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The cactus types and succulents that grow in Tenerife in the Canary Islands

Updated on January 21, 2013

Tenerife has the climate for cacti

Because of its subtropical climate Tenerife is an ideal place for cacti to grow in the Canary Islands. However, it doesn't have any native species, although it does have many endemic succulents and one of these is often mistaken for a cactus.

There are introduced cacti species that have colonised the island and are now found growing wild in many places in Tenerife. The island's variety of succulents includes those types that thrive in dry and hot areas and others that live in cooler parts and need a lot of moisture.

Tenerife is a wonderful place for people who enjoy growing cacti and succulents because these fascinating and unusual plants can be grown outdoors all the year around.

Prickly Pears and cactus garden

Prickly Pears Photo by Steve Andrews
Prickly Pears Photo by Steve Andrews
Cholla cactus flower bud Photo by Steve Andrews
Cholla cactus flower bud Photo by Steve Andrews
Cactus garden in Tenerife Photo by Steve Andrews
Cactus garden in Tenerife Photo by Steve Andrews

Prickly Pears

The most comonly seen cacti in Tenerife that grow so well on the island and are often assumed to be native species are the Prickly Pears. They were originally brought to Tenerife to be grown and harvested as crops for the production of the natural red dye cochineal and for their edible fruits.

The two species of Prickly Pear you will find growing wild are Opuntia dillenii, which has longer spines, yellow flowers and rosy-purple fruits, and Opuntia ficus-barbarica, which has orange flowers, shorter spines and green fruits, which turn yellow and red as they mature, and which have far more but much smaller spines on them.

Opuntia dillenii is more frequently encountered in the south of Tenerife, especially on the rocky and dry coastal areas. Opuntia ficus-barbarica tends to be found more often in the north of the island as well as the mountainous districs of the south of the island.

There are also some species of the Cholla cactus, which are also in the Opuntia family, and these cacti have the worst spines of all.The long spines will easily dig into human flesh and segments of the plants will readily break off. The best thing to do is to avoid touching them or walking close to this type of cactus.

The Prickly Pears come originally from Mexico and the southern States of America. The fruits can be eaten if care is taken to remove the prickles and the green pads are also edible as a vegetable but again the spines have to be taken off them first.

Tenerife cacti and succulents

Cardon. Photo by Steve Andrews
Cardon. Photo by Steve Andrews
Houseleek Photo by Steve Andrews
Houseleek Photo by Steve Andrews
Aloe vera Photo by Steve Andrews
Aloe vera Photo by Steve Andrews
Cardoncillo Photo by Steve Andrews
Cardoncillo Photo by Steve Andrews

Houseleeks and other succulents

Tenerife has many species of Houseleek (Aeonium spp.) and these succulents are often found growing on rooftops and on walls of buildings. In a more natural setting they are to be encountered on cliffs and rock-faces, as well as on rocky ground all over the island

.Aeonium urbicum is one of the most frequently seen types of Houseleek. It bears pinkish or greenish-white flowers in spring on a cone-shaped flowering spike that rises above the rosette of fleshy leaves below.

The Golden Houseleek (A. holochrysum) mostly grows in the north of Tenerife and looks really pretty with its golden yellow flowers that come out in early spring. This endemic succulent is found along roadsides and also is one of the types that grow on roofs.

The Lapa (A. tabulaeforme) is a species of Houseleek with a difference that grows in the northwest of Tenerife. It produces a flattened rosette of leaves that grow on the same level as the flat rock of a cliff-face or wall.

The spurge family or Euphorbiaceae has many species that do well on Tenerife and the other Canary Islands. Many types of Euphorbia look like ordinary leafy plants but others have succulent stems that are more like cacti and they are spiny too that helps the cacti-form appearance. Other spurges grow as bushes that carry rosettes of short-lived leaves and flowers.

All the Euphorbias have a toxic white latex juice inside the plants, and this is one way that species show they are in this very large family of plants.

The Cardón (Euphorbia canariensis) is an endemic species that is mistaken for a cactus. It has four or five-sided stems that bear spines along their edges. Cardón grows all over Tenerife on waste ground, cliffs, mountains and rockky areas. The Cardón is also often cultivated in gardens and parks.

The Sweet Spurge (E. balsamifera) or Tabaiba dulce, as the species is called in Spanish, is frequently found in the most arid semi-desert and rocky parts of Tenerife. In summer this type of Euphorbia aestivates, shedding its leaves and surviving as a gnarled and woody bush.

The Canary Candle Shrub (Kleinia neriifolia), which is known as the Verode or Verol in Spanish, is a commonly seen succulent that is native to the Canary Islands and found all over Tenerife. Its jointed fleshy stems create small bushes up to 3m in height. In the autumn and winter months it bears bluish-green leaves as well as pale yellow flower tufts, which change into bunches of fluffy seeds that are blown away by the wind.

The Canary Candle Shrub is one of the traditional medicinal herbs of Tenerife. It has been used to treat wounds and as a well-known remedy for the burning and poisonous juice of the Cardón.

There are various species of Agave that grow naturalised on Tenerife, with the Century Plant (A. americana) being the most conspicuous of these with its very tall flowering spikes and massive rossettes of spiky leaves. It is often seen in groups in ravines and on mountainsides and on waste ground all over Tenerife.

Aloe Vera is another non-endemic species that sometimes grows as an escape from cultivation and on abandoned land. It is very commonly grown in gardens and in flower borders where it is unmistakeable with its large rossettes of grey-green succulent leaves and flowering spikes with bright yellow blooms.

The Cardoncillo (Ceropegia fusca) is in the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), but it grows as a succulent. This weird plant has long cylindrical grey stems that can reach more than a metre in length but are generally a lot shorter. These stems bear curious brownish-red flowers in late spring.

The Cardoncillo is found on the semi-desert areas and rocky coastal plains in the south of the island. Its windblown seeds are formed in a strange-looking two-beaked seed-pod. This strange-looking plant is unlike anything else you will find growing in such locations as it is found in.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

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    • DavidParkes profile image

      DavidParkes 7 years ago from Tenerife

      I never knew the Common English name for the Aeoniums was "Houseleek". In case anyone is interested they are known locally as "Bejeque". Thanks for the informative article Steve.

    • Tenerife Islander profile image
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      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Tenerife

      There are also Sempervivum species that are closely related that are called Houseleeks too but they don't grow here. They are very similar and will grow on roofs.

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