Laurisilva – a beautiful word for a unique place. On La Gomera, our first walk of the holiday was in the Garajonay National Park. Huge trees, becoming taller as we descended, reached for the sky. Tree trunks were covered with furry green moss and wispy lichen. Birdsong filled the air. Splashes of vivid green, like mini tree ferns, were at the higher levels. A magical place, dark and haunted in places, where the tree canopy became tangled above, and the ever present clouds dripped their rain. Splashing streams collected all this water and bubbled over rocks in the valleys. It felt like being in a rainforest, up in the clouds, and very, very old.
To be a bit more scientific, this habitat is in fact ancient. And it is technically a sort of cloud forest. Laurisilva, or laurel forest, also known as monteverde, once covered much of Mediterranean Europe, 20 million years ago, but now exists in only a few places, notably the Canary Islands. It is a semi tropical evergreen forest, damp, shady and cloud-covered. Trade winds travel across the Atlantic, blowing in clouds that reach La Gomera and settle on the island’s top, creating this habitat. The trees have adapted to absorb moisture through leaves and stems as well as roots, with their leaves becoming long and pointed, so that excess moisture drains away rather than lingering to rot them. There are laurels, and wax myrtle, but many other species as well, at least 20 types of tree. The plants change as you move to different altitudes. We started high up, with tree ferns and more shrubby plants, but as we descended the trees became taller, the moss and lichen thicker.
The National Park, 40 square km in area (11% of this small island), protects this ancient, unique forest, and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1986. It really does feel like something special.
In 2012, a devastating forest fire (shockingly, started deliberately) took hold, and something like 20% of the National Park was destroyed. Many factors contributed to the fire and its devastation. Climate change, bringing higher temperatures, was maybe one. But depopulation of La Gomera played a large part: life on the island is hard, and many young people move away for better life chances, especially to other Canary Islands and to South American countries. This means that agricultural land, on terraces in the mountainous landscape, becomes untended, so areas of scrub appear, which help fire to spread. The hilly terrain itself allows fire to move fast. Another day’s walk took us through areas full of burnt trees, now regenerating itself, with the help of conservationists.
La Gomera obtained support for recovery from the European Union, via the Life+ funding, which offers help for major environmental projects. Strategies include creating fire-break barriers, promoting local foods and agricultural produce to tourists, and replanting some areas. The scheme is called Garajonay Vive, see http://lifegarajonayvive.com for more information.
Hopefully, this beautiful landscape will continue to recover – as with many rare, fragile habitats, once it is destroyed, it is lost forever. But the future looks positive, and the laurisilva awaits!