Helen Moat discovers the power of plants to evoke a time and place in our travels
I have been visiting the botanic gardens in Glasgow this week. I love botanical gardens: London’s Kew Gardens, the Eden Project in Cornwall and the ones that are scattered across the parks of the UK and beyond. At Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens there’s a fine collection of exotic species in the expansive Victorian greenhouses. The Victorians became obsessive collectors of plants as they explored and conquered the world, leaving an impressive legacy behind them.
Visiting botanical gardens is the next best thing to travelling the world for me. Inside a small space, you can experience the planet’s continents in several sensations: smell, taste, touch – and sight, of course.
Certain plants remind me of places I’ve visited: the comical baobab and spiky acacia of East Africa; the great redwoods and perfumed pines of the American Pacific North West; the aromatic scent of rosemary and the splash of Bougainvillea pink of Mediterranean countries. In Thailand, it was the teak trees in the rainforest, their massive leaves used as roofing in the hill country. And in Sri Lanka, I think of the kanda trees that brushed the train as we wound our way through the jungle, their leaves used to wrap food, or gifts.
In a side wing of the Kibble Palace, the greatest of Glasgow’s greenhouses, there’s a whole section given up to carnivorous plants: Venus fly traps, sundews and pitcher plants. And all at once, my trip to Vancouver Island came flooding back.
We’d taken the ferry from Prince Rupert along the Inside Passage to Vancouver Island. I’d thought it would be the highlight of our road trip from Calgary through the Rockies and across British Columbia to the Pacific before finishing the trip in Vancouver. But in truth the boat trip along the Inside Passage had to be one of the most boring journeys I’ve ever made – bar a train journey through Hell and the forests of Sweden to Stockholm once.
The Inside Passage is an expanse of water flanked by pure wilderness. There’s a good chance of seeing whale, dolphin, bear, elk or bald eagles, they say. But all we saw was drizzle, low lying cloud and trees. After many hours we came to Bella Coola, excited to see life at last, albeit human; then it was back to trees and more trees. I peered hopefully through the vegetation and scanned the shoreline and water, hoping to catch a movement, a flash of life. But there was nothing.
Once we saw a village tumbling into the water. With no inroads, this place had no use for the ubiquitous North American car, and had been abandoned by the Canadians. We returned to virgin forest until we hit Port Hardy some time before midnight.
“We’ll drive through the night to Tofino,” I’d suggested at the planning stage. “We can sleep on the boat and save on accommodation.”
But come early morning we just wanted to fall into a bed. When the police stopped us on the road (“No we are not in possession of drugs, or drink-driving”), we took the opportunity to ask for a local motel. We headed into the motel’s seedy car park where a suspicious looking character was siphoning petrol. Unperturbed, I fell into an exhausted sleep, pleased to have somewhere at last to lay my head.
It took us a good part of the next day to reach Tofino. We drove through narrow, twisting mountain roads with drops that fell into the valley far below, glad we’d taken the decision not to do the journey in the dead of night, deprived of sleep.
Then we hit the coast. The mist and the waves rolled in off the sea. It was everything I loved about the west coast of North America: wild, dramatic, beautiful. The long drive to Tofino had been worth it all.
We off-loaded our luggage at our waterfront clapboard guesthouse before grabbing a coffee. Sitting on the terrace, I watched seaplanes land and take off, with fishing boats plying the water between the pine-strewn islands beyond. All was well in my world.
That evening we walked the beach and watched the sun set on the Pacific. I wanted to dance alongside the sand flies. “I could quite easily live here,” I said to my partner.
“Yep, the Pacific Northwest’s not a bad place to spend your days – apart from the threat of tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes.” I ignored him, never one to let a little bit of geology get in the way of my dreams.
Over the next days we explored the coastline between Tofino and Ucluelet. We hitched a ride on the Hootla Kootla across the bay to ancient rainforest and made our way along boardwalk to the hot springs on the shoreline, where we bathed.
“Keep an eye on the kids,” our skipper warned as we headed off into the old growth with the children. “There are cougars in there and they wouldn’t think twice about picking off a half-pint human.”
On the way back across the bay, we saw the creatures that had evaded us on the Inside Passage: whales, sea otters, seals and sea lions.
Over the next days the seashore became our playground: we built beach huts from logs washed up on the shore and created giant Jenga sculptures. Once we stumbled on a marine garden, a great rock on the beach lined with burnt-sierra, turquoise and purple starfish and sea anemones.
It was towards the end of our visit that we found the pitcher plants and sundews lining a boardwalk on the coast. I’d never seen meat-eating plants in their natural habitat before and marvelled at the delicate, pretty plants that could beguile and devour insects in their digestive juices.
Standing in the Glasgow greenhouse brought it all back to me, transporting me to the west coast of Vancouver Island, surely one of the most beautiful places on this earth.
What plants remind you of your travels? Tell us in the comments below...