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View of the beautiful Canary Gardens in Gran Canaria

A few weeks ago renowned British journalist John McCarthy came to Gran Canaria on holiday. As a veteran newshound he wasn’t satisfied just soaking up the sun on the beach. Instead he rounded up an eclectic selection of locals and ex-pats and interviewed us for a radio program.

I was called in as the local animal and plant expert and we chatted away about the Canary Islands’ incredible nature. It was an easy gig as the islands really are one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

If you stand anywhere in the Canary Islands outside the towns and resorts you are guaranteed to be within 20 yards of a plant found nowhere else on Earth. There are over 800 of them, 100 on Gran Canaria alone. This density of unique species makes the Canary Islands Europe’s equivalent to the Galapagos Islands or Hawaii.

We’re not just talking about little tiny plants here: The Gran Canaria dragon tree grows to well over 10 metres with a fat trunk and bright orange berries. Remarkably it grows on steep cliffs just 15 minutes drive from the island’s main tourist resorts. There are less than 20 left!

Jardin Canario

The best place to get an overview of the biodiversity of the Canary Islands is in Gran Canaria’s Jardin Canario, also known as the Canary Garden. It is open to the public every day but is dedicated to protecting the archipelago’s rare and endangered plants. Testament to its success as a conservation powerhouse is that not a single Canarian plant has ever gone extinct. At different times several species have vanished from the wild and been saved thanks to the plants growing in the Canary Garden.

Set in the stunning Guiniguada Valley just outside Las Palmas city, the Canary Garden is one of the world’s largest and prettiest botanical gardens. Almost all the island’s animals can be spotted in the gardens, as well as hundreds of plants, both native and exotic. Look out for orange bellflowers in shady corners, blue- and pink-flowered echium bushes, pink Mayflowers, and the spectacular yellow or red flower spikes of the different Canarian houseleeks.

It’s not just the plants that are unique to the Canaries. The pine forests are home to blue chaffinches, the laurel forests shelter unique pink pigeons, and Canaries are everywhere. Many islands also have their own species of giant lizard. The largest and most common lives in Gran Canaria and reaches 80 centimetres. They are everywhere on the island and will do almost anything for a ripe tomato.

Even the nudists that crowd Maspalomas’ sand dunes are likely to come across at least one endemic Canarian species. The dunes are home to fat black beetles that lives nowhere else. It is polite to get out of their way as they bumble about looking for scraps of vegetation.

Combined with their rugged volcanic landscape the natural richness of the Canary Islands makes them a spectacular walking destination. The best time to hike is in April and May when the temperatures are pleasant and everything is in flower. Wherever you go the sights and sounds you experience are uniquely Canarian. You may even walk past something that is still unknown to science: The Gran Canaria dragon tree was only discovered 15 years ago and new species are discovered almost every year.

Listen to the Radio 4 interview here. My bit is from minute 40 onwards.
This post first appeared in Lisa Sadler's excellent Family Life in Spain newsletter
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