Tending my garden and adding to my collection of plants consumed much of my time, beginning at a very early age.
Alongside developing my ever evolving and expanding garden and collection of plants, was my library of practical gardening books. From pruning, to composting, landscaping and companion planting, my library of garden references grew. I became interested in the history of gardens and gardening. I began meeting extraordinary botanical collectors and experts and their great collecting expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, firstly through my reading and passion for books and later, their present day equivalents in person. I bemoaned the contemporary destruction of ecosystems in places these collectors had and continue to source many of our much loved garden favourites. What botanical treasures are we currently losing as a result of human expansion and other complex factors?
So, my interest in plants, bloomed into an interest in botany and plant taxonomy. It grew, the more I travelled the world. As my own garden lay often negelected, so my collection of photographs of plants growing in their native habitat blossomed. At the same time, I would return home to my garden to admire one of my much loved exotic plants and tell it I had seen the place from which its ancestors came, as it, all the while, transported me back to where I saw its wild counterpart growing in conditions far more ideal, than I could ever even attept to replicate in my own backyard.
Increasingly this thirst for information about plants I loved, from edibles, to cyclamens, aloes, acacias and more, led me to destinations way more exotoc than my own, very limited garden, sometimes by chance, but often by meticulous planning of my own expeditions into the wild and liaison and meetings with some truly inspiring plant's people and authorities.Perhaps it was born when I joined the local succulent society and began to hear stories of other enthusiasts heading into the wilds to see these wonderful plants growing in the very places they evolved. Instead of simply nurturing succulents in my home garden, I found even greater joy in seeing them in their native habitats in Kenya and Tanzania, where I saw them, for the very first time, as species in broader and complex eco-systems. As much as the eco sytems of Kenya and Tanzania are glorious, the practicality of replicating them in my own backyard is highly impractical, possibly even ludicrous. Given local council regulations, restrictions on the keeping of domestic pets, let alone wild animals and bird species, my humble efforts as a succulent grower seem almost absurd, Yet succulents are a tiny component of broader eco systems that ideally allow for a diversity of species as tiny as ants and tetse flies and as enormous as elephants and rhinos. I just have to settle on replicating the growing environment for my succulent species in the context of meeting sufficient of their botanical needs to thrive in isolation, just as gardeners have done for generations. But any plant's glory in the wild, is affirmed by its being seen as part of a whole ecosystem, not just a simple isolated plant specimen!
My travels to Turkey with its amazing botanical diversity enlightened my botanical knowledge as much as visits to some of the greatest archeological sites in the world enriched my knowledge of history. Here much loved indigenous species included cyclamen, iris, tulips, oleanders, apricots and pommegranites. Cereal crops like ancient forms of wheat and barley beckoned me at every new place I visited. I began to change how I saw the world. Where others would see a simple pine tree, I would be excited, exploring its root zone for indigenous bulbs, looking for what other plant species grew close by, in the "wild". Roadside hollyhocks belied their love of poor soils. Oleanders at every turn, here considered a highly dangerous plant, notorious for its toxicity, even when touched by children, or burned, resulting in toxic fumes. In Turkey, oleanders are common indigenous street plantings.
I kept considering how plants had led the development of ancient and contemporary civilasation as much as any human leader that history has carefully documented and analysed. Humans settle and towns and cities are established and evolve in places where edible plant species naturally fourish, or can be easily cultivated. That complex civilisations first developed in Europe, around the Mediterranean coast, is no surprise, given the rich array of edible plants, indigenous to this region. Plants are far smarter than they are generally given credit for and the botanist historian John Newton certainly puts up a good case for this in his ground breaking book, 'The Roots of Civilisation: Plants That Changed The World". Vegetarians who deny our food plants feel any less pain when plucked from the ground, or ripped from a tree or shrub, than the average animal as it is led to the slaughterhouse, had better start realising that plants do feel and science is only just discovering the extent to which plants actually communicate with their fellow species and actively respond to other members of their eco system. A great example of this is the acacias of Africa, that give off giraffe deterring pheromones, when the giraffes have eaten enough to put the plant in danger should any more of its foliage be stripped!
Then came my travels to South America: Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, home to not only the Inca and pre Inca civilisations, but also where plants like the potato, tomato, maize, capsicums, pawpaw/papaya, cocoa, and more evolved. Even today, over 300 varieties of potato are regularly cultivated and eaten in Peru alone. Venturing into the lower Amazon Basin, I came face to face with species after species of much loved indoor plants in all their native glory; a veritable food forest if ever there was one. The incredible Inca terraces that tamed harsh growing environments into microclimates suited to nurture and sustain a huge range of food staples and large populations, by the complex slowing and holding of water as it moves across the land and the retaining of heat in otherwise often bitterly cold environments. Yes, my own gardening efforts cannot help but be influenced by such broad and exciting plant and plant cultivation experiences. I draw inspiration from how humans have used, collected, grown, been inspired and even nursed by plants. Dare I say I was more overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of plant species and most importantly edible palnts in South America, than I was, even by the dazzling and incredible feat of architecture, stone masonry and engineering of Macchu Picchu, Inca terraces aside!
My personal journey as a gardener will continue; but just where plants will lead me next around the world remains an exciting dilemma!
I can't help but wonder how many other travellers determine their next travel destinations by a desire simply to see a plant growing in its indigenous environment, or witness how local communities grow, cultivate and use edible plants?
Hardly a week goes by where I do not discover yet another specimen from my ornamental plant collection has edible or medicinal properties long lost within our culture. These include canna lillies, that are the source of arrow root, dahlias, that provide a tuber related to a potato, agastache, that is a herb that is a fabulous, minty herb , or that I can eat the flowers of my parma violets, calendulars, pansies or nasturtiums. As for my beloved roses, often maligned as a purely ornamental indulgence, I can eat their petals, harvest their hips and continue to glory in their beauty and fragrance, as well as celebrate their hardiness and drought tolerance. My botanical knowledge thesedays, is even sufficient to brew myself up a final fatal concoction, should I be desparate for euthanasia, if I find myself with a long term, debilitating, terminal illness. I already grow simple but highly toxic narcissus species, two oleandas, white nightshade and other deadly weeds flourish and I am able to identify or grow yew trees and the black locust acacia. Arguably, most gardeners develop a knowledge of poisonous plants and some even choose to collect poisonous and toxic plant species, or hallucunogenic varieties for their sheer beauty alone!
There are plenty of tours that include, or even focus on the world's great gardens, but tours that focus on the simple local growing of food, or seeing plants growing in the context of their indigenous ecosystems are pretty much non existent. Even in Kenya and Tanzania, I have it from a very good authority, who regularly selects and trains safari drivers and guides, that finding guides with a passion for plant species, that matches their passion for and knowledge of animals and birds is an ongoing struggle. Perhaps I am either truly eccentric, or a total plant nerd. I make no apologies for either. Plants are essential to our very existence, they are worthy of as central a place in our hearts and knowledge base as the most glorious of animals, exquisite art, or extraordinary architectural feats, ancient or modern. Plants and fungi species will continue to bewitch, entice and nurture humans via their many powers and uses beyond their most obvious edible and medicinal uses. They are truly worthy of a lifetime's devotion and love!
Watch for upcoming posts on botanical expeditions and experiences in Turkey and South America on petsandplants.com.au!