Memories of the Alhambra

The European Palm Society Summer Meeting in southern Spain, nicely summarized by Gary Parker, though I'm afraid I have to accept responsibility for the title. Sorry, couldn't resist!
Gary Parker, Woking, UK
Chamaerops No.27 Summer 1997

Yucca rostrata in Gunther's garden

Thirteen centuries ago, the Moors invaded Southern Spain and built the empire known as al'Andalus. We have them to thank for introducing exotic palms to the region in the form of date palms. Today Andalusia continues to be rich in exotic palms, with the result that it recently faced another invasion of sorts: some 60 EPS members converged on Almunecar, a small town on the coast, for the third EPS summer meeting.

The event began on the evening of Tuesday September 2, with welcome cocktails in what must be one of the most impressive tourist offices around, the Palacette de la Najarra, a faux-Moorish palace. The following morning, palm-spotting began in earnest as Emerencia, a student who has recently completed her doctorate in exotic vegetation of the area, gave us an expert tour of Almunecar's El Majuelo park. The park came into existence almost by accident when extensive Phoenician and Roman ruins were discovered and the area around the ruins was set aside for their protection. The townsfolk had the inspired idea of planting palms and other exotic plants on the land. Many ambitious exotic species were tried. Some did not make it - there was no pampering - but many did, with the result that 40 palm species exist in the park today.

The day continued with a leisurely lunch (one EPS member must have particularly appreciated the robust local wine, judging by the way he performed an unintended backflip off his chair!) This was followed in the evening by a fascinating tour of the old town. A remarkable cristate Chamaerops humilis was spotted, with a multitude of growing points producing an attractive dense head of leaves on a somewhat thicker than-usual trunk.

On Thursday, the group visited the botanical garden la Conception, near Malaga. This garden was planted 150 years ago, a few decades before most 19th century palm collections, with the result that splendidly tall specimens can be seen, such as an eight-storey-high Livistona chinensis and a huge mature specimen of Jubaea chilensis - growing in the shade of an even taller tree! The park contains one of Europe's few mature specimen of Phoenix rupicola, an attractive member of this genus with flat, glossy leaflets, like a cross between a Phoenix and a cycad A huge Cycas circinalis reminded the group just how big cycads can get in time.

That afternoon, eyes opened even wider when the group visited EPS m e m b e r Gunter Bruett's garden overlooking Marbella. "Estupendo!" the Spaniards among the group were heard to exclaim, and not without reason, for Gunter's collection must surely be the finest in Europe. To see over 200 species planted in such concentration, the effect is startling - humbling. There seems little point in even attempting to list species here (try opening your favourite palm book and reading the index, it will represent Gunter's garden pretty accurately!) Personal favourites included the huge, leathery, strangely-coloured palmate leaves of Bismarckia nobilis, the upright gracefulness of - Rhopalostylis sapida, and undoubtedly best of all, the uncompromising spiky splendour of a remarkable specimen of Trithrinax campestris Gunter's wonderful hospitality was much appreciated by all.

On Friday, the group visited a commercial nursery near Motril. The nursery was impressive in terms of sheer numbers of plants, hut perhaps a little unexceptional in terms of number of species. Nevertheless, EPS members carted off a considerable haul, with popular purchases being inexpensive Cycas revoluta (trucked in from Holland!) and small plants of Dypsis decaryi. Following an afternoon siesta (by this stage of the week even the most rigid northern Europeans were adopting a Spanish pace) the group enjoyed excellent talks and slides from Thomas Font (identifying Sabals), Jaques Deleuze (the EPS India trip), Martin Gibbons & Tobias Spanner (their Sudan expedition, complete with fascinating video short - attendees can't wait to see the full-length version), and Inge Hoffman (an extraordinary palm collection in Thailand).

Saturday saw the group visiting the Alhambra in Granada, a Moorish palace which is one of the most unforgettable pieces of architecture in the world. The palace gardens were in their time some of the finest in Europe, with formal arrangements of date palms and scented citrus traced through by Moorish tiled walkways and cooling fountains.

The event came to an end that evening with a celebration farewell dinner which was hugely enjoyed by all. The following morning, EPS members dispersed to the winds. All agreed the 1997 EPS summer gathering had been a tremendous success.


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