Following Fairchild in the Canary Islands

Following the Steps of Dr. David Fairchild in the Canary Islands

by Javier Francisco-Ortega, Arnoldo Santos-Guerra, Nancy Korber, Marianne Swan and Janet Mosely

Dr. David Fairchild is well known for his plant hunting journeys to tropical regions of the world; however, little has been written about his expeditions to the Mediterranean Basin, Europe and the Atlantic Islands. In fact, Fairchild's first two trips on the Utowana (in the summer of 1925) focused on Spain's Canary and Balearic Islands - not on the tropics. The Canaries are located 100 km west of the coast of the Sahara, and the Balearic Islands are in the Mediterranean Sea, relatively close to the Spanish region of Catalunya.

The Canary trips led to the publication of five research articles. During his time in the archipelago, Fairchild collected 89 plant samples (73 species) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more than 315 photographic images that are kept in the archives at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. These images represent true gems for those interested in the rural and urban life of the Canaries in the first third of the 20th century. On a recent trip, Dr. Santos-Guerra and Dr. Francisco-Ortega revisited some of the same places that Fairchild traversed on his travels. We took photographs and compared what we found to his descriptions and images. Some of these places have changed very little, but others have not escaped the urban and agricultural development that currently dominates large sections of the archipelago.

The seven volcanic islands of the Canaries are home to unique flora (some 600 endemic species); and the archipelago has a rich scientific history linked to the most important European expeditions of the 16th through the 18th centureis. From Fairchild's accounts, we know that before visiting the archipelago he had a great interest in the natural history, traditions and ancient history of these islands. Therefore, it's not a surprise that he visited the islands four times and that three of the chapters of his famous book Exploring for Plants are devoted to the Canaries.

The dragon tree 1925 The dragon tree 2009
The legendary dragon tree at the town of Icod, Tenerife. The image above was taken during the second Utowana expedition to the Canary Islands in July 1925. Archives /FTBG The same dragon tree - image taken January 31, 2009. Notice the same palm trees are also present.
Photo by Arnoldo Santos-Guerra

Dr. David Fairchild in the Canaries (1903-1927)
In 1903, Fairchild made his first trip to the Canaries, stopping only on the island of Gran Canaria. That stop came during Fairchild's trip from South Africa to England in the company of Barbour Lathrop, but the actual dates of the visit are not recorded. The data found in documents from the Garden's archives and Fairchild's seed collection information suggest that they visited the island in April; however, in one of Fairchild's works he indicated that they were there in May.

Subsequent visits were supported by Allison V. Armour. The first of these trips - in July 1925 - was Fairchild's most extensive expedition to the archipelago. The crew included Fairchild's son, Alexander Graham Bell Fairchild; Dr. William M. Wheeler, an entomologist and professor of zoology at Harvard University; Allison V. Armour; and two of Armour's wealthy friends: Jordan Mott III and his wife Katherine J. P. Mott. The group visited the islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, Lanzarote and Tenerife. On Gran Canaria, Fairchild explored the famous cloud forest of "Monte Doramas." On La Palma, he saw the cultivation of endemic legumes as fodder, and in Lanzarote he toured the island's unique cropping systems, which are based on the use of volcanic ash as mulch. Highlights in Tenerife included the lengendary dragon tree (Dracaena draco) of Icod and the botanic garden of Orotava, which is the second-oldest botanic garden in Spain.

In December 1926, Fairchild made his second Armour-supported visit, landing on Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Two scientists joined him on the expedition: Dr. John M. Dalziel from Kew Gardens, who was one of the authors of the Flora of West Tropical Africa, and Dr. Harold McKinney, a USDA plant pathologist who specialized in mosaic plant diseases. Fred W. Schultz traveled with them as an assistant and photographer. Armour's sister, Mary Whitehouse, joined the expedition, along with her husband, Francis M. Whitehouse, a prominent architect who designed several landmark Chicago buildings. From one of the photographs, and its description in Fairchild's pocket notebooks, it seems that Jordan Mott also joined this team.

Fairchild's final trip to the Canaries came in 1927, when the Utowana stopped on Gran Canaria at Las Palmas. While the published data indicate that he arrived at this island on March 20 and left for Europe on April 1, Fairchild's pocket notebooks and additional documents in the Garden's archives don't match those dates. No plant material was collected during this trip and we have not been able to compile a complete list of the expedition participants.

While several foreign botanists visited the Canaries during the first half of the 20th century, Fairchild and his compatriots were the first foreign scientists to visit the islands with a focus on collecting plant material for agricultural research. They traveled on mules, small boats and by foot, conducting plant hunting before the Canaries became a major tourism target and the landscape was severely transformed by urban development and an extensive network of roads and expressways. Fairchild found the islands to have a unique endemic flora with crop relatives, potential fodder crops and ornamental species. His pioneer expeditions to collect plant germplasm in the Canaries were subsequently followed by other plant hunters, and our knowledge of the archipelago's flora is richer for it.   

Canary pine forest
Canary pine (Pinus canariensis) forest on the furthermost area of La Palma near the village of Fuencaliente, July 1925. The San Antonio volcano is in the background. Archives/FTBG
Utowana plant hunters
Participants in the second expedition of Utowana to the Canary Islands. Image taken on board the yacht at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, December 25, 1926. From left to right: Fairchild, Whitehouse, Dalziel, Armour, McKinney, Schultz, and Whitehouse. Fairchild (Exploring for Plants, page 193), refers to this image as the expedition members standing in pajamas on the deck of the Utowana. Archives/FTBG
Echium pininana
Prof. William M. Wheeler standing near an individual of Echium pininana at the garden of "La Hijuela" La Orotava, Tenerife, July 1925. This is a species endemic to the cloud forests of northeastern La Palma. "La Hijuela" is the satellite garden of the Jardin de Aclimatacion de La Orotava, the second oldest botanic garden of Spain. Archives/FTBG

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Nancy Korber
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