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Historic Gardens of São Miguel Island in the Azores - Portugal

Soares de Albergaria I.1, Forjaz Sampaio J.2

1 Centro de História de Alem-Mar, Universidade dos Açores, Portugal
2 President of the Associação dos Floricultores dos Açores


Sete Cidades Lake – S. Miguel

At a symposium like this on the uses of gardens and tourism, we need to consider the concept of garden tourism as part of a strategy to differentiate tourist destinations by offering quality theme areas. In this perspective the historical gardens of São Miguel are a cultural resource that should be seen as complementary to core products that target Nature Heritage and on the idea that the Azores offer Nature as destination.
First, we should distinguish the focus on management and enhancement of historic gardens as a cultural resource from their use as a tourism product. We put ourselves clearly on the side of cultural managers, who have the task of studying, conserving, adding value and promoting this cultural resource, and who strive to present it well for the enjoyment of all; we gather scientifically validated information, prepare itineraries, visits and other activities that foster the sharing of experiences of social, emotional and aesthetic nature. Accurate knowledge of the places to be visited in terms of historic and creative authenticity should be common practice. How should this be handled?

First things first; as they are called ‘Historic Gardens’, there is a story to be told!
And indeed these places are stocked up with memories linked to names, experiences, events and narratives that have withstood time and physical, biological and human conditioning without totally losing their proper character. As envisaged by the Charter of Florence (1982) historical gardens are architectural and vegetation compositions that from a historical point of view are of public interest and 'as such are considered monuments'. They are part of our remarkable heritage, the heritage that we want to preserve for generations to come, and it is up to us to bear witness to them and to ensure their continuity.

So here are the historic gardens of the island of São Miguel that we selected for display here: the Terra Nostra Garden, the José do Canto Garden, the Santana Garden, the António Borges Garden, the Pico Park, the Dona Beatriz do Canto Park, the Picturesque Garden, the José do Canto Woodland-Gardens, the University´s Garden and the Pinhal da Paz Woodland Gardens.

All these gardens, one way or another, owe their existence to the cultivation of one plant: the orange tree. Not in the traditional sense in which the orange was seen in European gardens, as an ornamental plant, sheltered from the harsh winter inside the elegant ‘orangeries’: in the Azores, the orange had become a product of great economic importance; its export, especially to the English market, represented the main source of wealth of Sao Miguel from about 1780 to 1860 (Dias, 2002:9-19).

The 'Orange cycle', as it is sometimes called, generated business opportunities for large landowners and attracted businessmen who eventually formed a small Anglo-American resident colony, particularly on Faial and São Miguel. Overall, the archipelago benefitted from a significant opening to the outside world. Because of the orange trade, São Miguel’s elite obtained direct access to a range of consumer goods, technical and human resources they had never dreamt of.

Gardens were being designed following European fashions and planted by English, French or Belgian gardeners and landscapers; the taste for botanical collections was definitely established, and camellias were awarded special treatment. Fertile and slightly acid soils, derived from materials that resulted from the ubiquitous volcanic activity across the landscape, coupled with the characteristics of a mild subtropical climate and influenced by the sea current of the Gulf of Mexico, all contributed to the existence of favourable conditions for the growing of the flowers we love best:  the 'Japan Rose'.

The available documents do not allow us to be certain as to the exact date of the introduction of the camellia to the Azores, but thanks to travel literature we know that they existed in the gardens and cloisters of monasteries since the first quarter of the XIX century. The English captain Edward Boid, who visited the Azores in 1832, tells us that the collection of camellias of the American Consul John Dabney, on Faial Island, reached the size of forest trees: "The camellia japonica rises up with the height and strength of a forest tree" (Boid, 1834:35).

In his notes, the British physician Joseph Bullar referred in 1839: "In the gardens of the rich, fuchsias, roses, carnations, citrus, banana, palm, tobacco and camellias were seen. The houses of the poor bore rose bushes, aromatic herbs and carnations in flower beds "(Bullar, 1949). Another witness, the American, Roxana Dabney, during a trip she made to São Miguel in 1859, states that in the garden of the Viscount of Praia, there were about 500 varieties of camellias (Dabney, 2005 (2): 452), which is an impressive number for the period.

The most complete testimony on the subject comes from a Scottish gardener who worked for several years in São Miguel, Peter Wallace. He wrote in 1857: "Camellias have long been the favourite plants of the local people. The cloisters of the convents and monasteries all have some noble specimens; when they were introduced from English greenhouses they suffered with the wind and grew very slowly, but they became acclimatised in a few years and bloomed luxuriantly (...) "(Wallace, 1857:243).

George Brown, an English gardener who had come in 1845, recommended by the famous London nursery Whitley & Osborne, in order to monitor the construction of parks and gardens in São Miguel, later became a nurseryman. In his catalogue of ornamental plants of 1858, he includes 113 varieties of camellias (Brown, 1858). Local garden owners had been converted to collecting camellias. Of all the old collections, the only one that is still known in depth was once owned by Jose Jacome Correia (1815-1886) in the garden of Santana, which is currently the official residence of the President of the Regional Government of the Azores. Once construction of the palace and the front garden had been completed, the Belgian François Joseph Dewander Gabriel (1835-1897) continued with the work of the estate, which was bounded by a circular lane, where, in 1862, 281 varieties of camellias were planted, all duly numbered and identified in a small handwritten notebook (Albergaria, 2000: 139).

Cultivars were mainly of Italian, English and French origin as well as some from Portugal. Almost all of the original plants have disappeared but luckily they were distributed to other gardens of the island, in particular the Woodland-Garden José Canto, in Furnas, as we shall see in the next presentation.

The José do Canto Garden dates back from 1845, when the young owner returned from Coimbra to settle in his homeland. Ambitious and energetic, he immediately made plans to build a vast botanical park. He turned to an English architect, David Mocatta (1808-1882), for the design of a mansion (which he never did build) as well as an extensive garden. To monitor this project he called, one after another, upon several head gardeners, most of them Englishmen: George Brown (1813-1881), Peter Wallace (1820 -?), Alexander Reith (c. 1800-1874), among others. During his lifetime, he gathered an impressive collection of over 3,000 different plant species in his garden in Ponta Delgada and in the Woodland-Garden located on the banks of Furnas Lake; these species were published in catalogues so as to foster exchanges with other similar institutions (Jardin des Plantes in Paris, Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Rio de Janeiro or St. Petersburg).

In one such catalogue, from 1856, 257 varieties of camellias were listed for exchange.





José do Canto Garden (entrance)

By the hand of our greatest landscape architect, Antonio Borges (1812-1879), Furnas Valley saw the growth of Pico Park and Beatriz do Canto Park. In Ponta Delgada, close to his residence, he created what is today’s City Park; on the way to Picturesque Garden at Seven Cities, he developed the Garden of the Cedars. At all these sites we can see examples of ancient camellias, plantations of which were done in the second quarter of the XIX century. Yet, it is at Picturesque Garden, on the shore of Seven Cities Lake, that we find the largest collection, especially along the lanes and paths, forming completely enclosed malls.

Here survives one of the best sets of ancient camellias; standing out among them are several old Italian cultivars such as 'Francesco Ferruccio',  'Contessa Lavinia Maggi',  'Mutabilis Trasversii‘,  'Garofolo', 'Ignea' and '*Zwethii Vera'; other cultivars are the white-flowered 'Mathotiana Alba' and 'Alba Lucina', and even the rare Japanese cultivar 'Moshio'.


Furnas Valley

However, the largest collection of camellias currently is found in the Terra Nostra Garden, located in Furnas Valley. The facility covers four contiguous areas where specimens of hybrids, japonicas, sasanquas and reticulatas can be observed. The tally there stands at over 650 for the different species and cultivars of camellias; they make up one of the major attractions from November to the end of winter.

It is also the oldest of São Miguel’s grand historic gardens; in fact, it goes back to the end of the eighteenth century when the American merchant Thomas Hickling (1745-1834) settled on the island and where, seduced by the beauties of the Vale Formoso’ (Dazzling/Wonderful Dale or Valley) he decided to build a villa there which later on became known as ‘Yankee Hall’.

The approximately two hectares of land would later be extended and modified by the Viscount of Praia, Duarte Borges da Câmara Medeiros (1799-1872). Where the old villa stood, he built the current Park House and planted a ring of Norfolk Island Pines around the pond, which still exist. His son, the Marquis of Praia e Monforte (1829-1903) entrusted the technical and artistic direction to several Portuguese and English gardeners. Under his administration, romantic lakes and grottoes as well as decorative pieces of classical taste came to enhance the grounds.


Terra Nostra Garden, the Casa do Parque and the thermal pond

From 1936 on, the Park came into the possession of the Bensaúde family and entered a new phase of progress and expansion. Vasco Bensaúde employed the Scottish gardener, John McInroy, to restore the estate; he converted the pond into a thermal pool with ferrous water and packed the groves with camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons. Since 1990, a team of British experts led by horticulturist David Sayers and arborist Richard Green, laid hands on the important task of recovering the arboreal stratum of the park and proceeded to plant more than 3,000 new shrub species.

The continuous improvement of the Park has been taken over with renewed enthusiasm by the younger generation, particularly Patricia Fernandes and Joaquim Bensaúde. There are some admirable collections of ferns, cycads and zingiberacea or gingers, especially of the genera Alpinia and Hedychium. The big news is the presence of the aquatic plant Victoria cruziana, also known as Water Lily of Santa Cruz, this being the only garden in Europe that cultivates it in the open (

In the garden of the University and especially in Pinhal da Paz Woodland Gardens, camellias are queens. They were planted in the mid-twentieth century with pines, eucalyptus and cryptomeria that mingled among the acacias, the fir-the-ground and pittosporum; long paths and foot trails are lined with flower shrubs, with special emphasis on the varieties of azaleas and camellias that cram the forest with colours and brightness. Among these stand out some rarer ones such as 'Fimbriata Alba',  'Oranda Kô', 'Virginia Franco' and 'Latifolia'; the Italian cultivars 'Montironi' and 'Madonna'; the English cultivars 'Clara Maria Pope' and 'Spectabilis Loddiges'; the exotic 'Monstrous', owing its name not to the size of its flowers but to their red brick colour; 'Nobilissima’, 'Pomponia Rubra', plus many others, from the simplest to the folded ones.

The correct identification of specimens of ancient camellias in the historic gardens of São Miguel is the main task to be undertaken. A number of flowers had been assigned some common names but most of them were still to be identified. The work began around 1999 when a delegation of the International Camellia Society visited Sao Miguel and were happy to enjoy the exhibition of camellias promoted by the Academy of Arts. Since then, some fruitful work has been done with this romantic flower. Few years later and with the support of Dr. Guido Cattolica, the Azores exhibited about 300 flowers at the sixteenth Exhibition of Old Camellias held in S. Andrea di Compito in 2005.

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Sixteenth Exhibition of Antique Camellias in S. Andrea di Compito, Italy. The Azorean section

The event welcomed the participants of the Congress of the International Camellia Society 2005 in Locarno and we had the opportunity to meet the late President, Gregory Davis, who willingly scheduled for the year 2007 the second International Meeting of Ancient Camellias in S. Miguel. In 2010, the third International Meeting took place on the same island.

8.jpgSecond International Meeting and Fourth Show of Antique Camellias

At the request of the Italian and Swiss Societies of Camellias, the Association of Floriculturists of the Azores organized the fourth International Meeting in 2013, attracting 68 participants.

The journey we have been on since 2000 has produced remarkable advances in both knowledge and dissemination of existing collections as well as an increase in the cultivation of the Camellia genus on the Azorean islands. It is our intention to save the national collections as part of our botanical and cultural heritage and thus the European cultivars that are marketed by British, Belgian and French nurseries (and it is to be said that many of them are produced in Italy) can easily be found in the Azores. Hence, the cultivar ' Sophia ', which was originally created in Belgium and dedicated to the German princess Sophia Frederica Matilda of Württemberg, and which had almost disappeared from both botanical and private gardens, was propagated by the local nurseryman, Carlos Afonso and sent to the Botanical Garden in Stuttgart. In the same vein, the Forest Service of São Miguel is involved in the important work of propagating old cultivars at their nurseries in Furnas. The cooperation with the laboratory of the Areeiro Estación Fitopatolóxica at Ponte Vedra (Spain) has been a valuable contribution in the achievement of our goals.

As long as the minimum conditions for holding these events are met, the Association of Floriculturists of the Azores will always be available to assist and support their taking place.


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