It would be a lie to say we just happened to visit the Canary Islands twice by accident. In fact, our first visit was because we knew that the islands were known for their succulent plants, specifically members of the genus Aeonium. This group of succulents has radiated from ancestral arrivals millions of years ago, into something like 50 species that are found throughout the islands. They have occupied most of the habitats on the islands.
Although Aeonium species are the main attraction to “succulentophiles”, there are many other succulents found on the islands, and the only really suitable guidebook that covers them is that by Joel Lode, Plantas Suculentas de las Islas Canarias. Unfortunately, this book, published in 2010 with the help of the Canary Island’s Government, is now out-of-print. Perhaps the reader can find it somewhere. (Note added June 2021: a pdf version of the book can be purchased from Joel Lode’s website.) Inaturalist will have most of the species, though it might be less useful in the field. In any event, although we found the book absolutely essential to identifying most succulents in the field, there were many cases where the plants didn’t look exactly like those in the book. This is normal, as most plants look different depending on the sunlight exposure they receive and the amount of water they get.
There are may other succulent plants in the Canary Island landscape, and unfortunately, not all are native to the islands. Since the islands were a repository for plants being brought from the Americas for a long time, many have since become naturalized. Century plants (Agave species) and Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia species) are widespread in many parts of the islands – and can be the most widespread and dominant succulents in some habitats. In fact, for many photos we had to work hard to avoid getting such plants in the pictures.
Here we focus on the main groups of native succulents found on the Canary Islands that we visited. Some are common to all of the islands while others are found on only one or a few islands.
This close-up of an Aeonium tabuliforme shows the leaf-margin hairs that are not nearly as obvious when seeing the plant from a distance.
Photos of Aeoniums taken in the 2018 trip are shown below.
Some of the non-Aeonium genera of the Crassulaceae family that one will likely encounter in the Canary Islands include Aichryson, Greenovia, Monanthes and Sedum. Members of the Euphorbiaceae (all genus Euphorbia) are abundant and dominate many landscapes, while Asclepiadaceae (genera Ceropegia and Caralluma) are found on all islands, but less conspicuously.
The dry sides of most of the canary islands have Euphoriba-landscapes dominated by a few species that grow to large sizes. Most apparent is E. canariensis, despite being less widespread than several other Euphorbias, is more apparent because of its size and “cactus-like” appearance. It is especially common near Los Cristianos on Tenerife and near the ferry terminal on El Hierro. It is also common in drier parts of La Gomera.
Aeonium and Greenovia “landscapes”
We thought that identifying Aeonium species would be relatively easy, but this was not to be. The plants of a particular species can be quite variable in appearance depending on the sunlight and water available to them. Then there was the second factor – the genera Greenovia – a group of succulents were were barely aware of prior to visiting the islands. These can be confusingly similar to some Aeoniums, and they are quite abundant on certain islands like El Hierro. They don’t appear to be very common in cultivation (at least in USA).
Airchryson is a genus of succulent herbs that are found mostly in the laurisliva forests. They tend to look similar, but because of variations in available light and water even the same species can be quite variable in their appearance. At least when we were visiting the islands they were flowering profusely. Occasionally they will grow epiphytic on tree trunks or branches, though we mostly saw them on rock outcrops – like most other succulents.
Monanthes and Sedum
These genera usually represent small plants that are inconspicuous to most people (except succulentophiles who are looking for them). Most are not common in cultivation, but with a macro lens they appear very interesting.
There are a handful of Ceropegia species in the Canary Islands, but they generally look similar and we could scarcely distinguish between them. Their distributions sometimes helped in identification (some are restricted on one island or another) but this made side-by-side comparisons impossible. They usually are restricted to relatively dry landscapes or very well-drained slopes in moister areas.