1977, Tim Vaughan, Study Tour, Canary Isles

Report on the 1977 Kew Guild Award Project

By Timothy Vaughan

Last June I had the good fortune to visit the Canary Islands, a visit that lasted four weeks taking in the islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Gomera. The aims behind this sojourn were to study the plants, their associated communities and habitats, to see the recently constructed Jardin Botanico “Viera y Clavijo” on Gran Canaria, and to observe the effects that tourism, agriculture and increased urbanisation are having on a group of tiny islands. I was assisted financially by the Kew Guild Award Scheme. This was begun in 1974 to help finance worthwhile projects of a broadly horticultural or educational nature by members of the Kew Guild. The first award was made in 1976 to assist Kew Students to extend a botanical trip to Spain.

Lack of space precludes me from going into too much detail, so my report will be confined to activities and observations made on Gran Canaria, the island on which I was based. Gran Canaria has perhaps suffered more cruelly than any other island in this group from the axe of the woodman and charcoal burner. It is thought that less than 1 per cent of the original forest remains; the remnants of the once abundant laurel forests are confined to two narrow gorges on the north-west of the island, and a small area of Pine forest is still extant in the higher regions of the hinterland.

As with many nations, the Spanish have been extremely short-sighted over the destruction of this natural resource. Their forests were, and still are an important link in the water supply chain as they condense moisture brought in the form of clouds by the Trade Winds. On condensing, the water drips to the ground gradually and is soaked up, thereby replenishing underground reservoirs. When these forests are cleared, heavy rain runs off the slopes and is lost, causing severe soil erosion. This fact alone emphasises the need for preserving their wooded areas, though I feel that with population pressure and lack of interest by the government in nature protection, it seems unlikely that much will be saved.

Over half the land on Gran Canaria has at one time or another been under cultivation, and had a marked influence on the natural vegetation, both in the depletion of native species and introduction of alien elements. Two very serious weeds are Opuntia ficus-indica and Agave americana. The former is a relic from the mid19th century, when the Cochineal industry was returning the islands nearly one million pounds per annum. Owing to the invention of artificial colorants this trade suffered a severe decline and little is now cultivated though alas, instead of the cactus disappearing with the industry, it is now a pernicious intruder.

Perhaps the most important crops grown today are tomatoes and bananas although the latter is losing popularity owing to water shortages and competition from South America. Crops of lesser importance are potatoes, beans, vines and cut-flowers. Once profitable and now seldom seen are citrus and sugar-cane, it was from these islands that sugar-cane first went to the New World.

Tourism is big business on Gran Canaria and many acres of land, particularly in the south of the island are now occupied by vast hotels and innumerable holiday bungalows. Now besides the loss of agricultural land and areas of special botanical interest, the construction of these resorts has resulted in a very serious problem. With a transient population in excess of 500,000 people, all used to and expecting hot and cold running water, the island’s water consumption is far exceeding annual precipitation. Wells have been sunk in many places and in all mountainous parts water is collected and conducted through pipes for many miles to reservoirs for irrigation purposes and domestic use. The situation is becoming critical in Gran Canaria, with the ground water table steadily sinking, resulting in sea water seeping in, and unless this process is halted, Gran Canaria will dry up and die.

Despite all this the island still has an extremely rich and varied flora, the reason being that it is one of striking contrast causing an unusual diversity of habitats. A person with botanical leanings making a study trip to these islands would be wise at first to visit the botanical garden at Tafira Alta, just eight miles from Las Palmas. My hotel was conveniently situated five minutes from the gardens, and I spent much time during the first week studying there.

The garden, begun in 1952 through the foresight and enterprise of Dr Eric Sventenius, comprises some 60 acres sited in a natural setting in the valley of Guiniguada. It is primarily a collection of plants from the Canaries, Azores, Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, many of which are now endangered and difficult to find in the wild. Eighteen gardeners maintain the living collection and run the large nursery designed for the propagation of these indigenous species, whilst a small scientific staff is engaged in research on cytology, phylogeny and classification of the flora. Recently more land has been purchased for the expansion of these gardens;-a hill behind is being left to attain its former climatic climax; a cactus garden, designed by a former Kew employee is in the process of being planted; an area of land has been designated for the establishment of exotic plants from various regions of the world; plans for a glasshouse complex are under way as is a garden for medicinal and economically important plants. It appears likely then that this garden is to become a scientific and horticultural institute of international standing.

The four weeks passed all too quickly, and it was with a heavy heart that I left these islands for England. All in all it was an enjoyable and memorable stay, and I was loath to leave the many new friends that I had made there. I hope that this brief report is some justification for my receiving the award.


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