Lanzarote is an arid little Spanish owned island located at the eastern end of the Canaries archipelago.
The western coast of Africa and the outer fringes of the Sahara Desert are just 80km away – and as a result Lanzarote shares a similar climate, with annual rainfall figures on the island rarely pushing much beyond 150mm per year.
Drought has always been a major issue for islanders. There are no substantial natural water sources or springs here, so growing conditions have typically been challenging.
The challenge is further compounded by the Trade Winds that sweep across Lanzarote from April through until August – drying out plants and crops.
Massive volcanic eruptions during the 18th and 19th centuries left around one third of the island’s surface area buried beneath a sea of solidified lava.
So as a result locals here have always been forced to adapt to survive – and since the last eruption on the island in the 1820’s local farmers have used volcanic chippings, called picon, to protect and mulch crops and plants.
The porous picon captures moisture from overnight dew - enabling the cultivation of a wide array of plants and agribusinesses.
Arguably the most unusual of which is the tunera cactus – Opuntia ficus-indica.
An import from Mexico in the 1800’s that is more commonly known as prickly pear, barbary fig and nopal and has long been cultivated primarily for its fruit in arid and semi-arid parts of the world.
On Lanzarote though local farmers were far more interested in this plant’s appeal to the cochineal beetles which they would then harvest and crush to create a vibrant, natural carmine coloured dye.
Cochineal production became a major business on the island during the 19th century – hundreds of acres were given over to the cultivation of tunera in and around the village of Guatiza with many locals growing wealthy as the end product was shipped to key markets such as England – where the dye was used to colour drinks, sweets and even the red coats of the military.
This business began to fade away in the late 1890’s however as synthetic dyestuffs hit the market.
But the legacy of the tunera cactus lives on in Lanzarote, thanks to the creation of the Cactus Garden in Guatiza by the famous local artist and architect Cesar Manriquem who in collaboration with the eminent botanist Estanislao Gonzales Ferrer fashioned an amazing dry garden packed with around 10,000 cacti and succulents in the bowl like amphitheater of an old quarry.
It’s impossible for visitors to miss the Cactus Garden, as its presence is announced by a stunning 10 metre-high metal cactus sculpture which towers over the entrance way.
Cactus motifs adorn and decorate the site and are woven into features such as doorways and gates.
The planting here encompasses a wide range of drought loving plants, extending beyond cacti alone to include succulents, agaves, aloes and aeoniums.
The bulk of the height and structure is provided by mature, giant Euphorbia abyssinica, a plant endemic to Ethiopia and Somalia with an almost tree like structure.
Colonies of the golden barrel cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, are peppered across the site.
This provides a recurring motif in high traffic areas of the garden such as the main entrance way and the restaurant area, whilst eye catching specimens such as Pachypodium lamerei and rare species of agave all combine to create a stunning and at times surreal display of the plant world’s spiniest species.
Whenever we visit we like to wend our way up through the terrace levels, which allow visitors to enjoy a magnificent view down and across the site and into the countryside beyond. Which is still heavily planted with the tunera cactus, providing a direct link back to the history and heritage of the gardens.
Here visitors can also pause for refreshment at the restaurant – where a Cactus Burger takes pride of place on the menu!
It’s surprisingly tasty too – and is made from around 50% tunera cactus combined with potato, corn and onion, served on a tomato bread bun.
Cactus Garden is a real must see for visitors to Lanzarote and is the
only botanical gardens on the island, welcoming over 350,000 visitors