You probably expect this story to be about those wonderfully beautiful and cheerful little birds that have a beautiful singing voice. Well not quite.
Canaries were always well regarded by man. They formed a vital role in early coal mines when they were taken down in cages to help detect the miner’s scourge, leaking gas. Being sensitive little creatures they would fall off the perch dead long before the level of gas became toxic to the miners. They even share their name with a whole archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean discovered by the Spanish - The Canary Islands. But the little bird did not lend its name to the islands but rather it was the name given by the first roman visitors, Insula Canaria, meaning “island of dogs” which were apparently very plentiful. It is a wonderful place to visit with a warm all year round climate and an amazing biodiversity. This divergence within the islands leads to almost subtropical conditions in the north and an abundance of unique palm trees - Canary Palms. Which brings me to the root of the story.
Dubrovnik too has quite a deal of biodiversity. Not so much due to the climate but rather due to the efforts of the locals. Being an industrious little republic Ragusa sent out trading ships to all parts of the known world. The returning sea captains brought back all manner of exotic plants to fill the gardens of their beautiful villas. Among the most popular were the Canary Palms. A walk around the city will reveal a specimen in nearly every garden and they give the whole town an exotic and old world fell. Indeed when one compares the size of the oldest specimens in Dubrovnik to those in their home land it can be seen that many of our trees are as old and big as they get. But just like their namesakes in the mines, too many are dying. It is a scene of destruction which would strike terror into the heart of the bravest miner.
This devastation seemed to start around the Lapad or Gruz area with a great many of the trees dying very quickly at the beginning of last summer. Then, after a few months it spread south towards the old town and I have even noticed trees as far away as Zupa have succumb with the tell tale signs of the new growth flattening out to be quickly followed by all the leaves dying. The city administration has made some attempts to stem the tide, particularly with the magnificent stand of palms which stretches from Pile gate up the long flight of stairs towards Srd. Here they sprayed the plants and inserted a black rubber hose to allow further treatment later. But all to avail as this beautiful and iconic Dubrovnik sight is too slowly disappearing.
In the words of that wonderfully eccentric American physicist and educator, Professor Julius Sumner Miller, “why is it so”. How can these trees have lived happily here for hundreds of years only to meet their demise in a few short weeks? Well I am not a botanist just a wizard but I believe the answer could lie in the city's life blood, tourism. When the city's founding fathers sailed off to make their fortunes they basically only visited European destinations and the plants and soils they brought back did not represent a threat. Whereas all over the rest of the world, take for example Australia, imported plant materials are seen as a bigger threat than almost everything else. There are amazingly strict quarantine procedures in place which are so strict that they even extend to bringing homemade olive oil into the country.
The myriad of cruise ships which visit Dubrovnik during the season have visited destinations all over the world. Their passengers come from all corners of the world. So too, the many local men and women who work on all sorts of boats which travel the world. So I believe the answer lies in with insects who have hitched a ride. These creatures carry phytoplasma which are a form of bacterial disease which attacks mature Canary Palms. In Australia many years ago the vast sugarcane fields were under threat of destruction by a particular beetle brought on trading boats so the authorities imported cane toads from South America which loved to eat them. Sounds like a good plan, well not really as those toads have now reach plague proportion and when eaten by local animals their deadly poison glands are killing vast numbers and causing some species to become endangered. There is no point in trying any exotic solutions here because apparently there is no known cure for this problem. But with any luck the snow Dubrovnik experience over winter may have killed the evil little insect tourists. On the negative side the snow has taken its toll killing the only Norfolk Pine tree I have ever seen growing outside the Pacific Ocean area which was looking tall and majestic in a garden in Saint Jacob. Worst still the beautiful lilac bougainvilleas which give the whole Dalmatian coast a cheerful outlook all look like they have given up on life as well.
The moral of this story is all too familiar to a local, what tourism gives with one hand it takes away with the other.