Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Botanical Wonders

Did you know that Oaxaca is a hotbed of biodiversity? I can't remember the numbers or percentages exactly, but it is always in the top five spots on the globe for the number of species of this plant or that animal. Someone gave me a copy of Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal before our trip. It is an account of his participation in a botanical expedition to Oaxaca in 2001 with members of the American Fern Society. Because, of course, the region has the largest number of fern species in the world. Go figure, right? Ferns? In hot, dry Mexico?

The biodiversity is there in part because of the varied terrain throughout the state--an arid central valley to cloud forests at the top of the mountains and several different zones in-between. There are two seasons: rainy and dry. We were there at the end of the dry season, so it felt very desert-like to me, and yet there were tropical plants everywhere. In the dry season, the tropical plants drop their leaves and put their energy instead into flowers. Those are pollinated, then the rains begin and leaves and seed production get underway. It is astounding (to me) to see how well adapted the moisture loving tropicals are to the dry season. They hunker down like the cacti and wait.

One of the treats afforded to me by my old job at the Conservatory is the ability to appreciate the sight of plants very foreign to Ohio in their native habitats. The horticulture staff does an amazing job of growing all different kinds of plants in the greenhouses, but they can only do so much in terms of height and width and bloom with the paltry light conditions in Ohio for sixth months out of the year. Also, plants with the ability to hunker down grow very slowly. So, numbers count. The more Century Plants you have in one place, the more likely you are to see them in bloom.

I'm pretty sure that what the Mexicans call "Maguey" is the same species that we call the "Century Plant"--Agave americana. I thought I saw different bloom stalks on plants that others called Maguey. Either way, you can make mescal and tequila from both. It has plenty of other uses, too--fibers to make rope, shoes, floor mats, thatch for roofs, etc., etc. You can even use the plants as a fence line as they did here in the Sierra Norte.

John and I took a guided tour of the Ethnobotanical Garden housed on the grounds of the old Santo Domingo Convent. We saw all those wonderful food crops that came from Mesoamerica--beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, chilies, amaranth, and more. They did not have a cacao tree growing there, though! And surely that is one of the finest gifts to mankind from this area of the world. But, we saw plenty of other things to make up for it...

My first Kapok tree with actual seed pods (where the soft kapok fibers come from). The Mexicans call it a Pochote tree. There was one growing in the middle of the restuarant we ate at almost every day. Those are not seed pods, but a more impressive photo of the thorns that grow on the trunk.

Plumeria, or Frangipani in full-on bloom (made me feel like I was in Hawaii!)

Stupendous cactus plants.
Along the streets and in the parks and on the mountians we found dozens of other wonders.
The Guaje trees, which Oaxaca is named after supposedly, have pretty hibiscus-like blooms.

Here they are growing on the hillside of the Cerro Fortin where we hiked.

Bromeliads on the trees in the Sierra Norte. They don't have roots in the soil. They perch on trees and gather nutrients from the moisture in the air.

Lupines on the same road.

And a Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) in bloom in the courtyard of a cafe!

The famous tree at Tule--a member of the cypress family. It is thousands of years old and it is huge (this picture isn't even half of the tree). There are hundreds of birds living in it, like some avian version of ancient cliff dwellers with apartments high and low.

I saw a whole lot of topiary there, too. All of it ficus.

A bird peeking out of a nest--or, I thought, cuckoo clock.

I could go on, but it is time to quit as anyone who has posted pictures on blogspot knows (oy, the scrolling!). I leave you with a shot of Sarah gazing from a perch in the Santo Domingo convent onto the botanical splendor of her current home.


Heather said...

Wow, what amazing beauty and diversity! You mentioned how all those flowers look, but did any of them have a fragrance that knocked your socks off?

By the way, I'm not sure if you've heard of the program Picasa (it's free to download, made by the folks at Google), but that's just about all I use to post my pictures on my blog. You get lots of storage space, and it just makes things much easier for blog posting. Plus you can use it to do some fun stuff to your photos! I highly recommend it.

Meg said...

Thanks Heather--you are the second person to recommend Picasa to me. I've looked at other's photos on there, just never used it myself. I'll look into it.

And the plumeria smelled divine!

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