The Palmetum of
Santa Cruz de Tenerife I
The Palmetum of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
The Palmetum is the largest green space in the centre of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, capital city of the Western Canary Islands. Created above a former landfill of urban garbage which was closed 1983, this large garden is located on the coastline, close to the city center, within a large coastal space called Parque Martimo Csar Manrique. The European Union and the city with the warmest temperatures of Spain desired to finance the creation of a new space which had to become the largest public park of this city and its botanic garden. The project started in 1995 and the first plantings took place in 1996. After the golden years during which the Palmetum became a startling acclimatation experiment, the incomplete project was paralysed as it run out of funding.
Since the year 2000 the huge park resists with a minimum mantainance which is yet sufficient to make the survivors grow and to give us hope for a future development. Now this botanical garden boosts many species of extraordinary value and rarity; slightly more than 300 different palm species are still alive and the collection is one of the most complete of the world.
Figure 1. The Palmetum of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
A Short History Of The Project
The goal was to transform one of the most degraded areas of the island: an old and huge abandoned landfill bordered by the sea and located in the outskirts of this city. We had to convert that hell into a paradise with a large palm collection in the part of Europe where more tropical plants can thrive outdoors. On the other hand Santa Cruz needed a new institution devoted to science and culture. Furthermore, the city centre had to grow towards the south and reach the abandoned mountain. The Palmetum had to be the new recreational green space for the inhabitants of a new neighbourhood which had to be built soon. The city also needed a tourist landmark able to catch attention in one of the most visited islands of the world: the target was truly ambitious. The artificial hill had to be deeply landscaped. Its size is 12 hectares (296 acres) and its flat top has a height of 42 m (138 ft).
The average annual temperature of Santa Cruz is 21 C (70 F) and the minimum temperature ever recorded on the hill was a blessed 15 C (59 F), which is excellent for the growing of most palms. Nevertheless, winds are frequent and the short rainy season lasts a few months in winter. The landfill was officially closed in 1983, but residual fermentation kept on going and the smells were still disgusting. In order to get rid of this gases a complex and expensive system of wells, pumps and torches was installed.
The Years Of Development
I was hired in the spring of 1996 to take care of the botanical issues and to create a network of contacts. The palm family includes about 2,400 species and we decided to select the 500 ones that could better thrive in the climate of Santa Cruz. A bias was set on palms native to island ecosystems.
The total surface was divided into geographical sections, in order to represent the palm flora of the different areas of the globe. The largest area was dedicated to the West Indies because Caribbean palms do perform well in our climate and also because of the tight cultural ties that exists between the Canary Islands and the Spanish Caribbean islands which had been partly populated by immigrants coming from the Canaries.
The construction started in 1996. The agronomy director was Manuel Caballero, a Canarian scientist who fell in love with palms many years before. Building machines re-shaped the mountain with pharaonical land movements. A layer of fertile soil was spread all over the hill. The first buildings were constructed lakes and streams were excavated and the wells were drilled to pump out the gases.
In the meantime, the first palm specimens arrived and were stocked in a quarantine shade house. Some were purchased in local nurseries and some others were imported from Cuba, Florida, South Africa and Argentina. The two botanical gardens existing in the Canarian archipelago helped with some really valuable plants. Botanic institutions of the whole world contributed by sharing rare seeds with us. Many expeditions to the tropics were organised to collect seeds of unique species for the collection, to study local palm populations and to acquire pieces of local palm handicrafts for the ethnographical museum of the Palmetum.
The first specimens were planted in the ground in September 1996. During the following two years intensive plantings were directed by Carlos Simn, the garden designer borne on the island of La Palma, who also designed some spectacular waterfalls built with immense volcanic rocks. Two of these waterfalls are located within the octagonal shade house. Another huge one, designed by Elas del Castillo, towers above the Caribbean section and pours its waters over a beach with fair sand and adult coconuts which were planted in 1999. The goal was to create the most informal and natural landscapes on the most artificial hill of the world.
The Palmetum had two new buildings: the pearl of the project was doubtlessly the emblematic octagon. It is a semi-sunken shade house of 2,300 m2 ( acre), created to shelter all those species which need an even, windless and humid environment. It is a real box of jewels, of ambitious technological, botanical and landscape design. It contains emotional jungle paths which twist and split between streams, bridges and waterfalls.
The other building is still empty but some day will host the Ethnographical Museum of Palms, classrooms, meeting room and a herbarium. It is a semi-subterranean structure now partially covered with vegetation (palms!). Its main entrance was designed to become a forest. More than 2000 items have been obtained: some of them of great ethnobotanical value. The showiest is a 3 m long canoe brought from Iquitos, Peru, made with the trunk of the Amazonian belly palm Iriartea ventricosa . An entire room will be dedicated to the Canary Island palm, Phoenix canariensis : to the palm honey, which is made out of its concentrated sap, and to the complex handcrafts done with its leaves and inflorescences which are slowly disappearing from the local market.
Figure 2. The Palmetum
A Mountain of Problems
Palms did not do that well in those years: even though the working environment was promising, we all were still sceptical about acclimatising all the species that we had to plant on that mountain of problems. The living windscreens were still too young and the whole system was still ecologically immature. The unlucky importation of adult palm specimens caused loss of prestige to the Palmetum. Many palms died after a never-ending agony and the mountain became full of worrying dead trunks. Almost half of the adult Sabal palmetto imported from Florida passed away. Our initial project did not plan to purchase large specimens but the rushes obliged us to bring in those monuments. Importations costed money and work and caused vexatious beaurocratical problems. Their cost went much further than the price of plants: we lost the respect of many scientists, environmentalists and nurserymen of the island. We lost our heads for the complex beaurocracy that imposed hard and expensive phytosanitary rules. Plants of smaller sizes reacted positively to transplanting but adults suffered long setbacks. Only the passing of time fixed everything.
At the end of 1999 the whole project was suddenly paralysed as the building company run out of funding. Since then two more sessions of intensive plantings were undertaken, in the year 2000 and in 2002. With little money and a huge effort, 13,000 m2 more were landscaped. On these two occasions, I personally directed the creation of the new section for the palms of the Pacific Islands.