A hardy, tropical climber from South America
Plant collecting in Rio
On the 14th November 1768, 79 days after the Endeavour set sail from Plymouth on Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world (the story of which is told in a previous blog post – 250 years of Endeavour), the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander arrived at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. It was their first encounter with the tropical forest, full of tantalising plants then largely unknown to science. Unfortunately, the Portugese governor was suspicious of the motives of the English ship and wouldn’t allow them to land, much to the frustration of the botanists on board.
So desperate were they to examine the exciting vegetation they could only glimpse through the ship’s telescopes that they resorted to underhand means to collect specimens. First, they sent servants to bring back specimens for them, but the temptation grew too great and in the end they took to creeping out of the ship at night, and embarking on illicit nocturnal excursions. The 300 specimens they gathered included Bomarea edulis, and the specimen and the beautiful watercolour painting of it by the ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson, still survive at the Natural History Museum in London.
Bomarea is a genus of climbing or scrambling plants closely related to Alstroemeria, in the Alstroemeriaceae family. They can be distinguished from Alstroemeria by their climbing habit and their drooping, radially symmetrical flowers (Alstroemeria flowers are held upright and have bilateral, or mirror-image symmetry). The genus is distributed from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south, following and restricted to the highlands of the Andes mountain range along the western edge of South America.
So how did Banks and Solander come to collect a specimen of Bomarea edulis in Rio, thousands of miles to the east of the Andes? The clue is in the name: the species name “edulis” meaning “edible”. All Bomarea have tuberous roots, but those of B. edulis are particularly large and starchy, and can be eaten roasted or boiled like potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes. A mature plant can bear up to 20 root tubers, each up to 5cm in diameter. It is thought that in pre-Colombian times it was cultivated throughout South America as a food source by pre-hispanic cultures, and that this could be the reason for the much wider distribution of this species than any other in the genus (occurring for instance in the Antilles, Guyanas and Brazil).
It certainly seems well-suited to cultivation: of several species of Bomarea we grow, B. edulis is by far the most vigorous and so far is the only one to flower, which it does prettily and prolifically from July to autumn. It grows best in partial shade in a humus-rich, well-draining soil that’s kept moist, and looks fantastic climbing up through shrubs and small trees, as it would do in its native habitat. It dies down to the ground each winter, but the roots survive freezing temperatures (including the Beast from the East this year) and new growth starts appearing as soon as the temperatures warm up in early summer, though be warned that slugs and snails are very partial to the tender young shoots.
I value the showy coral pink and yellow flowers too much to dig up the plant in search of tubers, though maybe one day I will sample them, or try it on the allotment.