The Palm World on the Island of Tenerife

A history of the palms of this wonderful island and what to find there, and where.
Carlo Morici, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canarias, Spain
Chamaerops No.42 - 2001

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Picture 1: Trithrinax acanthocoma in La Orotava Bot.Gdns.
Picture 2: Close-up of a Trithrinax acanthocoma trunk . Pen for scale.
Picture 3: Phytelephas macrocarpa with Alejandra Lazzaro in La Orotava.
Picture 4: Close-up of a Phytelephas macrocarpa trunk. Pen for scale.
Picture 5: An old Encephalartos laurentianus (below right) rivals a tall Phoenix canariensis in crown size. La Orotava Bot.Gdns.
Picture 6: Trunk of the female specimen of Encephalartos laurentianus with Alejandra. The base is embraced by the epiphytic fern Davallia canariensis.
Picture 7: Efrén Hernández Marrero with Turca in a sea of Phoenix roebelenii. A young palm lover who is also commercially growing some new species.

I live in Europe, in a mid-sized city, but I have no umbrella. No, I am not asking the readers of Chamaerops to send me money so I can buy an umbrella, but thank you anyway. I just don't need one. That is because I am one of the 600,000 people who live on the island of Tenerife. We are located beyond what you may think of as the boundaries of the European Union, but we are part of Spain. Our climate may be loosely characterized as a rainless, eternal spring, and this is one of the reasons why 11 million European tourists visit our islands every year. This, of course, is also why I don't need that device to keep my head dry.

How do palms grow in the rainless spring? The oceanic climate of Tenerife is really quite good for growing palms. It is equable and inflicts no thermal stresses. Private and public gardens on the island hold more than 600 palm species, and more species could be added to the list. The island has a surface of 2000 km2, and the climates of the northern and southern parts of the island differ greatly. The northern coast is cooler, cloudier and more moist than the southern coast, which is dry, sunny and warm. The absolute minimum temperature recorded in the north is 9°C, while on the southern coast the temperature has never fallen below 12°C. The hottest summer temperatures rarely exceed 30°C on both coasts.

Hundreds of palm species can be grown on both coasts, but the true warmth-loving tropicals do well only on the desert southern coast, and only if water and shade are provided.

As the altitude increases, the nights become much colder, though day temperatures remain warm. The climate at 600 to 900 m asl is comparable to that of the southern Mediterranean. Above 1000 m, frosts occur. The island is topped by the volcano Teide, at 3718 m, which experiences very hard frosts and snow. Few people grow palms in the highlands, which are usually considered too cold for most palms. Actually, some sheltered windless spots at 400-800 m could be interesting for planting high-altitude palms such as Ceroxylon or Trachycarpus.

If you live at sea level, temperatures are not a problem. The principal nightmares of the palm grower on Tenerife are wind, dry air, drought, too much sun and too little soil (here and there one can find outcrops of solid lava). Water quantity and water quality are probably the greatest limiting factors, and virtually all our palm losses have been due to lack of water. In our dry climate, much more irrigation is needed than in non-desert tropics or subtropics, and on Tenerife, water can be expensive, salty, hard, too alkaline, polluted, or--even worse--there can be no water at all!

A Cultural Symbol

The palm is unquestionably a prominent symbol in the visual culture of this island. Palm silhouettes appear on postcards, logotypes, and any kind of decoration, mural, or advertisment. Palms are simply everywhere, even during Carnival, when many disguises and sceneries feature palms. Once I saw a man dancing in the crowd with a 4-meter tall Veitchia joannis, which, in his alcoholic enthusiasm, he had surely uprooted and stolen from a city garden.
Phoenix leaves are used to decorate towns during festivals, and street cleaners still use them as brooms. And they use them by the thousands . . . scroushscroush! Even in the center of the largest city, one can hear the sound of the street being cleaned with a canariensis leaf, followed by the most technically advanced, automatic cleaning machines.

"Miel de palma" is the concentrated sap of P. canariensis. It is collected and produced through a complicated traditional procedure, and is served as a topping for desserts or fruit in fancy restaurants.

Even if the palm tree is fully integrated into the culture, local people are nonetheless conscious that is has an exotic quality. Together with the dragon tree (Dracaena draco) and the banana tree, palms make the Canaries the land of arborescent monocots, splashes of palmy colour in the grey sea of a deciduous Europe.

Palms on the Island - New Palms, New Surprises

In the next few lines, I will tell the story of an island that, until two decades ago, hosted just 10 or 15 palm species in its streets and public gardens. Today it may be one of the world's most palmy places.

The landscape has changed a great deal during the last few years. Private gardeners started to collect palms; the old botanic garden dramatically improved its collection; private nurseries began producing millions of palms for export; and city governments, and the politicians themselves, became interested in tropical gardens and palms. On top of this, tourism exploded, and the tourists begged for a tropical look. Lastly, a few years ago, work began on a new Palmetum, a palm botanical garden that is still under construction.

Public Gardens and Streets

Old palms--palms more than 50 years old--are limited to a few common species with a few exceptions that are chiefly grown at the old Jardín Botánico de La Orotava.

The "old favourites" of Tenerife are Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Howea forsteriana, Livistona chinensis, Phoenix canariensis, P. dactylifera, Roystonea regia, Trachycarpus fortunei, Washingtonia filifera, and W. robusta. In a few squares, one can find Phoenix rupicola, Chamaedorea pochutlensis and Howea belmoreana.

During the 1980's, a few new palm species, such as Dypsis lutescens and Rhapis excelsa, appeared in public spaces. During the 90's more species became common: Syagrus romanzoffiana, Hyophorbe vershaffeltii, and Phoenix roebelenii. In the last few years, the triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi, and the tropical Veitchia joannis have joined the show, and upcoming landscaping projects will soon introduce more than 20 new species. Among palms that are now unusual, but which are likely candidates to become "common," are Bismarckia nobilis, Chambeyronia macrocarpa, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, Latania spp., Ptychosperma elegans and Wodyetia bifurcata.

Our Native Palm

There is just one palm species native to the Canary Islands, but thankfully it is one of the largest and most beautiful species of the whole family, and maybe the most spectacular one of all. It is Phoenix canariensis. In the wild, Phoenix canariensis is much more attractive than it is in cultivation. Although wild populations have been dramatically reduced over the centuries, one can still find wild palm groves, some with hundred-year-old individuals more than 20 m tall. A few years ago, I published an extensive paper, with photographs, on this topic in Principes, so I will simply refer those who wish to read more to "Phoenix canariensis in the wild," Principes, April 1998 (Vol.42 N.2, pp.85–89, 92–93). Part of this paper is available on the Web at, and you can find the photograph that was featured as the cover of that issue at

The New Palmetum of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

A new botanical garden specializing in palms is being built in the main city of Tenerife, Santa Cruz. Already thousands of palms, representing 400 species, are surprising us with their vigorous growth. I won't describe the Palmetum here, as Jose-Manuel Zerolo has written an article, which will appear in the next issue of Chamaerops, in which he describes the Palmetum in detail.

Jardín Botánico de la Orotava

In Puerto de La Cruz, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island, there is a botanical garden that is two centuries old. The weather in Puerto de La Cruz is usually cloudy and not too hot. The garden contains more than 150 palm species, among which are some very interesting tropicals and beautiful old specimens of unusual genera. To list all of these would require more space than I am permitted here, but I wish to mention Cryosophila sp., Phytelephas macrocarpa, Pritchardia hillebrandtii, Pinanga kuhlii and many uncommon species of Areca, Chamaedorea and Roystonea. Genera from non-tropical climates also perform well there. A huge Jubaea chilensis and various species of Rhopalostylis and Trachycarpus all thrive in the eternal spring.

All this is part of a spectacularly lush vegetation of ancient tropical trees, Musaceae, Bromeliaceae, cycads and succulents, all of which are worth a visit. There is even a huge, old Encephalartos laurentianus that rivals Phoenix canariensis in crown size. Recently, the garden acquired a new, very large, empty, adjacent property and will dedicate 10,000 m2 of this space to American palms.

Private Gardens

The number of palmophiles on the island is growing rapidly, and they have developed some very beautiful private gardens, which are scattered throughout the islands. These gardens contain the most sought-after palms, such as many species of the delicate genera Johannesteijsmannia, Licuala, Beccariophoenix, and Pseudophoenix, all growing outdoors. Because these aficionados have the patience that commercial nurseries lack, they also raise slow-growing, hardier palms such as Coccothrinax, Jubaea and Hedyscepe.

Our Unofficial Palm Society

There is no local palm society on Tenerife, but during the past two or three years a good-sized group of palm friends has begun to gather from time to time. More than 40 "members" of this informal society meet every few months. We frequently enjoy slide lectures (sometimes about a member's travels in search of palms), and sometimes an overseas visitor will speak to us about his or her specialty or garden. Our palm community is diverse. Of course it includes palm aficionados, but it also includes scientists, nurserymen, students, lecture-addicts and curious "globetrotters." Rather than creating an isolated island chapter, we encourage each other to join other palm societies so we can get "fresh exotic news."


The production of ornamental plants is a lively industry in the Canaries, and palms are among the most commonly planted ornamentals. Some large nurseries produce huge quantities of common species for export. This is the case with Rhapis and Howea (kentia). Producers in Northern Tenerife maintain several million tall, mature kentias to produce seed for this industry. It is hard to believe how many seeds, seedlings, boxes, trolleys, and pots move behind the kentia industry. Other less common species are also produced in large quantites. These include Phoenix roebellenii, Dypsis lutescens and Hyophorbe verschaffeltii. Recently, a few nurserymen started to grow unusual palms for collectors. Up to 150 species of mostly young plants can be found in some of these nurseries.

Palms in the Urban Landscape

I wish to end this essay with a slice of life on the island. I live on the 6th floor of a building in the very heart of Santa Cruz, right in the middle of a pretty and peaceful part of town that is home to offices and shops. People walk down my street 20 hours a day.

Nevertheless, from my balcony I enjoy an absolute minimum temperature of 16°C and the sight of four Cassia fistula; two old, branched Dracaena draco; an Adansonia digitata that is four meters tall; a row of three Washingtonia; a long line of 27 Veitchia joannis mixed with V. macdanielsii; one Howea forsteriana; a clump of four Syagrus romanzoffiana; and the faraway branch of an olive tree.

A few shrubs native to the Canaries (Euphorbia obtusifolia, Aeonium holochrysum and Argyranthemum spp.) grow beneath one of the dragon trees. There are also six or seven Delonix regia, a line of 12 young Brachychiton acerifolium, two Tipuana tipu and some 40 Robinia hispida that cannot shed their leaves and so look untidy in this "winterless" climate (I find they break the harmony of the general landscape). Groundcovers such as lavenders, ivies, petunias and poinsettias come and go. Parakeets, pigeons and blackbirds fly freely around, and there are human beings everywhere.

I must admit that it actually does rain here, but only 300 mm per year, concentrated in winter. The usual showers can wet your hair slightly, but the drops evaporate before they can reach your scalp. We can get two or three real rains each year, but by the time I decide to buy an umbrella, the rain has stopped and the rainy season is over.


I wish to express my gratitude to Ken Banks, editor of the Palm Society of Hawaii who has patiently revised this article and my English spellings.

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