Palms on La Palma

by Ed Croft, Icklesham, East Sussex, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 45, published online 29-01-2003

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From left to right:
- Livistona chinensis at Argual.
- Brahea armata at the Palmex Cactus Garden.
- Phoenix dactylifera at Argual, suckering high up on the trunk.
Photos: Ed Croft
Artwork: Rudolph Maria Spanner

La Palma is the most westerly of the Canary Islands at 29° North and 18° West. It is one of the lesser-known Canary Islands and tourism has not taken off in the same way as it has on some of the other islands such as Tenerife and Lanzarote. Visitors to the island are mainly Spanish mainlanders and Germans, although there is a smattering of visitors from other northern European countries. La Palma is particularly attractive to ramblers given the mountainous and forested landscape.

In broad terms, the climate on La Palma is not the same as that which offers islands like Fuerteventura and Lanzarote long days of unbroken sunshine, but more like the climate seen in the north of both Tenerife and Gran Canaria, where cloudy days are common and rain is relatively frequent. As a result of this climate, La Palma is known as 'La Isla Bonita' (the pretty island) because of its lush green vegetation. The predominant wind direction is from the northeast and as a consequence the northern and eastern coasts are more breezy and cooler than the western and southern coasts.

The ridge of volcanoes running down the centre of the southern half of the island and the Caldera de Taburiente in the north of the island divides the island into two differing climatic zones which favour different palms. The northern and eastern sides of the island are cooler and wetter whereas the Southwest is noticeably humid, hotter, and distinctly less windy. This is important as Cocos nucifera is now being used by landscapers in increasing numbers. In other islands such as Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, Cocos nucifera will grow but I think it is fair to say that they do not thrive because of the low rain fall, strong winds, and perhaps the cooler evening temperatures. Specimens in those islands often look wind battered and the fronds take on a dark, unhealthy appearance. The humid, wetter and less breezy conditions on La Palma suit this palm well and there are many thriving specimens to be seen. There are a group of about 50 contented Cocos nucifera thriving in a black sandy beach at Puerto Naos on the humid western side of the island and a number of others close to the beach at Tazacorte in a landscaped garden that also contains Syagrus romanzoffiana, Phoenix canariensis and many fine specimens of Washingtonia filifera. The dead leaves and leaf-bases have been completely removed from the Washingtonias, leaving a bare, rust coloured trunk. Also at Tazacorte are two good, but young, examples of Sabal minor at the northern end of the beach.

Moving inland there are several interesting and unusual sights west of Los Llanos at a village called Argual. For the first time ever I saw a mature Phoenix dactylifera which, at a height of three metres up the trunk, had actually produced a sucker. Nearby in the old village square were four Livistona chinensis with fine stout trucks and those lovely fan-shaped leaves with drooping tips. In the grounds of a house that bordered the square were two huge Roystonea regia, the tallest examples I had ever seen, thriving in the humid climate.

As is common in many European and North African holiday destinations, Washingtonia filifera were everywhere to be seen (there are some very mature examples in the gardens of the Sol Elite Hotel in Puerto Naos). Less common, however, is Washingtonia robusta. There are a few specimens dotted around La Palma, the best example being a 20 m one in the centre of Los Llanos behind the church. It is a real beauty, particularly if you haven't seen a mature Washingtonia robusta before.

South of Los Llanos is the Palmex Cactus Garden, run by a very friendly (non-English speaking) German couple. At four euros it is well worth a visit to see the amazing variety of cacti and succulents, many of which were in flower at the time of our visit in November 2001. In particular there was a mature Agave americana with a huge 6 m flower that had gone to seed, but there were also many other examples of large cacti, other types of Agave and Aloe, as well as several varieties of cycad which would excite the exotic enthusiast. The most interesting specimen in the garden, however, was neither a cactus nor a succulent but a very sturdy Brahea armata that, at 2.5 m tall, had formed a stout truck with a crown of very stiff, pale blue leaves all in beautiful condition. A real treat! Sadly this was the only one I saw on the island. (Incidentally, when you visit the Palmex Cactus Garden, as part of the entrance fee you receive a packet of cacti/succulent seeds to propagate so that you can start your own cactus garden.)

If you are a Phoenix canariensis fan you would be delighted to see many fine mature examples, with trunks up to 8-10 m, growing on the wetter and cooler eastern side of the island, viewed clearly from the LP1 and LP2 main roads. The regular rainfall has meant that these palms have formed a thick head of bright green fronds free from wind or drought burned tips. Super!

Near the centre of the village of Las Manchas, on the road to the wine museum, was the one and only mature Trachycarpus fortunei that I have seen in the Canary Islands, although I have heard that there are others around. There are few places where both Trachycarpus and Cocos nucifera will grow happily together, and the Canary Islands is certainly one of the them.

In shadier spots here and there were many Howea forsteriana, some with healthy green trunks up to 3 m in length. Rare, but also seen from time to time, were Phoenix roebelenii and Rhapis excelsa.

The biggest industry on La Palma is not tourism but bananas. Even as one flies into the airport, banana plantations are evident. Most of the arable land lower than 500 m altitude is occupied by banana plantations, except where the rocky terrain is too steep. Many people are employed in what is a relatively labour intensive industry and you can almost always be sure that there is a plantation worker toiling in the small, one to two acre plots. In between these plots I found two wholesale palm nurseries. The first had over 100 large Washingtonia filifera of between 3 and 4 m, planted in the ground in rows, hundreds of 150 cm Cocos nucifera in pots, many young Phoenix canariensis also in pots, and a rather neglected clump of Dypsis lutescens. Sadly there was nobody around who I could talk to about these plants. The second nursery was more of a mystery as someone had planted, in rows, perhaps as many as 120 Washingtonia filifera with trunks of about 1 m in height and then, at some point, had simply abandoned the plot. Unfortunately, this was in the drier south west of the island and all but perhaps 15 of the palms had died through lack of watering. It was a very sad sight indeed to see this Washingtonia graveyard. Most of the 15 survivors, however, bordered directly onto one of the heavily watered banana plantations and I believe that water had seeped into the plot. These plants had continued to grow well and had reached a trunk height of 2 - 3 m when I saw them.

Ubiquitous on La Palma are both the blue and variegated forms of Agave americana, particularly on the eastern side. They appear to grow out of almost any surface at almost any angle and produce little suckers freely. Also common is Agave attenuata, one of the most beautiful of all succulents with a fine rosette of unarmed, lime-green leaves. Incidentally, if you are an Agave fan and live in the south east of England, there are some very large Agave americana on the seafronts at Hastings and Eastbourne. Both the blue and variegated versions are growing well in our cooler climate.

Lastly, whilst we may fuss and worry over our favourite plants, some of the locals on La Palma have a more casual approach. Most notably I saw a Cocos nucifera growing happily from an old, rusty oil drum and a fine Aloe vera growing in an old metal paint tin in a dive shop doorway.

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