The history of the Rock of Gibraltar is one of repeated conquests and sieges, and its military dimension is the one that is best known outside Gibraltar. The history of this contentious Rock, however, has long had a social and cultural aspect, and it has certainly had a fascinating variety of influences in architecture and its horticultural development.
Architecturally, Moorish, Spanish, Italian (Genoese) and British influences are all present in the townscape. Botanically, the influence of Man through the centuries, through deforestation, cultivation and introductions have all played a part in flavouring the predominantly Mediterranean features of wild vegetation and of gardens.
The military emphasis on Gibraltar's history meant that it was not until early in the 19th Century that much consideration was given by the military governor of the Colony to the social needs of its civilian inhabitants. General Sir George Don, Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar, was perhaps the first since the British and Dutch joint taking of Gibraltar in 1704 to dedicate significant resources to the public well being. This included the founding of a new civilian hospital.
In 1815, considering that "there being no place of public recreation in this Garrison" he "was induced?..to establish a walk around the Grand Parade, and form what is called in this country an Alameda, where the inhabitants might enjoy the air protected from the extreme heat of the sun". In order to avoid public expenditure, the gardens were laid out with voluntary contributions, including some from the Amateur Theatre and monies raised by a series of public lotteries.
The Grand Parade was an assembly ground situated to the south of the town of Gibraltar in an area which had been a "desert of red sand", used as a raw material in construction within the town. Parts of the area had been used as a vegetable garden for the forces during the sieges, and parts as cemeteries. The shoreline here had been the easiest access for landings until a fortified wall was built along the shore and had been used to great effect by the Moors in defeating Enrique de Guzman, Second Count Niebla in 1435.
Grand Parade was the hub of military activity for over a hundred years. The changing of the guard was held there every week and the site was used for ceremonial occasions. To this day two 10inch RML guns on slides overlook grand parade from the east.
The promenade around the Parade was gradually expanded to include about 8 hectares of land in what became known as the Alameda Gardens. Alameda is derived from the Spanish word "Alamo", or White Poplar Populus alba, and old writings mention these trees growing along the Grand Parade. The walks opened to the public on 14th April, 1816. The Gibraltar Chronicle covered the event thus:
"The walks at the New Alameda being completed they will be opened to the public tomorrow afternoon, at 4 o'clock, when three Bands of Music will attend".
The gardens were laid out with numerous interconnecting paths and terraced beds, set out mainly with native Jurassic limestone rock, much of it tinted by the local red sand. Dry stone walls and retaining walls were also made out of the local rock. Improvements through the early years included the introduction of gas lighting along the west side of Grand Parade and the erection, possibly in 1842, of an archway made out of the jaws of a whale.
In 1973 the Alameda Gardens fell into a state of disrepair and it was not until 1991 when Wildlife (Gibraltar) Limited, a firm of Environmental Consultants and Managers was contracted by the Government of Gibraltar to manage the gardens and convert them into the Gibraltar Botanical Gardens. The aim is to develop the gardens in ways that will enhance enjoyment, conservation and education, so that its future will be even richer than its past.
The Alameda Gardens were opened in 1816 at the instigation of Lieutenant-Governor George Don who wished to provide a scenic walk for residents and visitors to Gibraltar. In the Gibraltar Botanical Gardens these aims have been expanded to include the appreciation of the value of plants and the importance of their conservation.
Plants of the Gardens
The plants of the Alameda Gardens are a combination of native species and others brought in from abroad, often from former British territories like Australia and South Africa with which Gibraltar had maritime links at the time of the British Empire. Since 1991 many new species have been planted, some growing in Gibraltar for the first time.
Dragon Tree Dracaena draco
The dragon Tree comes from the Atlantic Islands of the Canaries, Madeira and Cape Verde. It is an unusual member of the lily family. The red resin which quickly crystalises was used medicinally and known as Dragon's Blood. The smooth grey bark is reminiscent of an elephant's hide. Its panicles of showy white flowers appear irregularly in summer and produce bright orange berry-like fruit in winter. The oldest dragon tree in the gardens is probably about 300 years old, though there are claims that they live upwards of 1000 years.
Stone pine Pinus pinea
This is a native of the Mediterranean where it favours sandy coastal locations. The pine nuts produced in the rounded cones are edible. Roasted and sugar-coated the "pinones" are a delicacy. The cones and nuts in the gardens are often eaten by frugivorous tree rats Rattus rattus frugivorous before they fall to the ground. The outer surface of the bark of this tree is divided into large reddish plates. Stone Pines are the tallest trees in the garden being about 200 years old. The Aleppo Pine Pinus halpensis is less common in the gardens. It has pointed cones, winged, inedible seeds and more finely marked bark than the Stone Pine. There is one large Canary Island Pine Pinus canariensis in the upper part of the garden.
Wild Olive Olea europaea
The most common tree in the Alameda, the wild olive, produces small white flowers in summer followed by the small black olives in winter. Too bitter for human consumption, it is a favourite food of wintering birds, including blackcaps. The wood is strong and hard wearing. This tree is the ancestor of the cultivated olive tree.
Nettle Tree Celtis australis
Related to the elms, this tree has nettle-shaped leaves that do not sting. Probably native to Gibraltar where it will have formed part of the ancient woodland that covered what is now the Town. A deciduous tree with bright green foliage in spring that turns darker as summer progresses. Its grey bark is smooth. There is a Nettle tree in the centre of the Lions Pond.
Australian Silk Oak Grevillea robusta
There is only one specimen of this tree in the gardens, on the lower southernmost area (Atlantic Island Bed). Its springtime flowering is spectacular with orange and red flowers producing copious amounts of nectar which attracts bees and birds.
Canary Island Date Palm Phoenix canariensis
The common palm of Gibraltar. A native of the Canary Islands. It has long fronds and orange, inedible dates.
Washingtonia Washingtonia filifera
Large, fan-leaved palms from the deserts of North America. One of the two large specimens in the Dell has retained its "petticoat" of old leaves.
Lord Howe Island Palm Howeia forsteriana
Two of these attractive palms grow in the Dell above the bridge. They were reputedly donated to the gardens as young plants by an elderly lady the day she was evacuated in 1941, during the Second World War.
Solitaire Palm Ptychosperma elegans
Slender feathered palms from Australia. Three fine specimens in the Open Air Theatre. Other species of palm are being added to the garden's collection.
Hibiscus Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
Also known as "Rose of China", many attractive varieties of this tropical shrub grow in the gardens, notably in the Hibiscus Bed and in the Dell where there are a number of especially beautiful large-flowered forms. The Hibiscus bed also holds other species of Hibiscus, including the Swamp Mallow Hibiscus moscheutos and the Fringed Hibiscus Hibiscus schitzopetalus, as well as other members of the Hibiscus, or Mallow Family , the Malvaceae.
Bougainvillea Bougainvillea spp
Named after French explorer Louis de Bougainville, these showy scramblers come from tropical south America. Of the various varieties growing in the gardens, the purple and deep red are the most spectacular, especially during their main flowering period in summer. The colour is provided by modified leaves called bracts, while the white flowers are small and insignificant.
There are numerous members of this family in the gardens. The small bright blue flowers with yellow centres are Felicia from southern Africa. All-yellow daisies are Euryops, which are also south African. Also from that region are the grey-leafed squat Gazania and the shrubbier Arctotis (often with orange flowers). Rounded bushes with white flowers with yellow centres in early spring are the Canary Island daisies Chrysanthemum frutescens. A climbing daisy Montanoa schotti and a tree daisy Montanoa bipinnatifida, from Mexico, can also be seen.
Climbers, creepers and scramblers
A number of other climbers, creepers and scramblers are common in the gardens, often shaped into hedges. With bright orange tubular flowers is the Cape Honeysuckle Tecomaria capensis, from South Africa. Also South African is the pale blue flowered Leadwort Plumbago capensis. There is a Chinese Wisteria Wisteria sinensis over the upper fountain in the Dell, while on the bridge grow Bougainvillea, Lantana and Wisteria as well as Golden Chalice Solandra maxima and the Australian Native Wisteria Hardenbergia comptoniana. Scattered about the gardens are a number of honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum, Jasmine Jasminum spp. and Jessamine (or "Dama de Noche") Cestrum nocturnum, with its intense scent of summer evenings.
Shrubs and bulbs
Some of the more obvious shrubs of the gardens include Oleanders Nerium oleander, with pink, white or yellowish flowers in summer, the Blue Butterfly Bush Buddleja davidii with pale blue flowers in late winter, and the native Shrubby Scorpion Vetch Coronilla valentina with sweet-scented bright yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. One traditional plant of the Alameda which has been re-planted in various areas is the Heliotrope or Heliotropium arborescens which has pale blue flowers and an overpowering cherry-pie scent. The Bugloss Echium spp. is another shrub with attractive blue flowers. In late summer the pink trumpets of the Bella Donna Lilies Amaryllis bella-donna appear from the dry ground. In winter and spring dark green clusters of leaves show instead. Agapanthus Agapanthus africans, with blue flowers and Antholyza aethiopicaa, with orange flowers are another two southern African bulbous plants of the Alameda.
Commonly known as geraniums, these plants, which mainly originate in South Africa do well in Gibraltar's climate. A number of cultivated varieties grow around the gardens, while true species can be seen in certain areas. These include the attractive Oak-leafed Pelargonium Pelargonium quercifolium and other species with scented leaves like P. tomentosum and P. fragrantissimum.
Several beds are dedicated to succulents from the dry regions of the world. Many plant families have developed some form of succulent habit. The best represented in The Alameda include:
Aloes, which are mainly southern African and have spikes of tubular, often red flowers. These are pollinated by sunbirds in Africa and also attract birds in Gibraltar to feed on their copious nectar. The most common is the Tree Aloe Aloe arborescens which flowers in winter.
Cacti are almost exclusively southern African and include the pad-like Opuntia, the columnar species like Cleistocactus jujuyensis, the cushion-like Echinocactus grusonii and the climbing species with large night-opening flowers like Hylacereus undatus candelabrum.
Euphorbias, or spurges have many forms, including ones, like Euphorbia candelabrum that resemble columnar cacti. Other forms to be seen on the main succulent bed are represented by, for example, Euphorbia stenoclada and E. milii hislopii. The small succulent bed near the Theatre is dedicated to plants of the Sonoran Desert in North America.
Gibraltar and Mediterranean plants
Wild plants are to be found in locations throughout the gardens, with some beds being particularly dedicated to them. Gibraltar plants to be seen include the Gibraltar Candytuft Iberis gibraltarica, the Gibraltar Restharrow Ononis natrix and the very rare Gibraltar Campion Silene tomentosa. The Mediterranean Bed in particular has typical species including lavenders and Cistus sun roses, as well as leguminous shrubs and bulbous or rhizomatous plants like the Paper-white Narcissus Narcissus papyraceus Giant Squill Scilla peruviana and asphodels Asphodelus spp.
Some of the other beds are dedicated to the plants of California, Australia, South Africa and the Canary Islands, regions with a climate similar to Gibraltar's. The Family Beds display plants according to selected plant families.
Sites in the Gardens The Eliott Memorial
In 1815 General Don had requested of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl Bathurst, permission to construct a rotunda with a memorial to General Sir George Augustus Eliott. This did not materialise in the form originally requested, but a "colossal" statue of General Eliot, carved from the bowsprit of the Spanish man-o-war San Juan, taken at Trafalgar was placed at the top of the Heathfield Steps, leading up to the south of Grand Parade. That statue was taken to the Convent, the Governor's residence, where it stands today, when a bronze bust of General Elliot replaced it in 1858. It stands on a marble pillar and was presented to Gibraltar by a descendant of the General. Like elsewhere in Gibraltar, sites within the gardens have been used to display examples of guns in Gibraltar or connected with British military history. Thus around Elliott's column are placed three 10 inch howitzers made in 1783 and one 8 inch howitzer dating from 1778.
The Wellington Memorial
Three years after the opening of the Alameda, on 10th April, 1819, Sir George Don, accompanied by the Naval, Military and Civil officers of the Garrison, went to the gardens to unveil the bust of the Duke of Wellington. A guard of Honour and four bands attended. The monument had been funded by deducting a day's pay from all the members of the garrison. The bust had been cast in bronze under the direction of a Mr. Westmacott from guns captured by the Duke of Wellington. It stands on a marble pillar that had been brought from the Roman ruins of Lepida (Libya). Around Wellington's column stand two 13 inch mortars with shells and 1 1758 bronze 12 pounder gun on a wooden garrison carriage.
Laid out by a Genoese gardener in 1842 this Italian style garden was restored in 1992. Notable are the two fountains dating from early in the 20th Century and the waterfall and pond with a selection of lilies and marginal plants including Papyrus. Goldfish, frogs and terrapins share the pond. Plants of note are Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, Jasmine. Jessamine, Wisteria and palms. Plants traditionally grown indoors, like several species of tropical ferns are perfectly at home in the rockeries alongside the stream.
The 17th Century Stone Cottage , once the head gardener's residence, has been restored to include a display on the botany and natural history of Gibraltar and the gardens in particular, including the history of the Alameda.
The Nature Shop
Plants, seeds and gardening sundries can be obtained from the Nature Shop, So too can gifts and cards, as well as a wide range of books on natural history and gardening.
Open Air Theatre
The Alameda Open Air Theatre was inaugurated once again on 12th April, 1996 at four o'clock with three bands of music playing - the same number of bands as had attended 180 years before to the hour at the opening of the Alameda Gardens in 1816. In order to extend its use from just theatre to general use, a number of new features were introduced, like the waterfall and lake - the largest area of open fresh water on the Rock, with Koi Carp and a collection of exotic lilies.
Since its opening, this venue has been used for a variety of purposes, from beauty contests to band concerts, also weddings, dinner dances, conferences and variety shows.
The theatre is available for hire and all proceeds will go directly into continued improvements in the theatre and in the rest of Gibraltar's historic and rapidly improving Alameda Gardens.
Useful information about the theatre and its facilities:
Seating Capacity: 435
Stage Area: 120 sq. mtrs.
Lighting Equipment: 34 Wide and Beams with coloured filters if required.
3 stage and 3 public entrances.
Bar, changing rooms and toilet facilities.
Seating with table maximum capacity: 300
Wildlife in the Gardens
Herbicides and pesticides are not generally used in the Alameda, and so there is rich wildlife. Bird species nesting within the gardens include Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap, Blackbird, Robin, Greenfinch, serin and Wren. Winter additions include Grey and White Wagtail, Chifchaff, Black Redstart, Chaffinch, Short-toed Treecreeper and occasionally Kingfisher, while notable birds of passage periods are Hoopoe, Redstart, Woodchat Shrike and flycatchers. Kestrel (throughout the year) and Booted Eagle (in winter) regularly hunt in the grounds. Rep[tiles include the Moorish Gecko, Iberian Wall Lizard, Amphisbaenian and the harmless Horseshoe Whip Snake. Of the bats, the Pipistrelle is the commonest (often seen during the day), while Schreiber's Bat and the European Free-tailed Bat can also be seen. The Alameda Gardens are peat-free. Coconut fibre and our own composted material is used in order not to foster the destruction of peat bogs in northern Europe, which are important wildlife habitats.