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 kilometres 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.
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 was a pool with an island in the centre, both surrounded by trees that were brought in mainly from North America. An English oak planted by Hickling can still be seen there today.
In 1848, the property was purchased by the Visconde da Praia, who built a new house where Yankee Hall stood. The Viscountess was a keen gardener, and together they enlarged the original two hectares (ha), planting a beautiful garden with water, shady groves and parterres of flowers. There is a memorial to them in the garden, which was erected in 1896 by their son, the Marquis da Praia e Monforte.
During the last quarter of the century, the Marquis da Praia made further improvements and written documentation tells us that a British gardener, named Milton, was brought over. Water gardens were built, including a serpentine canal, grottoes and the avenue lined with Australian King palm trees (Arcontophoenix cunninganmiana), leading to the Memorial of the Viscondes, which is surrounded by eight (Phoenix canarienis) Canary islands palm.
Many new species were imported from North America, Australia, New Zealand, China and South Africa; some of these still exist, and dominate certain areas of the garden.
The second half of the 19th century marked the peak of gardening in the Azores. Among the many outstanding gardeners of the time were António Borges, José do Canto and José Jácome Correia, who competed with each other to achieve the most beautiful gardens and the best collections of rare species. José do Canto was particularly interested in plants with an economic interest, devising the idea of developing the Azores as a plant acclimatisation centre, accumulating a collection of several thousand species of trees and other plants, including orchids.
At least two British gardeners were contracted, P. Wallace and, in 1845, George Brown, who was recommended by the already well-known nursery firm of Whitley and Osborne, in Fulham, London. The latter undertook a series of initiatives, such as the design and construction of Murtas Park (currently the Beatriz do Canto Park, a privately-owned garden), near the Hotel Terra Nostra, which is open to the public in August.
The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the royal visit to the Casa do Parque. In July, 1901, at the invitation of the Marquis da Praia e Monforte, King Carlos I of Portugal, with Queen Dona Amélia, were the special guests at a reception given “by one Monarch to another”, according to the King’s thank you note addressed to his host.
By 1920, Terra Nostra was much neglected. In 1935, the Hotel Terra Nostra, which was located on land adjacent to the garden, opened to the public. A few years later, the entire property was acquired by the Terra Nostra Company, which was managed by Vasco Bensaude, also a keen gardener and responsible for employing the Kew-trained Scot, John McInroy, who came to supervise the restoration of the Terra Nostra Garden. An additional tract of land was acquired, extending the garden to its present size of 12.5 ha.
The Casa do Parque was completely renovated, the pool, now filled with spring water, was expanded and lined with quarried stone; the canal and lakes were restored, many roadways were cleared and repaired, and new flower beds were planted. The longer avenue leading to the garden’s southern boundary was then built and lined with Gingko Biloba trees, which becomes a rather special feature in December with its remarkable golden hues.
In the 1930s, Furnas was already gaining a reputation as a spa resort and a casino was built to entertain the guests of the hotel and local society. The end of the decade and the outbreak of the Second World War saw the beginning of a sharp decline in the number of visitors.
The hotel retained its original elegance and Terra Nostra was carefully maintained. The Azores were little known to the outside world, and the only visitors to Furnas were curious or unusually well-informed travellers. With the arrival of the 1970s, the enchantment of the Azores and its luxurious landscapes gradually began to be discovered. In 1989, a new wing was added to the Hotel Terra Nostra, and Filipe Bensaude, son of Vasco Bensaude, decided to renovate the garden.
The renovation was entrusted to horticulturist David Sayers who, together with arboriculturist Richard Green, proceeded to renovate the garden, projecting its development into the future. The work was completed in the winter of 1992-93, and a new generation of more than 3,000 species of trees and shrubs were planted to ensure that Terra Nostra Garden would continue to be an exuberant and unique attraction for many years to come.
At Terra Nostra, you can find flora typical of the Azores, as well as numerous plants native to countries with climates that are completely different to that of Furnas. This adaptation has been made possible, in part, by the shared experience of Terra Nostra’s gardeners, who have been successful in adapting various plants, species and varieties to the existing conditions of the garden.
In a garden which is two hundred years old, along a number of different possible pathways, you can find plants in very different phases of growth. There are hundred-year old trees of the genera Metrosideros and Araucaria, and other important tree species, such as, liriodendron tulipifera, Sequoias sempervirens, Quercus robur, Taxodium ascendens, Taxodium distichum, Eucalyptus globulus, Ginkgo biloba, among others; innumerable shrubs the size of trees, such as rhododendrons, magnolias and camellia; as well as other plants and flowers, particularly azaleas, hydrangeas, Kaffir lilies, calla lilies, of the Araceae family, tree ferns, and countless other species, all of which contribute with their colours, forms and growth to making the garden a fine destination in itself, and wonderful to visit any time of the year.
Over the past two decades, the Terra Nostra continued to enrich its botanical value through the acquisition of new plant species. This constant concern to diversify and enrich the existing flora ensures that the garden now possesses large collections and beds with plants of major historical and cultural value. These collections and gardens include the Fern Collection (with nearly 300 different species, varieties and cultivars), the Cycadales Collection (with 85 different species and sub-species), the Camellia Collection (with more than 600 different species and cultivars), the Azorean Endemic and Native Flora Garden (including several examples of the major plants endemic to the island of São Miguel) and, finally, the Vireya Garden – Malaysia Rhododendron, with a display of magnificent colours, all year round.
In 2010, a new area adjacent to the garden of endemic and native Azorean plants was built to host the most recent collection – that of the Bromeliads (plants of the Bromeliaceae family).
This collection is still in the experimentation phase and the plants are still adapting to the climactic conditions. However, the new garden already has nearly 100 different bromeliads, some of them arranged on the magnificent roots of a few existing trees, commonly known as “Til”, the scientific name of which is Ocotea foetens.
New projects are continually being developed in such a way as to ensure the conservation of this unique environment, particularly, the creation of a bamboo garden and an artificial lake to host the Victoria cruziana Orb., a water plant of the Nymphaeaceae family, from northern Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia.
This species of plant is a gigantic lily pad, rendered unique and fascinating by the morphology of its leaves (reminiscent of a pie mould), which can grow up to one metre in diameter. The flowers acquire various tones and shapes during their short life cycle, a rare beauty which survives only 48 hours.
Today, the Terra Nostra Garden is the site of one of the most remarkable collections of camellias in the world, with more than 600 varieties of different species and cultivars, with one of the largest, if not the largest, collections of Cycladades in Europe.
By 2010, the Victoria cruziana could already be seen at Terra Nostra, distinguishing the garden as one of the only ones in Portugal to possess this plant in the open air.
The peerless beauty of this garden is the result of the Bensaude family’s taste and the dynamism of the current head gardener, supported in particular by Patrícia and Joaquim Bensaude.