You might be thinking: where is Macaronesia? It sounds like some far-off place – may be in Asia – but in fact, it is a well-known group of islands off the coast of Africa, Morocco to be precise, known as the Canaries, Madeira, Cape Verde and Azores.

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I have just come back from escorting 49 gardening enthusiasts around five islands in the archipelago over twelve days to this subtropical destination. My usual stomping ground as a host is around the gardens and jungles of the Caribbean which I will be doing again later this year. I don’t normally go away at this time of year as the Exotic Garden is still open, but gardens were involved so I couldn’t resist such an adventure.

Thankfully a team of friends offered to look after the garden while I was away with the task of running two Sunday openings in my absence. I must give a special thanks to John Frankland and his wife Maria who valiantly took over the job of watering my vast collection of containerised pots which had to be watered every day whatever the weather! I know it was exceedingly hot in Norfolk during the first few days of the cruise, so it must have been quite a task keeping the garden looking alive and fresh.

Unfortunately I missed the warmest October day in recent history as it was quite chilly on board ship as we sailed from Dover across the Bay of Biscay southwards.

Half of our cruise days were at sea, as it was a good 1,500 miles down to our first port of call Madeira, taking three days to reach Funchal the capital – by air it is only three hours! This was the eighth time I have had the pleasure of visiting this fabled island also known as the ‘floating garden’.

On past visits I have spent one week on the island, though on this voyage we only had one day to enjoy its offerings so could only visit a single garden in the morning with some free time in the afternoon.

Madeira is blessed with a subtropical climate where winter temperatures rarely fall much below 16-17C in the winter with an average summer high of around 25C, though on this particular early October day the sky was deep blue and a glorious 26C in the shade – just perfect for a leisurely garden ramble.

My group of intrepid gardeners had one garden included on their itinerary and that was the Palheiro Gardens, also known as the Blandy Gardens.

It is a fabulous garden that I never tire of visiting as it contains such a vast range of plants, from beds of roses to enormous Brugmansias (Angels’ trumpets) which were the size of small trees and have probably been there for decades, to the giant Strelitzia nicoli towering above us – the large relation to the more well known Sterlitzia reginea (Bird of paradise) which grows everywhere in the many Madeira gardens.

One plant I especially enjoyed seeing was the bulbous plant Amaryllis belladonna, also known as ‘Naked ladies’, as the dark brown flower spikes with delicate pink blooms flower well before the foliage which emerges later in the season. They were planted in vast drifts giving a very spectacular show of this fine autumn flowering South African bulb.

After our visit we had a short walk along one of the many hundreds of miles of Levades that channel water from the high mountains in the middle of Madeira to crops and houses lower down.

Our walk took us to the Hortensia Tea House where we enjoyed late morning refreshments under the shade of tall trees surrounded by its own subtropical garden.

In the afternoon a small group of us decided to go to Funchal’s well known market in the centre of town where we were able to purchase all sorts of goodies to bring back home.

The market is known for its incredible displays of highly colourful fruit and vegetables including a large number of stalls selling plants and bulbs. As you can imagine many carrier bags full of plants such as Agapanthus were soon snapped up as they grow everywhere on the island and being so profuse were exceedingly cheap, hence most of our party bought something to remember their day on Madeira.

We sailed overnight to our next port of call, some 250 miles further south, to a small Spanish island called La Gomera.

La Gomera, like most of the Canaries, is a complete contrast to Madeira being very dry and barren.

Our Cruise ship, H/M Braemar, offers guests half a dozen or so day trips at each port of call, so I decided to go on a walking tour way up into the mountains.

Our small group of 11 people were escorted by a well-tanned, blondhaired German guide on our journey past deep gorges and craggy rocks covered with low scrub and windswept Aoneums, way up into the island’s Garajonay National Park. Our walk started in light drizzle at an elevation of about 4,000 feet above seas level. We were led for several hours through sub-tropical laurel forests that were dotted with 250-year-old and very gnarled treesized heathers.

It was a strangely silent and eerie place up there among the heavily moss-covered trees that loomed above our heads. There was a pervading silence on our hike as there was no birdsong to be heard as few birds have travelled this far from the mainland, some 300 miles off the coast of Moroccan Africa, as it is not on a migratory flight path.

Over the next few days we visited several more Canary Islands looking for ‘planty’ things to ogle at, but the highlight of the cruse for me was visiting the Botanical Gardens of Puerto De La Cruz on the island of Tenerife, founded by Charles III of Spain in 1788.

This garden was way beyond my expectations as it was akin to stepping into the Palm House in Kew Gardens, an absolute feast of tropical plants of extraordinary proportions containing to my delight, one of the largest collections of Bromeliads I have seen – anywhere! The following day, in complete contrast to such lushness, a small group of us visited the Jardin Viera & Clavijo, the largest botanical garden in Spain, on the Island of Grand Canaria.

This garden, apart from containing more than 2,000 species of plants from the archipelago, has an extraordinary cacti and succulent garden with many extremely large and fearsome if not extraordinary specimens which were basking in the arid heat.

A visit to the island of Lanzarote surprised me by its extreme barrenness with much of the landscape looking to me like many of the pictures I have seen of the surface of Mars, with vast tracts of the landscape covered in extinct volcanoes, the whole island having a strange and mysterious beauty in its extreme aridness.

On closer inspection, though, very short and stunted grapevines could be seen grown behind countless low semicircular rock walls only a few feet high to protect them from the prevailing winds and keep in what moisture they received from their black volcanic crumbled rock soil.

I left the Islands of Macaronesia with a sense of awe at such extremely different climates found on the handful of islands we visited, from the lushest of habitats to severest of growing conditions possible, creating a group of islands that I know I will be visiting again in the not too distant future.

•This article was first published on October 15, 2011.

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