Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lake Chapala: a flowering paradise

Cascades of flowers decorate many walls. Ajijic possesses a nearly perfect climate, with only a little variation of temperature and humidity year-round. This climate gives us year-round flowers, some of which come and go with the seasons, and some which bloom virtually all the time. We are never without bursts of brilliant color around us as we walk the streets and shores of Lake Chapala. Some of the species of plants are native to Lake Chapala, and others arrived here from as far away as Africa and India. All seem to thrive in the temperate climate created by the largest lake in Mexico. The blue Thunbergia and red Bougainvilla, shown here against a brick wall on an Ajijic back street, grow rapidly and profusely and are almost impossible to kill. Location: a side street near Calle Revolucion in eastern Ajijic.

Poinsettia. Native to Mexico, Poinsettias were prized by the Aztec kings. European botanists took note as early as the 17th Century. American Ambassador to Mexico John Poinsett first imported Poinsettias to the US in 1828, thus the name. Norteamericanos normally think of Poinsettias as Christmas flowers, but here they enjoy a very long blooming season. They also grow to extravagant heights. The bush on which this flower blooms towers almost fifteen feet high. The flower shown measures about 18 inches across and about twelve inches high. Location: the gardens of the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic.

Agave and Sansevieria. The Agave cactus, whose large grey leaves are shown here, grows both wild and cultivated all over the Western Highlands of Mexico, particularly in Jalisco State. Agave occupies a mystical place in Aztec history. The plant supposedly sprang from the buried remains of Mayahuel, the beautiful goddess and wife of Quetzelcoatl. Mayahuel was killed by lightening bolts sent by other gods angry with the lovers. Anyone who has had the opportunity to drink tequila, made from the Agave heart, will understand the reference to lightning bolts. Tequila itself originated from the liquor known as mescal. There are an almost unbelievable number of varieties of tequila.

An import from West Africa, the Savsevieria plant thrusts up blade-like leaves all around the Agave pictured above. Sansevieria is also known as “mother-in-law-tongue,” for obvious reasons. The Sansevieria was imported from West Africa, and grows there from Nigeria to the Republic of Congo. West Africans originally used the plant to make bow strings.

Location: Calle 16th de Septiembre near Calle Revolucion in Ajijic.

Bougainvillea. A native of Brazil from which it spread to other South American regions, the Bougainvillea was named after an Admiral of the French Navy who first described it in 1768. Of course he didn’t really “discover” it, since it had been known to native people for thousands of years. Bougainvillea is extremely popular world-wide and enjoys the status of official flower in the islands Granada in the Carribbean and Guam in the Western Pacific, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and several cities in California. Location: a quiet side street near the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic.

Bougainvillea decorates many Ajijic walls. Bougainvillea, a woody vine, grows profusely in Ajijic and transforms bland exteriors into lush tumbles of color. Location: Calle Ocampo in Ajijic.

Morning Glory. The Morning Glory grows world-wide, but also figures in Aztec history. Ancient people in Mexico found many uses for Morning Glory. These included using it to convert latex from the Castilla elastica tree into rubber for their famous ritual ball games, and using the seeds as an hallucinogen during religious ceremonies. The Blue Morning Glory shown here is very common and, like the Bougainvillea, one finds it cascading over walls throughout the North Shore area. Location: a quiet, shady alley leading to the base of the mountains overlooking Ajijic.

Water lily. Occuring world-wide, the beautiful Water Lilies are highly invasive of ponds and shallow lakes and will quickly take over unless controlled by various means. In Mexico, the plants are also called Nenufares. The Mexican Water Lily was originally native to the Gulf Coast but has spread to many other other areas of Mexico. Location: one of the fish ponds within the lush gardens of the Lake Chapala Society.

Clivia. I was startled by this flower, resembling a star burst in an astronomy picture. Clivia is native to southern Africa. British explorers in Africa first gathered specimens in 1815. Cultivation of the Clivia now occurs world-wide, especially in South Africa, Australia, Japan, Belguim, the US, and China. The plant is amazingly drought-resistant. One was once left on a potting table with no dirt on its roots for a week in a warm brightly-lit room. When finally discovered, re-potted, and watered, the plant recovered fully with no apparent bad effect. Location: the gardens of the Lake Chapala Society.

Kalanchoe. This flower also struck me as other-worldly, and I imagined encountering it on some distant hothouse planet. However, the Kalanchoe also possesses the prosaic name “donkey ears.” I guess I can see it. The only useful information I could gather about Kalanchoe is that all parts of this plant are poisonous and should not be ingested. So much for lunch. Location: Lake Chapala Society gardens.

Thunbergia. Native to India, the Thunbergia typically grows in clusters of three, as seen here. Although it looks similar to the Morning Glory pictured earlier, and is often found draped over exterior walls of local homes, it is an entirely different species. Location: I haven’t a clue, but almost certainly somewhere in Ajijic. Sorry.

Hibiscus. Tropical Hibiscus are hummingbird magnets. They can be found throughout the Lake Chapala area. I only walk two feet out my back door to encounter one of these wonderful large flowers, usually with a hummingbird zipping around nearby. Hibiscus are edible as well as ornamental and form a primary ingredient for some teas. In Mexico, Hibiscus is used in the drink agua de Jamaica or Jamaica water. It is supposed to taste something like cranberry juice. Hibiscus is also good for kidney problems and is a natural diuretic. Location: just outside the main entrance of the Lake Chapala Society.

Gazania. Another native of southern Africa, the Gazania is often used for ground cover. I haven’t found any other particularly useful characteristics, except that it looks pretty. I guess that should be enough. Location: grounds of the Lake Chapala Society.

Tabachin or Royal Ponciana. A native of Madagascar (Malagasy Republic), the tabachin or royal ponciana is widespread around the world from Thailand to Egypt to the Bahamas to Hawaii and Mexico. Tabachin blooms nearly year round. People have found many uses for the plant. Seeds are used as food and the pods can be used for fuel or making necklaces or folk art objects.  Carole recently bought a small handcrafted "critter" made from a pod. The Caribbean islanders call the tabachin "women's tongue" because the pods rattle in the wind. Location: grounds of the Lake Chapala Society

I took these photos at various times over the last year since we settled in Ajijic. I am no horticulturist, but simply selected my subjects because I loved their colors and shapes. Accordingly, I was faced with the dilemma of beautiful, but unidentified, subjects in my pictures. By a happy coincidence, our Spanish teacher is also a horticulturist trained at the University of Guadalajara. Joel Gomez, a very intelligent and engaging young man, was able to immediately identify nearly all the pictures I showed him, even though I had to use a black and white printer. Thanks to Joel, and a little internet research, I have been able to provide a some background on each with a link to further information for those inclined. It also turned out that Joel is a fellow hiker and photographer whose work I plan to include in a future posting focused on the many moods of the Lake itself. Stay tuned…

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