Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands; its warm and even climate and its natural wonders regularly attract millions of tourists from mainland Europe. The capital city of the island, Santa Cruz, is creating a new Palmetum within the new recreational area "Parque Marítimo César Manrique." The project started six years ago and today is still under development. The garden is being established on an old landfill at the edge of the sea, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.

When the Palmetum project started, the ornamental palm flora of Tenerife was pretty scarce; just 10 or 15 common palm species were growing in the public gardens of Tenerife. Up to 100 species could be found in the old Jardín Botánico de La Orotava and in private gardens. The ingenious idea of starting a new botanical garden specialized in palms came from Manuel Caballero, head of the Department of Ornamental Plants in the Instituto Canario de Investigaciones Agrarias. For many years he thought of a palmetum as a smart investment for the future of Tenerife.

Funding came mostly from the European Union. The municipality decided to start this garden in one of the most challenging areas of the island – an old garbage landfill bordering directly onto the sea. The landfill ceased its activity in 1983, but residual fermentation continues. A gas extraction system was built to prevent the dangerous build-up of methane and other combustible gasses. The Palmetum was planned as part of the Parque Maritimo, an important project directed by the famous artist César Manrique, who passed away before it could be completed. The garden was to be planted on the top of a 42 m tall hill, partially surrounded by the sea. The average annual temperature is 21ºC, and the lowest temperature ever recorded on the hill is 15ºC. Nevertheless troublesome winds are frequent, and the short rainy season lasts only a few months in winter.

The climate of Tenerife, even and dry, is ideal for many species that cannot be grown on the Mediterranean for lack of winter warmth and would never grow well in many botanical gardens in the tropics due to excessive rain and humidity. The Palmetum, with a mere 500 species, could become one of the most interesting palm collections of the world. The Development (1996–2000) Building machines arrived to the landfill in March, 1996. The whole hill with its steep slopes had to be shaped properly. Ponds and streams were excavated, and the first structures were built. A layer of good quality soil was brought to coat the whole planting surface. Carlo Morici was hired in the spring of 1996, and his first duty was to propose, out of the 3000 known species of palms, 500 that would thrive in the climate of Santa Cruz. He proposed to give an emphasis to island palmsScientists in Tenerife are deeply interested in island biology, and most tropical and subtropical archipelagoes are rich in exposed windy slopes, populated by hardy palms often in danger of extinction. Morici believed that palms from these places would be most likely to thrive in the new Palmetum.

The surface of the hill was divided into geographical areas, to represent the palm floras of the different areas of the globe. The largest area was dedicated to the Antilles, because most Caribbean palms can be grown to perfection in the Canary Islands and also due to the strong cultural ties between the two regions. There was a rush to obtain large palm specimens in order to populate the hill and satisfy the politicians and the citizens who were eager to see the landfill transformed into a beautiful garden. Adult palm specimens were purchased from local nurseries, as well as from providers in Cuba, Florida, South Africa and Argentina. Five field trips were organized to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Florida and New Caledonia, to collect seeds for the collection, to study local palm populations and to purchase palm handicrafts and palm related objects for the proposed Palm Museum. A network of contacts with other botanical gardens specializing in tropical flora was gradually built up and thousands of seeds have been received and sown, utilizing exchange programs. Seeds of many palm species arrived from institutions in New Caledonia, Hawaii, Brazil, Cuba, Florida, Australia, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic.

The first palm touched the ground in September, 1996, but 1997 and 1998 were the years with the most intensive plantings. Carlos Simón, a young landscaper from the island of La Palma, directed the plantings and also designed three spectacular waterfalls built with immense pieces of volcanic rock. A waterfall in the Caribbean zone pours water onto a white sand "beach" densely planted with Cocos nucifera. Then the water flows into a rocky stream that crosses "Brazil" and eventually dies into the "Malgasy" lake. Palms of the genera Ravenea, Nypa and Mauritia have been planted along the streams in semi-aquatic conditions. Simón’s experiences in the Venezuelan rain forests were the inspiration for the most exotic and natural landscapes on the most artificial hill of the world!

The Structures

Shade House. This building will doubtlessly be the pearl of the project. A sunken shade house of 2300 m2 shelters those species that need a cooler and moister, windless environment, such as the rare palms with entire leaves. It is an octagonal space with stepped terraces. Simón’s imagination enriched its many corners with unique blendings of volcanic rocks, water and palms. Two waterfalls produce a complex network of streams. The most sought after palms of delicate requirements are already in the ground – Pelagodoxa, Verschaffeltia, Licuala and Marojejya. Tall specimens of reca catechu are fruiting; Beccariophoenix and many Chamaedorea spp. thrive under Cecropia trees. The main pillar of the dome is used as a support for climbing palms of the genera Daemonorops and Desmoncus.

Museum. The Canary islanders have a long tradition of living with palms and have a considerable heritage of practical use of the diverse parts of the only native species, Phoenix canariensis. The ethnographical museum of palm objects will hold a permanent exhibit of artifacts collected from all over the world. More than 400 accessions have been obtained. One of the most attractive features is a 3 m long canoe made of Iriartea deltoidea, brought from Iquitos, Peru.

Water Treatment System. Water is not just water – in dry areas agronomists talk about many kinds of "waters." The Palmetum is equipped with a desalinization plant that maintains high water quality by reverse osmosis. Fertilization tanks provide nutrients and keep the pH under control. One of the ornamental ponds is so deep that it will be used for storing the precious liquid. Irrigation reaches plants by seemingly endless pipelines equipped with sprinklers and drip-emitters. The shade house features a fog system.

The present state of the collection

In December, 2000, the Palmetum boasted about 400 palm species, represented by more than 6000 individuals. The richest collections are those from the Caribbean. The Palmetum probably has the world largest collection of Thrinax and Coccothrinax species, with more than 1000 plants. Each species is planted in groups, forming "populations" that are reminiscent of their growth habits in the wild.

The collection was evaluated in 1999 by Ben Lyte of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in a survey of public palm collections of the world for Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Using 1998 data (the most recent available data), Lyte found that the Palmetum was the fifth largest collection in the world. The greatest tribute to the hard work of the Palmetum staff is Lyte’s finding that six of the palm species are "unique records," not present elsewhere in the surveyed collections even though the Palmetum tried to spread seeds to other public botanical gardens.

Besides palms, the Palmetum grows hundreds of species of other plant families. Some of them came as donations from the Botanic Garden of La Orotava (Tenerife). Others were field-collected in the Antilles to become companion plants to palms in realistic environmental settings such as Agave, Plumeria, Bromeliads, Ficus and rare trees that give shelter to palms or will be sheltered by them. Palms struggled during the first years to recover from the transplant shock on the top of the barren hill. Nowadays, a pleasant environment has developed in the Palmetum, and a spectacularly fast growth rate is observed in most palm species. Pleasant surprises were species of Veitchia, Bismarckia, Livistona and Cocos.

The Future

The Palmetum is heading towards an uncertain future. A vast sum of money (4,190,000 Euros) was spent to bring the Palmetum to its present state. Its development was stopped in early 1999, as the project needed new funds to continue. Only maintenance has occurred since then, with the exception of a five-month period (August to December, 2000), during which new gardens were developed. Carlo Morici was hired again to landscape almost two hectares of new gardens. During that time, 1050 plants were planted, the area dedicated to the Caribbean was nearly doubled and new areas were created, one for Central America and another for the Islands of the Pacific, with special gardens for New Caledonia and Hawaii. There are political pleasures to make the Palmetum economically self-sufficient and to convert it into a theme park or recreational space for tourism. The staff hopes to complete it and make the Palmetum a true self-sustainable botanical garden with a permanent research unit.

sources: myself, Carlo Morici, Ed Green, The International Palm Society, The Palmetum of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain. Written by Carlo Morici. Copyright 2001 The International Palm Society. Reprinted with permission from Volume 45(4) 2001 Issue of Palms.