Finally - a visit to La Pasionaria in Uruguay.
I first met Amalia Robredo in 2007, on a Gardens Illustrated trip to Germany. She was about as pregnant as it was possible to be before being forbidden to fly – which I think illustrates something about her determination. We talked about her interest in using the wild plants of the region where she lives in her garden design work. Over the next couple of years I have acted as mentor, offering advice by email and blog, and she just went on to follow it all and take lots of initiatives of her own. She even got grants to publish the first ever illustrated guide to the flowers of the Maldonado Coast, and support further research. So finally, I get to see how my 'student' is getting on.
Amalia and her husband Marcelo bought the five hectare property some ten years ago, as part of a move out of the city into the country; the city being Buenos Aires and the country the coastline of Uruguay north of the über-fashionable Punta del Este. Amalia and Marcelo were pioneers, just outside what was once the quiet fishing village of José Ignacio (but which is now one of those places where incredibly cool people eye up other incredibly cool people in shops full of artificially distressed furniture). They have now been joined by many more, and the entire coastline between here and Punta (half an hour's drive) is steadily getting built up. Almost all natural habitat has been lost. There is not much in eastern Uruguay anyway - several centuries of cattle rearing and eucalyptus planting have seen to that. Amalia does very good conventional garden design, but has always wanted to use locally native plants and preserve or re-create as much of the natural wild plant communities as possible.
Amalia and Marcelo's house says something about their respect for the landscape. Unlike most houses round here which stick out like, well … like the fantasies of macho architects which many of them are, La Pasionaria is almost hidden, its granite-block construction making it look like an old fort. Just peeping above thick woodland its windows give it a fantastic view over a nearby marshland and lagoon. The woodland in question is a piece of the local monte.
|A 'mousehole' into the monte, note the cactus poking up as part of the woodland community|
Monte was the first new word and concept Amalia introduced me to, back in Piet Oudolf's barn in 2007 when she gave us a short presentation about her work. It means a kind of dwarf woodland, much sculpted by wind, almost impenetrable, and in conventional terms, with no economic value whatever – which accounts for there being not very much of it left. It includes relatively few species (a berberis is the only one whose name meant anything to me) but shelters many more, including ferns and other ground floor species.
Amalia has learnt how to sculpt the monte, without damaging it. The Maldonado coast does wind big time, all year round, so once you cut into the monte you open it up to the wind which can then cause a lot damage. So she cuts what she calls 'mouse holes' to minimize damage in the outer skin of the monte where it faces open areas. This skin is an interesting plant community in its own right: an incredibly dense mesh of interwoven branches, including some pioneer species such as various Baccharis and the incredibly vicious-looking Colletia paradoxa. The lower level is a thicket of ferns escaping from the monte understorey and very dense grass, with a few flowering forbs poking out. 'Inside' are a number of areas where she has removed the understorey to create shaded seating areas beneath the intriguing forms of the tree branches.
The surviving monte is set amongst grassland, which we would call meadow – indeed from the distance it could be British meadow grass; get closer to though and it is clear the grass flora is different and really very interesting. There are a lot of very attractive grass species here, which look good not just as border elements but make quite a show as part of a meadow grass type community. There's a lot more than just pampas grass!
|Deyeuxia alba, formerly regarded as a Calmagrostis|
Looking at Amalia's grassland, it's time to learn some more new words: prado and pradera. In fact so useful are these words and the concepts they clothe that I am seriously considering trying to get them used in English. By prado she means grassland which gets cut short through the summer, but is allowed to grow through the (virtually frostfree) winters to flower in spring and early summer. The result is a tidy meadow-like grassland with a rich variety of grasses and about the same proportion of forbs as might be expected in Britain – mostly yellow daisy family. The forb (flowering perennial) component of the flora here is quite limited – beach sand habitats support quite a number but there is relatively little which consorts with grass. In early summer, the two most showy and interesting are Vernonia flexuosa, a short-growing relative of North America's mighty ironweeds (although very similar to V. lettermannii, an Ozark limestone plateau plant recently launched into commercial horticulture), and the terrestrial bromeliad Dyckia remotiflora var. remotiflora, with its bright orange flowers. Not showy but a great favourite of Amalia's is Eryngium sanguisorba, which has a large but sparse panicle of tight little dark red buttons, just like, you've guessed, a Sanguisorba. In the strong sunlight of this latitude its hard shape stands out very well against the grasses.
As at home, the lower fertility areas of soil support thinner grass and (possibly) more species. Different grass species dominate different areas, just as at home, but make considerably more visual impact. High fertility areas tend to get dominated by European ryegrass monoculture. The native grasses are mostly of genera familiar to North Americans, while Melica brasilensis would go unnoticed on an Austrian Trockenrasen (dry meadow) to all but the dedicated grass lover.
I did not get to really appreciate Amalia's pradera, which is a late summer community. Pradera is cut only once a year, or even less. In fact, Amalia reckons cutting every two years is better because it allows grasses to build up some good tussocks. The community which results is much coarser in appearance but includes some good late flowering perennials, such as several species of Eupatorium, which can make a real impact. There is one goldenrod here too – Solidago chilensis.
|Senecio brasilensis in the unmanaged marshland at the bottom of the property - here be snakes, armadillos and incredibly noisy frogs.|
The remaining naturalistic habitat at La Pasionaria is essentially unmanaged, much of it marshland. Cortaderia (yes! at last pampas grass!) and Eryngium pandanifolium dominates – big rosettes which look a bit like an attenuated agave which later on produce impressive 2m+ flower spikes. There are a lot of Eryngium species here – possibly this is the genus's centre of diversity? Some are aggressive thistle look-alikes – the aptly named E. horridum appears everywhere; most however are garden-worthy. If I were doing serious plant hunting here, especially focussing on variety selection, I think I'd start with them (apart from the grasses that is).
|Elionurus muticus - a very variable local grass, well worthy of a place in the garden.|
Education is a big part of what Amalia does here. Increasingly people are wanting to come and visit. On this trip we agreed to run a workshop together, which got oversubscribed very quickly, so we put on another one a week later. In the workshops I like to think that we are dancing a tango, except that she (despite being Argentine) is no more capable of dancing a tango than Jo or I am. I take the lead and she translates into Spanish, and often adds her own thoughts, so it is a kind of tango. During a presentation she does on her own work, before taking around her property, there are constant interruptions of incredibly lively discussion – people here are more forthright in their opinions than back home and there is a great deal of curiosity.
The workshop was in her garage, improvised screen for the projector from an old sheet, and an ingenous home-made flipchart, at times we lean against her car to do our double act. It goes down incredibly well, the linking of plant ecology science to gardening is a completely new message. People are so enthusiastic. Most of the audiences are professionals – unlike home, almost no 'ladies who lunch'. I feel very proud, and deeply moved, to have played a part in pioneering a new approach to garden making here – and so far from home!
|Eryngium sanguisorba (in the wild)|
|Stipa filifolia - another very good potential garden grass|
and more on her work on The View From Federal Twist blog