Part II - History And Future Of The Project

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Figure 1.


The Start Of Development (1995-1996)

The construction started in 1996 and about four million euros were spent during this first phase of development. The general director of the project was the Agronomist Manuel Caballero, a leading Canarian scientist who fell in love with palms many years before. Building machines re-shaped the mountain with pharaonic land movements. Thousands of trucks brought a layer of fertile soil that was spread all over the hill. The first buildings were constructed " lakes and streams were excavated. The landfill was officially closed in 1983, but residual fermentation kept on going. In order to get rid of these gases a complex and expensive system of wells, pumps and torches were installed. During the first years the smells were still disgusting and some palms died because of the high temperatures reached by the upper soil, but year after year the effort changed the situation.

Most species were planted as seeds imported from various countries, often received from botanical institutions, but also many specimens were imported as live plants of different sizes, because there was a rush to open the botanical garden just a few years later. These 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 plant donations. Botanic institutions of the whole world contributed by sharing rare seeds with us and the reproduction greenhouse contained in 1999 more than 700 plant species and a "million" tags. 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. Carlo Morici was hired in the spring of 1996 to take care of the botanical issues, start a library and to create a network of contacts. Dennis Johnson, was in charge to obtain the documented collection of palm objects for the ethnographical museum.

The first specimens were planted in the ground in September 1996. Many of them were adult Roystonea regia, Sabal palmetto and Acoelorraphe wrightii. A crown of plants to block the wind was planted all around the flat top of the hill, with various species such as Casuarina, Thespesia, Coccoloba, Tamarix , Washingtonia, Syagrus and Cocos. During the first two years, the plantings were intensively directed by Carlos Simon, 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 Elias del Castillo, towers above the Caribbean section and pours its waters over a "beach" with fair sand and adult coconuts that were planted in 1999. Most species were planted in groups in order to form "natural populations" reminding the way they occur in the true wilderness. The goal was to create the most informal and natural landscapes on the most artificial hill of the world.

Figure 2.

The Palmetum had two new buildings: the pearl of the project was doubtlessly the emblematic octagon. It is a semi-sunken shade house created to shelter all those species which need an even, windless and humid environment. The octagon had to become a box of jewels, of ambitious technological, botanical and landscape design. The other building was the Ethnographical Museum of Palms, with classrooms, meeting room and a herbarium. It is designed as a semi-subterranean structure now partially covered with vegetation (palms!). Its main entrance was designed to become a "forest", part of the section dedicated to the flora of Madagascar. 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 concentred sap, and to the complex handcrafts done with its leaves and inflorescences which are slowly disappearing from the local market.

Planting over a Mountain of Problems (1996-1999)

Palms had really hard times during the first years. They had to recover from transplant shock on the top of the desert hill: "setback" seemed eternal. We too were skeptical about acclimatising all the species we planted 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 dead trunks. Our initial project did not plan to purchase large specimens but the "rushes" caused us to. Importations costed money and work and caused vexatious beaurocratic problems and expensive phytosanitary controls. For example, almost half of the adult Sabal palmetto imported from Florida died. Nevertheless, the collection grew impressively to well above 400 palm species, the plants of smaller sizes reacted positively to transplanting. The gardens became greener each year.

At the end of 1999 everything got worse, because the whole project was suddenly paralysed as the building company run out of funding. About 40% of the hill was still barren land that had never been landscaped and about half of the palm species were left in pots, waiting in a nursery or scattered around the mountain. Some years or months of near-abandonment reduced the palm species in cultivation from about 460 in 1999 to 296 in 2006.

Figure 3.

The Paralysis (2000-2006)

The end of money in late 1999 caused the end of many tropical delicacies. By the year 2000 the mountain was left with little irrigation installed and too many plants were lost due to drought and neglect. We decided to recover most of the herbaceous plants in the nurseries where they could stay under easier control. Younger plants died by hundreds and we lost thriving specimens of Verschaffeltia, Marojejya, Roscheria, as well as the rare Attalea crassispatha, Carpoxylon and the recently discovered Coccothrinax boschiana.

After the development stopped, two sessions of intense plantings took place in 2000 and 2002. With little money and great effort, we developed 13,000 square meters (3.2 acres) more of the Palmetum. In those two occasions, Morici directed the creation of the new sections for the palms of the Pacific Ocean, with the support from city hall and the institution for national employment.

From late 2002 until the end of 2006, the development of the Palmetum remained stationary and it continued to lose more species. The closed park was left without technical direction and the contribution of new seeds decreased as well. On the other hand, the environment progressively became more suitable for palms and trees and many of the species that had gone through the hard years of establishment started to grow much faster than before. As years passed, plants borne from seeds gave excellent results. Now many of them are larger and stronger than the ones imported as adult specimens. During the years of the paralysis, the landscapes surrounding the Palmetum slowly changed because the city grew as fast as palms and it had eventually reached the mountain. The park now was strategically placed between the ocean and a new centre of the city, characterised by two large extravagant buildings designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava: the auditorium and the convention centre.

Figure 4.

A Renaissance in 2007

In June 2007 a new public foundation was created to manage the future "of the Palmetum. The complete name is "Fundacion Canaria del Jardin "Botanico del Palmetum de Santa Cruz". It will be controlled by the some of "the most important political institutions of the island: 60% by "Government of the Canary Islands , 20% by City of Santa Cruz and 20% by the Port Authority. The University of La Laguna, Tenerife, will participate "with a member in the commission. Some of its most important goals are: Promote and spread the study of plants, the scientific culture and the didactics of science; maintain "a permanent interchange with homologous centers of other cities or "countries, contribute to prepare specialists in the field of botany, exhibitions, congresses, conferences and courses related to sciences "and technology, and to open the gardens to the public and attract quality "tourism. The foundation has not yet started to operate, but in this same year, "2007, the Government of the Canary Islands funded 600.000 euros for environmental improvement. The city started a project with workers from the Canarian employment Institute, ICFEM. Both projects have been co-directed by Morici. The works committed by the Government, directed by the Engineer"Jose Timon consisted of building a new irrigation shed for the substitution of the main ring of the"irrigation pipeline, improving the degasification system and in planting "the southern slopes, that had never been landscaped before.

Figure 5.

More than "three hectares were coated with a 15 cm layer of fertile soil and "then with coconut fiber fabric in order to prevent erosion. Dripper lines have been installed above the fabric and around the groundcovers. The whole surface was planted with palms and trees, using unusual species from the "Palmetum collection. During these large works, new connection roads have been created on the slopes and the old, decayed quarantine shade-house has been demolished.

Figure 6. Improvements and planting of slopes.

The Future

New funding is needed to finish the project. The gardens are unfinished and miss tags, informative signs, handrails, benches and garbage bins. The collection must be restored and improved and some hectares of useful garden surfaces have yet to be landscaped. Most herbaceous plants are now stored in the greenhouse and will add life and colour to the geographical sections, which now are mature gardens with tall palms. Most concrete structures need restoring, as well as the dome of the octagon which has also lost its shade cloth. The Ethnographical Museum is totally empty. The valuable collection of palm objects must have a dignitary emplacement.

The still closed Palmetum has already caused a sensation in the professional sector of green spaces: everybody wants a waterfall "like those of the Palmetum". The international community is anxiously looking forward to its opening. The French palm society Fous de Palmiers, visited it in late 2004 and the International Palm Society has shown its interest to take to Tenerife its biennial meeting of the year 2010.

The palmetum will be the first botanical garden emplaced on the southern coast of one of the Canaries. For this reason it is the one that can keep successfully most tropical species. All we who have worked on this project wish that the mountain will become a true Botanical Garden, modern and financially self-sustainable, with a permanent technical staff to keep high the quality of maintenance and research and take care the cultural and recreational issues.

From the overlooks of the Palmetum, located on the highest point on the coastline, visitors will admire the best views to the ocean, to the city and to the whole island with its 3.718 m tall majestic volcano Teide. The informal landscape design, with streams, waterfalls, lakes and beaches will make the Palmetum a unique place in this world. In the hearth of densely populated city, people will be able to walk through South American forests on silent hills and bridges. In the total quietness of a park they could drink a rum with guarapo in the restaurant of the Caribbean area and then admire breadfruit trees of the Melanesian section. They could try desserts sweetened with the "endemic" palm honey from the island of La Gomera and definitively enjoy one of the most beautiful gardens of the world.

One of the geographical sections is dedicated to Phoenix canariensis and the Canarian termophilous scrub. The Palmetum will host the first Canarian garden in Santa Cruz and will be committed to represent and spread the knowledge about the native flora in a city that is becoming more and more modern and needs to strengthen a contact with its "roots".

The hard part is gone and the main experiment is over: now we know that palms do well on the hill, which has "matured" through the years. This space will hopefully accomplish its main objectives: to be a botanical garden and a grand public park. Its proximity to the new auditorium must be a warranty of cultural quality.