In my first four or five years living in the western highlands of Panama, I focused on learning to grow vegetables. Combining advice from a pile of helpful USA gardening books and my own experimentation, I got my kitchen garden up and running. We pushed the cow fence out much farther from the house than the initial 10m, and I began to think about ornamental gardening in the dairy pasture.
I planted this and that, flowers I could buy in the few nurseries in town, cuttings that people said would strike easily. One day my husband, Angel, asked, “What are you going to specialize in?” The concept hadn’t occurred to me! Gardens were simply a way to make my surroundings more pleasant, and that didn’t require narrow focus, but rather, overall good taste and the skills to pull off something nice. But I humored him: Why not choose bougainvilleas? The nurseries that offered them were the most attractive of all the plant vendors, and they were new and exotic to me, who had grown up in Seattle. But it didn’t take long to realize that as soon as I bought all eight of the varieties grown in the country, my game would be up.
About that time Angel’s sister sent us a gift from Washington, D.C. where she was working at the Smithsonian. Her office mate had a pile of books on the corner of his desk: Heliconia, An Identification Guide by Fred Berry and John Kress. She noticed that many of the plants were native to Panama, and thought maybe we’d enjoy it.
It’s interesting how interests that define our lives, at least for a time, can so often be traced back to the coincidence of the right spark at the right time.
With the book of heliconias in hand, both Angel and I saw the native flora of Panama differently. The great stands of weedy plants alongside the highway could be put to good use! So we collected chunks from the edge of the road and stopped at houses to ask for little pieces of plants from the garden. Then we searched the young internet and found Mike and Mila Anderson of Highland Heliconias in neighboring Costa Rica. They kindly sold us a small order of rhizomes, but more importantly, encouraged us with friendship and useful information to fuel our interest.
Heliconia, then, was my specialty, and Angel joined me enthusiastically. The genus was native to Panama, and that meant it had a couple of clear advantages. Importantly, it could take care of itself while we were away. Angel and I always enjoyed being the woods, and the possibility of finding another species or variety of heliconia provided a good excuse for a trip to the forest. Also, in spite of how tropical jungles are often portrayed, big, bright flowers are few and far between. So heliconia is the ideal beginners’ genus – they’re easy to find and hugely satisfying when you do come across them amongst the varied tones and textures of green.
After a few years, a large portion of my collection of heliconias was blooming, and in about 2002 we put together a home-made website, including full-plant photos of the individuals in my garden, in addition to the flower-only images that still predominate on the web. That presence led people to write to me with their questions and suggestions. A whole new world opened up! And the neat thing was that the new world was big, but not too big for me to find a place in. A new friend in Singapore introduced me via email to some growers in Puerto Rico, and one enthusiast dropped everything and came down for a visit. It turns out he had never seen heliconias except in gardens, and was so fascinated with seeing plants in the wild that he invited me to speak at the upcoming HSI biennial conference he was planning.
The Heliconia Society International was about 15 years old then, and had about 200 members. Some 50 enthusiasts, commercial growers and researchers gathered from around the tropical world, though mostly from the Americas at that meeting. HSI holds a conference every two years, with the sites alternating between the western and eastern hemispheres. HSI’s mission encompasses all eight families of the order Zingiberales, so the focus of the conference shifts with the site: Heliconia dominates in the Americas and gingers take center stage when we meet in Asia. Visit the website for more about the Heliconia Society International.
Because my specialty extends into the forests of Panama and Costa Rica, I have developed a knowledge of the native Heliconia species and their habitats that no other enthusiast I know has done in this area. I grow plants in my garden that are not cultivated elsewhere, and so my seed trades attract very cool seeds in exchange. I receive interesting visitors from whom I always learn a lot, which is the point of all this, right?
So, within just a few years, my specialization made gardening more exciting, and it gets better all the time. I enjoy my plants and my garden so much more for having a group of friends with similar interests, even if they are far away.
I wholeheartedly recommend developing a garden specialty! Far from distracting from a balanced approach, a special focus can anchor a garden’s myriad joys and challenges.