One of the lesser known attractions of Puerto de la Cruz, the resort in the north of Tenerife, is the Orchid Garden Sitio Litre. The mansion was built in 1730 and in 1774 the British merchant Archibald Little bought it together with a piece of land which he converted into a beautiful garden. Sitio is the Spanish word for site and the surname Little somehow changed into Litre. In 1856 the Vice Director of Bristol College, Charles Smith, purchased the property, his family owned the house until 1996, the mansion is still privately owned, but the garden has been opened to the public.
Together with the ticket the visitors get a brochure and a list of all the plants and their names (which is to be returned), number plates are stuck into the soil so that the visitors interested in botany can inform themselves. A map shows the lay-out, but the garden is so small that it is not needed to find the way, it is informative, though, as some parts of the garden have the names of famous visitors who are introduced.
The Marianne North Terrace is dedicated to the English botanical painter who lived in the mansion for two months in 1875, some copies of her pictures are placed in the garden showing that even after more 130 years it has not changed much. She was a diligent artist, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in London displays all her 832 paintings.
We have only seen the garden around Christmas, i.e., in winter, but for us Central Europeans it is fascinating, we feel it is springtime what with green bushes and trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowers in bloom whose names I have not checked knowing I would forget them at once after leaving the garden. A 450-year-old dragon tree, one of the oldest of the island attracts attention as does an enormous fir tree of a kind we do not have in our part of the world.
The Humboldt Garden commemorates another visitor to the island, the famous German explorer, botanist and geographer Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), according to Charles Darwin "the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived". He stayed on Tenerife in 1799 for three days on his way to South America, on his last day he was Mr Little’s guest of honour. The island impressed Humboldt so much that he expressed the wish to live on it permanently, even after seeing Peru and Mexico he stuck to his conviction that nowhere in the world there was a landscape as beautiful as the Orotava valley near Puerto de la Cruz. My husband’s comment, "He never visited Italy." Indeed, he did not and he certainly would not have made this remark had he seen the island as it is now with houses, hotels, skyscrapers everywhere.
In 1927 Agatha Christie spent her holidays on Tenerife together with her daughter Rosalyn, the garden inspired her to write the thriller The Mysterious Mr Quin basing the plot in Puerto de la Cruz; a kind of alcove shows two life-size dolls dressed in the way people where in the 20s beside a table with copies of the book in different languages. Two other famous British visitors were William Wilde, father of Oscar and physician of Queen Victoria, and Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), explorer, adventurer, investigator, reporter and linguist, the first European to search for the source of the Nile, to enter, disguised, the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina, and to travel through remote stretches of India, the Near East, and Africa. He discovered and translated the Kama Sutra and the seventeen volumes of Arabian Nights.
You may ask why I am writing so much about people when the subject is a garden, but the famous visitors are an essential component, their spirits are omnipresent, they hover over the place and the owners of the garden do everything to keep their memory alive.
Yet, we have come for the flowers, let us have a close look at the orchids, 350 all in all, the biggest collection on Tenerife, which have given the garden its name. What makes them so special? Their rarity? No, only non-botanist can have this notion, from the net: "they are one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants, including somewhere between 20 000 and 35 000 species, which together occupy almost every ecological niche on land."
The word "orchid" comes from the Greek, orchis meaning testicle. In ancient times these flowers were an important ingredient in love potions, they were seen as a fertility symbol and aphrodisiac; before coffee became popular, salep (a starchy meal ground from the dried roots of various orchids) was made and drunk for its soothing nutritional and aphrodisiac qualities. It is still drunk in the Middle East today.
Orchids have also been associated with wealth, greed, and lust. From the essay "Orchids of Venus from the North West" the committed orchid lover Camilla Bishop has put on the net: "Considering that orchids are the most highly evolved flower it may seem contradictory that orchids bring this out in people. I see this as a natural evolutionary process of being led through our ignorance or unawareness in order to become wise. It feels like the orchids lead us on this journey, clearing all our illusions, blind spots, and darkness. They ask us to recognize any restriction or repression of our natural impulses.
The key words I get for orchids are passionate, awakening, heart-centred. Spending time with the wild orchids I feel as if they are saying: "Dare to express yourself, dare to experience your sexuality, dare to enjoy abundance and pleasure, dare to free your moral conditioning, dare to celebrate your spiritual power." Not for the timid, orchids lead us to the light within. That part of us we often fear more than our darkness." The orchids we got to see at Sitio Litre were cultivated, not of the wild variety, so I cannot vouch for their secret powers.
Something else I learnt and want to share with you: Orchids tend to have kinky sex lives. Many of them attract male pollinating insects by convincingly mimicking the corresponding females. The flowers exude appropriate pheromones, the powerful chemical signals with which female insects attract males over considerable distances. The male insect mounts the flower and attempts to mate with it but pollinates it instead.
A hammock and a barbecue grill as well as the lawn (the first ever on Tenerife) prepared for a croquet match indicate that Sitio Litre is not a dead museum piece but still used by its owners for entertainment and pleasure. For the current visitors there are a small souvenir shop and a bar with some tables outside and benches throughout the garden built into the low walls surrounding the different parts of the garden ornamented with pretty tiles displaying folkloristic costumes.
One can easily spend one or two enjoyable hours in the Orchid Garden Sitio Litre. The next time we are on Tenerife we will go there again! I think this is recommendation enough.