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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Author: urbanehorticulture

A native of England a U.S. citizen for the past 30 years, I have worked in the garden world as a director and designer for over 35 years. I am best-known for my groundbreaking designs at Chanticleer, an estate and “pleasure garden” in Wayne, PA, where I worked for 20 years. Career Highlights I started my gardening life at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England, where I was trained as a gardener. I worked in three other gardens in the UK, notably Portmeirion in Wales, Bateman’s in Sussex, and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. At Bateman’s, I was responsible for the restoration of the 17th-century garden. I came to the U.S. in 1981 and was director and chief designer of Chanticleer in Pennsylvania for the next 20 years. I transformed a moribund private estate into one of America’s most exuberant, romantic and flamboyant gardens. Its glorious 47 acres have been celebrated by gardeners and horticulturists from around the world and, based on my designs, it continues to draw international visitors every season. After twenty years creating Chanticleer, I became vice president for horticulture for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden and, in 2006, was appointed director of the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada. While pleased to be in Canada, my heart yearned for California and in 2008 he was appointed executive director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden. After a successful period in northern California, he returned to his home near Santa Barbara, CA where I operated my own design-consulting business. In 2012, I was lured back east by The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (founded in 1827) and appointed director of its private estate and garden, Meadowbrook Farm. I was commissioned by PHS to design the central feature for the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show, the third major exhibit I have designed for PHS over the years. Among numerous other responsibilities, I have been 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. I have designed gardens in Chicago, northern and southern California, and throughout the Northeastern United States. I have also been a consultant to the Garden Conservancy and to Botanic Gardens Conservation International, as well as serving on the horticulture advisory committee of Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California. I have been the Advancement Advisor for the Flora of North America Association and am now traveling the world researching, interviewing, and photographing for a book on gardens around the world. Books & Awards My n first book, The Encyclopedia of Perennials, was published in 1992 by Facts on File. I also contributed to 1001 Gardens to See Before You Die (Barron's Educational Series, 2012) and The Gardener’s Garden (Phaidon Press, 2014). In 2003, I was awarded the Professional Citation for significant achievements in public horticulture by the American Public Garden Association. In 2007, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded me its prestigious medal for Distinguished Achievement. I currently live in the Bay Area, California.

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The New Perennialist

Musings on plants, gardens, travel, food and sex. Mostly plants and gardens.


for people who want more than gardening from gardens


Uprooting the Gardening World

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