Probably the main attraction to the Canary Islands for naturalists is the unique flora found here. Although some plant groups are well known because of their widespread cultivation in Mediterranean climates, other very interesting plants are not well-known outside the islands.
As with many islands, many plants have colonized the islands and subsequently diversified to fill the wide variety of environments found on the islands. The island’s proximity to Europe and their warm winter conditions (relative to many parts of northern Europe) has led to their being very well-know among Europeans, both sun-seeking tourists and naturalists.
Succulent plant enthusiasts come to the Canary Islands to observe the genus Aeonium, which has unique species on all islands and more than 40 species in all. Other succulents are found in all but the highest and coldest peaks on Tenerife and La Palma. Since we spent much effort in looking for and photographing succulent plants we have a special page here dedicated to this subject.
Much has been written on the biogeography of the Canary Islands and how the flora and fauna evolved. The potential natural history traveler to the Canary Islands should try to obtain the following books if possible:
For succulent plants: Succulent Plants of the Canary Islands by Joel Lodé. This is the single best guidebook for such plants on the islands.
For wild flowers and plants in general: Flora of the Canary Islands by David Bramwell (in Spanish or English – we could only find the Spanish version). While not a complete flora, it has many of the more common species found in the islands.
For places to see plants: Botanical Excursions in the Canary Islands by Bramwell and Bramwell. (The Guide is in both English and Spanish). This describes locations on the different islands to see plants and has many illustrations.
For more technical coverage of the unique Laurisilva forests, the book “La Laurisilva” by the Macaronesia Editorial 2017 with 12 authors is the best available. Unfortunately, it is only in Spanish.
There are many technical articles discussing the laurisilva forests, but these are not widely available (often online journal subscriptions often required). Two that have been produced by the European community and that provide many details for the academically- and conservation-inclined readers I’ve downloaded the pdf’s and are at the links below. The first link is a 1922 account of the islands – mostly from an ornithological perspective but with plenty of history of the islands included.
The isolation of the Canary Islands is greater than what might be expected from examining a map. The islands are relatively close to Africa (Morocco and Western Sahara); the closest island lies only 60 miles from the African coast while the farthest (La Palma) is 260 miles distant. However, the African coast is desertic and very unlike the moist Laurisilva forests of the windward sides of the higher Canary Islands.
We could attempt a comprehensive description of the different environments in the Canary Islands but such information is available online and we won’t detail it here. We will highlight the unique aspects of the vegetation of the islands because they are the main reasons for a naturalist to visit the islands. We start will a summary of the key environments on the higher islands. The Canary Island research community has identified the following main ecosystems: coastal desert scrub, thermophilous woodland, laurel forest, pine forest, summit heath and summit scrub. Some of these are easily identified by the casual traveler such as the coastal desert scrub, the laurel forest and the pine forests. Some others, like the thermophilous woodland, have been greatly altered on the islands where they occur and are not easily identified. The summit heath and scrub environments occur above the pine forests and will be seen by tourists ascending to higher volcanic landscapes above the pine forests on Tenerife and La Palma.
The Laurisilva forests
The laurisilva forests of the Canary Islands are a unique vegetation regime that is distinctive of the fog layer on islands that are high enough to readily intercept the low cloud layer. They are not found on the low islands of Fuertevetura and Lanzarote, though one very small ridge on Fuerteventura extends frequently into the cloud layer. They are poorly developed on Gran Canaria, both due to the topography and human disturbance. The best forests are found on La Gomera and protected in National Park Garajonay, with good, but small tracts of laurisliva on El Hierro and substantial tracts on Tenerife and La Palma. However, not all laurisilva tracts are easily visited – they may be on very steep slopes, lack trail access or roads that pass through them are busy and there may be few places to stop.
A report on the conservation status of the Laurisilva forests (2009) is available here. One report, describing management strategies to recover degraded laurisilva (in English) is here. It is in Spanish, but the figures showing the laurisilva forest distributions are easily interpreted.
Canary Island Pine forests
Low altitude “Dry side” vegetation
On the lee side of the western Canary Islands we find the large Euphorbia canariensis.
High Altitude Shrublands
Aeonium attracts much attention from botanists visiting the Canary Islands but members of the Boraginaceae are prominent at higher elevations – above the low cloud zone. Echium wildpretii, a biennial, is prominent around the base of El Teide on Tenerife and the subspecies E. wildpretii sps trichocaulon with blue flowers is easily seen on La Palma around the upper rim of the Caldera de Tuburiente. When they are flowering in May-June these plants attract very large numbers of bumblebees.