Gran Canaria World Biosphere: The island that’s out of this world

A botanical wonderland with its own uncompromising and unique flora is just a shorthaul flight away in the volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands, writes Kathryn Bradley-Hole.

The sound is like a cat’s purring, set on loudspeaker. It’s coming from high in a tree, where a turtle dove sits on a bare branch, puffs out his chest and softly serenades us through the mid morning. I’m in the heart of the Jardin Botanico Canario Viera y Clavijo, an extraordinary botanical garden laid out along a steep valley in the heart of Gran Canaria. And, in a moment of serendipity, an actual turtle pokes his head out of the water in the pond close by, as if he’s surfaced to hear better his namesake’s gentle churring.

Gran Canaria World Biosphere

Asteriscus sericeus, Gran Canaria

It seems strange to me that numerous friends who enjoy plants and gardens haven’t yet found their way to the Canaries. These fascinating volcanic islands, just 60-odd miles from the southern coast of Morocco, possess truly wonderful plants, including hundreds of species that are unique to them. Long reputed as package-holiday sun-and-fun islands, they possess austerely beautiful landscapes and ecosystems that are the equal of parts of Arabia, Ethiopia, Madagascar and South Africa, yet they’re only some 4½ hours by air from London. You can get there from many parts of Britain quicker than you might reach Cornwall or the Scillies.

Gran Canaria is the third-largest island (after Tenerife and Fuerteventura) and lies more or less in the middle of the group. An aerial view shows its shape as circular, like a full moon, not angular like the others. Although it’s the Canaries’ second-most populated island, nearly half of Gran Canaria is designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, with special protections for its landscapes, fauna and flora. Much of it is brown and lumpy-rocky, with craggy mountains, steep ravines and an other-worldness that suggests another planet —Mars, perhaps.

Gran Canaria World Biosphere

Weirdly wonderful Euphorbia arborea which is native to Madagascar

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After it fell to Spanish forces in the 1480s, the island lost its original green mantle, as extensive forests were felled for logging and intensive land use, although a programme of reforestation in recent decades aims to counter some of the destruction. Still, there’s a raw beauty in lava fields and certainly enough strangeness in some of the island’s signature plants to support the imaginings of science fiction.

The hills are populated here and there with clustered fingers of Euphorbia canariensis. Rigid and vertical, they grow in huddled order, like a convention of organ pipes, sprouting the tiniest of flowers at their tips. Except in the construction of the flowers, they look nothing like the leafy, herbaceous euphorbias popular back home. They’re also very unlike Euphorbia pulcherrimum, the broad-leaved poinsettia with scarlet bracts, so ubiquitous at Chrismas, although all the euphorbias have a characteristic toxic latex sap that pours forth, milky white, from any cut or break.

In the botanic gardens, you can walk uphill and down, among displays of nearly all the hundreds of native species of the Canaries, including a smattering of endemic pine forest and the islands’ own date palm, Phoenix canariensis, the classic symmetrical palm cultivated widely across the world. There are numerous prehistoric-looking, swollen-limbed dragon trees, Dracaena draco, whose dark red sap, termed ‘dragon’s blood’, was a source of the dark-red varnish used on Stradivarius violins.

Gran Canaria World Biosphere

Limonium sventenii, an endemic sea lavender, Gran Canaria

We also wandered among wild pink cinerarias, extraordinary echiums, the loveliest sea lavenders (Limonium sventenii) and a ravishing, pale-violet wallflower, Erysimum scoparium, which loves the mountain screes and volcanic rock.

The botanic garden is some way inland from the capital of Las Palmas, which lies on the north-eastern shore, with a number of hairpin bends to negotiate (you can get there by car or by bus), but its foot- paths lead to all sorts of curiosities and, at the top, a popular smart restaurant, for which pre-booking may be needed.

Exploring the Jardin Botanico made me appreciate the extent to which the proprietors of our hotel, the Bohemia Suites and Spa, had gone to the trouble of landscaping the grounds with the local volcanic stone and lashings of native flora. Ranged around its pools and terraces are holiday-hotel stalwarts of tall palms and fragrant frangipani, but also plenty of home-grown fare: dragon trees, endemic lavenders and sea-lavenders, decorative yellow sow-thistles and Canary Island sages, such as crimson-flowered, silver-leaved Salvia canariensis, fleshy-rosetted Aeoniums and pea-flowered shrubby trefoils.

You might be thinking that this oasis of thoughtful planting is set in lush groves surrounding a country retreat. The reality is more interesting than that. Bohemia Suites and Spa is the result of an imaginative, recent remodelling of a 1970s-vintage high-rise hotel in Playa del Ingles, a resort on the island’s south-eastern extremity, developed from the 1960s to serve package- holiday sun-worshippers. With magnificent views of the town, the mountains, the sea and the nearby protected Maspalomas sand dunes, Bohemia is an inspired marriage of stylish urban cool and the botanical essence of this fascinating island.

How to get there

British Airways and Iberia operate regular flights to Gran Canaria, particularly from autumn to spring as the islands are popular for winter sun. Spring is the best time to see flowering plants in the botanical gardens, although there is plenty to see year-round.

Gran Canaria World Biosphere

The Bohemia Suites and Spa

Where to stay

The Bohemia Suites and Spa occupies a stylish remodelled 1970s high(ish) rise, which overlooks the Atlantic, the low-rise pantiled roofs of Maspalomas and its dunes, a protected, mini desert nature reserve margined by the ocean. Surrounded by its own tranquil gardens, the boutique hotel, which is for adults only, draws upon 20th-century Modernism, its colourful interiors having a cross-cultural aesthetic that also picks up on Gran Canaria’s own heritage.

Nightly rates start from €204 for a Deluxe Double room and from €344 for a Junior Suite, including breakfast and VAT (00 34 928 563 400;