Of Love and Other Dried Plants

In the east of Colombia my blood has turned the mosquitoes red.

They hang from the underside of leaves like fat, proboscidean rubies on a green necklace. Tiny mosquito mid-guts synthesising tiny proteolytic enzymes, hydrolyzing proteins into amino acids and delicious vitellogenin. They’re digesting, making yolk from my lipids, turning my corpuscles into eggs.

I’m writing this post from Bogota – home of the altitude headache – but down there, where its 38 degrees and sticky, the first of their offspring have already been born, a writhing, aquatic brood that was once entirely me. The ethics of the outdoors suggests we leave no trace, pass over the land like a shadow, but I’m sweaty, English and O+, the tastiest flavour, in these past three years I must have been responsible for a hundred million mosquito births.

If we use peak-itching (just past) as a prenatal calendar then we should expect a major hatching in Guainía somewhere towards the end of next week. There, my insectoid reconfigurations will split their pupas in leaf cups, flooded boats and damp tree groins. It’s possible that some might emerge from the phytotelma of the Guacamaya superba – a thought as satisfying as a good scratch. My cephalothoratic babies could even now be flopping about in the self-made pond of the Flor de Inirida, one of Colombia’s most interesting plants.

A phytotelma is a waterbody held by a terrestrial plant. Pitcher plants use them for flesh melting, bromiliands for hydration. In the Guacamaya withered leaves cling to the stem and form a tank, their residual wax acting as a pond liner. Despite living in one of the world’s wetter places, and being fully submerged for months at a time, they use these for water storage. The Orinoco Savannah meets the Amazonian Rainforest above a band of white sand that forms Club Tropicana beaches on the region’s rivers and sucks moisture like a drain.

But, believe it or not, phytotelmata are not the reason we came to Inirida. We came for the hills. The Cerros de Mavicure, three monolithic lumps of rock that rise from the jungle like wheals on a tropical Englishman. Katherine and I spotted these igneous protrusions stealing the show at the end of el Abrazo de la Serpiente, and immediately planned a trip to see them. (If hills don’t turn you on The Embrace of the Serpent is still worth a watch. It has monomaniacal explorers and natives just brimming with psychedelic wisdom.)

We flew to Puerto Inirida. A town whose one road leads nowhere and whose municipal sculptures are all abstract, green-stemmed starbursts. One of the boatmen lounging on Don Raphael’s floating dock agreed to take us 50 kilometres upriver, providing he could find some petrol.

Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael's floating dock
Mosquito-bitten garden blogger enters Don Rafael’s floating dock

The Inirida was wide and still, playing hard at being a lake. Crookbacked dolphins snorted between clumps of water hyacinth and in the shadow of the Cerros we found a woman butchering a turtle with a large machete. Lucas, our pilot, had better ways to spend an afternoon than walking uphill. He begged a bowl of the forthcoming turtle soup and left us in the hands of two silent and stern indigenous boys.

Los Cerros
Los Cerros
Soon to be soup
Soon to be soup
White sand river beach
White sand river beach

But this blog is about gardening, you say, not sightseeing. Where are the plants? One mention of water hyacinths two paragraphs ago and even that without a binomial. You might as well be reading the travel supplement! I agree. So let’s get back to Guacamaya superba. Those sculptures I mentioned earlier, the starbursts, they all turned out to be renderings of the Flor de Inirida and its characteristic inflorescence.

This spikey mace of crimson bracts was literally emblematic. Every local agency and departmental organisation used it in their logos. Unfortunately, I only found out the significance of the flower as we returned to town with the sun falling at equatorial speed. Lucas was no longer any use, he was a man of the river, built for Yamaha outboard motors and Don Raphael’s Formica chairs, we needed to go inland. Eventually we found Camillo who had a van and was willing to drive us the whole length of Inirida’s sole road – 10 kilometres.

The light was failing, we entered la hora de las picadoras, the hour of the bites, when winged things come out to feast. The road ended in a small indigenous community built around a river as clear and red as blackcurrant tea. We hurried on foot through rough fields of yucca brava (Manihot esculenta), deadly if ingested untreated but the only crop bull-headed enough to grow in the sand.

Like blackcurrant tea
Like blackcurrant tea

Camillo assured us he knew where the Flor de Inirida grew, but as we emerged from the cassava leaves onto Orinoco Savannah, with the next house three days’ distant in Venezuela, he admitted that he was wearing someone else’s glasses, his having fallen in a river, and that he might need some help. Even with a borrowed prescription it was hard to miss our plant. A clump of leaves like a large terrestrial bromeliad and a flowering spike as if alliums were designed by Nintendo.

This was the everlasting flower. Bright in death. In dried bouquets the red is said to keep for decades after plucking. Like Sierva Maria in Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Of Love and Other Demons, found within the crypt with her auburn hair a funeral shawl – it’s the colour that just won’t quit. Traditional flower arrangement has its own everlasters; eryngiums and echinops, limonium and teasel, but the Flor de Inirida’s desiccated fireworks stand up to the best of them, and what town ever built monuments to the teasel?

So Guacamaya superba has been ticked off and my time in Colombia is nearly over. Katherine and I are to return to London next spring where I will give up the arduous life of a diplomatic spouse and return to professional gardening. Before I leave there a few more plant pilgrimages to make, so watch this space. And please remember, as you sit down with your families this holiday, that thousands of miles from you, in a town with one road where the Amazon meets the Orinoco, my miracle mosquito babies are hatching.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all of you!

El Flor de Inirida
La Flor de Inirida