Puya Vida

From Peru to Chile. From the high mountains to the low desert.

I began the second half of my South American journey at the garden of Ximena Nazal. She is a garden designer, nurserywoman and lover of Chilean flora.Her garden of  four hectares is an eclectic collection of plants. Her design is both delicate and chaotically romantic. It is wonderful.

There is not a camera big enough to capture the  dense beauty of her garden.



One of her many passions  is the genus Puya. While at her garden,she introduced me to one that was in flower. We were to see many more in the wild.

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Puya caerulea

When she is not designing, gardening ,and doing countless other things, she organizes and leads botanical  trips to various parts of Chile. I wanted to see the Atacama desert, a 1,000 mile strip of land along the Pacific coast. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world but it had recently received rain and, rumor had it, was full of flowers. So, with Ximena leading the way, off we went.

We headed north, up Ruta 5 towards La Serena. Passing through rolling hills, she uttered an expletive – something to do with seashells and mothers – and screeched to a halt on the side of the road. There was a meadow of  Leucocoryne coquimbensis (Glory-of-the-sun).

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Growing with it was Schizanthus litoralis.

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and many Alstroemeria, including Alstroemeria schizanthoides.


Echinopsis chiloensis , a tree-like cactus, was coming in to bloom.


as was Palo de yegua, Fuchsia lycioides.


We headed north to a nature  preserve (Bioparque Puquén) at Los Molles, on the coast.


Flowering in great numbers was Calandrinia ( Cistanthe) longiscapa with Echinopsis chiloensis and another cactus, Eulychnia castanea.

IMG_3912 As if this wasn’t bounty enough, large clumps of Puya venusta were coming into flower.


Traveling further north towards the center of the desert, things began to change.

IMG_3963 (2)Millions of tiny Helenium atacamensis covered the ground.

And   hierba del salitre (Frankenia chilensis)

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As the ground became more sandy, clumps of  Quinchamalium chilense began to appear.


and in pure sand,


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Cruckshanksia pumila

And dotted in between the yellows and oranges, Alstroemeria wedermanii.

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Driving out of the desert, we stopped for a picnic and watched a herd of  guanaco, a relative of llama, alpaca and vicuna.

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Resting in the warm sun, I began to doze. Ximena on the other hand, had something else in mind. “You must see this”, she said. She pointed to a long, languorous  plant drooping down the rocks.  Bomarea ovallei is a member of the Alstroemeria family. It grows down the rocks with a terminal cluster of red flowers.

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It was beginning to fade in the heat of late spring. So was I.

But there was one more plant I wanted to see – the Chilean Wine Palm. We left the desert and headed south to  a preserve near Ocoa, Parque Nacional La Campana. Although not far north of Santiago, it is little visited by tourists.

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Jubaea chilensis is one of the great trees of the world. To see it in the wild was a great honor.

There were Puyas on the rocks


and, flowering golden yellow, Cassia closiana.


It was a perfect trip.  Made perfect by my guide and friend Ximena Nazal.




Getting high in Peru – Part 4

You can take the train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco if you like but you would be missing a lot. My traveling companions and I drove back. We made an important detour from the Valley of the Incas up into the mountains to Moray. It is 11,106 feet above sea level and is an agricultural center in the high plains. Fields were being prepared for the rains to come in May and June. Many varieties of potatoes are grown here, as is barley and corn.

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On the way to Moray, we came upon this.


A single flower in dry grassland. It elicited considerable debate and I had to turn to a higher authority, Panayoti Kelaidis, for help. With much electronic to and fro, he came up with this – Pyrolirion. Pyrolirion tubiflorum  or Rhodophiala bagnoldii or Rhodophiala auracana. Whatever the or, it is a lovely bulb.

Moray has a  very interesting and beautiful set of ruins. Lifting from Wikipedia – “The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is approximately 30 m (98 ft) deep. As with many other Inca sites, it also has an irrigation system.

The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom. It is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. Speculation about the site has led to discussion about Moray as an Inca agricultural experimentation site”


And with that, we staggered back to Cusco and on to the next adventure.

Getting high – in Peru ( Part 3)


The train leaves early and travels alongside the Urumbaba river. As we descended into the part of the valley that is the entrance to Machu Pichu, the area became humid and tropical. Large bromeliads hang from the trees. There are  glimpses of orchids and many plants we don’t know. “Isn’t that a ..? ”

Arrival in Aguas Calientes is a little frantic. We rushed from the station to the line of buses. We pass stands and shops lining up their authentic Inca wares – made in China.

The 8 km bus drive up to the entrance of the site is windey wonderful. On arrival, we disembarked and joined the line for the entrance. It was the early morning shift but already the throngs were gathering. Up a few steps and…oh my.


The air was fresh, the sun strong and warming.

Much has been written about Machu Pichu. Later, reading about the place, I came upon a piece of speculation that fascinated me. It is possible that Machu Pichu was built, occupied and then abandoned  in a time span of  just 100 years. New findings from current archaeological digs are producing new information. There is much more to learn.

The first plants we saw were  growing  out of the walls and terraces.

According to Hortus Veitchii, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, writing in the Botanical Magazine, described Begonia veitchii  as “the finest species then known”, saying:

“Of all the species of Begonia known, this is, I think, the finest. With the habit of Saxifraga ciliata, immense flowers of a vivid vermilion cinnabar-red, that no colorist can reproduce.”

Begonia veitchii


The begonia combines well with young Alpaca.

Visitors to Machu Pichu are kept in order. There is a one-way system of trails with guards at junctions making sure you don’t transgress. It makes for efficiency of sightseeing as well as minimizing damage from the millions of feet that trample.

Around a corner, a marvel, a wonder.


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Puya berteroniana


The turquoise puya has six -foot high flowering stems with turquoise-emerald flowers with bright orange anthers. The common name of the species is misleading, a number of Puya have turquoise flowers. Much later, in Chile, I had extensive conversations about Puya.

But how wonderful for the Inca to build such a wonderful backdrop for this incredible plant.


and there  is this,


some orchidaceous loveliness.

After many hours of exploring the area, it was time to descend to catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. There are two ways of doing this, by bus or by walking 4 -5 kms downs a steep stone-stepped path. We chose the path.

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The steps are dislocating but you do see a wonderful number of plants such as Alnus jorullensis, Juglans neotropica, Podocarpus glomeratus, and Buddleja incana , as well as many bromeliads and orchids. You can enjoy the flora while smiling  at but secretly hating the young people who are climbing UP the steps.


Getting high – in Peru. Part 2

Into the sacred valley full of lush agriculture and the beginning of Puya sightings, we stopped for the least greasy empanadas and a drink flavored with what we were told was ” a sacred berry.” Everything is sacred here. Given that we know so little about the Inca and much of what we do know was made up by the Spanish, it is impossible to know what is true. What is evident is that the Inca were extraordinary engineers and builders, constructing highly elaborate villages and towns with agricultural terraces, aqueducts, roads and communication systems.



Puya species


43 miles from Machu Picchu, Juan Grimm has designed a high-altitude garden  for the Tambo del Inka hotel. With a backdrop of Ch’iqun Mountain and the famous terraces and ruins of Quispiguanca, a fifteenth-century Incan royal estate nearby, there is a clear point of reference.

Although… although it seemed an odd landscape set among such powerful mountains.



I have yet to see a garden that can ever match, let alone improve upon, a natural site.

Taking a detour from the main road, we drove high into the mountains.


At close to 12,000 feet there were Alpaca



and all manner of wonders.



especially this unusual yellow form of –


Austrocylindropuntia floccosa

This species occurs in Peru (Cajamarca, La Libertad, Ancash, Lima, Junín, Huancavelica, Ayacucho, Cuzco, Arequipa, Puno, Moquehua) across the Andean uplands at high altitudes and in Bolivia in La Paz (Hunt et al. 2006). It can be found at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,300 m ( according to the IUCN Red List).

Down and onward then to Ollantaytambo, on the Urubamba river.


Ollantaytambo is where you get the train to Aguas Calientes and then the bus up the mountain to Machu Pichu. It’s a lovely village with extraordinary plants growing out of the rock walls. Brugmansia atrosanguinea being one.


The town has some of the largest Inca ruins – lines of terraces and towers reaching high into the mountains.

Plant nuts could spend days looking at what grows out of the walls.



and  along the streams


My traveling companions and I had bought our tickets to Machu Pichu on-line and were ready for the 4 a.m. rise to grab a cup of  coffee and walk down to the station to catch the first tourist train that takes you along the Urumbaba river.

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Getting high – in Peru. Part 1.

Two weeks ago I was in Cusco, Peru. It is 11,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 20,000 feet. It is hard to breathe and soroche – coca tea –  is served by concerned hoteliers, to help with the altitude sickness. For me, it wasn’t too bad although I did glance at the oxygen tank in the corner by the reception.

The first thing is to go to the market where there is an abundance of squash, potatoes, corn, fruit and faces.





I came here because of two people. Juan Grimm, Chilean landscape architect, and Ximena Nazal, Chilean nurserywoman and naturalist. I met both last year.

When I interviewed Juan last year, he talked about the Inca. “It is ironic that when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, the Inca Empire was probably the largest in the world.”  This statement, and others he made, stimulated my desire to go to Peru.  Ximena said one word, “Puya”. More of that later.

Cusco is the starting point for travelers to Machu Pichu. The city square is crowded with tourists wearing enough outdoor gear to conquer any mountain. We tourists like our GoreTex and Patagonia clothing, all straps, pockets and sturdy boots. As I found out later, getting to Machu Pichu is easy and, apart from those sturdy souls who hike there, most of us could go  wearing a lounge suit or summer frock. But swathed in recycled tire fabric, off we go.


Cathedral of Santo Domingo., Cusco. Built on a foundation of stone cut by the Inca.

I had a arranged to travel through the  Sacred Valley of the Inca to Ollantaytambo, the jumping off point ( so to speak) for Machu Pichu. My traveling companions and I were met by our young driver who whisked us off to the nearest ruin. Sacsaywamen is the ancient  capital of the Inca empire, although I was told the same thing about three other places. It is quite impressive and has an extensive and fascinating history which we largely ignored. We being plant people, our attention began quickly  to wander away from ruins to plants. And, as many of you know, if you can’t spend at least an hour discussing the nomenclature of some scrubby tree, life loses its luster.





Polylepis australis. A tree endemic to Peru and Argentina.


A short drive from Sacsaywamen is Puca Pucara, meaning red fort. We walked around this, mainly to satisfy our driver, and then became excited by the plants in the adjacent parking lot.

Cantua buxifolia  (Polemoniaceae) is the national flower of Peru, and comes in many colors. There is an Inca legend associated with the flower but it’s not very interesting, just the usual tale of betrayal, slaughter and redemption.

Still frothing about Cantua, we commenced our drive into the valley.


That’s enough from me for the moment.


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Return to Laos ( part 2)

Before my return home, the garden hosted an open house for the Lao community. This happens several times a year.

On the boat ride to the garden, I sat with thirty children from a local orphanage who were coming to enjoy the garden, have a picnic, listen to pop music and learn to make bamboo handicrafts.


IMG_3628The garden was full of people. It is a scene found in every public garden around the world.

While the garden’s mission is to advance botany, conservation, horticulture, ethnobotany, research and education, it is paramount that it be  for the Lao people. Most of the staff are Lao. A regularly published newsletter is published in Lao and in English. Plant and educational signs are bi-lingual.

As the garden grows, so will its importance as a resource in Laos. It is an important part of the garden’s capacity building – its ability to deliver its mission effectively now, and in the future.

The garden is there to connect. To connect locals and tourists to the vibrancy of a plant-centered life.IMG_3616IMG_3614IMG_3598

And so, after a good bottle of wine and delicious coconut soup spiced with black ant eggs, I decided to volunteer to help with the capital campaign.

Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is excited to announce the fundraising campaign for the second phase of our development: the installation of our Research and Education Facilities accompanied by an intensive 5-years capacity building and research program. We are proud to announce that Chris Woods has been appointed Director for International Development and will be working together with us towards this important new milestone in our development. 

On November 7th 2016 the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden opened to the public, and over eight thousand people from Laos and all over the world visited and enjoyed the beautiful as well as the educational. Founded by curator and publisher, Rik Gadella, Pha Tad Ke is located in Luang Prabang and is the first garden of its kind in Laos. It has taken seven years of developing botanical collections, scientific research, landscaping, and employee capacity building to create this unique botanical garden with a deep focus on ethno-botany. 

Pha Tad Ke is setting new standards in sustainable and environmentally responsible tourism, giving back to Lao communities, preserving local culture and the environment. The garden provides jobs to local villagers and creates a nurturing platform for young talent to develop new skills from gardening to science, education and hospitality. Publications and manuals in Lao language have been written by the staff and provide learning opportunities for Lao communities through workshops and student trainings. 

With the installation of our Research and Education Facilities Pha Tad Ke will be able to take a major step towards the realization of our important goals. 

Rik Gadella

Worked in the art world in Amsterdam, Paris and New York for over 25 years and is the creator of world-renowned events such as Paris Photo and Parcours des Mondes. In 2008 he visited Luang Prabang for a short holiday and fell in love with this UNESCO heritage town, and its natural surroundings, and decided to move here to create the first botanical garden of Laos. 

Chris Woods

Was born in England but has lived in the United States since 1981.He has worked in the garden world as gardener, executive director, designer and consultant for 45 years. He was the first executive director of Chanticleer, a world famous garden in Pennsylvania, and director of the Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada and executive director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden in California.

He was a member of the board of the Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia and a founding member of the Business Advisory Board for the Flora of North America Project. While traveling the world researching, interviewing, and photographing for a book on contemporary global gardens, he visited Pha Tad Ke, fell in love with its beauty and became passionate about its science.  

Here’s some of what we have achieved at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden since we began our project in 2008 to create the first botanical garden of Laos: 

·       14 books published and 3 educational manuals;

·       30.000 copies of our books distributed free of charge to Lao schools and libraries;

·       2.400 school children have visited PTK as part of organized garden excursions, and over 1.200 university and college students;

·       12 school gardens installed with teacher training programs;

·       130 plus botanical field trips undertaken;

·       1.500 different plant and tree species in our living collections;

·       2.500 staff training days organized in Laos; over 980 staff training days completed internationally;

·       8 scholarships given to Lao students;

·       74 workshops given to Lao college and university students in Field botany, Green horticulture, Ecology, Management coaching, Photography and Botanical Drawings;

·       22 art exhibitions organized in Laos and internationally;

·       38 articles in the press, 22 blogs, 5 radio interviews and 3 TV documentaries featuring PTK;

·       52 staff working in the garden;

·       10 hectares of garden open to the public, 2 hectares of work area/nurseries and 25 hectares of mountain reserve.

A tax deductible donation to a  501c in the USA –http://www.lpfund.org/donate  is available . There is a direct paypal link or via bank transfer.  Any donations should be marked for  Pha Tad Ke.
There are also other portals that lead to support –  friends of Pha Tad Ke https://www.pha-tad-ke.com/support/friends-of-pha-tad-ke-association/ .
For further information contact Rik Gadella at rik.gadella@pha-tad-ke.com or me, Chris Woods, at chriswoods@earthlink.net
After a wonderful week, I returned to Bangkok, had a foot massage
and tea,and flew home.
I have a feeling I will return again quite soon.


Return to Laos (part 1)

Recently, I flew into Luang Prabang to spend a few days at the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden.  https://www.pha-tad-ke.com/ .  This is my second trip to Laos and the garden. The first was to do research and to interview staff for my forthcoming book.

The director of the garden, Rik Gadella, and I have become friends and, since my first visit in December of 2016, have discussed ways in which I can help the garden.

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Rik Gadella ( left)  and Chris Woods.

So, I needed and wanted to return.

It is the end of the rainy season. The Mekong River is high, fast-flowing and muddy. Luang Prabang has not had a particularly strong wet season but it is lush and, as always, humid.

I have written about Pha Tad Ke in a previous post – https://urbanehorticulture.org/2017/01/08/i-have-been-too-busy-traveling-and-writing-to-write/ . On this most recent trip, I had time to explore the city and the garden in more detail.

Luang Prabang  is in the northern and central part of Laos. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and is known for its many Buddhist temples, French colonial architecture, and now, the botanical garden.

There are many temples in the city. One, in particular, is particularly beautiful.  Wat Xieng Thong, is at the northernmost end, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam rivers. It is a compound of temples and shrines, and an active monastery.

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The streets in this part of the city are narrow  and full of plants.IMG_3543



Citrus peelings are laid out to dry. They are  used in houses as mosquito repellent.

As for the garden,the website https://www.pha-tad-ke.com/ has a lot of information.

The entrance to a garden, the entrance to any space, establishes the tone of the experience that is meant to follow. It is the first note of the overture that lies beyond.

A wooden longboat is moored to a jetty in the Mekong River. On the prow of the boat is a small tree in a pot. It is there to keep evil sprits away. It seems to work, since the short journey from city to garden is one of serene beauty.

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Visitors disembark and climb steps to the garden, its entrance situated high above the flood waters of the “Mother of Rivers”.



In October, many of the gingers (Zingiberaceae) are in bloom.


Torch ginger – Etlingera elatior



Cheilocostus speciosus –  Crȇpe ginger.
Hedychium species


An unknown cultivar of Canna.

The garden has a collection of about 200 gingers, three-fourths of which are identified. Possibly 300 species are native to Laos. Part of a new five-year plan for education and research concentrates on Zingiberaceae.

More of that in part 2.