Kew Guild

1981, Sue Gregory (Macdonald), Student Exchange, Giverny, France

Monet’s garden at Giverny

By Sue Gregory

I began my visit to France in Paris in order to visit the art galleries to look at Monet’s paintings and to initially investigate his history – the relationships between the impressionist movement and garden design, The most rewarding gallery was the Musee Marmotan which I found very moving, The paintings exhibited included many of my favourites and were displayed to their very best. Paris was a very good starting off point for such an adventure. I arrived in Giverny worn out but eager to explore many ideas that I had and I felt certain that I would be able to do that at Giverny.

The garden of Claude Monet was opened to the public in 1980 after four to five years of restoration work – it was still not a mature garden. laid out in two sections. The Clos Normand is in the style of a French wild garden — a grid system over-flowing with plants- and the Basin or water garden, which includes the water lilies and Japanese bridge The House and Studio (now a shop) have been renovated with great taste. However the garden is not in my opinion yet the garden of Claude Monet. Although the basic layout was correct, Monet’s use of plants in subtle harmonies had been by-passed in order to provide the public with a continuous display of a multiple of colours which had been very poorly planned. I found a number of faults with the plantings which are included in my report.

The Musee and garden are run and financed by the Academy de Beaux Arts and its director is Monsieur Van der Kemp (who was the director of Versailes). It is also supported by a private organisation, the Friends of Claude Monet Foundation which is constituted of a number of donors (mainly French and American).

Six gardeners, including the Head Gardener (Monsieur Vahe), one skilled gardener and four labourers work there. Monsieur Van der Kemp advises on aspects of the garden but is only there at weekends and a lot of his time is taken up with publicity and entertaining donors.

The village is very much involved with the garden and is divided down the middle between those who are for the garden and those who are against.

I was warmly taken into the community, even with my scratchy French which incidentally couldn’t help but improve a little. I stayed locally in the village and managed to visit quite a number of places in the area of interest. I worked from 8/9 in the morning to 5.30 doing a variety of jobs from staking espalier pears to planting and labelling the plants. 1worked five days a week but managed to get at least half a day spare each week to do my own research of the garden.

Thus I learnt a great deal about the garden, Monet, Giverny and France and ail this is of great value to me and I believe I will make use of this in the future.

 

1981, Pamela Holt, Expedition Southern Peru

Peru revisited

18th July – 23rd August, 1981

By Pamela Holt

Whilst gasping for breath on the steep shaly path shading my eyes from the intense sunlight, I was struck by the beauty of the golden silhouettes of Calamagrostis vicunatum waving on the steep scree slopes above me. To my right were the woolly leaves of a Culcitium species, the only other vegetation at 14,000 ft. just below the pass of Pulcay in the Peruvian Andes. Lower down I had passed tiny blue Gentiana sp. nestling in the short grass and moss along with a yellowy green spur-flowered Gentianella sp. whose beauty was unappreciated by our steadily weakening leader, Ian Wolfe. Unable to acclimatise in the heat and the altitude, he had been escorted back down the remote valley on a local mule. Ian subsequently suffered a number of cardiac spasms, putting him out of action for four weeks.

This was my second trip to this fascinating country, the first being in 1975 when I collected plant material for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Then I had four months at my disposal and was generously funded by the Bentham and Moxon Trust and the Studley College Trust, enabling me to travel and eat in relative comfort, compared to my recent trip in July and August last year. This time with only five weeks and a tight budget, plant collecting was curtailed to only four days due to many unforeseen circumstances and bureaucratic difficulties.

As the Horticulturalist attached to the Hampshire Venture Scout Expedition to Peru, my task lay with the Scientific team (nick-named the ‘Jungle Bunnies’ in the mistaken belief that they were going to explore jungle), whose main aims were to study epiphytes and collect specimens of Ichthyafauna from high altitude lakes. The former, suggested by the University of Aberystwyth, where Dean Madden (Venture Scout) is a student of Zoology and Botany; the latter at the request of the British Museum, Natural History Department, because so little is known about the fish and amphibians in these remote lakes. Originally I had trained with the Mountaineering Team, whose objective was to climb the 20,565 ft. Mount Salcantay in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, north west of Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital; but events changed following an ankle injury in Scotland, pressure to help the Scientific Team and a request from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to collect plants when I applied for their Kew Guild Award Scheme.

The Machu Picchu Venture 1981, consisted of 15 Venture Scouts, girls and boys, ten assorted assistants and two Royal Engineers. Each member contributed £750, either from his own pocket or by fund raising. Our black ‘T’ shirts with gold lettering and Inca motif were very popular. I am indebted to the Kew Guild Award Scheme, the Womens Farm and Garden Association and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew who loaned field equipment and covered the cost of air freighted, live plant material.

Our major headache concerned climbing equipment, food and medical supplies, which despite being sent out in April, were still in Customs in July when we arrived in Lima, the coastal capital of Peru.

In the vain hope that our impounded supplies would be released soon, the Scientific Team set off on the weeks trek, back packing along ancient Inca pathways, whilst the Mountaineering Team tackled the trail leading to Machu Picchu, the ‘Lost City of the Incas’.

As our way lay through mainly uninhabited and uncultivated mountain country, we carried 4 lbs. of food each, which we had brought out of England, cooking on wood fires initially in the lower valley of the Cusichaca River. Our stoves and ‘meta’ fuel were back in Lima, so as our path wound higher up the mountain, some ingenuity was called for when the Caesalpinia spinosa, Eucalyptus and Spartium junceum gave way to Stipa ichu grass. Llama dung is not recommended especially at an altitude where it is difficult to boil water and half cooked dehydrated dinner is rather unpalatable! l made do with a meat cube in a cup of warm water for my evening meal that particular night. After coming over the pass of Pulcay, 14,800 ft., it wasn’t very filling!

Once over the pass, breathing became a little easier and for the next three days, the scenery changed dramatically. At first the vegetation was mainly grass beside the fast flowing glacial river, hemmed in by snow covered ranges, a place where the inside of your tent ices up at night and water in mess tins is frozen solid by morning.

As the valley opened out, grass gave way to low shrubs of Berberis at 12,000 ft., resplendent with orange flowers, Escallonia sp. with creamy white flowers, even a Desfontainea. Often red flowered Bomarea straggled through them and clumps of Baccharis genistellioides grew alongside. Locally this composite plant is known as ‘Espadilla’, its roots and stems being used to dye woollen cloth. Its species name give the clue to its appearance which like to so many Andean plants does not conform to normal family characteristics.

Lower down the valley, groves of Polylepis incana rose up from the river. A densely branching small tree, three to eight metres high with a twisted trunk, exfoliate bark and trifoliate leaves, this member of the Rosaceae family is an endangered species. P. albicans, P. racemosa and P. villosa are also listed, being confined to the steep slopes in inaccessible side valleys leading to glaciers, growing up to 4,500 m.

Frequently Polylepis supports parasitic plants such as Phrygilanthus with its scarlet flowers, reminiscent of Embothrium. At lower altitudes I did see Embothriumgrandiflorum with its pink flowers and glabrous rounded leathery leaves. Continuing down the Aobamba River, with our rucksacs the vegetation became more luxuriant, from Buddleia sp., Mentha sp., Barnadesia sp. with pink flowers to glorious red tubular flowered evergreen shrubs which possibly belong to the Ericaceae family. Beneath peeped Stenomesson on Eustephia, red and yellow tubular flowers in Amaryllidaceae.

As green and yellow parakeets flew overhead and Bamboo and lianas struggled through Begonias and ‘Tree Ferns’ the climate became distinctly subtropical. The last night on this trail was spent beside the now widening river, where washing that evening I was fascinated by the fireflies, like darting flashes of light, over the water. The main meal that night consisted of curried muesli washed down with ‘Orovite’ an orange flavoured multi-vitamin sachet rifled from the first aid kit, as all the tea and coffee rations had been consumed!

The following day we walked out of this valley to join the River Urubamba, where we boarded the narrow gauge Santa Anna train at Hydro Electrica, a half built village, which takes its name from the power plant opposite.

As the train did not leave until the evening, we spent a lazy afternoon by the waterfall and precarious bridge indulging in a picnic feast purchased from the local ‘tienda’. That evening saw us camped by the River Urubamba, downstream at Santa Teresa, where we collected our scientific equipment sent on from Cuzco. With the Expedition Leader laid low at Cusichaca, with an Archeological project camp, and holding the expedition travellers cheques, we spent the following day buying provisions locally with our ‘pocket money’ and hiring mules to take us to the research area. We managed to engage four mules and a truck to take the scientific team part of the way.

Meanwhile the mountaineering party had ‘done’ Machu Picchu and explored the Archaeological site where a canal system once brought water to the ruined city of Llactapata. To everyones amazement, the site where a possible aqueduct could have crossed the ravine, was found by the Venture Scouts. Flushed with success they trekked off along our route intending to cross a higher pass to the left of Mount Salcantay, having been resigned to the fact that the climbing equipment and supplies were now unlikely to be released.

The weather, however, put paid to further progress by snowing continuously for 36 hours. After floundering in waist high soft snow, the party retreated with one member temporarily snow blinded and another burned and blistered on his face.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Team had disembarked from the open truck in pouring rain, to spend the night in a coffee plantation. The next night, being higher up on a ridge with decent sized trees, we used our hammocks for the first time. We walked up from the plantation with the mules loaded with food, plant press and ‘fish’ collecting equipment. The muleteers tied everything down by placing their feet on the package and heaving on their ropes, regardless of whether it was a sack of carrots or a box of 60 eggs! I think this is why Dean Madden, a Zoology and Botany student was able to make pancakes that morning for his 21 st birthday treat enriched with honey, kindly presented to us by the owner of our ‘campsite’.

Most of our plant study was carried out in the region known as the Ceja de Montana, literally ‘the eyebrow of the mountain’ – a good descriptive term for where the eastern side of the Andes meets the jungle or selva. To quote Major Peter Marett, “It’s the only cold jungle I’ve ever been in!” sums up the area where we worked. For although we were 130 8′ south of the equator, at 10,500 ft., we were frequently in cloud or rain despite it being the ‘dry’ season.

Toiiing up the steep mountainside above the River Sacsara, we passed through citrus and coffee groves often hung with Passiflora ligularis the granadilla or passion fruit, a welcome thirst quencher. Dean and I made mental notes of various plants on this ascent with a view to collecting them on our return, four days later. One notable example being a Podocarpus species, native to Peru and Chile resembling an overgrown yew. Frequently Begonias and Fuchsias peered out of shady banks on either side of the path, with Gunnera and Aralia sp.

From our base in amongst the twisted limbs of a latex bearing tree (possibly Castilloa elastica) we made repeated forays into the cloud forest and beyond. The wealth of plant material actually growing on a single tree, greatly reduced the distance we needed to travel. Orchids grew everywhere in great abundance, the most obvious being a beautiful orange Epidendrum species, others less obvious because they were not in flower. One particularly wet day, when the advance party led by Major Peter Marett, set off for the high altitude lakes, was a field day as far as orchids were concerned. Nine different species were collected, from tiny yellow-flowered Pachyphyllum and lilac fringe flowered Sobralia to cream, maroon striped Telepogodon and a magnificent Epidendrum with a foot long spike of pink and cream flowers which was obtained at great risk to life and limb growing on a swaying moss covered leaning tree. Another larger Sobralia growing high up on a tree overlooking our hammocks and tent tops was collected by Venture Scout Chis Dare, using an ingenious device of paracord footloops.

Many ferns were collected from trees as well as the forest floor where large mats of Sphagnum rosea, reminded one of Wales. This proved invaluable for wrapping the plant roots prior to inserting in plastic bags which were then secured at the neck, leaving the foliage free. A small cold frame of logs and moss provided a temporary home for our collection. Orchid flowers and various fruits were preserved in bottles of alcohol other plant material was pressed and dried. The plant press was hung over a small wood fire to dry the specimens, the paper being changed at intervals. With the onset of rain a temporary canopy of polythene was rigged up over the top to protect the press.

The Cloud Forest consisted of trees with knotted branches often forming dense flattened crowns where the bamboo Chusquea made useful tables to work from. Vallea stipularis with its unusual knobbly fruits, scarlet flowered Ribes, blue flowered Tibouchina and numerous shrubs in the Gesneriaceae and Ericaceae families often overrun with vivid orange trumpet flowered Bomarea or furry leaved Fuchsias.

Beyond the ‘tree ferns’ and shrubby Hypericum type plants, lay open grassland where a species of rosulate Viola grew at 11,000 ft. along with metre high Lobelia and Werneria nubigena a ground hugging giant daisy. Aquantityof berries were taken from a prickly furry leaved tree Solanum, seed of which has now been extracted and banked at Wakehurst Place. A bag of Caesalpinia spinosa collected close to Cusichaca is now also in the seed bank.

In the four days at our disposal, a total of 77 plants were collected, involving meticulous measuring and recording in field notebooks and numbering and labelling of plant material, often far into the night. The plant material was carried in boxes by hand down the mountain and then repacked in the dilapidated ‘hotel’ at Santa Teresa. To prevent rotting, each plant with its moss and polythene covered root bundle was wrapped in newspaper, packed upright wherever possible into cardboard boxes, with the corresponding field notes packed in a plastic bag alongside. During this operation the weak electricity supply finally cut out and I finished this operation by candlelight, only discovering that I had singed my eyelashes and hair the next day!

Back in Lima, I learnt a new Spanish word, ‘Huelga’, in English the familiar word ‘Strike’! Rather inconvenient when you are locked in, rather than locked out. The occasion, the last three days in Peru, the place, inside the gates of the Natural History Museum, ‘Javier Prado’. It made a change from the Banks or the Hospital being on strike but my Peruvian Scout escort was waiting with a car outside the gates to take me to the airport to clear customs for my plants. At times like this you feel glad that you asked the caretaker the night before what his dog is called as it snarls on your approach to its master’s door. The good man reluctantly opened the gate to allow me into the street for I was staying in the botanists apartment located behind the museum, while I obtained the necessary permission from the Ministry of Agriculture, University of San Marcos and the Air Cargo Division of British Caledonian. The rest of the expedition had already left to spend their money in Miami, after the Lima scouts laid on a farewell party, where we dished out the food, finally released from Customs!

One consolation for the inconvenience of impounded equipment and supplies was a free flight from Cuzco in the mountains down to Lima on the coast in a Peruvian Air Force Hercules. At least it was only two hours late taking off, a contrast to the beginning of the trip when we spent all day in Lima Airport, waiting for an internal flight to Arequipa, that should have left at 6.30 a.m. Then we were put up in a hotel at the Airline’s expense and finally flown to our destination, only to watch the plane take off for Puna with all our luggage on board! Luckily the plane being a shuttle service returned two hours later.

Viva el Peru!

Pamela Holt, March 1982

I am indebted to Dr. Ramon Ferreyra, Botanical Consultant to the University of San Marcos, Museum of Natural History and Jose Purisaca of the Ministry of Agriculture, without whose help the plants might never have left Peru.

 

1981, Kim Sorvig, Expedition To China

Plant collecting around China’s highest mountain

By Kim Sorvig

No-one who goes to China, I suppose, really knows what to expect. After decades of closure to foreigners (just in recent history) it hardly requires poetic license to call China “The Land of the Unexpected”.

Recently, of course, China has been opening up, and the interest this has aroused is leading to further ‘chinks in the bamboo curtain’ (to quote a lecturer who claimed the pun was accidental). Despite this, the botanical expedition which I joined for the month of September 1981 had little information to go on. The area around Mt. Konka, lying between Szechuan Province and Tibet, has hardly been seen by foreigners at all; the one botanist to traverse the region was Joseph Rock, in 1929. Other than that, there have been two or three mountain climbing ventures: when it was first discovered, Minya Konka (or Konka Shan) was thought to be higher than Everest.

Even for Roy Lancaster, the botanical guide for the group, this was new territory. He had been to China twice before, and from his broad experience knew an impressive percentage of the plants we saw; when in doubt he could rely on other members of the expedition. Five Western countries were represented; collections of seed and herbarium material were made for Kew, Edinburgh, Leiden, and the Holden and Morris arboreta in the United States; a taxonomist from Wisley, a biochemist from John Innes Institute, and people with specialist interests ranging from alpines and bulbs to forestry, from bamboo to clematis, made up an excellent group. My first ‘thank you’ goes to them all.

For me this was an unbelievable opportunity to learn a few of the bewildering array of Chinese plants (the Flora I brought back, five volumes, contains 7,000 species, and that’s the student flora!), and to meet and work with botanists in the field. As important as this aspect of botany is to Kew, one gets very little direct experience of it as a student; I had scarcely ever pressed a plant or collected a seed before, The 125 taxa I collected have involved me in quarantine, seed-sorting, listing, accessioning, and recording procedures which would otherwise have remained ‘behind-the-scenes’. I thought that finding the specimens would be the end of it!

Our itinerary, after leaving one hyper-luxurious night in Hong Kong, involved short stays in Canton and Chengdu (capital of Szechuan), during which we saw a number of gardens and met Chinese botanists in both cities. After that, we travelled into the mountains by road, staying in communes, passing through Ta-chien-Iu (now Kanding), “The Gateway of Tibet” for E. H. Wilson and Rock. A long detour cut into our time, but one does not argue with ten miles of road which have fallen several hundred feet into a river. At one point on our return even the detour had demurred, and we were told there was no way out for a month. (Tune in next week for the hair-raising escape.)

Such excitements plus cold rainy weather meant that we made a base-camp and went on daily forays, rather than attempt a full circuit of Konka; disappointing, but prudent. We seemed to be on the drier side of the pronounced rain-shadow cast by most peaks in this part of the world; the vegetation on the other side would very likely have been different. The area in which we camped was dominated by Betula utilis on the NE-facing slopes; Quercus semicarpifolia on the opposite ones; shrouded with Usnea, and mixed with larches, pines, fir, and a good variety of shrubs, e.g. loniceras, Hypophae salicifolia, many berberis and rosaceous species. Gentians-were abundant to the point of being overwhelming; primulas, 20 species of clematis, Halenia, Codanopsis. . . The paucity of rhododendron species was surprising, and there was a complete lack of any bamboo at all (I asked in English and Chinese, and drew pictures for the Tibetans- no, two valleys over, first pass on your right, nothing like that around here, mate), which was a disappointment to me. But through friends from the trip I have met several more bamboo-fanatics on my return to England: one of the lasting side-effects of such a trip.

The political scene was very interesting, much more relaxed than one is led to believe; “old hands” felt it had relaxed even within the past two years. Armed with a bit of Chinese (and pictures), I managed to talk to several ‘unofficial” Chinese along the way. But politics and cultural anthropology are matters which international plant collectors ignore at their peril. 1 felt a considerable rapport with our Chinese guides, but the lack of the obsequious ‘yes Sahib’ treatment one might find in India led to some dissatisfaction among the group as a whole. Can one really expect it in a country aspiring to egalitarian communism? At the end of our stay, pressed specimens and any rooted ones were confiscated. We have since been told that a group of “tourists” trekking not far away had been caught smuggling rare plants. Considering the millions of pounds and dollars which Chinese plants have brought the horticultural trade in the West, without any recompense to China, it is in fact quite generous that the Chinese authorities have agreed to post our collections to us after inspection. It is a sad fact that ecological conservation, paradoxically bound to plant collection by our need for specimens to study, can itself be endangered by the subtleties of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Obviously, I could go on at length: agriculture, industry, development, religion. . . but I have already taxed readers’ patience and editor’s space enough. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Kew Guild for its financial support, and likewise the Bentham-Moxon Trust, and my other sponsors, the Women’s Farm & Garden Association, many of whose members I am sure receive this journal. Thanks also to the Curator, Mr. Simmons, for his special encouragement, and to all those who supported what I myself often thought was an impossible and mad idea, this long-dreamed-of visit to China.

 

1980, Soo Tasker, Student Exchange, Leiden University Botanic Garden

Student Exchange to Leiden University Botanic Garden

1st to 20th September, 1980

By Soo Tasker

The city of Leiden is quite small, built inside a protective moat or singel, and dissected by many canals. It is a University town, rather like Oxford, full of many old and beautiful buildings most of which belong to the University.

The Botanic Garden of the University, the Hortus Botanicus, was founded on April 13th 1587 making it one of the oldest in Europe. It was laid out by Clusius (Charles de I’Ecluse) and some of his original plantings still remain. Since this time the garden has been enlarged several times, it now covers approximately 30 acres.

There are 19 glasshouses, mostly built in the 1930s, including a Victorian water-lily house and a Phytotron for the propagation and cultivation of tropical ferns. There is also an Orangery, which is still used as such; temperate plants are housed in it in the winter and moved outside in the summer.

The garden is composed of landscaped arboretum (the moat of the city forms the boundary on one side) with a rock garden, herb garden, systematic beds, rosarium, lily-pond, and the ‘voortuin’ the decorative entrance area. The Clusius garden is a replica of the original botanic garden, with beds of herbs and bulbs, paths of crushed cockle shells and a collection of bees in wicker bee-hives.

On my arrival in Leiden I was met by Mr. Bruinsma, the Curator, and his assistant, Miss Teune, with kindness befitting a visiting dignitary rather than a humble student. I stayed in the University Observatory, a picturesque domed building, and was able to have any meals I wanted at the nearby student ‘mensa’ or restaurant; everything was most comfortable and convenient.

During my first week I worked in the Clusius garden; in the second week I worked in the Seed Department, collecting and cleaning seeds, and in the third week I worked in the glasshouses. Although only a few of the 15 staff spoke English we got along very well, they were all extremely pleasant and anxious that I should have interesting work to do.

I spent a day at the Rijksherbarium; founded in 1829 and mostly concerned with the Malaysian Flora. There are 25 botanists and just over three million dried specimens; also a good collection of old books, and seed catalogues since the early 1800s. The Botanic Garden Archives hold a large collection of photographs and slides, as well as the plant records system.

During my stay at Leiden Mr. Bruinsma took me to visit the Botanic Gardens of Utrecht and the Vry University of Amsterdam, and to the flower market and experimental station at Aaismeer. At the weekends I visited Boskoop, Groningen Botanic Garden, Nijmegen, Delft, Rotterdam, Breda and Middelburg.

In all it was a most interesting and successful exchange; I should like to thank Mr. Pemberton and Mr. Simmons for arranging it for me, and the Kew Guild for helping to finance my visit.

 

1980, Neil Huck, Student Exchange At Les Cedres, France

Student visit to “Les Cedres”

By Neil Huck

During the summer of 1 980, I went on a working visit to Le Jardin Botanique” Les Cedres” in the south of France. My visit was arranged through Kew as part of the student exchange scheme.

The plant collection at “Les Cedres” was founded and is still maintained by the Marnier La Postolle family. Bromeliads and Cacti form the main part of this vast and world renowned collection. The cultivation of these groups of plants, many of them from South America, has proved very successful in the mediterranean climate at “Les Cedres”.

I was able to botanise in the nearby Maritime Alps during my visit. There I found many interesting plants including Lilium pomponium, Gentiana lutea and various Allium sp. Situated high on the rocks above nearby Monte-Carlo is Le Jardin Exotique. The large collection of Cacti there thrive outside all the year round. I was interested to see some very large specimens of Neobuxbaumia and Echinocactusgrusonii.

When my three weeks at ‘Les Cedres” ended, I toured Europe with the aid of a grant awarded to me by the Kew Guild. I was able to visit Lago Maggiore on the Swiss Italian border. There I saw the famous gardens at Villa Taranto. On the tiny island of Brissago, I visited a botanic garden set up by the Swiss government containing many exotic plants being grown as an acclimatisation experiment. Then I headed north through the Swiss Alps where I found spring flowers still blooming in the higher mountain regions in late August. While in Switzerland, I also took the opportunity to visit the excellent Cactus gardens in Zurich.

I found my visit extremely useful and enjoyable. The Guild Award made it possible for me to tour and see more than I would otherwise have been able to.

 

1979, Ian Hodgson, Student Exchange To Heidelberg & Munich Botanic Gardens

Student Exchange to Heidelberg & Munich Botanic Gardens

By Ian Hodgson

In July of this year I embarked upon a visit to the gardens of Munich and Heidelberg, situated in the heart of southern Germany. The purpose of my trip was to study the extensive collections of the respective gardens, my particular interest being of the extent of the succulent flora of Madagascar.

This branch of succulents pose particular problems with regard to cultivation and these techniques I also noted.

The trip was partly funded by a grant of £50.00 which was awarded by the Kew Guild. This grant system is a newly introduced scheme which allows monetary awards to be given to people who are embarking on a trip of a botanical/horticultural nature.

 

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.