In the last quarter of the 18th century, after working several years in the Caribbean, Thomas Hickling, a Boston business man, somehow ended up San Miguel, Azores. He had left his wife and family back in Boston, never to go back to his family and home (and did he ever return, no he never returned), but he used his business skills to ply his merchant trade in Ponta Delgada, becoming known as the “honorary consul” to the Azores. Later in the 1790s, just after the founding of the United States, Hackling managed to get himself appointed officially as Vice-Consul and served that role for many years. The U.S. consulate in the Azores remains the oldest diplomatic office of the U.S.
Living in Ponta Delgada Hackling made a fortune in the Azorean orange industry which exported a substantial crop each year to Great Britain, until the groves were destroyed by a disease in the mid-19th century. Early in his residence on the island he learned about the thermal springs in Furnas, where he purchased some land, built a summer house called “Yankee Hill” (even though he had effectively abandoned Boston and its environs, he clearly wanted to his identity), and constructed a thermal pool so that he too could take the waters.
And he built a garden. Initially he brought in several alien species, trees from the U.S. to decorate the landscape. By the end of the 19th-century, Hackling’s home had long been sold off, Yankee Hill replaced with a more Portuguese-styled estate, but the garden grew. In the early 1930s a group of local developers, led by Vasco Bensaude, organized the building of a modern hotel and casino on this site, dramatically encouraging tourism in Furnas.
The hot springs were an obvious attraction, but the developers re-organized the layout of a formal garden on the grounds of the Terra Nostra Hotel as a further attraction.
The Terra Nostra Garden evolved gradually into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bensaude’s Scottish gardener took the mild Azorean climate into account to arrange the plantings in the garden today. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, with annual temperatures varying between 55 and 75 degrees F, the islands can support flora more exotic than North American imports. The Garden is now dominated by trees and plants from China, Japan, Australia, and South Africa. The riotous merging of ferns and fronds creates jungle-like landscape.
So jungle-like, in fact, that someone on the Garden staff has developed topiary techniques to play on the impression of a Jurassic landscape.
The center piece of the Garden remains the thermal bath where water emerges at 95-105 degrees F to fill a four-foot deep pool. The high iron content of the water oxidizes as it hits the air, giving the water a brown tint. Rumors suggest that the water will turn blonde and white hair orange, but so far we’ve only managed to stain the robes and towels supplied by the hotel.
On our first visit to the Azores in 2011, Nancy and I arrived mid-spring and were welcomed by an outburst of hydrangeas which flourish in many colors because of the acidic soil. Our recent trips have preceded those blossomings, but late winter on Sao Miguel offers astounding camellias–the Garden’s collection has over 800 varieties–and azaleas–often along any sidewalk.
Unfortunately, with such excessive flowering, someone has to tidy up the mess.