The Amazon basin is home to millions of strange and beautiful creatures. Its dense forest has been a refuge for civilisations dating back hundreds of years culminating in an extensive rural knowledge of medicinal plants and spices.
Let us explore some of the secrets behind the Amazonian spice and rubber trade, learn to read the forest and how you can use what you know to grow happier tropical plants.
The Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon often conjures up tales of strong warriors, giant anacondas, breathtaking orchids and flamboyant birds. Here are some fun facts you might not know:
The Amazon covers an area of 6 million square kilometres roughly 54% of Europe.
Amazonian tribes, such as the Mestizo, have Shamans that heal with local plants and would use singing as a medium.
Amazon tribes would consider the forest a garden, however, tribes would construct informal 'gardens' for crops. These would resemble rough clearings that would be left to its own devices after initial planting.
Some of the plants held such interesting properties that they attracted the attention of conquistadors. So starts the story of the plants that shaped the world...
Crops are hard to grow in the dense forest, therefore gardens are transient.
Plants that shaped the world
Rubber trees had a surprisingly simple use to tribesman prior to the arrival of colonialists. It provided a way of waterproofing clothing, canoes and shelters. The tree did not become commercially important until the 19th century when a Scotsman named J.B. Dunlop invented air-inflatable rubber tires.
This led to what is now referred to as the Rubber Boom. Europeans flooded to the area in hopes of harvesting the new liquid gold. The seeds eventually made its way to other colonies in Asia where it remains a large export to this day.
Learn more about the Rubber tree in the profile below.
Cacao Bean and Vanilla
Few would associate the Amazon jungle with the European spice trade, yet it was here that early colonialists employed tribesman to collect cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla.
The story starts further north where the Aztec emperor, Montezuma introduced explorers to a royal beverage known as 'chocolatl' made up of corn, cacao, vanilla and honey. The Spaniards then introduced it to Europe starting what would inevitably lead to many a sweet tooth.
A Hoatzin breeding pair on the banks of one of the Amazon rivers.
Creating your own Jungle
Tropical species are fascinating as they develop unique colours and shapes that distinguish them from their surroundings or in some cases camouflage them. Creating a rainforest in your backyard is a challenge that many face head-on. It helps if you are near the coastline or in the subtropics where the average humidity is high. Here are some tips to consider:
Tip 1 | Know your average humidity before you purchase a humidifier. Low humidities (<45%) will require larger quantities of water (large reservoir or refill multiple times). It will also shorten the lifespan of your humidifier.
Tip 2 | Take into account the hardness of your water. If you are using (hard) tap water, be sure that you pick a humidifier with filters for hard water (tap water will differ between regions). This will limit salt buildup.
Tip 3 | Raising the temperature will affect your humidity (lower temp = higher humidity).
Tip 4 | Remember that canopy top species might need a dry spell every now and then to limit fungal and bacterial infections.
The Amazon is a great teacher when it comes to various types of roots. The growing conditions will often dictate the root structure.
Forest plants: Growing Conditions
The most important thing to remember is that a forest is made up of microclimates; small areas that differ in temperature, humidity and sunlight. The second is that not all forests are identical, as the previous article on Machu Picchu
mentioned, you can get cold cloud forests as well. The best way to keep forest plants alive is to understand these microclimates.
Here are some pointers to help understand the plant's location:
Forest Canopy: The canopy receives the most sunlight with leaf temperatures sometimes reaching 45 degrees Celsius. A few hours of intense sunlight will periodically dry out the air. This means when you receive your plant, it will most likely want a drying out cycle thrown in between its intense watering. This dry period would not last long (merely a few hours), but will most likely help against pathogens. Some species will contain a waxy layer to prevent water loss (a good way to identify them).
Undergrowth: Leaves will be able to reach a larger size as they are away from harsh light and subsequent water loss (a fact that limits leaf size in the canopy). While canopy growers will filter out UV, blue and red light, understory plants are often left with the green light spectrum and partial sun rays that make it through the canopy. Shaded areas can create microclimates where the temperature is several degrees lower than the surroundings. The understory also has access to higher CO2 levels (from decaying plant matter).
Knowing a little bit about each microclimate will help you create a better home for your plant. Above all, have fun! Reading and learning more about your plants will make taking care of them even more enjoyable.
Hop down the rabbit hole and make sure to have a look at the Ancient Gardens series for more gardening ideas!
Cleary, D. (2001). Towards an environmental history of the Amazon: from prehistory to the nineteenth century. Latin American Research Review, 65-96.
Cornish K. Similarities and differences in rubber biochemistry among plant species. Phytochemistry. 2001;57(7):1123-1134.