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Cycad hybrid Encephalartos horridus x lehmanni.

I have been mulling on an article on ginkgoes and other pioneer plants of the Cretaceous since October, but I still haven’t gotten around writing it. In the meanwhile, however, I spent Christmas in Madeira (for those uninitiated, it’s a tiny oceanic island off the coast of Morocco) and saw heaps of interesting ancient plants in life. Here’s a small pictorial tour to act as inspiration and reference.

Madeira, apparently, is nature’s idea of a garden island. It’s mild subtropical climate is suitable to an incredible variety of plants from many climates and continents. On Madeira, one can see neotropical vines growing on a Himalayan conifer, with South African xerophytes as background. The indigenous vegetation includes the ancient Mediterranean laurisilva, long since disappeared from the actual Mediterranean area but still hanging on in mountainous islands.

On the many parks and forests on the island, I could find quite an interesting collection of cycads, ferns, araucarias, plane trees, spikemosses, and liverworts.


Encephalartos altensteinii, male.

Most often cycads seen in paleoart either lack cones or only have one cone neatly on top of them. A cycad garden in Monte showed that the plants don’t often come in that tidy shape. Many of them have multiple cones pointing in different directions. In one case, the cone was growing sideways entirely outside the leaf whorl.


Encephalartos caffer, female.

Female cycads, while also producing cones, are slightly different. Their mature cones are false-fruit with fleshy husks. Even the cones of small female cycads, such as this one, are surprisingly huge and make a nice mouthful for a herbivorous dinosaur.

Something worth remembering is that cycad leaves are hard and razor-sharp. I got bloody scratches just by taking close-up pictures and lightly brushing some leaves. You probably don’t want to depict animals carelessly walking through a cycad grove. Unless they have very thick skin.


Encephalartos latifrons.

And don’t forget to depict your cycads in groves. They are social things and don’t do well alone.


Left, a dead cycad covered by ferns, probably Davallia sp. Right, a cycad stump with new plantlets sprouting from ground level, and some fungus and mosses.

Even less than thriving cycads are visually interesting. With sauropods stomping around, there sure were plenty of dead, dying and half-eaten plants everywhere in the Mesozoic.


Monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana.

This is something I had never seen before in real life: the Chilean araucaria or monkey puzzle tree (so called, apparently, because it’s so spiny monkeys refuse to climb it). Familiar from numerous Gregory S. Paul paintings, it’s a symbol of the Mesozoic. Just that I had ever realized how huge it is. Araucarias (there were at least three species in the city parks) towered high above all other trees, tall enough to dwarf even the sauropods I imagened grazing among them.

Araucarias were also a favoured stalking perch for the local kestrels. I suppose it wouldn’t be unreasonable to depict hunting pterosaurs using the trees for similar purposes.


Lawson’s cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana).

Something I hadn’t realized before: at least in this species of cypress, the branches are not even remotely round in cross-section, but laterally compressed.

And then for some trunk textures:


Top: an unidentified conifer and lawson’s cypress. Middle: Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi), leaf attachment scars in upper trunk and ‘hairy’ lower trunk. Bottom: two species of araucaria with different bark types.

Tree trunks are not just drab brown and sort of coarse. They come in all sorts of interesting shades and textures that can be used to differentiate species when they lack foliage. These, I think, can be fairly straightforwardly recycled into Mesozoic scenes.


Plane tree trunk.

Another interesting old friend was the plane tree (Platanus). Leaf fossils attributed to this genus are known from well into the Cretaceous, and are significantly similar to modern species. Perhaps they also had the same cool trunk coloration.

Today, Platanus is the only genus in it’s family, and kind of an oddball among flowering plants. The trees grow up to be enormous, thousands of years old and often hollow. They also have beautiful autumn colours that, at least in Madeira, last at least until December.


London plane (Platanus x acerifolia). A likely hybrid between the oriental and American species, and pretty much alike some fossil forms.


This one features a cycad and a tree fern. While the colourful leaves belong to something fairly modern (I think maybe a Japanese maple), one can easily imagine it being replaced with a plane tree or katsura or even a maidenhair tree in autumn colours.


Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi).

I was delighted to find tree ferns used as ornamentals everywhere on the island. I even bought my own potted plantlet and brought it home. It seems to have settled well and is just unfurling it’s first leaf in it’s new home.

So, here are a couple of aberrant tree ferns I saw, just to demonstrate that they’re not all fern-green and straight from a guidebook picture.


Oak tree on the edge of laurisilva forest.

I also got to visit the mountainous, cooler and rainier inland parts of the island, though briefly. There are still large swatches of primary laurisilva forest, which appears to be directly from a fairytale.


Layer of moss and two kinds of ferns on tree trunk (possibly Davallia canariensis and Polypodium sp.)

In this sort of moist forests (were they tropical cloud forests, temperate rainforest or laurisilva), literally everything is covered with greenery. Tree trunks, dead trees, cliff walls and stones. Everything. And mostly, these epiphytic and litophytic plants belong to such ancient families that by crouching low, one can almost imagine travelling back to the very first terrestrial plant communities in Devonian times.


There is hardly any soil underneath these plants, just moist rock.

I hope you found this virtual tour inspiring. I’m itching to use some of these themes in paleoart, though I’m afraid I have to do some actual work in the immediate future. More paleobotany coming later!

Edit. I have just been informed I promised you spikemosses, but never delivered. So here’s some of those too. Spikemosses (Selaginella) are an ancient group of plants dating from the Carboniferous or so. They still grow in shady, moist rock crevices and similar habitats on all continents except Antarctica.


Left: spikemoss (probably Selaginella denticulata, a species found throughout the Mediterranean and Macaronesian). Left: growing among liverworts and mosses, right: a spikemoss habitat in Ribeiro Frio.

First part: Not all Ferns Look Like Ferns.

Second part: Fruit for the Dinosaurs.

Third part: On Grasses and not Exactly Grasses.

Fourth part: Flora in the Time of Chasmosaurs.