La Gomera in the Canary Islands is under the radar of most tourists, botanical or otherwise. It is the second smallest, or ‘middle child’ of the seven volcanic Canary Islands and dictates arrival by boat. The island is oceanic, meaning it emerged from the Atlantic Ocean as the result of volcanic activity, rather than as a breakaway from a continental landmass. This encourages a diverse flora, high in endemic species (unique plants that occur only there).
When to go
The climate at sea level is an easy, year round 20-27oC, but the routes inland are vertiginous, the rise in altitude abrupt, and at an average of one degree cooler per 100m elevation, it is easy to lose 14 degrees as you climb into the mountains. Be prepared and pack your shorts and thermals.
Where to go
Hermigua, in the northeast, 12 miles from the unfussy port of San Sebastián, makes a great base for exploring the laurisilva forests and peaks of the national park; the green heart of the island. Well marked hiking routes explore an area of extraordinary beauty. In the laurisilva you’ll discover gigantic evergreen trees enjoying the shelter of the steep ravines, and lush thickets of vegetation on the forest floor.
Continue up towards the twin peaks of Alto de Garajonay (1,484m) and you’ll pass through areas of fayal brezal heathland where ghostly tree heathers (Erica arborea) and the smooth-leaved Canary holly (Ilex canariensis) are laden with intricate lichens.
For a change of scene, descend and explore the southern barrancos (ravines) that lead to Valle Gran Rey. I completed a great trail stretching from Arure to Chipude and down to the coast. On these open slopes you can enjoy aromatic shrubs, succulents and cacti.
Look out for Ceropegia dichotoma, a narrow, cylindrically stemmed endemic succulent or the leafless Euphorbia aphylla. Euphorbia balsamifera, and the useful canary endemics Lavandula canariensis, Cistus chinamadensis, Cytisus proliferus create a low scrubland as you drop towards the coast.
In the valley microclimates I saw opportunist Aeonium, their showy flat whorls easily spotted from great distances. Towards the town the palms, deep rooted introduced cactus Opuntia ficus indica and architectural Agave prevented wind erosion.
Plants to grow at home
You cannot bring the flora of La Gomera home, but you can take inspiration. Cacti and succulents can cope with very dry conditions, making them easy pot plants for the neglectful gardener. Aeonium, plentiful on La Gomera’s southern slopes, take different forms: some are sub shrubs (A. decorum, A. lindleyi var. viscatum), others flatter whorls. The Aeonium canariense var. subplanum is found on the island on steep hillsides, lava cliffs, walls and even rooftops. They freely hybridise, so lots of attractive hybrids and compact cultivars are now available in cultivation.
Aeonium require full sun and gritty loam based compost. Keep almost dry and frost free during the winter. They love to be outside in a bright spot for the summer months and need some water.
It is easy to increase your numbers – or start again if your plant is getting a bit leggy. Cut off a good rosette with a 5cm stem, allow the newly cut surface to dry for a couple of days, then push the stem into a pot of gritty compost. It should quickly root and grow away. The parent plant will endure, and once repotted, shoot from the original stem.
They are a great addition to a Mediterranean or gravel garden, especially in containers, so they can easily be lifted inside to a cool glasshouse or porch during the winter months.
Guides and maps
Walk! La Gomera by Jan Kostura and Charles Davis (Discovery Walking Guides, £12.99)
Native Flora of the Canary Islands by Miguel Angel Cabrera Perez (Editorial Everest, 2000)
La Gomera 1:30,000 Hiking Map #231, Kompass Maps, £10.95
La Gomera ‘Tour and Trail’ Super Durable Map, Discovery Walking Guides, £8.99
Where to stay
There are many places to stay on the island but as a good base for hiking I’d recommend: Hotel Rural Ibo Alfaro Barrio Ibo Alfaro, S/N,38820 Hermigua, Santa Cruz deTenerife, Spain. Tel +34922880168, hotelgomera.com
Words Hannah Gardner
Illustration Alice Pattullo