International Palm Society LogoPhoenix canariensis in the Wild

Reprinted with permission from the April 1998 issue of Principes, Vol 42, No 2
Journal of the International Palm Society (Renamed as Palms in 1999)

© 1998 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


Departamento de Biologta Vegetal (Boldnica), Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife 38071, Canary Islands, Spain


Phoenix canariensis is one of the most grown and appreciated ornamental trees of the world. Its native habitat, the Canary Islands, is renowned for its richness in climatic diversity and its endemic flora. This Phoenix apparently did not radiate, as did many other plants, but succeeded in colonizing many different ecological niches. In each of these environments, it grows associated with different ecological communities and often shows an astonishing diversity of epiphytes on its fibrous trunks. The wild populations suffered a dramatic decrease during the early centuries of the Spanish colonization of the islands, which started at the end of the 15th century. Today P canariensis is sparsely and un-evenly distributed on all the seven islands and the conservation status is different on each of them. The main threat seems to be hybridization with P dactylifera.


Phoenix canariensis es uno de los árboles ornamentales más plantados y apreciados del mundo. Su hábitat de procedencia, las Islas Canarias, es conocido por an riqueza en diversidad climática y so flora endémica. Esta especie de Phoenix aparentemente no sufrió radiación, como pasó a muchas otras plantas, pero tuvo éxito en colonizer muchos nichos ecológicos diferentes. En cada uno de estos medios, crece en asociación con diferentes comunidades ecológicas y a meliudo posee una asombrosa diversidad de plantas epffítas en sus troncos fibrosos. Las poblaciones naturales sufrieron una reducción impresionante durante los primeros siglos de la colonización de las islas, a finales del siglo XV. Hoy día, P canariensis se encuentra distribuida de manera esparcida y no uniformemente en todas las siete islas y el estado de conservación es diferente en cada una de estas. El peligro principal parece ser la hibridación con P dactylifera.

A Softer Palm for a Softer Climate

The origin of Phoenix canariensis is not well documented. During the Tertiary, when many tropical species that were occupying the Mediterranean area undertook a huge and slow migration to the south because of the cooler weather, the Canary Islands remained floristically isolated (Bramwell in Kunkel 1976) as Northern Africa became a desert. A Phoenix has probably taken part in this migration, but we do not know if the Phoenix that migrated in the Tertiary was a P canariensis or a parent species that afterwards evolved into the modern Canary palm.

These islands have by far a more even climate than Northern Africa, with abundant humidity from mist and richer soils. This suggests speciation from an ancestor similar to Phoenix dactylifera (or perhaps P sylvestris), to the less xeromorphic P. canariensis.

The Different Ecological Communities and Associations

In present times Phoenix canariensis is sparsely and unevenly distributed on all the islands of the Canaries. It is very scarce on the two drier eastern islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and on the other islands it grows at lower altitudes in the northern section of the islands, where it forms part of the bosque termófilo, a Mediterranean subxeric (slightly dry) area, which has now been mostly substituted by banana cultivation, hotels, and beautiful gardens with ravenalas, scheffieras, and other exotics.

If the bosque termófilo is almost gone (a good area survives in Los Silos, Tenerife), there are some other ecological communities, known as "palmerales," that have P canariensis as a dominant species, often associated with Juniperus phoenicea and/or Dracaena draco (dragon tree). Modern palmerales are usually very disturbed areas cultivated with exotic crops, where the re-production of the palm is directly or indirectly helped by man's presence. P canariensis may also contribute to another ecological community called laurisilva. Laurisilva is a sort of subtropical cloud forest endemic to the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores, mostly composed of trees of the Lauraceae family and other "laurifolious" trees. It is unusual to see wild palms growing in this environment but when it happens they take on a more "plumose" appearance as in the population observed in the lower range of the forest near Teno, Tenerife.

The palms are found growing on a wide variety of soils, all of volcanic origin and usually fertile. P canariensis has an extensive root system, which allows these palms to explore the surrounding earth to find subterranean water even at long distances. In the Canary Islands, Phoenix trees that grow in subxeric areas show themselves to be resistant to temporary swamping of the soil caused by sudden rains. Rivas-Martinez et al. (1993) explain that other trees and shrubs, with typical root systems, which could act as competitor species do not get established in those sites as they cannot resist asphyxia caused by the waterlogged soil.

The wide distribution of the palm on the island is reported and discussed by many authors and some give specific locations of most palmerales (Bravo 1964, Montesinos-Barrera 1979, Barquin-Diez and Voggenreiter 1988, Bramwell and Bramwell, 1990, Anonymous 1992).

This is why the palmera canaria is one of the most grown palm trees throughout the world. It tolerates cold and warmth, drought and floods, shade and sun, and salt spray as well as mountain climate.

Epiphytic Life on P. canariensis

Those P canariensis growing in humid environments, often host on their trunks many endemic epiphytic plants, that add ornamental value to their already beautiful stems. I wish to mention that the Canary Islands palm has the most fibrous and stout trunk in its genus, and I suppose it is the only Phoenix species that can host in its habitat such a spectacular mass of epiphytes on a single specimen. The astonishing diversity of epiphytes that can be found growing within the fibers of these spongy trunks is most unusual for nontropical zones: Sonchus congestus (a yellow-flowered member of Asteraceae), the majestic Sonchus acaulis, with rosettes up to 1 m in diameter, the succulent Aeonium urbicum and A. ciliatum (Crassulaceae); and the small creeping ferns Polypodium cambricum subsp. macaronesicum and Davallia canariensis. All these plants show mechanisms to withstand summer drought: the aeoniums are true succulents, the ferns shed their leaves in summer, and the Asteraceae lose a large part of their rosettes and wrap themselves inside their old dry leaves. Also other less unusual nonendemic species may be found on the trunks, such as the annual Fumaria officinalis, the tuberous Umbilicus horizontalis (Crassulaceae), and the South African weedy bulb Oxalis pescaprae and some others.

In 1982 observations were carried out (Haroun and Die 1982) on epiphytes that were growing on Phoenix trunks of the historic palm avenue of Camino Largo, in La Laguna (Tenerife), at 600 in a.s.l. The authors recorded 31 species, but most of them were introduced exotics and some were nonepiphytic species exceptionally found growing on palms, such as Erica sp. and Opuntia sp. One interesting datum from this work is that 32.25% of these species were zoochorous ones (animal-bome seed dispersal) and 67.75% anemochorous (wind dispersed).

The Different Islands

... toda la isla era un jardín, toda poblada de palmas, porque de un lugar que llaman Tamarasaite, quitamos más de sesenta mil palmitos i de otras partes infinitas... Pedro Gomez Escudero

A description of the island of Tenerife of the 16th century said: " . . . the northern side of the island is completely covered by enchanting forests of palms and dragon trees." In 1417, another writer, Pedro Gomez Escudero, said about Gran Canaria: " . . . the whole island was a garden, all populated by palms, because we took away from a place they call Tamarasaite more than sixty thousand palm trees (cited in Padrón 1978).

In 1997 Tamarasaite is called Tamaraceite and is a peripheral part of the city of Las Palmas with its population of half a million people. Today the palm situation in the Canaries is not so enchanting, but still deserves attention.

La Gomera

The most interesting island of all for palms is La Gomera: thousands of P canariensis live in the most diverse landscapes, from desert to waterfalls, showing every possible aspect that this mighty palm can assume. La palmera is extremely respected by the islanders, los gomeros, because it is still a source of guarapo, palm honey. This tasty product is regularly hand-extracted from incisions made in the apical bud without killing the palm and then sold in the island's markets. One of the most beautiful palmerales of all the seven islands is found in the majestic scenery of Valle Gran Rey: a canyon with 700-m high vertical dry cliffs of volcanic lava, which hang above the very humid terraced floor, intensively cultivated with bananas (Musa 'Dwarf Cavendish'), Arundo donax, and P canariensis. The valley is entirely free of P dactylifera. The only exotic palms are a few washingtonias and Roystonea sp. The entire island is a biosphere reserve and Valle Gran Rey is its pearl. It is not possible to build even a small wall without using local techniques and styles.

Gran Canaria

In Gran Canaria the environmental deterioration caused by man during the last centuries reduced the wild palm population to small isolated stands. The palmeral of Maspalomas is quite small and disturbed, but still needs mention for the beautiful landscape that surrounds it -- a huge plain covered with Sahara-desert-like dunes of fair sand, the Oasis de Maspalomas. The true palmeral now belongs to a hotel, and has been "enriched" by planting a lawn and adding many P dactylifera. Fortunately the sand dunes are now a nature reserve and include some scattered palm groves, growing in wild conditions within a curious sand-loving, xerophytic vegetation of Mediterranean origin -- a mostly thornless scrub with Tamarix as the dominant shrub. During the last few years a high number of young P canariensis (I estimate about 40,000) have been planted all over the island, along roads and in abandoned fields that cover so much of the land...

This excerpt is the first two pages of the article that originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Principes.  Several color photos accompany the article.  The front cover photo depicts the Valley Gran Rey (La Gomera, Canary Islands) mentioned in this article.   Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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