The Botanical Gardens at Puerto de la Cruz, or El Jardín de Aclimatación de la Orotava, to give them their proper title, have a fascinating, if chequered, history.
Conceived by King Carlos III of Spain in 1788, the original purpose of the Gardens was to house examples of flora from all corners of Spain’s then still considerable empire. However, as the Spanish title suggests, the Gardens were not constructed to be merely some sort of horticultural museum. The King proposed that the plants should be brought from their tropical homes in Asia, Africa and Australia and allowed to acclimatise, before being shipped to Spain’s most renowned Botanical Garden in Madrid.
Puerto de la Cruz, with its near perfect climate, was chosen, and under the stewardship of Alonso de Nova y Gimon (a politician and businessman, who was in it more for the personal esteem than out of any horticultural interest) work began at a breathtaking pace. And then it all went wrong.
Although being completed in less than six months, the birth of the Gardens was not a happy time. The initial director, an Englishman who had previously worked at Kew, struggled with the language and was not popular with his fellow workers. No tears were shed when he departed a few months later. Then, when after six months of acclimatisation the first seeds and saplings were transported to the mainland, they all died; indeed, very few examples even survived the boat journey. Worse was yet to come.
Before he even managed to see the Gardens in person, Carlos III died. His successor, Carlos IV (I think it would be fair to speculate that Carlos was a popular name at the time) had little interest in this botanical ‘white elephant’.
In his defence however, he did have several more pressing matters on his proverbial plate, such as the unwanted attentions of Napoleon Bonaparte.
After this inauspicious start, things grew, if anything, grimmer. At various times during the past 200 years the site has been near to dereliction, only to be pulled back from the brink by some (usually foreign) saviour. The fact that the Gardens still exist at all is due largely to the efforts of two men – Frans Josef Wildpret (a Swiss) and Eric Sventenius (a Swede) – who in different centuries came to the rescue when no others were willing to try. Their stories are equally fascinating and deserve far more attention than can be afforded here.
Entering the Gardens, the first thing you notice is not some astounding tree or plant, but instead the wonderful aura of natural serenity that pervades throughout. As someone who hails from Santa Cruz – where car drivers are more inclined to use their horn than their brakes – the tranquillity is as refreshing as it is unusual. Strolling idly amongst colourful blooms and accompanied by a soundtrack of birdsong and scrabbling lizards, for a few minutes I simply revel in the historically charged ambience. With the sun shining hazily through the foliage, the setting feels almost timeless. So enchanted am I by my green and pleasant surroundings that in a dream-like state I only narrowly avoid impaling myself on a truly murderous looking cactus. And he’s not alone.
Deciding to leave anything with needle-like spines well alone for the time being, I turn my back on the cacti only to find myself face to face with another sinister monstrosity, this time in the form of the 40-metre high Higuera de la Isla Lord Howe. Named after an 18th Century British Admiral (though not because of any physical similarity I trust), this brute would be perfectly at home in any Gothic film or evil fairy tale. With a mass of entwining trunks at the base, the Higueira’s branches spout boughs that plunge vertically into the earth, providing a much-needed source of natural scaffolding. Growing upwards and outwards simultaneously, I pity the timid palm that tries to stand in its way.
Having escaped the combined clutches of the cacti and Higueira, I take a breather and spend a few minutes watching gaily coloured dragonflies dipping their red, green and blue tails into the small fountain situated at the very centre of the Gardens. Feeling muscles loosen and tension dissolving, I’m already convinced that I’ll stay here until physically ejected. Other inhabitants of the fountain also include the world’s most lethargic turtles, who refuse point blank to enter the water, whatever the reward or provocation.
Continuing my tour, I suddenly discover the Garden’s Achilles Heel – information. Although most of the exhibits are clearly labelled, with no pamphlet or public guides available I find myself continually frustrated at not being able to discover further the history of the incredibly varied exhibits. For example, I’d love to know what the fruit of the Árbol de las Salchichas (the Sausage tree) looks like. And was it purely coincidental that the Árbol del Pan (The Bread tree) could be found right next door?
But organisation has obviously never been El Jardín’s strong point. Quizzing amiable Head Botanist, Arnoldo Santos Guerra, about the lack of publicity, I soon discover that in many ways, not so much has changed since the days when every Spanish king was named Carlos.
“The future is never certain,” he admits readily. “There is always talk of expanding the Gardens, the plans have all been made up (I saw them), we just need to be given the final go ahead.”
I fear he may have been saying this for a long time now and could well be repeating it a good few more times in the future.
But for me, the uncertainty and controversy that has surrounded the Gardens since their inception over 200 years ago just adds to their allure. For whereas most botanical gardens have been lovingly nurtured from their conception, El Jardín has become used to contending with ridicule, neglect and a touch of apathy.
Also, the knowledge that many of the specimens have survived in spite, rather than because of their treatment through the centuries, gives the whole collection a far more natural, unaffected character. And while at present the future may be unclear, the collection of plants and trees is the largest and healthiest it’s ever been.
King Carlos III would have been proud.
The Botanical Gardens at Puerto de la Cruz are open 09.00 – 18.00 weekdays and 09.00 – 19.00 weekends.