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Living it LARGE in Peru

PUBLISHED: 09:56 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 17:28 25 August 2010

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SELF-CONFESSED plant nut and Times correspondent Tom Hart-Dyke has just returned from another daring expedition. The former Columbian kidnap victim went in search of rare plants in Peru and flew over the Darien Gap where he was held captive for nine mo

SELF-CONFESSED 'plant nut' and Times correspondent Tom Hart-Dyke has just returned from another daring expedition. The former Columbian kidnap victim went in search of rare plants in Peru and flew over the Darien Gap where he was held captive for nine months a decade ago. Here he tells of his quest to return home with Puya specimens in a bid to gain national collection status at his Lullingstone World Garden, his joy at seeing one of the rarest Puya flowerings that happen once every 150 years, the ravaged Cocaine fields, comical encounters with the law and his new found love of the region and its people . . .

I'VE got this 'small' plant gift-wrapped ecstatic matter to clear up - Peru! It was the most overwhelmingly certifiably horticulturally amazing trip I've ever been on.

From the minute I left Terminal 4 at London Heathrow on December 4 until I returned in a black cab to a Jack Frost frozen Lullingstone on Christmas Day it was a whirlwind plant-filled extravaganza.

Initially I flew from Heathrow via Philadelphia where I gave a talk at the Bartram's Botanical Garden in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I spoke about the World Garden and my Colombian kidnap experience. It was sponsored by Heronswood Nursery courtesy of its president George Ball.

George and his colleague Simon Crawford made me feel so welcome but the icing on the cake was the first snowfall of the winter tumbling down as I enthusiastically bantered on about The World Garden - it was magical - large, knock out snowflake action.

The talk paid for my flights on this South American adventure and I soon landed in the Peruvian capital of Lima in the early hours of December 7.

I hired a shiny silver tinted Toyota Yaris car which, over the next fortnight, was to bump and splutter (I needed industrial tape to stick flying rock damaged, pot holed, bits of the car together!), 2,783 km over the rugged, isolated interior of Northern Peru.

My mission was to collect, in seed form, potentially hardy woody plants for the World Garden. In particular, like with my trips to Bolivia and Ecuador in 2008/2007 respectively, I was searching out the genus, Puya. Puya's can be 'technically' summed up as poorly understood prickly sods from the South American Andes. I want the world's only national collection of these bromeliad relations - and I've now got enough different types to apply for national collection status!

Peru really changes is scenery every hour with a kaleidoscope landscape. From the Pacific desert coastline that hasn't seen a drop of rain in years to the glacial freezing Andes with hazardous and almost unpassable passes at 17,000 feet. At the sweltering humid laden heat of the Amazon Basin 649m above sea level your heart pumps dramatically, pushing out your ribcage until it almost splinters into a thousand fragments. Your senses are overloaded. All you can do is accept the altitude induced thumping headaches, vomiting wildly sprays of sick and burst into tears with emotion. It's that good.

Crazily, it's not just the plants that go through extraordinary transitional changes; it's not just the landscapes that morph from surfable coastal sand dunes to Andean jagged snow lines, and flat furnace blasting Amazonian tropical rainforest but it's the people that also change. Not in height nor looks but in mentally, from an open cosmopolitan mind-set, bikini laden western style surfer's paradise on the Pacific Coast to the heavily clothed and very reserved Andean culture. Then back down to a party - the scantily dressed lifestyle in the Amazon. The varied weather, due to extreme altitudinal differences, affects everything. Its fascinating!

So, Tom 'The Gringo' set off to explore a very un-touristy Northern Peru, principally visiting the Peruvian states of Lima, Pasco, Junín, Huanuco, Ancash, La Libertad and the remotely gorgeous Cajamarca - the most northern state.

There are so many stories to share with you now but by far the most awesome of all the botanically spine-tingling high-points was sensationally stumbling across an entire clump of the world's largest flower spike. A one in 50-year occurrence! With this photographic evidence there's no trick photography. They are that big and I'm that small in comparison! The plant in question is the rare bromeliad (pineapple relation), Puya raimondii. They were growing at more than 14,000 feet above sea level where nothing else virtually grows. This is currently the finest stand of this species in the world. What luck! Plants can take some 150 years to reach flowering size and after flowering the whole plant dies - it's monocarpic.

Several specimens I observed were more than 44 feet tall with over 10,000 whitish-yellow flowers borne per spike. Each spike can produce up to 10 million winged-papery seeds! The combination of these extraordinary imposing prickly aristocrats, the high altitude and seeing dozens of small hummingbirds hovering whilst pollinating this Puya made me kneel down in overwhelmed admiration whilst bursting my dammed eyelids. Salty moisture flowing on to the UV parched free draining substrate. It was all emotionally too much - my chlorophyll had overheated! With a park ranger's permit in hand I collected some seed. Over the fortnight I managed to make 14 further Puya discoveries and thus consolidating Lullingstone's up and coming National collection - a world first. But it wasn't only about Puyas. I observed amazing tropical foliage in the Amazon Basin and in the chilly Andes collected seed, based on their ornamental merit of Salvia oppositiflora, Passiflora trifoliata, Bomarea sp, Orthrosanthus chimborocensis var. tunariensis and Solanum hispidum (clothed in gorgeous rusty velvet hairs), amongst others. Most of the plants collected in seed form are not probably going to be fully hardy in the UK but I went out of my way to get to the coldest spots possible. However, this ground-breaking trip wasn't without its hiccups. Constant police checkpoints with potential body searches and car boot searches, some 60 times would have been interesting to say the least. But myself and my faithful Yaris were only searched once I never bribed one official.

It was a lifesaver that I was from England and had heard of Manchester United Football Club and Wayne Rooney and knew that Peter Crouch had moved from Liverpool to Tottenham Hotspur. This little bit of knowledge got me out of all but one car plus body search, this particular official wasn't a football fan and hadn't heard of Sir Alex Ferguson. Mostly I was just waved on with shouts of delirious joy! Peruvian's are mad about footy. It's a religion.

A flat, thorn induced rear left tyre in the middle of nowhere made me feel extremely vulnerable and alone. Perhaps, I should travel with a companion in the future? But for some reason no one wants to come with me, I can't think why. I love my own company and wouldn't want it any other way. To escape on your own, leave your mobile phone at home, and to be able to do whatever you want on your own, whenever you want, is an extremely powerful thing. I thrive on it.

Observing cocaine fields been blown to pieces by helicopter strikes, and guinea-pig stew (the national Peruvian Dish) which was a rather unusual culinary highlight - are both memories I'll never forget!

And finally ra cautionary culinary tail, watch what you eat: Whilst plant hunting in the remote Eastern Peruvian Andes one lunchtime I consumed a lovely albeit slightly stringy yet steak-like meat bathed in delicious white strongly peppered sauce. My taste buds curiously sensed a meat I had never encountered before. Upon realising in this dingy but character endowed eating hole that no menu was available I had asked the waiter for his recommendation of the day. Without hesitation she enthusiastically cranked up the firewood and got frying. I should have asked her then and there what she was rapidly, all cookery guns blazing, preparing. Although it tasted OK I felt sick when she pointed to an innocently passing by black and white cat in the street and said you've just eaten one of his children! We had a black and white cat (as a pet!) at Lullingstone for 18 years. I grew up with 'Luss Lass' our dear cat. La duena of the eatery burst into hysterical laughter at my face pulling reaction.

Botanically Peru was fabulous and proves that new and interesting plants can still be discovered in the 21st Century - all from the relative comforts of a Toyota Yaris, $60 per day, hire car!

Contact Tom at: www.lullingstonecastle.co.uk


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