Sunday, 3 August 2008

Two Historic Gardens in Tenerife

Entrance to the Orotava Botanic GardensThe hotel in Puerto de la Cruz was tantalizingly close to the botanic gardens and we drove past it every day but didn't manage to visit it until the last day. It's official name in Spanish is Jardín de Aclimatación de la Orotava or Orotava acclimatization garden. It was started during the reign of King Carlos III in 1788 (the Age of Enlightenment) as a halfway house for acclimatizing new exotic species from the colonies and to investigate their possibilities for cultivation in the rest of Spain. Planting began in 1792. According to the explanatory leaflet, French naturalist Andre Pierre Ledrú prepared the first catalogue of plants in the garden (I suppose the didn't keep one from the start).

The garden is surrounded by a high wall (the garden is alongside one of the main roads into Puerto de Santa Cruz). It is rather odd that being built in what was at the time open countryside, the garden is so compact (only two hectares) and was surrounded with this high wall. Perhaps have to guard the rare plants against thieves in a secure compound? After two centuries the trees and large plants have rather outgrown the modest space and seem to be looking over top of the wall as if longing to escape. Building work is under way to extend the site to double it's present size up the hill inland.

One of the most impressive plants was the so-called bat flower, Tacca chantrieri. Rather shocking at first this is a large dark brown almost black group of flowers with tendril-like protrusions (petals?). I'd never seen it before. There are, as one would expect, many exotic and tropical plants, growing outdoors in what is politically part of Europe. the garden is now run by the Canaries Agricultural Research Institute (ICIA Instituto Canario de Investigaciones Agrarias), where there is an offical information page about the Botanical Garden.

In the heart of downtown “Puerto” we visited another unusual garden, called “Sitio Litre”. The name Litre is a corruption of the surname of Mr Little, a British merchant who bought the propeerty in 1774. It has been cultivated by British gardeners ever since. After 230 years it claims to be the oldest surviving garden in Tenerife. It was being cultivated well before it was bought by Mr Little twenty years before the Orotava garden was first planted. It is notable also for the illustrious visitors over the years including Sir William Wilde who published his “The Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Tenerife, and along the Shores of the Mediterranean,” in 1840, the multitalended Sir Richard Burton, German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and more recently novelist Agatha Christie. In 1875, botanical painter Marianne North was a guest and painted several pictures of the garden which are in the gallery at Kew Gardens. Reproductions of the paintings at the Sitio Litre show how it was then. The advertising for garden makes much of their orchid collection but I wouldn't recommend going for the orchids, it's historical interest is more than enough reason to visit.

I had also hoped to visit Bananera El Guanche, a commercial garden about bananas and other crops grown on the island that is widely praised in tourist guides but I was disappointed to find that it has closed down, and seeing it from the road appears to be abandoned.

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