There are not many places in the world where you can drive from the coast to almost 8,000 feet (2,426m) above sea-level in just over one hour. But that is precisely what reaching La Palma’s highest peak entails. In May and June, the island’s summit region is decked with spectacular flowering bushes, making this the most colourful time of year for plant lovers.
The easiest way to reach the top is via Santa Cruz, from where I set off in mid-May this year. About one kilometre north of the town I turned left at the signpost to the Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos. From this crossroads, the road winds through Mirca, one of higher residential neighbourhoods. Once at the church of Candelaria, a turning on the right appears, and here begins the true ascent. A conspicuous sign announces the fact that this is a high mountain road, and due caution is required.
My main reason for visiting the Roque on this occasion was to photograph some of the island’s most outstanding plants, especially in the high zone. By the time I reached Candelaria, I had already passed through the first belt, the fringe of coastal scrub encircling the island, a mixture of succulents and drought-resistant shrubs, adapted to the long dry summers and sparse annual rainfall. This plant community is sometimes referred to as the African element in La Palma’s flora. One of the most typical members is the columnar Canary Island Spurge.
A little higher, on the hillsides around the Candelaria church, remnants of the second zone could be identified, the most conspicuous being the Canary Island Palms.
This attractive palm takes its name from the islands, where it grows naturally. It is also frequently planted as an ornamental, and can be admired in botanical gardens all over the world. The seeds, resembling small dates, are not suitable for human consumption, but the sap is still harvested on La Gomera to produce palm honey. Before land was cleared for farming, zone-two vegetation included Dragon Trees, juniper, wild olive trees, and many other plants. Now reduced to isolated patches, it was originally a kind of dry woodland, or chaparral, regarded as the Mediterranean component of the native vegetation.
As I continued my drive, the first chestnut trees soon began to flank the roadsides. Clearly, I was entering a much wetter part of the island. In fact, the typical layer of clouds visible from the coast usually has its base at this altitude. The chestnut trees increased in number, and visibility was impaired by a light mist. I had entered the “sea of clouds”, and could see how damp the roadside foliage was. I passed large specimens of tree heather dripping with moisture, and other evergreen trees belonging in the formation known as Laurel Forest, the Subtropical ingredient in La Palma’s plant world.
A sign came up on the left indicating Montaña Tagoja, where a quick glance at the map showed that I was now just over 1,000 metres above sea level: not even half-way to the top! Fortunately, the going was easier from here onwards, the bends being less pronounced, and the slopes a little gentler. And another transition was underway: the laurel forest was gradually phasing into the following vegetation zone.
Within a matter of minutes, the broad-leaf forest with its lush undergrowth had almost vanished, and stately Canary Pine trees lined the roadside, their long, delicate needles silhouetted against the light. Many of these native conifers had massive, scaly trunks. And now that the mist had cleared, I could see blue sky overhead: I had evidently driven through the cloud layer, and was leaving the steaming jungle below me. What an amazing contrast! I stopped to take photographs of the pine-clad mountainsides, a landscape suggesting the Temperate character of the island’s greenery.
I returned to my car and drove on. Pine forest could be seen on all sides during the next stage of the ascent, covering vast areas of La Palma’s higher slopes. A thick carpet of pine needles lay on the ground beneath the trees, preventing the growth of other wild plants, and giving the forest an open appearance. I got out for a quick breath of fresh air. In the sudden silence outside, it felt cool and dry, and a resinous aroma hung in the atmosphere.
Back on my way again, the pines began to thin out as the tree-line approached. The scattered specimens at this high altitude looked gnarled and weather-beaten. I was about to enter the last of the five zones, the so-called summit scrub, plausibly classified as Alpine. This was what I had really come to see and photograph.
At about 2,000 metres above sea-level, roughly from the Km 27 sign onwards, the forest had reached its upper limit. The slopes were now covered in a dense layer of bushes, dominated by so-called Sticky Broom (Adenocarpus viscosus), with limited species variety, except in the occasional clearings. The preponderance of codeso, the Spanish name for this resilient shrub, is the result of excessive browsing by goats.
Before the area came under strict conservation measures in the mid-20th century, goat-keepers customarily brought their herds to the high parts of the island to find forage. The goats were allowed to feed in the wild, and they naturally consumed the plants they found tastiest. As a result, certain species became scarce, while others benefited from this selective browsing. Sticky Broom was obviously not among the herbivore’s favourites, so it now makes up about 90% of the ground cover.
There was little traffic on the summit road, and I was able to scan the wayside as I drove along, I spotted clumps of endemic La Palma Violets (Viola palmensis), and patches of the pinkish Mountain Wallflowers (Erysimum scoparium). But the undisputed star of La Palma’s high mountain flora is a tall, spire-like plant known as Pink Bugloss, or La Palma Bugloss (Echium wildpretii ssp trichosyphon). The name “Tower of Jewels” was originally coined for the very similar, but redder, Tenerife variety. Both plants have flowering spikes reaching heights of up to 3 metres.
The first stand of La Palma’s botanical gem can be observed along the roadside between Km 27 and Km 28. I was planning to visit a whole plantation of these beauties afterwards, just beyond the Observatory turning, so I made a brief photo-stop and continued my journey. These conspicuous plants were buzzing with Bumble Bees.
I hadn’t driven far before I saw evidence of the National Park’s attempts to restore the island’s natural vegetation. Several plots were fenced-off to protect the carefully-planted seedlings from potential damage by rabbits, or introduced Barbary Sheep. Thanks to these efforts, numerous endemic plants have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
Since no trip to the top of La Palma would be complete without a walk along the Caldera rim, I parked at the sign indicating Pico de La Cruz, and hiked up to the nearby peak. The views from this 2,351-metre-high mountain are exceptional.
Pico de la Cruz is also an ideal place for a refreshment stop, as there are plenty of flat rocks to sit on, and large boulders to act as windbreaks, if needed. From this privileged vantage point, the entire perimeter of the Caldera de Taburiente can be taken in. This enormous depression is about one mile deep, and on such a sunny day I could make out the west coast banana plantations, and the town of Los Llanos de Aridane, shimmering in the heat haze 2,000 metres below.
I returned to my car and set off on the last stage of my journey. If you are planning to visit the Roque de los Muchachos itself, you need to turn left at the Observatory sign and proceed through the site. From the junction, it’s only a short drive to the highest point. However, my intention on this occasion was to visit the National Park’s pink bugloss “garden”, located a short distance ahead, along the road to Garafía.
La Palma’s pink bugloss was close to extinction a few decades ago. In the 1980s there were only about 200 of these remarkable plants left, confined to inaccessible rock faces. That means only 200 in the world, by the way, since it is exclusive to the island.
The plants take between 3 and 5 years to flower, and once they have done so, they die. The basal leaves form a rosette of up to one metre in diameter, and the larger the rosette, the larger the flowering spike will become afterwards. Since 1990, the National Park has been engaged in a two-pronged recovery strategy, in which seeds have been directly sown in the wild, and seedlings have been grown in nursery facilities and then planted outdoors in suitable areas. To give you an idea of how much work has gone into this project, in 2016, 33,000 leaf rosettes were counted, of which 2,400 developed into flowering plants.
So, from the African coast I had traveled up to the Alps in little more than one hour. And while the glaciers and grassy meadows may be lacking here, La Palma does have its own equivalent of the iconic alpine Edelweiss... admittedly a somewhat scaled-up equivalent: the dazzling summit bugloss, unofficial plant symbol of the island.