Gran Colombia

I think I’ve been in Colombia for six months, though it’s impossible to be sure. I know I left London as the first daffodils were blooming at Chiswick House, but here on the equator we’re cut off from the vegetable calendar and Bogotá in July looks like Bogotá in December. I lose track of the months. I know one can track time’s passing using houseplants (three weeks for a new leaf on the young monstera deliciosa, seven for a new frond on the birds-nest fern) but New Leaf Day doesn’t feel the same as First Snowdrop Day does in the UK.

Colombia - no snowdrops
Colombia – no snowdrops

Before we moved here I knew one of the hardest things would be living without the underlying dramatics of seasonal change, but I also worried I’d miss familiar plants; old enemies and friends that I’d developed strong connections to over the years. Luckily, if somewhat bizarrely, my new barrio is planted almost entirely with standard-Mediterranean-issue Acanthus mollis – which rather softens the shock of the new. My theory is that in this conservative zona of Bogotá, where residents still attach an unfortunate importance to coming from European stock, people plant acanthus, the emblem of the Old World and icon of Rome’s Corinthian columns, as a coded way of saying “Europeans live here” – like that myth about swingers and pampas grass.

Statement of origin or not I’m happy to see the plant, we have a past. It was one of the 20 plants on my first nomenclature tests at horticultural college. I revised it with my girlfriend, repeating the syllables A-CAN-THUS over and over when they were just noises unattached to any image of leaf or flower. Before that, while it was still nameless greenery and I was studying medieval history at university, acanthus formed the ornate background to some of my favourite illustrated manuscripts, and later, working at the Garden Museum, Acanthus mollis was the first plant I propagated on any great scale, taking dozens of fat root cuttings from a sun-starved specimen that I found dying under an arbutus.

Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus
Illustrated Book of Hours with acanthus

 

And as the weirdness of an entirely new floral palate is soothed by the presence of one familiar plant, so the thirst for seasonal change is quenched by movement. Here in Colombia you can drive for two hours and experience three separate seasons. An hour and twenty minutes from my apartment is the high alpine paramo with fog, frailejones and cold climate orchids; two hours in the other direction is scrubby hot country; over the hills and across the plains is the Amazon rainforest; to the north the Caribbean and the east the Pacific. The way I have spent my gardening life until now – waiting for buds to burst in the spring or the first tree to redden in the autumn – has been replaced by vegetation spotting, driving from cloud forests to tropical jungle trying to pinpoint exactly where the understory changes from myrtles to aroids.

Colombia has one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, and its highest rate of endemism – over 10% of its 130,000 plant species are found in this country alone. It has more orchids than anywhere in the world, is second only to Malaysia in palm species, has the tallest monocot species in the world – and shed-loads of acanthus. You’re reading this blog, so I guess you like plants. You should come and visit, I’ll be here for another 47 Monstera deliciosa leaves, approximately.

The Author with world's tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense
The Author with the world’s tallest monocots Ceroxylon quindiuense

Breaking the Mould

At university I lived with a man who had three-quarters learnt how to wash clothes. He could load a machine, choose a detergent, select a cycle (the hard bit) and press the go button, but never remembered to go back and collect his laundry. It would sit damp in one of the communal machines until he ran out of socks, sometimes over a fortnight later.

He was the loveliest chap, but his clothes were ever-speckled with black mould, a purely cosmetic condition which some people seemed to find off-putting. I’ve thought of him often over the last few days, because unfortunately I now have my own unsightly cosmetic condition that looks a lot like his.

I have sooty mould.

My particular sooty mould is on the glass house camellias (for those of you unfamiliar with the Chiswick House Camellias you can read about them here http://www.chgt.org.uk/?PageID=211) which is a disaster because in six weeks we have our annual Camellia Festival, and the public will demand dark green, glossy leaves – leaves by L’Oreal – not matt-black, mould-mottled, undergraduate-T-shirt-style leaves.

Unblemished Camellia Japonica
Unblemished Camellia Japonica

Luckily sooty mould is a surface condition that does not harm really harm the plant. It’s the visual manifestation of Ascomycete fungi feeding on the honeydew excreted by our Chiswick House Aphids. Usually it’s a summer problem and is washed off by the rain. But we have no rain in the glass house, and we can’t blast the mould away without knocking off the heavily pregnant buds. So we are washing the leaves, by hand, each and every one.

I don’t really mind this slow methodical work. It bonds me to the past horticulturalists of Chiswick House. I’m only the latest in a line of gardeners stretching back centuries to have stood in this conservatory and day dreamed from a stepladder. It gives me the opportunity to think about long forgotten university friends and about their washing, it’s an exercise in the voguish art of mindfulness, and should be sold as therapy to burnt-out bankers. It also gives me the opportunity to put headphones in and practice my Spanish.

This linguistic skiving is actually very important, because next month I’m handing over my stepladder and leaving Chiswick House for Colombia. My highflying diplomatic girlfriend is taking up a post at the British Embassy in Bogota and I’ll be based out there for the next three or four years. I plan to post a round-up of my time in UK horticulture before I leave, but more importantly I intend to carry on working with plants in whatever capacity I can, so if any of my international readership hears rumours of things growing Down South – send me a tip off.

Until then it’s back to those Camellias…

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The Author in Search of New Plants
The Author in Search of New Plants