Carina Costa is a second-generation gardener, following in the footsteps of her father, Fernando, who is Head Gardener of Terra Nostra Gardens in Furnas on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. She says the Azores have been home for the family "since forever--at least six generations."
Carina graduated from the University of the Azores in 2010 with a degree in Agricultural Sciences, with Agronomy as specialty. In 2014, she earned a master's degree in Agronomic Engineering; her focus was on phytosanitary issues concerning different species of Camellias on the Island of São Miguel, Azores.
The Azores are believed by some to be the legendary “Fortunate Isles,” a winterless earthly paradise inhabited by the heroes of Greek mythology. Perhaps not surprisingly, Carina considers her profession, her place of employment, and the ability to work alongside her father as happy circumstances indeed.
The Archipelago of the Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal, situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 2,400 miles east of Boston and 950 miles west from Lisbon. Discovered in the 1430s by the ships of Henry the Navigator, settlement of São Miguel began in 1444, on the day of then patron saint of Portugal, Archangel Michael.
The Azorean archipelago is made of nine volcanic islands, located in what is known as the Azores Triple Junction, where three tectonic plates converge--the North American, Eurasian and African Plates. The archipelago are divided into in three geographical groups: the Eastern Group, which includes São Miguel, the Central Group, and the Western Group.
Furnas is located in the easternmost of three active volcanoes on São Miguel. The first known historical eruption occurred in 1440, just after early settlers started populating the coasts of São Miguel; the most recent occurred in 1630. Thanks to its geothermal activity, the Furnas area has numerous hot springs, bubbling cauldrons and boiling mud pools mark the areas where hot gases and steam sources are close to the surface. Volcanism is present in all the smallest details of the life of the small settlement of Furnas, which is one of the most active thermal locations on Earth.
Furnas is located inland from the south-eastern coast; its landscape encompasses a lake, a valley and a village. Lagoa das Furnas features several mud pools and fumaroles—vents in the earth that emit gas and steam. In the village, there are thirty springs, each of differing temperatures and mineral compositions.
My conversation with Carina touched on the timelessness of Terra Nostra Garden and her role of preserving her father’s legacy, as well as themes of creativity, contrast and change—all inherent characteristics of the natural world. Trained as a scientist, Carina nonetheless was very matter-of-fact about the human limitations in understanding the vast universe that is botany. In this day and age of so many so-called experts, I found Carina’s humility and openness about the never-ending education presented by her career as a gardener.
Meg: With your father being the head gardener at Terra Nostra, did you spend much time at the garden when you were growing up?
Carina: Yes. My father loves the garden so much, he spends all day here. If I wanted to see him, I needed to come to the garden. I began to think of it as mine, which is only natural when you spend so much time in a place.
Meg: Did your father influence your decision to become a gardener?
Carina: Oh, yes. Of course. It hadn’t occurred to me to work here in the garden, but when I was about 16 years old, before I would be going to university, my father brought it up with me, and asked if I might have an interest in gardening as a profession. Actually, he had already talked with me about it, but not so seriously. I think he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I started to think much more about it and I decided to study gardening. It wasn't a difficult choice. I love nature. Whenever we traveled, we were always in nurseries and gardens.
When I began working here, it was not normal to see a woman work as a professional gardener, although it is very common in other countries. Old people think it's not a good profession for young women. They don't get why I decided to be a gardener. They ask me why I didn't become a teacher or lawyer or something like that. They probably think that I earn less money and that my salary is smaller than other professions - which is not true. If they looked at it as a scientific profession, they would probably have another opinion, but here they associate being a gardener more with agriculture. In the Azores, gardening is a job for men, they are stronger. I will probably go down in history as the first women gardener at Terra Nostra Gardens.
Meg: Speaking of the history of the garden, can you tell me how it came to be created?
Carina: There has been a garden in the Furnas Valley for over 200 years. Seen from the top of the Pico do Ferro viewpoint, you can see that the “valley” is actually a crater, seven kilometers in diameter, and the last remains of an apparently long-extinct volcano.
The Furnas Valley became popular towards the end of the 18th century, due to the growing interest in the use of mineral water to treat health problems, such as rheumatism and obesity. Furnas has hundreds of small springs and streams, all with different properties. The Terra Nostra Garden is located in the midst of this magnificent water system.
Lots of visitors come to Terra Nostra not to see the garden, but to swim in the thermal waters. In the village, there are many more springs and people come to experience all the flavors. It’s magical and unique to Furnas.
Around 1775, Thomas Hickling, a wealthy merchant from Boston, who became an Honorary American Consul in São Miguel, built a simple wooden summer house, which came to be known as Yankee Hall. In front of the house, there is a pool that evolved from a small regular lake created by Hickling. Now the new pool is fed by a thermal spring of waters with a temperature of between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius. The pool is surrounded by Araucaria trees, from Norfolk Island, Australia, New Caledonia and Brazil, and there is an English oak (Quercus robur) planted by Hickling that can still be seen there today.
Meg: You are reaching the conclusion of a project to document and catalogue of all the plants in the garden. What has that involved?
Carina: That was my main job here until now. I have almost all the plants classified now. It was a very difficult job—it’s taken me five years. There are a just a few that I haven’t been able to classify yet. We have around 1600 different plants. When I say different plants that includes all the different classified species, subspecies, varieties and cultivars.
For example, you have a camellia that has a red double flower and you don't know the name of that particular type of camellia, so you start to search in all the books on camellias that you have. You look on the internet, and take measurements of the leaves and flower of your plant. Then you compare all the information you gathered with all the information in books and on the internet to see if it's that species.
It was one of my goals to have a plant list for the entire garden, so I'm happy that it's almost done. But of course, even with my training, I've probably made some mistakes. It's good when people come and look at the label and they say to me, "I think this is wrong. I think it should be this species and not the one that you think." Then we have a conversation about why he thinks this or that and then I'm just back to my office and try to search about it again and try to find the right name. It is work that is constantly in progress.
It happened a few months ago. A young local guy had seen a plant in another place and when he saw it here he knew it wasn't identified with the correct name. He was not a botanist, but he was right. It was previously named as an Araucaria bidwillii, but it wasn't, it was an Araucaria angustifolia.
You see, there is a genus, a species and then you have the cultivar. Camellia is a genus of flowering plant that originates in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia. The leaves of a species of Camellia (Camellia sinensis) is what is used to make tea. The introduction of Camellias into Portugal took place in the 16th century, when the Portuguese began trading with Japan and China.
A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding. With camellias, the shrub looks all the same, almost--the same leaves, but then the flowers are different; that's different cultivars, plants that were cultivated by someone who names them with their own names and these names are on books, on the internet, on the International Camellia Register, for example. You have thousands of different camellia cultivars. The most common ornamental species are Camellia japonica, Camellia reticulata, Camellia sasanqua and the Hybrids. Then, for example, in Japonica species you have the names like Camellia japonica ‘Black Rider’ or Camellia japonica ‘Bella Lambertii’, or Camellia japonica ‘Ballet Dancer’--that's the cultivar name. Because there are so many and, some of them look so similar, sometimes I make mistakes, of course.
When it's not a cultivar but a pure species, it's easier to identify.
Sometimes, you don't need to be a scientist to know plants names. For example, you probably have in your small garden a plant that I don't have here and you know the name of the plant and I don't. There are some plants here in the garden that I am completely unfamiliar with, but they're very common in other places in the world.
Meg: For a lot of people to be in a job where other people correct their mistakes could be very uncomfortable.
Carina: Not for me. I'm being honest; it doesn't bother me. I like it because I'm young, I'm still learning and I'm totally open to opinions. I do a lot of tours through the garden with people from everywhere. I have groups from England and there are often many people who are in the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS). Sometimes they give me clues which help me to identify some plants that I hadn’t got yet.
Meg: I would say what you are describing is humility; to be able to be open to other people's ideas and being corrected by other people and kind of being an ongoing student.
Carina: It's my education; my parents taught me to be like this. I'm always open to different things. I think that people should be open-minded in every job, not just in gardening. You can't know everything. People from other countries, other places, different cultures, they always know different things. You should learn with them; you should enjoy to be around people like that.
Meg: Would you say the camellias are a particular area of expertise for you?
Carina: Yes. I know almost everything about camellias. I can't say that about cycads or ferns, but I know the culture of camellia very well. By “culture,” I mean the germination, propagation, fertilization, pruning--basically the best growing conditions the plants need.
It's funny. Although in the past Camellias were my favorites now I prefer the ferns, cactus, and succulents. I choose camellias as a specialty because in the Azores it's a species with a long history of cultivation here. My father started the Terra Nostra collection and we have now about 800 different camellia cultivars. To make a study, like the one I made for my master degree about their phytosanitary problems--pests and diseases of the culture--I needed a group with a large number of plants and in the garden the camellias were the plant that I had this condition to work.
Meg: Where did your father get all the camellias from?
Carina: In 1998, at the very beginning of the collection, he imported a lot of them from America. Nowadays it's very difficult because now there’s more restrictions, between Europe and other countries regarding to pests and diseases. Measures to protect our ecosystem. Besides of this, many nurseries outside Europe don’t comply with exportation phytosanitary certificates that are needed. Normally we buy them from nurseries on the Portuguese mainland because it's easier. My father’s goal is to have 1,000 cultivars. I think he would like to have the biggest camellia collection in Portugal.
Meg: Why is the documentation so important?
Carina: It's history. I would love to know the age of some of the trees here in the garden, for example. There's a really big Metrosideros - a coastal evergreen tree in the myrtle family--at the entrance of the garden and a lot of people ask me how old the tree is and, unfortunately, we just don't know. It's very important for future generations to know about the garden; who planted what, where it came from, and, often in the case of trees, how old the plants are. It's always important for a gardener to know the history of what’s happened in the garden.
I imagine the idea of having a steward for his work, and institutional memory were on my father's mind when he brought up with me working in the garden. He wants to know that someone will preserve all the work he has done. He spent his whole life here in the garden, and when he leaves, he wants to know that someone will take care of everything and not let the things that he planted die. I think the same way. I don’t have children now, but would love to think that thirty years from now, my son or daughter would continue my job. Again, it's not my garden, but it feels like.
Meg: Most people can probably only wish to feel that way about what they do for a living; that they have some ownership of it.
Carina: We are lucky because the Bensaude family, the actual owners of the garden, trust us and support our ideas, which is great. It's not good when you have an idea about something you want to create and people are always pushing you back. My father and I are lucky.
The gardens have been in the Bensaude family since the 1930s, when they were acquired by the Terra Nostra Company, which was managed by Vasco Bensaude, who was a keen gardener. He hired John McInroy, a Scot who was trained at Kew, the U.K.’s Royal Botanical Gardens and came to supervise the restoration of the garden, which had fallen into neglect. In 1989, Vasco’s son Filipe decided to renovate the garden again and for that hired the English horticulturist David Sayers, also trained at Kew, who, together with arboriculturist Richard Green, undertook the identification and treatment of approximately 2500 trees as well planted more than 3000 new plants to ensure that Terra Nostra Garden would continue to be an exuberant and unique attraction for many years to come.
Unfortunately, many of the plants didn’t survive under our conditions, but with the help of other members of Bensaude Family, namely Patrícia (Vasco Bensaude daughter and Filipe’s sister) and Joaquim Bensaude (Filipe’s son), the improvement of the garden kept going.
Meg: Can you describe the seasons in Azores and how they affect your job?
Carina: We have good temperatures around almost all the year. In summer, the highest temperature is about 26° Celsius [79 Fahrenheit]. In winter, it never goes below zero; it’s very rare to have snow here in Sao Miguel; if it happens, it is only in the higher parts of the island.
Normally, on a winter day, temperatures are about 15° Celsius [59 Farenheit], which is summer weather for a lot of places in the world! It does rains a lot. Sometimes you have a week of rain every day, but sometimes there is good weather also. It's a very temperate climate; we don't have too much cold or too much hot, so it's good. That's why we can grow plants from almost everywhere; we have plants here from places with tropical climates with lots of humidity and lots of sunlight, like Africa and South America. For example, we can grow here orchids, bromeliads, ferns, palm trees, cycads and even vireyas known as Malaysian rhododendrons.
Cycads are seed plants that typically have a stout trunk with a crown of large, hard and stiff, evergreen leaves. Cycads have changed little since the Jurassic period and today are found across much of the subtropical and tropical parts of the world. They typically grow very slowly and live very long, with some specimens known to be as much as 1,000 years old. Because of their superficial resemblance, they are sometimes mistaken for palms or ferns, but are only distantly related to either.
When my father started the collection of cycads, a specialist on these plants told him that to be successful with that type of plants he should create a place for them similar to their natural habitat, which are forests, beneath trees, palm trees or large shrubs. My father knew that creating their usual habitat wouldn't work too well here because our climate is different. Especially in winter, when we don’t have much sunlight but do have sometimes, strong and constant rains, winds and low temperatures, compared to a tropical climate. So he created an environment he thought that could suit the cycads better here in Furnas--a valley with high hedges to protect the plants from wind, and with no shade. Sometimes it feels like a greenhouse; when you enter in that zone it's warmer because of the hedges that are around it, there's no shade in that place from bigger trees.
Meg: It's interesting that he got the opinions of others and he chose to...
Carina: ... continue with his idea. When he wants to do something, if in his mind is the correct thing to do, he does it; it's very difficult to stop him. Like me.
The cycad collection began in 2000, when a German man who had an estate on São Miguel approached my father about a particular tree in the garden; he offered to give my father a cycad from his collection if he could have this tree. At that time my father didn't know what a cycad was, but he went to the man’s house to visit his collection and my father fell in love with the cycads. He gave the man the tree he desired, and got a few cycads from him. My father then began to build the collection and bought cycads from other nurseries on the mainland, in Holland and Spain.
In the beginning, when he created the cycad section of Terra Nostra Garden, he told me the plants were suffering, but he realized why--it was easy for him to understand what he did wrong and to make it right. It was the soil that he was using that was the problem.
Meg: How did he figure out that it was the soil?
Carina: We have some reference books, but you cannot always trust books because sometimes there's some information that is good for some places in the world and not for here. For example, a good condition for that plant in Africa probably would not be the same in Azores because, as I mentioned before, the climate and the soil is different. My father realized that, in winter, too much water in a very compact soil, with lower temperatures, was damaging the roots of the plants. So he tried to provide them with well-drained soil and that way the plants are thriving till today.
My father came up with the solution to the soil problem of adding pumice, a volcanic rock. We used it to create some drainage because cycads don't like a lot of humidity on their roots. So if you have a very heavy soil, they will suffocate; they will not have oxygen to breathe. They need space to breathe. It's a simple thing to put some pumice in the soil to create this effect. With less humidity on their roots they started to feel better and to grow better.
Meg: I believe you are responsible for the design of the flower garden?
Carina: Yes. The flower garden was created by my father in the nineties, after travel that he did to England. That kind of garden is very typical there; they call them border gardens. The border is a feature of the English garden that became popular during the Arts and Crafts era of the late 19th and early 20th century. My father came up with the idea of creating something similar because, at that time, Terra Nostra was a beautiful garden, with a lot of great trees, but without color and people want color in summer; they want specific flowers. This year, I was kind of tired of the design he did almost 20 years ago. When you're doing the same thing year after year you get tired of it, so I decided to change it.
Meg: I loved that the beds were in the shape of flowers.
Carina: If you want to know how I came up with the design motif of flowers, I don't know. I would like to have a fancy explanation, but it just came out. I thought "flower garden." The old beds were very straight; they were like rectangles in the middle. I wanted to create something more with a circle shape to be totally different. It was a flower garden I thought it would make sense to put some flowers in the middle, but then I went to the internet to Google about border gardens to see if it was original or if someone else had already designed something like that. I didn't find anything with that design so I decided to go forward with it.
Meg: In a way, both your thought process and your design are organic.
Carina: I wanted to make something more organic because the beds laid out as rectangles didn't seem to fit, because everything in the garden is so curvy. The symmetrical approach there wasn't right for me. I didn't need to make a lot of effort to think about it, the design just came to me.
Meg: I think that happens a lot with creative people.
Carina: The flower garden was my first creation in the whole garden. It’s the only place I’ve designed; the collections were all made by my father. He only left that specific area of the garden for me to play with. It's difficult to create new things here because the garden isn’t that big and so many good things were created recently that it makes no sense to change all over again without a very good reason. For example, I will not change the cycads collection. I can add some new plants or improve some aspects, but never redesign it.
There's also some areas of the garden that we don’t want to touch too much. We want these areas to look as natural as possible, leaving the growth of a dense vegetation of palm trees between trees, shrubs and many herbaceous, looking a bit like a forest. That doesn't mean we can't clean or introduce some exotic species in these areas.
We think is important in the garden to have this contrast between the places where everything is more clean, organized and designed and then you have the wilder forest in the back of the garden.
However, a garden is a place in constant evolution and when you’re creative, there's always space for new projects. I'm confident about the future.
Meg: Could you talk about the fern collection?
Carina: The fern collection was created in the nineties by my father; it was the first collection of plants here in the garden. We have around 300 different ferns; some are endemic and some are from everywhere else. The fern garden is my favorite collection. I love it. I love the way my father designed it with our volcanic rocks. I love the fact that there's a small river with the thermal water that goes around the fern garden, which is very important for them to grow because ferns need water to survive and to reproduce themselves. Without water, nothing happens. The humidity over there is perfect for them.
Ferns remind me of the time of dinosaurs; they are so old. There are few plants in the world that are from the dinosaur's time. I love to think about them like that. I love being able to see them in the world now because a lot of plants from that era are extinct—both the ferns and cycads are also living fossils.
'Living fóssil' means a living species whose morphology has remained unchanged for tens or hundreds of millions of years. That can be proved through the analysis of the existing fossil records -- which is the placement of fossils throughout the surface layers of the Earth. Older fossils are buried more deeply than younger ones. Scientists use the placement of fossils as a guide for determining when life forms existed, and how they evolved.
I love the diversity of shapes, sizes and colors of ferns. Ferns are not just green as people think; there's many, many different species and very weird characteristics that some ferns have. Some may be very small and confused with moss like the Selaginella kraussiana, and others with trees like Dicksonia antarctica or Cyathea medullaris. They can have variegated leaves - Pteris argyraea, and there is some species with leaves that look the same but then, when you look carefully underneath, one is pure white and the other, bright yellow, due to the spores. It happens with the two species - Pityrogramma ebenea and Pityrogramma calomelanos. Normally, when you're a gardener and you work with plants every day, not every plant blows your mind; it needs to be something really special. I don't look at any flower or any typical plant and love it; it needs to be something really different. Normally we like things that other people don't appreciate so much, not necessarily because they're so colorful or something like that.
Meg: Why do you think the ferns have the longevity that they do?
Carina: They are just well-adapted; they were a great creation of God's, for those who believe in God. They were perfect. They have survived all these millions of years, all the climate changes, glaciations, everything because they were very well-adapted. Probably is the diversity of morphologies they present which gives them the capacity to adapt to many different habitats, and also the fact they can, naturally, reproduce themselves sexually (spores) and asexually, through vegetative reproduction (plantlets or bulbils, rhizomes).
Meg: I suppose the mystery is a big part of the fun. Can you talk about the garden of endemic and native flora?
Carina: Have you heard about the Laurissilva Forest? A laurel forest is subtropical with high humidity and relatively stable, mild temperatures. The forest is characterized by broadleaf tree species with evergreen and glossy leaves, mostly, but not only, from the Lauraceae family.
The origin of this type of forest dates back 20 million years, in the Tertiary period.
After some important geological phenomena, such as the formation of the Mediterranean Sea, and important climatic changes like the glaciations that followed, the Laurel Forest almost disappeared. This forest eventually survived only in Macaronesia region, formed by four archipelagos - Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands and Cape Verde, due to the existing mild climate as a result from the influence of the Atlantic Ocean.
Some of the species that we have belonging to Laurissilva Forest, due to our isolation as an island, became also endemics like, for example, our Azores Laurel - Laurus azorica.
The area with the endemic and native flora is not the most beautiful, fancy or well-designed garden in Terra Nostra Garden, it is just a bed where are planted a lot of the most common endemics and natives. We can't grow all of the endemics in Furnas because lot of them don't like the micro-climate in here, they prefer to be near the sea or in higher places. It's difficult for us to cultivate a lot of them, but we try to have the most common ones for people that visit us from outside the Azores so they can get an idea of what our endemics are.
Meg: Will there be any redesign of the endemic garden?
Carina: Yes. We should change it, and my father and I are already talking about that. We have a problem - we have a lot of old trees and a lot of shade, so it's very difficult for us to cultivate new things below the trees because they need sun.
We always try to not cut the trees because people normally think it's a disaster when you cut them, even if it’s a very common one. Sometimes, when strong winds passes through Azores, some sick trees eventually fall, and an opportunity to create something different in that area emerges. The problem now is the site. We have to decide whether to keep the endemic garden in that location or transport it to another part of the garden. If we decide to keep it there, it will be difficult to change the design; we probably will just try to plant different species; try to grow more endemic plants and native plants. We have to think about it; nothing has been decided right now, but we know that place needs to be changed.
Meg: I was struck by how well the natural resources seem to be managed in the Azores.
Carina: It could be better, but it's not totally bad. Compared to other places, I think we are doing okay.
Meg: What do you think could be done better?
Carina: In our forest, we are letting the invaders take over the mountains, all of our endemics are disappearing because of invaders. The government could make more efforts to re-plant our forests with our endemics, for example. Also, because producing and exporting the milk from cows is a big part of our economy, a lot of forest have been destroyed to make pastures, which wasn't a good thing and we are seeing that now. For example, Furnas Lake has a lot of problems because there are pastures around the lake; a lot of nutrients to fertilize the soil from the pasture are now killing the lake.
Also, when you've been here you probably saw a yellow flower that covered all the mountains here; the Hedychium. That's a big problem; it's not a native plant and its killing all the endemics. It is one of the biggest problems that we have here. The Hedychium spread so fast it didn't leave any space for anything else to grow.
It comes from Asia. We are not sure how it got here. In the 19th century, many wealthy people wanted to create a gardens, and José do Canto, one of the great gardeners of the era, brought a lot of things from all over the world to make his garden the greatest here in the island. Someone brought it here because it was a beautiful ornamental plant, without realizing it would spread everywhere.
You of course saw all the blue hydrangeas here that line the roads? Some people think they are invaders, but in fact, the blue ones aren’t easy to propagate. People propagate them because they like them to make decorative hedges around the pastures and everywhere.
Meg: Tell me about Terra Nostra’s aquatic plants, in particular the creation of an artificial lake to host the Victoria Cruziana Orb. I was fascinated by these when I was there and was intrigued to learn that the flowers survive only 48 hours.
Carina: We have many water lilies that have been a part of the park for a very long time, but the Victoria Cruziana Orb came to us through a visitor from the Czech Republic. He had the Victoria Cruziana in his greenhouse and he thought it could grow here because of Terra Nostra’s thermal waters. This gentleman spoke to one of the owners of Terra Nostra Gardens, Joaquim Bensaude, and offered to send us some seeds so we could try to grow the Victoria Cruziana here.
When the seeds arrived, my father decided he didn’t want to grow the lilies in the thermal water, because of its orange color, which is due to the minerals in it. He thought the Victoria Cruziana would be best presented in clear water and so he gave considerable thought as to how that could be achieved. He came up with the idea of creating an artificial lake, around which he built underground concrete canals, lined with aluminum. The warm thermal water was directed through these insulated canals to warm the water to the appropriate temperature, which is about 70 degrees. He made a test with a small pond and discovered his idea worked, and so he built the bigger artificial lake you saw in your visit. The location of this artificial lake was chosen based on the accessibility of the thermal waters—and because that happens to be at the entrance to the Garden, the Victoria Cruziana makes a dramatic statement to visitors,
The plant is very happy with this situation. In ideal conditions, the leaves can grow up to almost six feet in diameter, and become the same weight as a small child, about 66 pounds! Its beautiful flowers bloom at dusk and change color over its lifetime, which is only 48 hours. The initial blooms the first night are white. During the day, it closes and becomes a light pink. The second and final night, it is white and pink, and releases a strong sweet scene to attract pollinating bees. Thanks to its mild climate and thermal waters, Terra Nostra is the only European garden to host this water lily in the open air.
We are thinking about creating another small pond near the ferns to feature aquatic plants. We have a friend on the island who has a collection of water plants he’d like to offer us, and we’d like to have them here. Aquatic plants aren’t a specialty for me now, but with this new project, I will learn a lot more about them. The world of plants is so big it’s impossible to know everything. You get to learn something new all the time as a gardener.