We also like to travel – at least we like getting there – the travelling part we don’t like at all…. Anyway, for our anniversary this year we went to Colombia as I have a student who comes from there and we had been invited to stay on her parents’ coffee farm. So we took the opportunity and made a 3.5 week stay in the country.
Bogota – Botanical Gardens: roses and orchids
What was most surprising about this Botanical garden was how many plants were familiar to us! The garden was a considerable size although clearly no Kew, and well-kept compared to many we have visited abroad. It was also well-signposted and many plants were named, although naturally, the ones we most wanted to know about – weren’t… there were a number of very interesting sub-areas including one where plants were ordered by species. I have now discovered that agave and agapanthus are part of the amaryllis species and that liquidambar are hamamelis.
In the rose garden, apart from a Banksia rose, I recognised none of the names. They had a blue rose which was a pale lilac in colour and not as blue as the we have (Rhapsody in Blue – original, not improved). Many of the others were stunning in colour but not very floriferous – I didn’t get any inkling of scents from the roses, which was unusual. They did however say, that roses can be found all over the world in their own varieties which is interesting.
The greenhouse has orchids of course, as Colombia claims to have more orchids than any other country in the world. There were other areas in this greenhouse specialising in warm and humid and warm and dry to varying degrees. And included a lily pond with turtles and frogs – we saw many tadpoles and black fish as well as goldfish.
We found a wild-flower meadow with a wonderful wild gladioli, but other than that we could have been in Southern England with clover, vetches, brambles and grasses. The sub-tree sized fuchsia bushes (10-12’) that edged it were, however, not British at all!
There are no frosts in Bogota and the temperature is always moderate with plenty of rain, so amaryllis belladonna can flourish even in the shade of trees.
As you can see, the mountains come right down to the edge of Bogota town. All these Colombian Andean towns were situated high up in the Andes – really high! enough for us to suffer altitude sickness. And they were always in bowls or short valleys so you saw the surrounding mountains wherever you went, and in Medellin the suburbs were built on slopes so steep that only escalators [yes really] could get up them – or steps of course…
From Bogota we took a side trip to see the Cloud Forest park which was high up in the mountains and always wet of course being in the clouds but with much rain! Apart from the tall palms we saw a variety of ferns of all sizes up to tree size and many plants and orchids/bromeliads in their natural state hanging from tree branches. Difficult walking as we needed to climb the side of a mountain in pouring rain!
Armenia: coffee farms, busy lizzies, thumbergia, helaconiums, and orchids
The climate in Armenia, which was our second stop, was warmer by a few degrees and wetter as we arrived at the start of their summer. It rains in summer and is dry in winter there. It rains just about every afternoon at various degrees of intensity up to loud thunderstorms and torrential downpours and at night too. The rhododendron plant outside wore a small umbrella every night to protect its flowers! It was very humid of course.
Instead of amaryllis lining the streets it was hemerocallis – mostly yellow.
To my surprise, I found that many plants familiar to our gardens are weeds here, busy lizzies and thumbergia for instance (no sign of the busy lizzie problems), or are here but in different colours only. For instance, all camellias are white in Colombia – no pink or reds are available.
The scenery here is stunning. Much like Switzerland in many ways, including Holbein and Swiss cows. These cows predominate across luscious valleys of grassy meadows set in mountains. The trees, apart from many bamboos and eucalyptus are largely unrecognisable. In the Valle de Corcora, which is a national park, we saw the giant palms which are the symbol of Colombia and originate here. Very tall and very thin, with leaves only at the very top.
Trees, bushes and grasses grow right to the top of the mountains – the Andes – here, snow is rare and certainly we saw only green tops. The land here – which is several thousand feet above sea-level, is more fertile than the plains, which are acid and more suitable for crops such as soya beans. Apparently many of the milk cows are of Swiss decent as they are most suited to this type of environment – the other cows are for beef.
In the high valleys, where the climate and soil is suitable, are the coffee and plantain farms. Colombian coffee bushes (there are many different varieties of bushes as we saw in the Coffee National Park, some are 6-7’ tall and can be harvested by machine in Africa say, and others, as in Colombia, are 3-4 foot and are harvested by hand), flower all year, so there are always berries to pick. But as coffee prices are unstable and it takes 2 years from seed to first berry and thus around 4 for it to become floriferous, plantains are also grown between the bushes to provide a cash flow crop. Plantains are eaten at most meals it seems… and are fried or eaten as a raw side dish but frequently mashed and flattened and fried and used as a plate for the protein such as trout – there are trout farms in these high valleys.
Coffee is still harvested and farmed traditionally with no mechanisation until roasting.
After the berries have been picked from the bushes – they are both red and yellow varieties – they are separated from the kernels by fermenting and then the kernels are left to dry in the sun. When dry the husks are removed and the seed sold to the roasters – the roasters controlling the prices. Some coffee seeds have small stones in them which means that the seeds must be discarded. The stones are picked up by the birds and insects and carried around as they pollinate the flowers which smell very sweet indeed. Although we only saw a hummingbird once – and that was feeding from a fuchsia. We did see several red cardinals as well as many yellow birds and very frequently a bird we decided was the Colombian ‘sparrow’. In size it was between a dove and a blackbird and was dove grey and light brown in colour. It was always to be found around human habitation especially outdoor cafes picking up crumbs and perching on chair backs.
One tree that we saw a lot in Armenia had orange flowers and was stunning – we were told that it flowered and shed its leaves 4 times a year and thus having one near your house was a nuisance as there was always something to sweep up… there is no natural autumn or spring so plants and tress flower all year round and deciduous trees lose their leaves at different times, but the dry season is less hospitable obviously for those flowers that like it wet..
At the coffee finca – the farmhouse – I was shown the garden and it had all the exotica I had been expecting – plants that we grow in heated greenhouses and conservatories are in full bloom and just left to grow in the garden. Many types of helaconiums, orchids, bromeliads, and crotons were outside. Also an large (8’) poinsettia bush, strange creepers and bougainvillea in pots surrounding the terrace. There were lime and lemon trees – they have 3 types of lemons and don’t distinguish limes from lemons – avocado trees too and we were presented with a very ugly fruit from one tree which they said came from India. When opened the flesh was gently scented, and white with largish black seeds. It was rather like panna cotta in texture and tasted a little like mango when very ripe – the Pakistani mangoes. It was really very nice indeed.
Medellin and another botanical garden, butterflies,
We went to Medellin for a long weekend. The climate there is known in Colombia as ‘eternal Spring’. Always around 22C or a bit higher and very humid – so not very English spring-like! Again, we visited a botanical garden with a palm forest – so many different types; a butterfly house (some of these butterflies we later saw in the wild); and an orchid court. The butterflies came in many colours and sizes and seemed intent on their business and totally ignored all the humans milling around them – we saw some chrysalis and huge caterpillars too. The orchid court was a little disappointing compared to the orchids we had already seen – especially as we had been told that this was the speciality of this garden and in fact they were about to host an international orchid conference the next week. We did not think them well-displayed and very few varieties.
Coming back to Armenia we went to stay at a Finca hotel – an old farmhouse which had been converted – for a rest! http://www.facebook.com/hoteltierragrata
Our feet and legs were sore by now from climbing hills and the high altitudes weren’t helping.
However, we took a couple of strolls and were impressed by the variety of flora that grew wild along the road-sides and by the tracks. So many different types in one square foot – a true botanist’s delight. At first glance it looked very like Cornwall and then you realise that nothing was at all familiar as you take a closer look – the trees are full of bromeliads and hanging vines and bamboo forests line the riversides. Even the grass is different – much thicker stems.
Our final stop in Colombia was the Caribbean coast with heat and humidity to spare – always over 30C.
This again disappointed as we did not see the palm fringed beaches and lush flowers we had expected. Certainly many Bougainvillea lined the balconies but the old town is too crowded for gardens and all the flowers are well hidden inside courtyards which are not visible externally. Our hotel had 3! With 2 wells and 2 green walls of ferns, and many flowers growing in pots around. The newer part of the town was all high rise apartments and hotels and the beach was a very very long single stretch of sand with no bays.
This time we missed the botanical garden as it was 15 or more kilometres outside the town and we did not feel that the expense of taking a taxi there would be worth it after visiting 2 already. Mostly we saw flowers that we had seen before where there was an opportunity but the parks were not grassy but bare earth and shade trees with many walkways as clearly it was not a good climate for grasses.