The rubbish dump was officially closed in 1983 leaving a 40-metre high mountain of waste devoid of vegetation, the wind sweeping over its barren surface, transporting dust, salty residue and unpleasant odours from the fermenting refuse. In the following years, the city publicly debated what to do with this space. Various ideas were considered: restoring the neighbourhood, building an auditorium and other landmarks; but the hill was forgotten about for several years. In the early 90s, serious consideration was given to the idea of Manuel Caballero, agronomist and palm tree lover and connoisseur, who proposed a botanical project on the defunct rubbish dump.
The idea went from drawing board to reality and the media started talking about the Palmetum. Building began in 1996, and about four million euros were invested in this initial phase, mostly from European funds. The project directors were Manuel Caballero and civil engineers José Luís Olcina and Juan Alfredo Amigó. The hill began to change shape and the debris was turfed over, paths were built and an extensive gas extraction system was installed with wells, pumps and a gas flare.
At the same time, the Palmetum collection was being acquired. In the spring of 1996, the biologist Carlo Morici was hired to take charge of all things botanical and to set up a network of technicians. Most of the species were germinated in a greenhouse from seeds imported from various countries and which often come from botanical institutions that provide documented data on each plant.
Work on the hill was now in full stride: the Octagon, the palm museum, streams, waterfalls and other structures were being built.
A Fine Arts graduate, Carlos Simón, was hired to make the project more distinctive, by designing the waterfalls and the stonework near the streams and lakes. Simón was well-versed in tropical plants and he oversaw the first palm tree plantations. These included large imported specimens, in particular Roystonea, Sabal, Cocos, Elaeis and Acoelorrhaphe, and over a hundred medium-sized species. Some of theFicus,enormous trees that may now be admired in various geographical sections, were planted, as were some of the trees in the Octagon and the line of windbreak trees on the north and east sides of the hilltop.
The early life of these plants was tough. After the stress of transplanting them on to the still barren hillside, they required months or years to fully recover.
At the same time, the collection of seeds and plants grew to over 400 palm species. Partnerships were formed with other botanical gardens throughout the world and trips to tropical countries were organised to acquire unique species for the collection, to study local palm tree populations and to secure relevant ethnographic artefacts.
Another building under construction was the Palm Museum, the purpose of which is to exhibit botanical and ethnographic objects. The American Dennis Johnson was in charge of obtaining the first objects of a varied collection of documented items, from hats to sculptures, medicines and canoes.
The first phase of the works was completed and the project was put on hold, the park was closed and the gardens received minimal maintenance. Some of the most fragile plants died and others were removed to municipal greenhouses. Less than a third of the hill was landscaped, but time passed and the more successful specimens continued to grow, “creating the landscape”.
Minor advances were made in 2000 and 2002 when the Town Council signed off on two work agreements with the employment office. The Pacific Island sections were created and species added that now take pride of place in the park: trees such as the baobabs, “belly” palms, araucarias and mangroves. Carlo Morici was brought back on board as technical director, and he has overseen developments since that date. He was also put in charge of designing the plantations and new gardens.
For many during these years, the Palmetum seemed to be an abandoned work, but others followed the park’s evolution with interest and admiration. Articles were published in international journals and in late 2004 a group from the French palm society “Fous de Palmiers” paid an official visit to the Palmetum.
In that same year the current boundaries of the biogeographical sections were laid out, with more space being allocated to the islands of the world and the Palmetum garden plan was presented at the conference of the International Biogeography Society.
The specimens planted ten years earlier were now beginning to show signs of accelerated growth, but less than half of the hill had yet been planted and vast empty spaces still remained. In 2007, the project was reactivated with funding from the Government of the Canary Islands and the Town Council.
The government took charge of restoring and improving the immense irrigation and gas extraction systems, and remodelling the more than three hectares of south-facing slopes, which were still strewn with debris.
In 2007 planting began on two new sections dedicated to Papua New Guinea and Borneo and the Philippines and, in late 2007, the council delivered on a maintenance and improvement plan for the botanical gardens. The collections began to grow again and gaps in the landscaped plateau were filled. Since that moment, a digital record has been kept of the cultivated species and a computerised map of the hill with all the specimens together with their corresponding reference codes.
Also in 2007 the Palmetum went “green” through the use of organic mulch and by no longer using herbicides and pesticides. Furthermore, reclaimed water from municipal sewage began to be used for irrigation. These changes were introduced thanks to the determination of Aurea Baena and María Flores of the Department of Parks and Gardens, who wanted an entirely sustainable public park; indeed, this is the first of its kind in all Spain. Perhaps this is also the reason why birdlife has become more abundant in recent years and why, in 2009, long-eared owls were found breeding in the Octagon.
In spring 2010major building work began, the goal of which was to open the doors of the Palmetum to visitors in less than two years. Paths, squares and viewpoints were asphalted or lined with stones. Labelling, signage, lighting, railings, benches and bins were placed around the park. In addition, the two-storey entrance building was constructed together with a tower and a bridge linking up the hilltop, toilets, a new service greenhouse and maintenance rooms. The transformation is complete: the Palmetum has become a park worthy of the name, with footpaths and squares, and no longer looks like an ongoing experiment.
Once the work was completed in October 2011, a meeting of the directors of the International Palm Society took place in Tenerife, culminating in a visit to the Palmetum. Leading lights from the world of palm trees came to admire the progress that had been made.
In autumn 2013, a first step was taken towards opening the park to the public when guided tours were offered by the Sustainable Santa Cruz Foundation. In preparation for the opening, the park was filled for the first time with colourful herbaceous plants. The first bromeliads were brought into the Octagon and popular species were added, such as red banana and vanilla. Over 2000 people visited the previously unknown Palmetum and were surprised to see that the rubbish tip was no more. Many visits ended in applause and finally the Palmetum made the local news and ceased to be a closed-off project, hidden from the public at large.
On 28 January 2014, after about 18 years of work, the Palmetum was inaugurated at last by Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia, now the King and Queen of Spain. The event was organised by the City of Santa Cruz and attended by prominent personalities of the Canary Islands. An hour-long leisurely stroll through the gardens on a splendid sunny morning, accompanied by local dignitaries and members of the technical team, was followed by an opening ceremony which culminated in the planting of a sapling of the Jamaican species Roystonea Princeps, the “prince of royal palms”. This palm now grows strong near the waterfall in the Caribbean section.
For this visit, the Palmetum was decked in the finest apparel and many gardens were finally completed: final touches were applied to the park and new species planted. The gardens surrounding the entrance building were planted and the Octagon refilled with bromeliads, aroids and other attractive herbaceous plants. Since the inauguration, the Palmetum has remained open to the public. Today it is taking its first steps to become a permanent fixture for both the city and the world. Planting continues along with a multitude of improvements.
Diario de Avisos, 15 March 1991, front page and pages 6 and 7 (in Spanish)
El Dia, 20 March 1991, “The Palmetum, an ambitious project in the Parque Maritimo” (in Spanish)
La Gaceta de Canarias, 14 February 1992, page 11 “The Parque Maritimo, a tropical garden that rescues the sea for the city” (in Spanish)
El Dia, 14 February 1992 front page and page 8 “Ambitious project for the future” (in Spanish)
Diario de Avisos, 14 February 1992, front page and pages 8 and 9 “the park will be wonderful” (in Spanish)
El Dia, 17 May 1992, page 14 “The foundations of the Parque Maritimo have been laid” (in Spanish)
El Dia, 20 May 1992, page 14 “The Palmetum, a tropical garden for recreation” (in Spanish)
El Dia, 18 October 2004, page 12 “A group of French enthusiasts visit the unfinished Palmetum” (in Spanish)
El Dia, 23 September 1996, page 24 “The oasis of science” (in Spanish)
La Provincia, 15 November 1998, page 38 “Santa Cruz will be home to one of the largest palm tree parks in the world” (in Spanish)