Indigenous flora of the Canary Islands

One of the main appeals of visiting the Canary Islands is being able to closely observe the unique vegetation they are home to, overflowing with indigenous species – i.e. species naturally occurring in these islands only. To understand the reasons why this flora is unique, we have to go back in time to the first emergence of the archipelago from the bottom of the ocean, some 20 million years ago, when seeds – and animals – coming from the North Africa and southern Europe colonized the islands – either floating, flying, or attached to various surfaces. Once settled, geographical and spatial isolation due to the distance to the mainland and to the other islands, the high altitude, the intricate orography and the many microclimates originated as a result of all of the above, caused these species to evolve into unique forms. This process explains the high number of endemic species found in the Canary Islands biodiversity, with plants, fungi and animals amounting to over 3,600 species and 600 subspecies. What is more, in the first decade of this century alone, an average of one Canarian species or subspecies new to science was described every six days. This makes the Archipelago the most relevant biodiversity hub in the European Union and one of the most prominent in the world. They are for the most part regional indigenous species found in one island, even locally, restricted to one mountain, ravine or cliff. However, there are also many endemic species common to the archipelagos of the Macaronesia: Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde and, to a lesser extent, the Savage Islands, most of their biodiversity having originated in Europe.

Yet another interesting fact is the way in which the species are grouped in the islands, depending on the climate, altitude and orientation in different strips, more or less horizontal all around the island, in which the dominant plant species give character to the whole strip, which is why they are generically known as vegetation floors, each of which is named after the dominant(s) species (cardonal-tabaibal coastal shrubs, pine tree forest, etc.). In all of them we can find uniquely beautiful species that in addition hold great ecological importance, out of which we will list only the most emblematic.

Focusing on Tenerife, sweeping from the coast to the mountains, the first floor of vegetation we can find belongs to a sub-desert climate and is known as cardonal-tabaibal; these are the names of the two spurges dominating the area. The “cardón” (Euphorbia canariensis) is a spurge in the shape of a candelabra that can grow up to 4m of width. Between the arms of this apparent cactus, many other endemic flora and fauna species of great interest take shelter, in the manner of a true community. The “cardón” is usually side by side to the “tabaiba dulce” (Euphorbia balsamifera), a beautiful stocky shrub that changes colour over the seasons, or the evergreen “balo” (Plocama pendula), and many other plants that almost go unnoticed but breathe life into these lands which at a first glance seem devoid of vegetation. In order to see a cardonal-tabaibal in all its glory, it is best to walk around the trails of the Malpaís de Güímar badlands, a Protected Natural Space, in which visitors can wander among the lava flows, whose whimsical shapes complete this unique volcanic landscape.

The next floor of vegetation, known as thermophilic forest, boasting more water resources and warmer temperatures than the previous one, consists of two main species; the Canarian palm tree (Phoenix canariensis), cultivated all over the world due to its great ornamental value, and the dragon tree (Dracaena draco), notorious for the longevity of some specimens. The palm tree can be found all over the island, on roadsides and gardens of all types, but it is at its best in natural palm groves, such as those in La Rambla de Castro or Barranco del Cercado ravine, in San Andrés. In regards to the dragon tree, it is worth visiting the one in Icod de Los Vinos, which is about 800 years old and is surrounded by a park home to many other endemic species.

The next floor is located from 600 to 1,200m of altitude, and is affected by the trade winds. Rainfall in these areas is close to 1,000 mm per year. This is the strip where the laurel forest can be found, with species such as the laurel tree (Laurus novocanariensis), the “viñátigo” (Persea indica), or the acebiño (llex canariensis), among others. Above the laurel forest, from 1,400 to 1,500m of altitude, a floor of vegetation known as the misty forest or “monteverde”, consisting of heathers (Erica arborea) and myrtles (Morella faya) mainly, can be found. To see these trees and the understory vegetation living alongside them, we recommend that visitors take a trip to the Anaga Rural Park, a newly UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Leeward, in the strip corresponding to the “misty forest” and above it up to 2,300m of altitude windward, the next floor is represented by pine groves, the centre of which is the Canarian pine tree (Pinus canariensis). It is an invaluable endemic species due to its capacity to adjust to many soil types and its ability to sprout back after suffering moderate fire. Visitors will have the opportunity to enjoy the aroma and freshness of these trees on the Monte de La Esperanza, but some other rather curious pine forests can be found in the area of San José de los Llanos, where the trees grow among lava flows, demonstrating their colonialist nature.

Above the pine forest, up to 2,000m of altitude, weather conditions are already extreme. These are the foothills of Mount Teide, and only a few species can withstand these altitudes. The ones that do are endemic to the island for the most part; some of the most significant species found there are the Teide broom (Spartocytisus supranubius) and the red bugloss (Echium wildpretii). In addition to the above-mentioned species, on all vegetation floors, according to the time of the year, we can find numerous endemic small-sized species with attractive flowers that add a touch a colour to the area, such as the houseleek (Limonium spp.), the St John’s wort (Lotus spp.), the bugloss (Echium spp.), and the sage (Salvia spp.), to name but a few.

The best way to understand the uniqueness of Canarian flora is taking a stroll through one of the many protected natural spaces; well preserved areas in which visitors will be able to see the vegetation along the trails or along the roads criss-crossing them.

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