Touring the Palm Gardens of Spain

Both sequel and prequel to the EPS Summer Meeting in Spain last year. Alan & Carol began before and finished after our trip, and saw some of Spain's other wonderful gardens, too.
Alan & Carol Hawes, 1 Napier Road, Hamworthy, Poole, BH15 4LX, UK
Chamaerops No.29 Winter 1997

Left: 'The Imperial Palm' - Huerto del Cura, Elche, Spain
Right, above: Gunter's (by now) famous garden in Southern Spain.
Right, below: Pinya de Rosa (see text)

Our first ever trip to Spain this year was the result of someone’s inspired decision to hold the EPS annual get-together in Almunecar, on the Costa Tropical. On television, we had followed a programme called “Gardens Without Borders” around Spain and Portugal, and longed to visit some of the gardens on the east coast of Spain which had been featured. We spend most of our holidays in our motorcaravan, and we find it the ideal vehicle for following our own itinerary, to our own timetable -and in great comfort! Fast it is not, but it holds a lot of plants, and we hoped to take home some sizeable palms, as the very best kind of souvenir. A lot of planning was necessary to ensure that we would have time to call in at all the most important gardens and get to Almunecar in time for the EPS meeting.

Having crossed to Cherbourg from our home in Poole in the south of England, we drove down the west coast of France, then over to the Mediterranean and across the Spanish border. The first gardens on our list were both in Blanes on the Costa Brava, where even the sea front boasts a fine display of tall washingtonias, livistonas and phoenix. Steep cliffs, encrusted with self-sown agaves, rise behind the tall apartment blocks at the north end of the town and on the top of these cliffs lies the “Jardi Botanic Marimurtra”. The gardens are administered by a foundation set up by their creator in 1954 and are an intentional centre for botanical research and the conservation of indigenous flora. They are open daily throughout the year, and are very popular with tourists.

Plants are generally grouped geographically, but the overall design of the garden is interesting, and all the different areas are attractively laid out. Only relatively small parts of the whole garden are visible at any one time and one progresses from desert landscapes through a tropical pergola before reaching the temperate section. Further on down the sloping site there are areas devoted to Australian and African plants (but they are not as good as those on Tresco, in the Scilly Isles!). There are many palms, with fine groups of Brahea armata, Syagrus romanzoffiana, butia, phoenix, jubaea and washingtonia (with thick skirts of old leaves). Numerous less common palms (usually unlabelled) were to be seen amongst the mixed plantings. We particularly enjoyed the many species of agaves and cycads, both in the arid areas and generally throughout the garden. The cliff-top site really seemed to suit them and they were generally well labelled. Unfortunately the general public are not allowed free access to the desert areas as the paths are narrow (and the plants very unfriendly) so we were reduced to gazing through the telephoto lens of our camera to see interesting plants in more detail. The best known part of the garden is the long flight of steps leading down to a classical pavilion, which has a spectacular view out to sea. There are no refreshment facilities in the garden, and picnics are not allowed, so after two or three hot and exhausting hours we were forced to emerge for a rest.

A hot Spanish afternoon is not the best time for garden-visiting, but our schedule was tight and we had another garden to find that day. The “Jardi Botanic Tropical Pinya de Rosa” is within walking distance of Marimurtra, and is similarly positioned on a sloping coastal site with magnificent views. This garden also gives a high priority to research and to the acquisition and study both of wild-collected species and those already in cultivation. It specialises in cacti and succulents, of which it has world-class collections. Some areas are given over to systematic plantings of many different genera, but there are also large displays of mixed plantings where some splendid palms vie with huge agaves and cacti for one’s attention. There is a complete and frustrating absence of labels in this part of the garden, and we found no-one who could speak any English. Unfortunately, they had also run out of information leaflets in English! We could find no plan of the garden and it was almost at the end of our visit that we accidentally came upon the systematic beds of cacti, agaves and yuccas. Here are set out large numbers of plants of the same species with as many different origins as possible so that comparisons can be made between them. Here, labelling was much better and it was fascinating to compare their growing plants with our own and with those previously only seen in photographs in reference books. At the exit there were plants for sale at extremely reasonable prices and we were able to begin our plant collecting with three fine agaves.

Next day we recommenced our drive southwards, bypassing Barcelona. As we passed Castellon, north of Valencia. we saw clumps of Chamaerops humilis growing wild on the hillsides, and a sign to the “desert of the palms”. We were heading for the small town of Altea, south of Valencia, because one of our guidebooks had mentioned a “cactus and sub-tropical garden” near the town.

“Cactuslandia” is a highly idiosyncratic privately-owned garden on an almost vertical cliff site. It is a comparatively small garden of steep narrow terraces which offers not only large numbers of cacti and succulents but tropical fruit trees, palms, exotic birds and other animals. If you can face them, after the rest of the garden, there are large collections of shells, minerals and fossils. The sea views are spectacular, but this is not a garden to visit if you suffer from vertigo! The garden has a small bar, and has plants for sale. It is a fascinating but domestic-sized garden and one in which we felt very much at home.

From Altea it was only a short drive to Elche, south-west of Alicante. Elche is just one huge palm grove, with about half a million date palms. It has its origin in Phoenician times, when the palms were cultivated and irrigated in an orderly way. The cropping and irrigation systems were adopted by the Arabs when they ruled the area, and were subsequently introduced throughout the rest of the Arab world. Since the Middle Ages other crops have been grown between the palms, benefiting from the shade and humidity. The trees are still tended and cropped and large amounts of delicious dates are produced. Date palms dominate the town, the streets, the parks and even the campsite, which was by far the most beautiful we have ever visited. Sadly, it closed down the day we left, for development into a hotel!

We had come to Elche to visit the famous “curate’s garden” - the “Huerta del Cura”. Originally the garden produced crops of fruit and vegetables in the shade of the palms but this century it has been developed and landscaped by its owners so that now it contains many interesting plants, especially palms, cycads and succulents, in an attractively-designed and colourful setting. Especially famous is the Imperial Palm (a Phoenix dactylifera), which has eight branches growing from a single trunk - it has to be heavily braced to prevent it splitting apart. It was named after the Empress Elizabeth of Austria when she visited it in 1894. There are many other named date palms but, more recently, emphasis has been placed on planting other species of palms in the garden and these are mostly labelled. We saw Phoenix roebelenii and P. reclinata, Caryota mitis, Syagrus romanzoffiana, Brahea armata, Dypsis decaryi, sabals and howeas, plus some impressive cycads. There is a recently-planted cactus and succulent garden and a large formal pool in a cool shady area where one can sit and relax. Plants, drinks, other souvenirs (and dates) are for sale near the exit and the garden is open every day. After our visit we explored the town and found even the municipal park to be beautifully planted and far more interesting than most parks.

We were now within a day or two of Almunecar, about which we knew very little, and we were keen to have some time to explore the town before the beginning of the official meeting. We arrived with a day to spare and were able to settle in at the campsite and visit the Bird Park, which has some splendid palms to set off the exotic residents. Palms have been widely planted throughout the town, so that there are streets shaded by syagrus and traffic islands full of caryota and Dypsis lutescens. The sea front is lined with washingtonias and Phoenix canariensis, all carefully irrigated at night.

We met up with the other EPS members at the evening reception held in the attractive, floodlit garden of the Palacete de la Najarra, where we were welcomed to the town by the mayor. Next day we returned to the Palacete to meet our guides for the tour of Majuelo Park, which is close by. Outside the main entrance to the park are some tall Roystonea regia and Ptychosperma macarthurii, while inside there is a closely planted collection which included not only all the species we had previously seen on the trip but many more. Most had been planted as young specimens and it was interesting to hear from our guide, Emerencia, the history of the collection and the lessons that have been learnt about the survival and growth of such a wide variety of palms in the local climatic conditions. She welcomed the views of the assembled experts of the EPS on the identification of some of the palms - two Pseudophoenix sargentii were correctly identified by the most expert amongst us and a group of butias was separated by comparison of their fruits. It was especially interesting for us to visit the park in the company of so many knowledgeable “aficionados".

The next day we visited two more impressive but widely different palm collections. The “Jardin Botanico-Historico La Concepcion”, near Malaga, is about 150 years old so the plants have reached an amazing size - indeed, many are the largest representatives of their species in Spain. The original plantings of livistonas, jubaeas, syagrus, roystoneas, braheas etc. are now being supplemented with young plants of different species such as coccothrinax, trithrinax, veitchia and howea. Because of the luxuriance of the growth there is a much more enclosed, shady feel to this garden than any other we had seen in Spain.

The garden is now owned by the city of Malaga and is run as an educational centre, with emphasis also on the conservation of the historic garden. It is considered to be one of the most important collections of tropical and subtropical plants in Spain and is open every day for guided visits. Our guides were very helpful and provided much information on the history of the collection, which is well documented. Many of the plants are “labelled” with attractive hand-painted tiles, which are also used in decorative panels showing views of the garden. A reproduction of the tiled panel at the entrance of “La Concepcion”, showing a schematic representation of the garden, is available in poster form and also features on the cover of the splendid guidebook.

By contrast, the private garden of Gunter Brutt is comparatively new, but it contains an amazing collection of palm and cycad species and varieties set amongst a beautiful collection of flowering plants from hibiscus and bougainvillea to roses and camellias. The location of the garden, on the side of a hill, with views across to north Africa, allows a tremendous range of plants to be grown. The total effect is stunning and we could not have found a more fitting place to end our tour of the palm-gardens of Spain.

PS. The kindness of several EPS members enabled us to fulfil our desire to take some palms home with us. On our return journey northwards we shared our travelling home with thirteen superb specimens, some about six feet tall, as well as five agaves, a cycad, two hibiscus, a bougainvillea and other tender plants. Altogether we covered 3000 miles in three and a half weeks. We enjoyed our trip to Spain immensely and very much hope to revisit some of these gardens in the future.


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