colour (because of the honey), and is decorated with nuts and almonds. It is most often eaten around Christmas, a very lively time on the island of Madeira, but lasts an entire year in Madeira's homes. This explanation is followed by another question : "Do you know how you cut it ? This cake is cut into bits using your hands, symbolizing sharing."
The visit continues . .. several curiosities are heard about the "pandanos" or trees of Madagascar on the way to the Doce Lima ice cream parlour, right in front of the Alfama restaurant. Heads are raised to see the colourful frangipani, and close attention is paid to the curious properties of Aloe Vera.

At the lowest part of the gardens, below a trellis typical of Madeira, is a small kitchen garden. Tomato, lettuce . .. and sweet potatoes are just some of the products growing there. "I'm sure you've all tried sweet potato," says Lícia, adding "but unlike in most restaurants, we don't eat it drizzled with honey . .. you can also wash them very well and put them in the oven with the skin, covered in rock salt. They're delicious!"

On the topic of cuisine, there is talk of kebabs and black scabbardfish, delicacies which are highlights in Madeira's traditional cuisine. Gardeners Fábio and Martinho then pass by in their green uniforms. Lícia introduces them, mentioning that they are two of seven keepers of these gardens, the gardens of the Lido seafront walkway located right in front of the resort, the public areas in front of the Eden Mar and Porto Mare and also the gardens of the PortoBay Serra Golf, in the picturesque town of Santo da Serra. There is an immediate round of applause in recognition of the work which goes far beyond just caring for plants. There are also environmental concerns, which govern and support the gardening team's daily routine. Everything planted here is organic and biological. No chemicals are used. To help save water, humidity sensors have been installed to measure soil humidity levels and determine whether watering is needed. And . .. speaking of watering, this is done using the "Levada dos Piornais" waterway.

In front of the Varanda bar, near the pool, there is a small herb corner. People sit amidst the aromas of rosemary, savoury, mint, sage, oregano . .. and chamomile, which the women sell in small branches of yellow buttons calling out "macela!" to those passing nearby the "Mercado dos Lavradores" farmers market. There is rosemary and also fennel ("funcho"), the origin of the city's name : Funchal.
The visit continues to the iconic orchid corner, where several species of these flowers have been planted, and ends at the mimosas, which close at the slightest touch. Earlier, a challenge had been put forward: guests were given a bag of seeds of a plant not mentioned over the course of the visit, and their mission was to guess which plant it was with just one hint : "it's right there," says one of the guests, pointing to a giant bird-of-paradise next to the birdcage. And he was right !!

The next challenge is to plant the seeds at home and, if they are successful, to share them with us !!

Enjoy this experience at Porto Mare !!
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