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Tenerife Garden of Eden scheme

How a Tenerife rubbish dump became a Garden of Eden

The Palmetum Tenerife
The Palmetum Tenerife

Tenerife enjoys a sub-tropical climate so just imagine how the fumes from a 30-acre landfill site on the coast of Santa Cruz de Tenerife wafted over the island’s capital.

Worse still, the giant rubbish dump was in a prime position, blocking views of the sea and the Anaga Mountains. This steaming, stinking eyesore was an embarrassment and something had to be done.

That was 30 years ago. The site was closed and so started the excruciatingly long, and often painful, transformation into the Palmetum, a botanic garden recently opened by the Prince and Princess of Asturias (just before Felipe was crowned King of Spain).

There were so many setbacks in creating what is now home to the best collection of palms in Europe that a royal opening was nothing short of a miracle. It was also a testimony to the project’s devotees who fought time and time again for funding (the project even came to a halt for seven years).

Of course, there is no such thing as an instant garden on such a tricky site. It took more than 10 years to obtain EU support and only then could a major gas extraction system be installed to prevent a build-up of methane and other toxic gases.

In 1996, the first plants began to arrive. Money was so tight that most species were obtained as seeds, donated by nurseries and colleagues at other botanic gardens.

Other trees, plants and seeds were collected on field trips to Central America, Florida and New Caledonia and by the turn of the millennium, advisers from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew evaluated the Palmetum’s collection as the best and largest in Europe - and fifth largest in the world.

Strelitzia reginae in the Botanic Garden
Strelitzia reginae in the Botanic Garden

But acclimatisation was not easy; many of the first palms experienced die-back after the shock of transplantation and although Tenerife’s climate was fine for many palm species, the exposed hilltop setting meant they were battered by strong winds.

Effective irrigation was still not working and more specimens died from drought.

The financial situation got worse as the huge cost of the excavations, landfill detoxification and large-scale planting quickly absorbed every Euro. By 2000, the project came to a halt.

Only half of the site was landscaped, so when workers were laid off supporters did what they could to maintain the grounds, even temporarily relocating much of the valuable plant collection to other gardens.

The Palmetum was paralysed - a devastating blow for botanist and now curator Carlo Morcini to see his collection of 450 palm species drop to fewer than 300.

Carlo, who now cannot walk past a tree without touching it, checking its leaves or inspecting its fruit, said: “It was a terrible time for everyone. Gardeners lost their jobs and the trees were dying.

“We never knew if we were going to be paid but we could not walk away. Many of us here worked here voluntarily to save the project.”

The only positive progress during the seven-year closure was that the undersoil slowly improved and younger plants and palms germinated from seed.

It was not until 2007 that the Canary Islands government at last stepped in to create the Fundacion Canaria del Jardin Botanico del Palmetum de Santa Cruz to manage the Palmetum's development.

Fast-forward another seven years to spring 2014 and Carlo’s team considered the Palmetum sufficiently mature to open.

Visitors who understand the behind-the-scenes agony will accept the garden is still work in progress but will savour the unique ‘walk around the globe’ viewing plants and trees from Hawaii, Africa, Central America, Borneo, the Philippines, Australia, the Caribbean, Madagascar and the Solomon Islands.

A natural wall of dense sea grape now shields plants from the wind and there are lakes, waterfalls and streams which attract wildlife.

Carlo, a world-authority on palms who has worked (on and off!) at the Palmetum since the 1990s, is no battered soul despite the painful years and he is effervescent about this extraordinary project.

He talks non-stop, continually waving his arms as if branches of a tree, telling every story with zest. He stops just once to take stock, along the lake. He said: “I can’t explain how amazing it is to see migrating birds touchdown here on the water for their first stop in Europe. They make my heart sing.”

He gathers his thoughts and reels off his next shopping list: “There is still so much to do- maybe I write to Bill Gates.

“But what do have now are more than 470 palms (Arecaceae), 90 species of bromeliads, 26 agaves, as well as 27 members of the fig family (Moraceae) - look out for the largest - Ficus religiosa, the Sacred Fig of Asia ... plus mangroves, breadfruit trees and a collection of 50 New Caledonian araucaria trees which I enjoyed collecting, a baobab 'African upside-down tree' and the tropical sea almond, in a typical pagoda shape ...”

After a quick gasp for air, he added: “We have replaced the whole watering system and are now making some serious progress.

“Among the rare and exotic planting we have also included local species such as the Dragon Tree 

(Dracaena draco) and the Canary Sea Daffodil (Pancratium canariensis) which grow on the slopes facing the city to give a natural look to the Palmetum.

He added: “Importantly, there is only one palm that is indigenous to the Canaries, the Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Island date palm. It is the most beautiful of the whole species – straight and tall – yes, the most spectacular of all.”

Carlo goes on tip-toe and stretches his arms to make his point. He can indeed stand straight and tall for his incredible achievements.

Garden visitors to Tenerife will also find several other interesting gardens to view including:

Jardín Botánico

Jardín Botánico, in Puerto de La Cruz, also had a painful start (what is it about Tenerife’s major gardens?!).

It was created by Royal Order of Carlos III in August 1788, to cultivate species from the tropics, but he died within six months of its conception.

Fortunately, the test garden for exotic plants endured and is now home to major collections of tropical and sub-tropical plants, with special emphasis on bromeliads, aracea and moracea.

Despite its heady reputation as a scientific hot-house the mature walled garden is a green, shady haven where visitors can sit in peace and listen to the palms rustling in the breeze while taking a break from examining the 1000 of important species from dramatic golden Angels trumpets (Brugmansia mollis) and red lobster claws ( Helonicia bihai) to the 

Roxburgh fig (Ficus auriculata) with its fruit bursting from the foot of the tree.

The original central pond glistens with yellow waterlilies and a vast collection of ferns and 

Canarian herb garden add extra value for every visitor.

El Portillo, Teide National Park

Arrive at Mount Teide to find a landscape akin to Mars - its lunar look has been the 

background of Hollywood blockbusters from Planet of the Apes to Clash of the Titans.

How plants survive these tough environmental conditions, clinging on to life despite the 

intense sunlight, extreme temperature variations and lack of moisture is explained at El 

Portillo.

The one-acre garden next to the Teide National Park visitors' centre exhibits more than 

75% of the 168 plant species in the national park, although, sadly not the Teide violet – that requires a climb to the summit where it thrives at 3700m.

Nevertheless, the garden includes 30 endemic species for visitors to enjoy from the stunning spiky blue Echium auberianum and giant red Echium wildpretii, known as the Teide bugloss, 

to the rare Cañadas rockrose and Teide edelweiss. For those without time to explore the volcano the garden offers a fascinating short cut.

The Orchid Garden, Sitio Litre Visitors to the historic town of La Orotavo, will find a diversion to Sitio Litre, built by a wine 

merchant in the early 18th century, offers a restful stop.

The garden has been in the hands of British families since 1774 and now holds the largest 

collection of orchids on the island.

Sitio Litre was a party house and always full of visitors, not least the German botanist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who brought some interesting plant specimens.

Other guests have included just-divorced Agatha Christie who brought her daughter Rosalyn to Puerto de la Cruz in 1927, the ear and eye surgeon William Wilde (Oscar’s father) and botanical painter Marianne North, whose 800-plus works are held by the Royal BotanicalGardens at Kew.

Be careful not to step on the most recent ‘celebrity’ Nelson, a three-legged iguana, who was thrown over the wall into the property and has stayed near the lily pond ever since!

FactfilePalmetum de Santa CruzEmail: info@palmetumsantacruz.comWeb: palmetumsantacruz.comTel. 0034 922 22 93 68Avenida Maritima 5 38005 Santa Cruz de TenerifeOpen Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 2pm and 4pm to 6pm.Jardin BotanicoC/Retmama 238400 Puerto de la CruzTel 0034 922 38 35 72Open every day, 9am-6pmSitio LitreI Puerto de la CruzTel. 922 382417info@jardineorquideas.comOpen 9.30 am-5pm all year roundThe 5* Hotel Botanico in Puerto de la Cruz has wonderful gardens and is opposite theBotanic Gardens. Accommodation from €204 (£168) per night for a standard double room, including breakfast.Visit hotelbotanico.comMonarch operates flights to Tenerife from London Gatwick and Luton starting from £45.99 one way (£91.98 return). Visit www.monarch.co.uk For more information on Tenerife visit www.webtenerife.co.uk

By Lesley Bellew

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