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Home > Begonian > Volume 68 (September/October 2001, pages 190 - 194)

Some Begonias from the Land of the Olmecs
by Rekha Morris

I had long been aware that Mexico is an orchid lovers paradise, however, not until I read Dale Sena's article in the Begonian, November/December 2000 issue did I realize that I had missed out on many opportunities to look for begonia species on our previous visits to Mexico. Serendipitously a trip to Veracruz materialized soon after reading this account as also reservations at Tropical World sandwiched, as we were to discover later, between two celebrations, the carnival in Veracruz on February 27th and the gathering of witch doctors and shamans at Lake Catemaco on their most occult day of the year, the first Friday of March.

We picked up our rented car on the morning of the carnival and sped out of the city before it got underway. The approximately 2 hour drive to Tropical World was surprisingly smooth and pleasant as the toll road to Orizaba and beyond was both good and minimally used by Mexicans due to the high tolls, and colorfully edged on both sides by an 18" high grass with feathery plumes in shades of maroon-pink, soft cherry blossom pink and silvery white. Although grasses have been popular in landscape design from the 1980's, I had never encountered anything quite as pleasing as this ribbon of color defining our progress right up to the exit for Fortin de las Flores. The turn off on to the rough and pitted dirt road to Tropical World seemed like some legendary perilous passage which once negotiated culminates in fruition. In our case, it soon gave way to a lush tree lined drive thick with the yellow blooms of bidens and around the final bend, dozens of 30 to 36" high Begonia heracleifolia in bloom.

begonias in bloomAt the entrance to the walled enclosure housing the guest facilities is a small pond, its outlines barely visible through the massed foliage of B. nelumbifolia in clumps some 3' high and as wide. Amongst them were two specimens of another large leaved begonia with deep pink flowers and glossy foliage divided into wide segments with crisply curled edges. My camera and I reached a fevered pitch although our encounter with begonias had barely begun! This was not the dry and arid landscape of the environs of Mexico city which I remembered from previous trips: impenetrable thickets of sugar cane and groves of coffee shrubs interspersed with bananas to provide shade grew along the dirt road. Ditches and hedgerows were crowded with castor beans, dracaena, hibiscus, a large leaved kalanchoe species and other topical plants draped here and there with the golden flowers of Thunbergia alata rivaling the lushness I had encountered in Costa Rica. Trees around Tropical World were thick with orchids and bromeliads, the latter in such heavy clusters that they literally fell at our feet in the strong breeze as we walked around the former coffee farm that first afternoon we arrived at the aptly named eco-tourist facility, Tropical World.

That evening as we sat on the veranda in front of our rooms, a cockatoo who responded to the name of Homero came ambling by to join us as we munched peanuts and watched the brugmansias, bananas and clerodendrum shrubs become silhouettes in the deepening twilight. This surprising day had yet another surprise in store for us. Homero decided that he likes us well enough to saunter in and unable to fly, used his beak and claws to climb the sofa where he settled in for the night! The following evening he was waiting for our arrival on the veranda and decided to join us in bed, a move I discouraged by persuading him to return to the sofa [this time lined with newspapers] instead!

On a drive to Puebla and back I had become fascinated by Pinus montezumae, an upright growing pine with pendant clusters of 8" long needles which I had noticed in the hills above Orizaba. In trying to locate a suitable spot along the roadside to photograph this pine which grew in picturesque clusters along the cliff sides, I looked up and instead of pines noticed a line of pink blooms cascading down a gully in the hillside. This was along a strip of roadside heavily used by trucks; nevertheless, as my husband looked for a suitable parking spot, I dived into the ditches to get a closer look. Many of the plants along the lower edges were B. barkeri [I think]; however, twined liana-like around the base of a tree trunk was a nearly 2" thick rhizome of a large B. carolineifolia in bloom. This stretch of the cliff side was laced with airy panicles of pink flowers of what I am supposing were also B. carolineilblia although no begonia leaves were visible amongst the tangle of lush growth some twenty feet or more above us. Growing precariously from a cleft along an exposed section of this hillside was a single begonia, its large paliuate leaves dusty from the traffic below but nonetheless engaging in its tenacity to survive under such precipitous conditions.

Dale Sena's article had alerted me to the ubiquitous self-sowing of some of these begonias, but had not prepared me for the rush of excitement I felt each time eye came across the numerous wild colonies of begonias in bloom which we encountered along the first half of the road from Fortin to Xalapa via Huatusco. Along these hills there were surprisingly not P.. montezumae, but a more tropical mix including philodendrons and peperomias in the undergrowth. Amongst these were scattered colonies of what I am supposing are B. barkeri with large, unglossy, un-dissected leaves, smooth on the surface, but hairy on the underside. Amongst layers of luxuriant growth dominated by gigantic fern fronds were meandering clusters of pink begonia blooms with a sprinkling of white ones which I first thought were sparks of sunlight bouncing off the foliage. As we drove along this verdant hillside a spot of bright pink along the lower edges caught my attention which proved to be the blooms of a cane [?] begonia with lanceolate leaves.

The botanical garden located some two miles south of Xalapa, Jardin Botanico Francisco Javier Clavijero, is well worth exploring for its plant diversity ranging from conifer forests to tropical jungle growth. However, what greets visitors at its entrance are sumptuous plantings of begonias. At the anthropological museum in Xalapa the colossal Olmec heads dominate what is regarded as the richest collection of Olmec art in the world. At the Botanical garden it is B. nelumbiifolia growing alongside a gunnera, both of Olmec proportions which will forever dominate my recollections of this trip to Veracruz state. The huge, strongly veined, glossy leaves, each from 12" to 20" in diameter, formed a mound some 3 1/2 feet high topped by pinkish white flowers on stalks some 15" in length. Despite the oversized gunnera beside it, this magnificent mound of B. nelumbiifolia, larger than any I had seen at Tropical World, held sway over its surroundings much as Olmec heads had done at the museum.

Along the steep paths which wind up and down the hillside planting of rain forest flora at the botanical garden, we came across a large patch of what to me appear to be cane begonias, however, they formed a thick carpet no higher than 6" - 8" and were more like a ground cover than any cane begonias I am familiar with. Whether this was due to the early stage in their growth cycle at which we encountered them or whether these are a form of short cane begonias remains to be decided. Along some of the paths grew another begonia with lanceolate leaves nearly 6" long with undulating, serrated edges sharply accentuated against the soft circular forms of the moss covered rocks lining these narrow winding paths. Further up the hill was a larger plant of the same begonia, its long cane drooping downwards across fern covered rocks.

Our final drive was to Lake Catemaco some 2 1/2 hours southeast of Veracruz and occurred quite unplanned on the first Friday of March. With limited time for exploration we decided to head straight for what the Michelin guide had listed as Parque Ecologico Educativo Nanciyaga, on the northeast side of Lake Catemaco on the road to Coyame. This is the northernmost extension of the tropical rain forest, and as we were to learn not only the setting for the Sean Connery film The Medicine Man, but more significantly the site at which witch doctors shamans and healers gather on the first Friday of March to invoke the occult powers believed to converge at their strongest on this day of the year at this site.

Although the area covered by clearly defined paths is small, visitors are obliged to accept a guide to accompany them. In one clearing a but houses a witch doctor ready for consultation and at another an amphitheater of stone seats surrounds an open space where corn seedlings were being planted at the base of a central tree in preparation for the ceremonies of the "witching hours" that night. Although aware of the mystical ambiance of our final encounter with begonias on this trip, my mind was not so much on the supernatural reverberations of this moment but on the three begonia species which we saw here, B. carolineifolia, B. barkeri, and a mammoth B. heracleifolia of shrub-like proportions. Shamans and spirtualists may well be drawn to Lake Catemaco for an evanescent moment of participation in mysterious cosmic forces, but for those of us who have succumbed to the beauty of begonias, Lake Catemaco's lure is both perennial and irresistible.

Begonia growing in rain forest b. nelumbiifolia
Begonia growing in the hills in the rain forest 
flora of the botanical garden. 

B. nelumbiifoliea of Olmec proportions.

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