A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Through My Kitchen Door
Friday, June 08, 2007

Since the 1950s I have eschewed air travel when Pan Am stewardesses handed out Juicy Fruit gum on Lockheed Super Constellations and metal detectors were used only for beachcombing. Now I prefer to get away in bed or by opening my kitchen door and venturing into my garden. Through association, just about every plant will take me elsewhere, often to another time and, more often than not, remind me of a person, too.

I have been giving thought to the above as my eldest daughter Ale is moving to Lillooet to live in July. "Papi, " she told me, "I bought the property up there so that you and Mami can get away." The trip each way is 4 hours and on a weekend, whatever relaxation we would enjoy it would be contrasted with the agony and stress of having to drive back on a Sunday on the Freeway 1 or the more dangerous Sea to Sky Highway. Rosemary is most upset and we wonder how many times we will go to visit. By the time Ale understands our philosophy of travel we will be perhaps long gone.

I remember as a child of 6 or 7 in Buenos Aires that I would go to our backyard "galpón" or shack were my father kept some old but very large wooden crates. In one I would place three bricks (gas pedal, brake, clutch), which I would lean on a thick board at my feet. Sitting on a smaller box in the middle of the crate and I would hold one of our dinner plates. It was my steering wheel. In seconds I was Juan Manuel Fangio, driving through the muddy roads of Argentina's interior.

In the same way a plant propels me elsewhere. My Hosta 'Sieboldiana Elegans' whisks me to Japan. It was named for Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a German doctor who worked for Dutch traders on Dejima Island in Nagasaki harbour. Foreigners were not allowed on the mainland, so von Siebold would scour fodder sent to feed the livestock in hopes of finding unusual plants. That's where he saw his first hosta in 1823.

Another hosta, a bright yellow, green and white variegated Hosta 'Fortunei Albo Picta' beneath a white Camellia japonica , was named for Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune. Because Camellia japonica is closely related to Camellia chinensis, the tea bush, it reminds me of Fortune's voyages in the Far East. In 1848 he traveled to China (dressed as a Chinese potentate and carried around in a litter) to spy on the cultivation of tea for the East India Company. Soon the British grew tea in India.

My Rosa 'Redouté'is an English Rose but it has ties to France. Redouté was the artist hired by Empress Josephine, an avid plant collector, to imortalize the roses in her famous garden at Malmaison. My thistles, Echinops ritro , and the taller thistle-like cardoon Cynara cardunculus , make me homesick for the Argentine pampa where I was raised. Charles Darwin describes the pampas in Voyage of the Beagle: There were immense beds of the thistle as well as of the cardoon: the whole country, indeed, may be called one great bed of these plants."

Sometimes I need only to travel to the kitchen, where a potted Pelargonium 'Vancouver Centennial' on the windowsill carries me away to Lima, Peru. In an interview with Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990, I asked him why his novels had frequent descriptions of potted pelargoniums (pelargoniums are commonly called geraniums but that is incorrect. While they are related, the true geranium, the crasnesbill geranium, is another plant altogether). Llosa explained that in 1499, Vasco da Gama brought the pelargonium from South Africa to Lisbon. It crossed to Exremadura in Spain. Then, whith Pizarro and Cortez, it sailed to the New World, finding a home in Lima's poor and sun-baked soil. "It thrives in adversity and neglect like our people," Llosa told me.

It is thanks to plant hunters, collectors and explorers that our gardens boast such botanical variety. We needn't suffer the vagaries of modern travel to experience the exotic world they explored. Now it is outside the kitchen door.

The photographs seen here are all pelargoniums (geraniums, if you will) in several areas of Lima, Peru.


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