It is hard to come back down to earth after any holiday, but The Garden Post has been on a bit of a holiday spree and it is proving more difficult this time to settle down… it wasn’t really billed as a planty holiday (the end destination was the Antarctic Peninsula) so penguins, seals and whales were on the agenda. But if you love plants it seems plain that they are going to do their fair share of photo-bombing into the picture wherever you go, in addition to all the other visual treats.
Buenos Aires was the first stop along the way to Ushaia, the southernmost city in South America, where we would board the former Russian scientific boat, the Akademik Ioffe. We also returned to Buenos Aires a few weeks after the Antarctic visit, so this is a tale of two visits to this capital city of Argentina.
Streets lined with jacaranda trees (Jacaranda mimosifolia) reminded me of Durban, the South African city on the Indian Ocean, where I grew up. There these tall, flat-crowned, spreading canopied trees, with their soft-velvet blue flowers, were the welcome shade trees, along with another street tree, the more vibrant red flamboyant or royal poinciana (Delonix regia), which I later saw in Brazil.
Here, just as vibrant as the flamboyant tree of my home town, was the ceibo tree (Erythrina crista-galli). Its apt common name is cockspur or cockscomb coral tree and since 1942 it has been the national tree of Argentina, while the bright flower is the national flower of both Argentina and Uruguay. It looked vaguely familiar and I later realised that another of my favourite childhood trees, the lucky bean tree, with similar coloured, but different shaped flowers, is E. lysistemon, one of the species in this genus.
The San Telmo district was the first destination in Buenos Aires where we strolled along the Calle Defensa, which is closed to traffic (on Sundays), to enjoy the weekly antique market that springs out of nowhere along the pavements. Antiques, junk, crafts, clothing, leather goods and even knitted plants – they are all here. I was ‘in stitches’ when I saw the display of knitted succulents and cacti. Such a great idea if you find keeping house plants a trial, I thought!
Also in the San Telmo market I enjoyed the juxtaposition on one stall of watches and plants. The plants seemed to be growing within a moss ball and I am not sure whether they would be kept that way or potted on once you got them home.
I did find the ‘real deal’ – pots of succulents – on sale in many places. The most evocative, though, was nearby in the Defensa Alley. This collection of boutique shops and cafes is on the site of a once-grand mansion built in the 1880s for the wealthy Eziezas family. The ground floor courtyards run into each other and on the first floor there is a long side balcony.
It was hot, with most daytime temperatures reaching the mid-30s, so it was pleasing to see – in various places in the city – cool-looking balconies and facades covered with plants, as well as walls softened by greenery.
In the fashionable La Recoleta area I made my way to the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas, to one of the largest flower sculptures I have ever seen, the Floralis Generica. Created, funded and gifted to the city by architect Eduardo Catalano, the giant flower (105ft wide) is made of aluminium and steel. It blooms forever above a reflecting pool of water and is quite compellingly beautiful.
Next stop was the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta where Evita Peron has her final resting place. En route to the cemetery another display of eye-catching floral sculpture stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t find out whether this was a permanent or temporary installation, but it enlivened the pathway.
The Peron vault had its own floral displays and sculptured metal foliage. Throughout the cemetery the high walls of individual vaults, each reminiscent of a small house, line the narrow alleyways. Some had more permanent plant features, such as a pair of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata), making intriguing shadow patterns on the tomb walls.
Different species of ficus have often featured in my life as indoor container plants; seeing them or other members of the genus as street trees with giant, pavement-disrupting roots and branches that need support, is always a bit of a shock. I enjoyed the humour of the support for this specimen of Ficus macrophylla, the Gomero de la Recoleta, which was planted in 1823.
I cannot tango to save my life but I had read that often, especially at weekends, in various districts of the city I might see spontaneous tango in squares or at the markets. One of the best memories of this exciting place was sitting under the shade of trees and umbrellas in the city’s second oldest square, the Plaza Dorrego. Out of nowhere, a couple of dancers arrived, unrolled their mats and set up their music… and there was tango. Chilled beer and tango… holiday bliss!