Sand and lava

Over the winter I re-read Jonathan Silvertown’s excellent book Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity,[1] which reminded me how extraordinary the Canary Islands are in respect of plant biology, with their high incidence of endemics as a result of their isolation and volcanic origins. A bit more reading and digging around online in the dark months only served to increase my enthusiasm to see the islands, and I finally booked a short trip to Lanzarote in April, it being the most affordable trip I could find for the days I could go.

Knowing that I would only have a limited amount of time, I spent the preceding month doing as much preparation as I could. The Crossbill Guide[2] was particularly valuable and I think I have read the whole thing three times. I also found myself doing a crash course in botanical German since the only flora of the Canaries currently in print is Die Kosmos – Kanarenflora.[3] Mercifully, there are also a couple of good websites that provide additional details and species, though they are in Spanish, but at least my Spanish is better than my German…[4]

My target was to stay at the north of the island, making it possible to see the lava fields on the coast, the island of La Graciosa, and the north end of the Famara cliffs. This choice had even more botanical resonances when I discovered that Alexander von Humboldt had landed on La Graciosa in 1799 near the beginning of his journey to South America.

I know that many of the species included in this account are actually quite common and unremarkable, either from north Africa or the Mediterranean, and that there were loads of things I missed, and many which I’ve struggled to identify, but it was such an exhilarating and wonderful few days that it has been a pleasure to write about the trip and remember it.

Thursday 16 April: Órzola, the coast and the Malpaís

Picture of the lava fields near Orzola

Heading out of the tiny town of Órzola, it took a little while to find the coast path, so to begin with I stomped along the road, quickly getting a sense of the range of the flora on the black lava or on the sand, and the shape of the coast. Turning in to the first beach, it then required some meandering to locate something that looked like an actual path, and even when I had, it wasn’t always obvious. Across the lava fields, often the ‘path’ was little more than a route with slightly smaller lumps of rock to pick your way through cautiously. Doing it in walking sandals was possible, but not ideal since it would be very easy to slice one’s toes.

Picture of Berthelot's Pipit (Anthus berthelotii)

Berthelot’s Pipit (Anthus berthelotii)

It was also worth keeping an eye out for the birds as I went along. Unsurprisingly, the first thing I saw was Berthelot’s Pipit (Anthus berthelotii), the commonest species on the island, though some Trumpeter Finch (Bucanetes githagineus) also could be seen among the Euphorbias, and the local Macaronesian sub-species of the Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis atlantis) was everywhere along the coast.

Picture of beach near Orzola

Sand and lava

The lava fields on the north of the island are among the oldest in Lanzarote, so there has been enough time for species to gradually colonise them. One of the first to catch my eye was Coastal Ragwort (Senecio leucanthemifolius), either growing in the sand or on the lava, in both green- and red-leaved variants. Probably native to the islands, this is not unusual along the Mediterranean coasts too.

Picture of Senecio leucanthemifolius

Senecio leucanthemifolius

A plant that had been clearly visible from the bus was the red-stemmed Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum, often covering huge areas of the land, in towns as well as on the coast, giving an often bright red colouration to the otherwise bare ground that could be seen from a considerable distance.

Picture of Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum

Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum

There were some familiar species on the sand, such as Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias), Sea Rocket (Cakile maritime) and Sea-blight (but they didn’t all look the same…), and some that were recognisable from the Mediterranean or Spanish coasts (eg Salsola vermiculata, Launaea arborescens, and Tetraena fontanesii on the rocks) but many of them seemed a bit different too.

Picture of Euphorbia paralias

Euphorbia paralias

Two other Euphorbias were all over the lava fields, in great green bushes which contrasted considerably with the almost black rock. These were the rather wonderful Euphorbia balsamifera and E. regis-jubae, the latter having much longer, finer leaves than the former.

Picture of Euphorbia balsamifera

Euphorbia balsamifera

One of the problems that quickly became apparent was that there may be several quite similar species that occur on the island, some endemic and others with a wider distribution. This one is a case in point. There one Polycarpaea species endemic to Lanzarote, another that occurs more widely on the Canary Islands and a third with a wider Macaronesian distribution, and they are all suspiciously similar. On balance, I think this is the latter (Polycarpaea nivea) based on the differences in the leaves, but that may not be so…

Picture of Polycarpaea nivea (probably)

Polycarpaea nivea?

Identification confusion was certainly compounded by the fact that, for many of these plants, I’d not seen anything like them before so it was hard enough figuring out what group they were in, let alone assessing whether there were many look-alikes, or which they were. Add in the extra dimension of having a German flora, and I’m not that surprised that some of them eluded me.

At least I could tell an umbellifer when it presented itself. This rather splendid plant is Astydamia latifolia, which occurs in north Africa as well as on the Canarian coasts.

Picture of Astydamia latifolia

Astydamia latifolia

By the late afternoon it was nicely sunny, and the wind was blowing up a bit, so it was nice to stop in one of the small shelters built from the lava rocks on the beach. Two species were in there: the first, Traganum moquinii, is one of the common salt-tolerant shrubs on the sand, restricted to the Canaries and the nearby African coast; the other was the lizard that is common all over the island, the Atlantic Lizard (Gallotia atlantica), and is endemic to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.

Picture of Atlantic Lizard among Traganum moquinii

Atlantic Lizard (Galliota atlantica) among Traganum moquinii

Some pink flowers in the sand also caught my eye, and weren’t something I immediately recognised. These were a Canarian species of Sea-heath, Frankenia capitata, with linear, sometimes revolute leaves with a bit of a whitish crust.

Picture of Frankenia capitata

Frankenia capitata

By now heading back to Órzola and slowly picking my way across the lava I was looking less and less at the flora and mostly concentrating on where to place my feet. Even so, the lichen flora on the rocks was extraordinary, though in the absence of a good (human) guide I just admired the forms and colours rather than try and identify any of them. In any event, by this stage, having been awake since 4am, I was somewhat overwhelmed with the challenge of trying to figure out what many of these species were, even in this somewhat restricted habitat. Mercifully, once back in the apartment, a beer helped.

The blog posts on the Lanzarote trip

  1. Sand and lava [this current post]
  2. Following Humboldt
  3. A long walk to the cliffs
  4. Shrubs, birds and aeroplanes
  5. A Lanzarote album

[1] Silvertown, Jonathan. Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[2] Hilbers, Dirk and Kees Woutersen. Canary Islands – I: Lanzarote and Fuerteventura – Spain. Arnhem: Crossbill Guides Foundation, 2014.

[3] Schönfelder, Peter and Ingrid Schönfelder. Die Kosmos—Kanarenflora. Stuttgart: Kosmos, 2012.

[4] Flora Vascular de Canarias. Web. <>, and Flora y Vegetación de Lanzarote. Web. <>.


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