Tenerife – A botanical hotspot

Saturday 24 October 2015

Jenny Bovaird attended the third annual lecture organised by Plant Heritage’s Cambridge branch and reports on it here. [Lower case Roman numbers in brackets refer to the footnotes.]

This lecture was given in memory of Max Walters (i) who was a renowned botanist, taxonomist and academic at Cambridge University. The speaker was Timothy Walker (ii) from Oxford. Around 90 –100 people attended, among them a number of specialist gardeners and horticulturalists.

Timothy focused on Tenerife as an example of an island within a group of islands that gave it especial importance in terms of biodiversity. The speaker began with an overview of the importance of islands to biodiversity and speciation and therefore to the science of taxonomy. Tenerife was used as an example because of the wide range of plants that grow there and nowhere else, plants which are found in similar climates but have developed differently and issues relating to non-native species.

He discussed the impact of the geology especially the influence of Mount Teide volcano, at 3718 metres the highest point above sea level of all the Atlantic islands and the highest mountain in Spain.

He took us on the tour of the island following in the footsteps of his students’ field trip. It was designed to highlight different species, microclimates and zones. Indeed, as Timothy pointed out, there are even ravines which are so isolated that they are subject to speciation.

Many of the plants mentioned occur across the Mediterranean and in name would be familiar to all of us who garden within that zone for example euphorbias, cistus, pinus, convolvulus, geraniums and many more. But what he also showed us was how they have changed and adapted to the island conditions. Euphorbias for example become tree-like with woody branches while Pinus canariensis will sprout after fire.

The talk was erudite and fascinating because Timothy Walker was not just very knowledgeable but witty and amusing. As nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur I struggled at times to keep up with the science but it was very worthwhile and I learned a lot.

Jenny Bovaird

Note: Timothy Walker gave a lecture about Mediterranean climate plants at the MPG AGM in 2016.

(i) Director of the Botanic Garden from 1973-1983. Curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium from 1947 to 1973 and was University Lecturer in Botany. Founder member of the Cambridge and Isle of Ely Naturalist’s Trust . Received the Victoria Medal from the RHS in 1984 recognition of his contributions to botany and botanic gardens, and eleven years later was awarded the Linnaean Medal for Botany for his work on British plants.

(ii) Formerly Horti Praefectus then Director of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum. Currently a stipendiary lecturer in Plant Sciences at Somerville College Oxford. Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London.