A Natural Palate

Jardin de Cactus, Lanzarote, Spain

Cactus, succulents and rock are familiar features in Southwest gardens.   As a desert dweller, I assumed there were no more beautiful cactus gardens than exist here in the Sonoran desert. That idea was turned upside down on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

In Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands of Spain there is a beautiful cactus garden.  This garden is the creation of Cesar Manrique (1920-1992). Cesar, a Spanish citizen born on this island, was a painter, designer of wind toys, sculptor, ecologist, contemporary of Andy Warhol, and a gardener.

Cesar had great respect for the landscape of Lanzarote. As an ecologist, he wanted to protect the natural beauty of the Island.  He had a well-established reputation in his artistic life when he committed himself to the protection and conservation of Lanzarote.  He lobbied for respectful and sensitive planning in development of the island.  One of his last creations is the Jardin de Cactus.
This artist had an inspired view of an uninspiring landscape.  The Canary Island of Lanzarote is a creation of volcanic action providing a black, mostly flat, rocky and dry environment.  Cactus plantations were growing in the area to cultivate the cochineal beetle, a parasite to the cactus, used to manufacture a bright red natural dye. In the early 1970’s Manrique obtained a section of land once used as a quarry for volcanic rock. He dug down shaping an amphitheater to create his terraced garden. He created an artistic spatial garden with monolithic standing stones and over 1000 varieties of cactus and succulents.

Every feature of the garden is visually beautiful.  The entrance gate shaped as a saguaro and the window niches framing the view are works of art.  You enter at the top of the garden and descend down one of two winding stone staircases to walk on pathways paved with smoothed sections of volcanic rock.  The circular space is terraced into five levels.  The plants are planted in pulverized black volcanic bits.

Cactus plantings are placed to weave you through the floor of the garden.  Ponds provide reflective surfaces for the clouds overhead.  Cactus and Euphorbias provide flower, texture and dimension.  Manrique planned every aspect of the garden, such as uniform pots marching up a staircase with variation provided by the plant inside. The chandeliers used in the cafe and gift shop were his creations modeled on cactus forms.  Even the doors of the toilets were uniquely designed with stones clearly designating the genders.

Described by the Manrique Foundation guide as full of creative energy and ideas for the future, CesarManrique died in a car accident in 1992 at the age of 73. This artists’ final work is a living masterpiece.

Nature continues to shape the garden as plants grow and change shape, but it remains a spatial masterpiece of natural materials, placement and plants.  It left me in awe of such beauty.  Traveling away from my garden provided me a new way to view a familiar combination of cactus, succulents and rock.

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