Phoenix canariensis

Farewell to a Mediterranean icon

This article is part of the series Mediterranean routes

A native of the Canary Islands, the Phoenix canariensis was planted en masse on the Riviera in the 19th century, before going on to conquer the world. For vacationers and locals alike, this palm has come to embody the Mediterranean ideal of leisure and rest. But 150 years later, it faces a deadly threat.

Set on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea in Menton, a touristic town in southern France bordering Italy, the Val Rahmeh estate is overflowing with an extraordinary diversity of flowers and trees: from giant water lilies to a big variety of cactus, banana trees, agaves, fern trees and palms, all planted around an impressive villa inspired by the Provencal architectural style with curved tiled roofs and ochre walls. 

Since 1967, Val Rahmeh functions as a public botanical garden and is open to visitors who can observe hundreds of exotic species, many of them brought to the property by its former owner, British military officer Lord Percy Radcliffe (1874-1934) who acquired the estate in 1905. He landscaped it and named it after his late wife Rahmeh (1864-1924), whose name means mercy in Arabic.

“In 1920, he planted an alley with 12 Canary Island palms. This palm tree is quite resistant to the cold, up to -5°, and can resist storms well, as it comes from very windy islands,” Eric Joly, the former director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, said in a podcast. “It is less delicate than the date palm and by the time it was planted it had enjoyed tremendous success on the French Riviera for around 50 years.”

Their seemingly timeless beauty now faces a threat: the red weevil, a deadly pest that destroys palm trees from the inside

These Canary Island palms, also known by their scientific name Phoenix canariensis, are now 100 years old and 15 metres tall. They are among the most iconic specimens of Val Rahmeh but their seemingly timeless beauty now faces a threat: the red weevil, a deadly pest that destroys palm trees from the inside, killing them en masse. 

The Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden is one of the many luxurious gardens established by wealthy businessmen and public figures along the Riviera between the mid-19th century and the First World War. In the Italian town of Ventimiglia, the Hanbury botanical garden was built by an English entrepreneur who made his fortune in Shanghai. In France, the Villa Thuret in Antibes was founded in 1857 by a French diplomat turned botanist after serving in the Ottoman Empire.

Many of these extravagant properties are now in public hands and several of them belong to a network called “Riviera Gardens” that aims to fight against the red weevil and save the Canarian palm, which has become part of the local heritage. 

The “tropicalisation” of the Mediterranean coast

The second half of the 19th century was a time of imperialist expansion for Europe. Colonisation of Africa and Asia, as well as the development of steamboats, led to the development and intensification of international trade of a number of products. Among them were tropical species such as orchids or palms. Imports of plants from faraway territories were also becoming easier thanks to the invention of a portable glass terrarium

Due to the cold, they were planted in private or public greenhouses, such as the Jardin des Plantes in Paris or the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew in London, established in 1759. Seeds or potted specimens were then more massively distributed through nursery companies. In Britain, popular exotic greens were the Yucca and the mountain laurens from the Americas, magnolia species from China, camellia and spotted laurels from Japan. Large items such as pineapple trees could be sent by stagecoach or by canal shipping to customers.

The French Riviera became a prestigious destination with a distinctive visual identity marked by the massive presence of palms that came to embody the ideal of leisure and holidays.

In southern Europe, these exotic species were extensively introduced on the Mediterranean coastline, particularly in the region of Nice which, since the second half of the 18th century, had been attracting British aristocrats stopping on their way to Italy during the Grand Tour, a trip across Europe considered a rite of passage for young men, or even settling for the whole winter to enjoy a milder and “healthier” climate. 

From these private gardens, exotic greens soon found their way to hotels, resorts, streets, squares and seaside promenades. Their introduction drastically transformed the Mediterranean landscape which until then was associated with pines, olive orchards, fig trees, vines, carobs and citrus.   

“The present plant cover of the French Riviera is dominated by introduced exotics planted for their ornamental effect,” wrote American geographer Daniel Gade, who coined the term “tropicalisation” in 1987. The vegetative transformation of the region, he continued, “began to consolidate in the 1880s, stimulated by increasing economic attention to tourists, retirees and seasonal residents. Woody plants with the greatest decorative interest palms and broadleaf trees and shrubs with evergreen foliage and bright flowers were preferred.” 

Among all types of palm trees, the Phoenix canariensis always stood apart.

From 1858 to 1872, the extension of the railway network from Marseille towards Toulon, Cannes, Nice, Monaco and Menton paved the way for mass tourism. The French Riviera became a prestigious destination with a distinctive visual identity marked by the massive presence of palms that came to embody the ideal of leisure and holidays. Visuals were widely disseminated through books, newspapers, paintings and the nascent art of photography.  

The king of palm trees

Among all types of palm trees, the Phoenix canariensis always stood apart. Its steady and crenelated trunk, with a shaggy crown looking like an exploding firework, was often used as a backdrop for postcards and family portraits. For the French botanist Justin-Benjamin Chabaud, one of the first to formally describe the species’ characteristics in 1882, it was simply “the master and king” of the Riviera.

It was simply “the master and king” of the Riviera.

As it was sold under various names, and sometimes confused with Phoenix dactylifera the common date palm whose fruits are bigger and tastier the details of Phoenix canariensis’ introduction to the Mediterranean basin lack accuracy. However, it is widely acknowledged that in the mid-1860s, several specimens were planted for the first time in the open by Viscount Vigier at his Nice estate.

Viscount Vigier had acquired them from a nursery in Belgium. The seeds either came directly from the La Orotava acclimatisation garden in the Canary Island of Tenerife or through the intermediary of the Kew Gardens in London. A prominent character in the fast-expanding trade of Phoenix canariensis was Hermann Wildpret (1834-1908). The Swiss citizen was La Orotava’s head gardener for thirty years and got involved in the export of thousands of seeds from the endogenous palm, as well the introduction of an even higher number of exogenous species to the Spanish archipelago.

According to historical sources, the palms planted by Viscount Vigier had reached a height of 10 metres by 1894. At that time, Phoenix canariensis had already become the most popular and planted palm worldwide. Colonial powers brought it to the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean sea, and to even more distant possessions. 

Colonial powers brought the palm tree to the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean sea, and to even more distant possessions. 

Meanwhile, it quickly achieved fame in the United States where in the late 19th century it came to epitomise the American way of life: “It was a popular landscape palm for both small homes and large estates, a symbol of gracious living at whatever economic stratum,” wrote American palm expert Scott Zona. 

Hyères, the capital of palms 

In France, famous seaside boulevards such as La Promenade des Anglais in Nice and La Croisette in Cannes harboured long alignments of Canary Island palms. But it was another city built several kilometres inland that came to be known as the “European capital” of palm trees. Overlooked by a ruined castle, the town of Hyères prospered during the Middle Ages thanks to the exploitation of its salt marshes. Beyond the old town, new districts with hotels and opulent villas appeared in the 19th century with the development of winter tourism.

“Hyères was never as touristy as Cannes or Nice, so local people had to find other activities. That’s why they started producing Canary Island palms. Another reason is that agriculture and horticulture have always been strong here, thanks to a particular microclimate,” says Violette Décugis, who runs one of the last palm tree nurseries still operating in the area.

Décugis’s family business was established in 1904, a time when Hyères was witnessing a Phoenix canariensis boom with nurseries from the French Riviera overtaking their Belgian and German counterparts, both of whom had the disadvantage of growing palm trees under greenhouses. 

“We plant other palms too but none is like the canariensis with its deep green colour, glimmering leaves and orange fruits.”

During this golden palm age, the Canary Island tree became a local symbol: it was mass planted along streets and avenues and took centre stage in commercials and marketing campaigns. A square, a casino hotel – even a whole city – was named after the French noun for palm trees: Les Palmiers. Even if never officially endorsed by the national authorities, the town is still often referred to as “Hyères Les Palmiers”.  

“In the 1920s, there were between twenty and twenty-five palm growers, producing mainly Phoenix canariensis. Whole wagons left Hyères loaded with palm trees for Paris, Belgium [in colder places, Phoenix canariensis was grown as an indoor ornament] and the rest of Europe,” says Violette Décugis. The French toponym became so intrinsically connected to this specific palm that the latter was, and still is, also sold under the name of “Hyères palm tree”. 

Located on the outskirts of the local airport, Violette Décugis’ property is full of potted and planted palm trees of various species. “Until forty years ago we only produced Phoenix canariensis. We sold them by the thousands each year. Now, if we sell four or five of them, which is a big deal,” the nursery owner says with nostalgia. 

“We plant other palms too but none is like the canariensis, with its deep green colour, glimmering leaves and orange fruits.”

The lost battle against the red weevil 

The main culprit for the radical decline of the Canary Island palm is the red weevil, a 3-4 centimetres long beetle that lays its eggs in the palms’ wounds or holes, sending it off to a sure death by rotting from the inside. Contaminated palms are a saddening spectacle. Their leaves turn yellow, collapse and eventually fall off, leaving the trunk bare and lonely. Meanwhile, adult weevils fly onward to nearby palm trees and infect them too.

The destructive pest travelled half the globe until it was observed on the French Riviera for the first time in 2006.

The destructive pest travelled half the globe until it was observed on the French Riviera for the first time in 2006. While its natural enemies stayed home in Indonesia, the red weevil had first moved from South Asia towards the Gulf in the 1980s, hidden in palms imported for ornamental use. It then spread from there to the rest of the Middle East, with dramatic consequences for the region’s date palm plantations. From Egypt, it reached the Maghreb and Spain in the 1990s, before expanding to the whole Mediterranean area.

“We have traced the arrival of the red weevil to France from Spain. In the 2000s, many palms were exported from southern Spain where they grow faster in the warm climate. Three to four metres-tall palm trees were imported to landscape public and private lands quickly,” says Anne Roberti, a plant health specialist working for the regional branch of FREDON, a non-profit network specialised in monitoring invasive pests. “When you import mature plants and bigger trees you increase the risk of spreading pests. In the French Riviera, with lots of palms and no enemies to the weevil, the pest spread easily.” 

It is hard to predict the future of the Canary Island palm in the Mediterranean region, but for France, the bigger picture looks bleak.

Among all palm species on the Mediterranean coast, the red weevil has a soft spot for the most planted palm of the Riviera, the Phoenix canariensis. “When I arrived in Hyères in the 1990s, we had 7,000 palms and a little more than 3,000 Canary Island palms on the municipal domain. Today, only 1,000 are left. 80% of the losses are due to the red weevil,” says Sylvie Beluet, the head of the green spaces maintenance service for the city of Hyères.

Over the years, various preemptive and curative treatments – both organic and chemical, but increasingly more natural ones – have been developed. “For the past six years we were injecting an insecticide as prevention, which helped us decrease the number of infected palm trees from 200 to a dozen per year. It was effective but over time it can weaken palm trees,” says Sylvie Beluet.

It is hard to predict the future of the Canary Island palm in the Mediterranean region, but for France, the bigger picture looks bleak. Far from being contained, the red weevil has progressed both inland and to the Atlantic coast, while another pest, a butterfly called Paysandisia archon originating from Argentina, has taken its toll on palm trees in France, Spain and Italy. In 2018, a report from the French national agency in charge of plant health estimated that eradicating the red weevil in the Mediterranean zone had become “nearly impossible”.

Many researchers, NGOs, local communities and politicians have mobilised. A leading figure is Michel Ferry, a scientist heading the Mediterranean Collective for the Safeguarding of Palm Trees who dedicated much of his work during the past two decades to fight the red weevil.  

“In the short term, we are heading towards the disappearance of heritage Canary Island palms.”

“In the short term, we are heading towards the disappearance of heritage Canary Island palms, except in rare locations where staunch owners will continue to protect them at the cost of expensive and tedious treatments,” he says, disheartened. 

Eradicating the red weevil – and saving the Phoenix canariensis – could have been possible, says Michel Ferry, who estimates that more than 50% of France’s Canary Island palms have already disappeared. “We have lacked support from the national authorities to the municipalities and the adoption of action plans involving both public and private owners.” His long list of grievances against the French authorities also includes the absence of political will to prevent the imposition by a multinational company of a monopoly on the application of an efficient treatment against the pest.

Back to the Canarian roots

Around 2,600 kilometres away from the French Riviera, in the Atlantic Ocean off the Moroccan coast, is one of few territories that successfully managed to eradicate the red weevil: none other than the birthplace of the Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Islands. 

There, the endemic palm is a revered local symbol, its importance illustrated by toponyms such as the La Palma island or the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. In 1991, the local government decided to give the archipelago two natural symbols: the yellow canary bird and the Phoenix canariensis

“The people of the Canary Islands identify with the palm tree because it is closely linked to local culture and crafts like basketry,” says Isabel Saro, a Spanish biologist working at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Her work on the genetics of the Canary Island palm has demonstrated that the Phoenix canariensis originates from date palms arriving from the African continent, which formed a new species that colonised each of the seven Canary Islands.

For both the local authorities and the scientific community, it was clear that the islands’ rich natural heritage came to face a tremendous risk.

“But most palm trees in the world come from a few palm groves in northern Tenerife and the north of La Palma. As many as they are, they represent only 10% of the diversity found within the Canary Islands archipelago,” she says.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is also the city where Luis Barroso, a technical engineer in charge of rural environment management, works. One place dear to him is Santa Lucía de Tirajana in the mountainous central part of the island, where the typical white houses with red tiles are surrounded by natural palm groves in almost all directions. 

In September 2005, the first case of a palm infested with the red weevil was recorded in the island of Gran Canaria, after the import of date palms from Egypt. A couple of months later, other cases appeared in Fuerteventura and Tenerife. “This was before the 2009 financial crisis, when there was a construction boom on the islands. Hotels and tourist infrastructure were being built and demand was high for huge quantities of palms that could be easily planted and maintained,” says Luis Barroso.

For both the local authorities and the scientific community, it was clear that the islands’ rich natural heritage came to face a tremendous risk. “The pest was very aggressive and a consensus was reached quickly. There was no time to lose, an infected palm can die within only six months,” says Isabel Saro. “That’s why the authorities had to buckle down, or ‘ponerse las pilas’ as we say in Spanish.”

In the battle against the emerging pest, the Canarian government entrusted the public company GMR Canarias to implement an ambitious prevention and eradication plan. “The biggest fear was that the red weevil would affect not only ornamental palms in the cities but natural groves too, which would result in a catastrophe,” says Luis Barroso.

The main measures were to locate all palms surrounding infested specimens and either remove or sanitise infected palms within 24 hours. Staff were trained and maps created to help decide where to put catches that would capture adult red weevils. 

“Through these trainings, we created a network of professionals  who could see problems in the palm groves. When they found something strange, they would call us,” says Luis Barroso. “In parallel, the Canarian government took fundamental legislative measures, the most important of which was the ban on importing more palm trees, with the exception of very small specimens.”

The Spanish archipelago has become a model for other territories fighting the pest.

The results were striking. Following the first cases, more than 700,000 palms were inspected, 200,000 of them were treated and only 659 specimens were removed, for a total cost of 12 million euros. Four years after the first case was discovered, the eradication campaign had succeeded in Gran Canaria. In the island of Fuerteventura, the last case was recorded eight years later, in 2013. Following European regulations, the Canary Islands were officially declared free of the red weevil three years later, in 2016. 

The Spanish archipelago has become a model for other territories fighting the pest. Experts from GMR Canarias were invited to share their experience at numerous conferences and provide assistance in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Georgia and Italy.

Despite this victory, the outlook for the Phoenix canariensis in its natural habitat is not without clouds on the horizon. Other existing pests continue to pose a threat, and the advent of new ones is likely. Climate change and decreased rainfall also impact the palm groves, as does the ongoing hybridisation with the more numerous date palm specimens, which endangers the genetic integrity of the Canary Island palm. 

“All genetic information that exists is stored in our palm groves, all local adaptations and ability to resist pests,” Isabel Saro says. “If tomorrow, red palm weevil wipes out all canariensis on the planet, then at least some of them will survive here.”

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All illustrations for the Mediterranean Routes series were produced by Atelier Glibett in Tunis. 

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union within the framework of the regional program Med Dialogue for Rights and Equality. All content is the sole responsibility of Mashallah News and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. The Our Mediterranean project (#ourmediterranean on social media) has four partners: Maydan, Civitas Institute, Réseau Euromed France and Mashallah News.

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