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  • Sue

Is this the ultimate dry garden?

We are on holiday - island hopping in the Atlantic while our alter egos, Dick and Susie, (yes really) stay at our house in France to look after plants and livestock. At the moment we are on Lanzarote, an island which does not get much rain.

Lanzarote is a lump of lava - the product of many eruptions over millions of years - and is part of the Canary Island chain of volcanic landforms. Lanzarote's last eruption was in 1824, but the heat is still close to the surface, as you can see (and feel) for yourself if you visit its National Park. Consequently, the island remains volcanic in character with surreal landforms created from contorted larval extrusions, the finer particles of which form the island's soil, attracting and holding whatever water there is - which is minimal - throughout the year. The indigenous plants are, by definition, drought resistant and highly adapted to their challenging environment.

About 20 years ago we first visited a garden created here by César Manrique, a locally born artist who died in 1992. At that point the garden was about 12 years old and, although established, did not demonstrate the maturity and size of cacti which are present today.

Welcome to the garden.........this cactus is a fake, however.....

The garden is built inside the rim of an extinct volcano which protects the plants from Lanzarote's searing winds. As you park your car outside the rim the first plant of any significance is an enormous fake cactus - vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Koons' puppy which stands outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao. At this point my hopes of encountering a serious garden were somewhat dashed. However, on that first visit we continued into the volcano's caldera and found an astonishing variety of cacti and succulents - many from other dry spots around the world, but all xerophytes - that is to say designed to survive in a physiologically arid habitat.

This really is a garden you cannot emulate at home. Most of these cacti and succulents - such as aloes and agaves - will not survive in France, but some do. I have planted an Agave Americana and an Aloe striata with success. So far they have survived down to about -7C as they are planted against a SW facing stone wall and have excellent drainage. I also have an Opuntia (prickly pear) in a pot which stays outside - neighbours have them growing in an open, roadside position all year round - and we have a Cleistocactus in a pot which survives (rather than thrives) outside. However, in December we had a very cold spell while I was in the UK and a large Kalanchoe thyrisifolia died. It lived in a pot and I would bring it into the house each winter, but this year it had not received enough protection (only got as far as the barn) and was reduced to sludge before I got home. You cannot be too careful.

I am told there are about 450 different species in the garden and they are displayed against astonishing hard landscaping - steps and footpaths created from black cinders, extraordinary extrusions which act as standing stones between and beside enormous vertical cacti and the black, black shingle which is finely ground magma. Even the gates are designed in the form of stylised cacti. Here are some photos - they are more eloquent than I could ever be. Just bear in mind the scale of the plants as you look at them. I have tried to include a few people in some photos to give an impression of the size.

These Echinocacti were perhaps each up to 60 cm tall.

Not sure what this one was, but it looks like The Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Looking into the crater from the rim. The "trees" you can see are actually candelabra euphorbias which will have been planted when the garden was in its infancy. You can see the crater of another extinct volcano in the background.

Cactus themed gates....

And the inevitable cactus which looks a bit rude ... it is actually a Pingpong-ball Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

This is commonly known as a Foxtail Agave - the foxtail-like inflorescence being reminiscent of those found on foxtail lilies.

This sweet little thing is a species of mammillaria - and it does make me think of a furry little mammal. It is only about 20 cm tall.

And here are several of them edging steps made from magma.

Richard near a candelabra euphorbia. It is difficult to believe that this is a member of the same family as poinsettias and the euphorbias I grow in my own garden.

One for the family, some extraordinary volcanic extrusions and vast columnar cacti including, I think, a saguaro cactus (back right). These would normally take up to 100 years to reach this size. It is nice (and rare) to be one of the youngest things in the photo these days.

Manrique's garden won the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens in 2017, acknowledging the importance of this garden as a site which is rich in natural, historic and creative value. His wider work to preserve the island's natural environment and extraordinary ecology in the face of relentless tourism is of even greater value.

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