Monday, June 12, 2017

rooting for colombia

Last night I watched one of those nature documentaries that look as if they had been produced by film students for film students.

You know the type. Stunning photography. Tacky narrative. The Onion would simply (and truthfully) label it as Marx for Dummies. Cows bad. Trees good. Monkeys even better.

The title was Colombia: Wild Magic. You might guess why I was watching it. I was in the midst of writing my essay on the flora of Colombia -- and I had an urge to see some of the places I visited just seven weeks ago.

When it comes to nature, Colombia is a champion. It is one of four nations with the most biological diversity.

That seems quite a boast for its size. Colombia is only the 26th largest country by area. That is due to topography.

Rain forests. The Andes Mountains. Tropical glaciers. Wide plains. Tropical coasts on two quite different bodies of water -- the Caribbean and the Pacific. Deserts. Coral reefs.

Colombia has more bird species (almost 1900) than any other country. But we are not here today to talk about birds. We are here to admire Colombia's plant life.

I have already made passing references to Colombia's national tree -- the wax palm. At 150 feet, it is the tallest palm in the world. And they truly are one of the wonders of the plant world.

We took a hike through one of the largest stands in Colombia in the Cocora Valley (coming to jesus). Usually the palms grow interspersed in the forest. But cattle ranchers have cleared the forest to provide grazing pasture for their livestock. As a result, we could easily see just how tall these noble trees are.

What struck Dan and me as being odd is that all of the trees were adults. There were no younger trees to replace their elders.

We were witnessing a slow motion disaster. The wax palms reproduce by dropping "nuts." The "nuts" sprout  and a young palm emerges. In the forest, the young palm would be protected by undergrowth, and some would survive to be adults.

Without the rest of the forest, the "nuts" drop on open ground. Those that sprout are soon eaten by cattle.

The trees you see in the photograph are over 100 years old. When they die, they will not be replaced by others. Only the wax palms in the uncut cloud forest will survive.

And that is a good reminder. "Cows good; trees better" may be simplistic, but it does carry a "nut" of truth.

Having seen the palms in the wild, we decided to visit the Quindio Botanical gardens just outside of Armenia. We primarily went to see the butterflies. It turns out that the birds and trees were just as interesting.

I mentioned guadua in sipping my coffee. The weepy groves of the green bamboo were ubiquitous in the Coffee Zone. And we saw plenty of guadua in the botanical garden. It also gave us an opportunity to talk with our guide concerning the use of the stalks as building material.

After all, bamboo is just a grass. A giant grass, mind you. But, just grass.

We had seen it used to build shelters, fences, and even the support structure for this metal and plastic covering for a toll booth.

There is a map of the region Quindio (the smallest region of Colombia) in the garden. It brought home to me just how rugged the Coffee Zone is -- and how difficult it is to raise crops there.

Anyone who has visited the haciendas of Yucatan is familiar with henequen -- the sisal hemp that made many planters rich during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yucatan henequen was the primary source for high quality ropes on ships.

Colombia has a cousin plant. And it too was used to weave fiber -- but mainly for the bags in which green coffee beans are shipped. The fiber is much finer than its Mexican relative.

One of my favorite sights, as we were driving or hiking, was to spot orchids. Colombia is a champion of orchid varieties. But most of those are in the Amazonia region of Colombia. And we did not go there.

But orchids were everywhere we did visit. These were in a patio restaurant in Sevilla.

Somewhere, a herd of formal-attired young women are awaiting these corsages-on-the-hoof.

I spotted the same variety in a tree in the square of the village where I had my first taste of Colombian coffee. (The moment is now immortalized in my profile photograph.)

But the orchids were not the only reason for that shot. As we drove around the Armenia area, our host pointed out a tree with yellow flowers. The tree sets its leaves only after the blossoms have fallen.

Here in Mexico, we have a tree with similar characteristics -- the primavera. I did a bit of research and was a bit disappointed that the two trees are not even in the same family.

I was ready to point out to certain readers in Mexico, who had chided me for missing the primavera season on the costalegre, that I was not missing anything. I guess I still could.

That is a just a taste of what Colombia has to offer with its flora. I was going to toss in some butterflies, but that will have to wait for my fauna essay.

And it will soon be here.


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