Included here are the Atlantic islands of Madeira and Port Santo and the uninhabited Desertas and Salvage islands. The name Madeira is the Portuguese word for wood and is reference to the fact that in former times most of the island was covered by laurel forest (laurissilva). During the Tertiary period laurel forests covered large parts of Europe but as the climate cooled they initially withdrew to the south and then became extinct on the mainland. The laurel forests of Macaronesia are relicts of this once extensive forest, although they are not identical to the former Tertiary forests of Europe since only species with airworthy seeds or those with seeds or fruit dispersed by birds eventually made it to these islands. Trees such as magnolias, maples and oaks with relatively heavy seeds never made it. Laurel forests in other parts of the world, such as southern China, southern Japan, Chile, Tierra del Fuego, Australia, Tasmania and southeastern Africa, are very different communities.  Today Macaronesian laurel forests are confined to the Azores, Madeira and the western Canaries, but Madeira can boast the most extensive Macaronesian laurel forest in the world. Other parts of Macaronesia are too dry for laurissilva. 

On Madeira the dominant laurel trees are Apollonias barbujana, Laurus azorica (= L. canariensis), Ocotea foetens and Persica indica (Rosaceae).  All are Macaronesian endemics except Laurus azorica, which can also be found in Morocco. This species can often be distinguished by the presence of the fungus Laurobasidium lauri, which grows on no other tree. Other trees include the Madeiran endemics Ilex perada subsp. perado (Aquifoliaceae), Sambucus lanceolata (Sambucaceae), Vaccinium padifolium (Ericaceae), and the Macaronesian endemics Clethra arborea (Clethraceae), Euphorbia mellifera (Euphorbiaceae), Ilex canariensis (Aquifoliaceae), Myrica faya (Myricaceae), Picconia excelsa (Oleaceae) and Salix canariensis (Salicaceae). All of these trees are usually covered in epiphytic plants particularly lichens and mosses, and ferns such as Davallia canariensis and the Macaronesian polypody Polypodium macaronesicum (Polypodiaceae). Epiphytic flowering plants are less conspicuous but may include the Madeiran endemic stonecrop Aichryson divaricatum (Crassulaceae). Amongst the varied shrubs are a number of colourful endemic species including a spectacular woody foxglove Isoplexis sceptrum (Scrophulariaceae), Sonchus fruticosus, Teline maderensis (Asteraceae), Teucrium betonicum (Lamiaceae), and the Macaronesian endemic Erysimum bicolor (Brassicaceae). The forest floor also supports a rich diversity of species including a variety of ferns like the giant Woodwardia radicans with fronds growing to more than 2 m. The typical flowering plants include various endemic species like Festuca donax (Poaceae), Geranium maderense (Geraniaceae), Pericallis aurita (Asteraceae), together with several Macronesian endemics like Cedronella canariensis (Lamiaceae) and Ranunculus cortusifolius (Ranunculaceae).  A less conspicuous endemic is the tiny Sibthorpia peregrina (Madeiran moneywort) (Plantaginaceae), which is more at home among mosses and liverworts on moist rocks. Orchids are also a feature of this undergrowth and, in fact, four of Madeira’s five native orchids can be found in these forest including the two endemic species Dactylorhiza foliosa, which can reach heights of 80 cm, and the rare Goodyera macrophylla (Orchidaceae).


Balgooy, Van. M. M. J. 1969. A study of the diversity of island floras. Blumea, 17: 139-178.

Hansen, A. 1969. Checklist of the vascular plants of the Archipelago of Medeira. Boletim do Museu Municipal do Funchal, 24: 5-61.

Jardim, R. 2005. Flowers of Madeira. Centralivros, Lda.

Lowe, R. T. MDCCCLXVIII. A manual Flora of Madeira. John Van Voorst. London.

Rodríguez-Sánchez, F. & Arroyo, J. 2008. Reconstructing the demise of Tethyan plants: climate-driven range dynamics of Laurus since the Pliocene. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 17: 685-695.

Sjogren, E. 1972. Vascular Plant Communities of Madeira. Boletim do Museu Municipal do Funchal, 114: 45-125.

Sjogren, E. 1974. Local climatic conditions and zonation of vegetation on Madeira. Agronomia Lusitana, 36(2): 95-139.

Sjogren, E. 1993. Dry coastal ecosystems of Madeira and the Azores. In: Ecosystems of the World 2B  Dry Coastal Ecosystems  Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. Ed. Eddy van der Marel. Elsevier.

Sziemer, P. 2000. Madeira’s natural history in a nutshell. Francisco Rebeira and Filhos, Lda, Funchal.

Vieira, R. 1974. Flowers of Madeira. Francisco Rebeira. Funchal

White, F. 1983. The Vegetation of Africa. UNESCO.