Posted by: ktzefr | December 3, 2015

Heliotrope: 5 Facts and a Story

This week I clipped the best of the last heliotrope flowers and brought the plant inside to weather over the winter.

Heliptrope; Photo:KFawcett

Heliptrope; Photo:KFawcett


A dried heliotrope flower that I keep in a crystal bowl in the dining room hutch reminds me that I didn’t make it to the top of the mountain.

We were hiking Cotacachi, the extinct volcano near Otavalo, Ecuador, when the trail took a straight-up turn.  Some of us decided to stop and enjoy the view. My son took off ahead of us with a pack of friends and later returned with one small purple heliotrope flower. They were growing everywhere, he said.  He was excited about being the first in the group to reach the top, and he handed the blossom to me with a big smile.

The little flower has been in the glass bowl on the shelf in the hutch for almost fifteen years.  It’s one of those small things that hold many memories.  The images of that day have stuck in my mind.  After the hike back down the mountain, we had a picnic above Lake Cuicocha, a crater lake that lies at the foot of Cotacachi. The lake fills the caldera of Cuicocha, a dormant volcano that last erupted about 3,000 years ago. The lake water is a rich royal blue.

In the distance, villages dot the fertile valleys along with other, mostly dormant, volcanoes with names that dance off the tongue – Mojamba, Imbabura, Cayambe. Volcanoes are devastating in the short term, but the long-term benefit of volcanic eruptions has made this one of the best agricultural regions in the Andean highlands. The local markets are full of exotic fruits and vegetables and grains.  There are, for example, more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes in the Andes.  They differ in size, shape, color, skin, pulp, texture and taste.  I had never thought of a potato as being exotic until I went to Ecuador.

On our picnic that day in the woods above Lake Cuicocha we didn’t do anything unusual, but the whole atmosphere of the place felt out of the ordinary somehow, steeped in a lovely strangeness.  We ate Nutella spread on freshly-baked bread from a local bakery in the village and ripe cherimoyas from a roadside stand. The custard apples were so ready to eat that we could break them open by hand.  The kids spat out the plump, black seeds the way we used to spit watermelon seeds at each other when I was growing up in Kentucky.

Halfway through lunch it started to rain and we had to grab everything and run from the woods.  I held onto the tiny heliotrope flower and later tucked it away in my suitcase.  It traveled with us on buses, boats, and planes from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands and back across the Pacific, the Caribbean, and up the Atlantic coast until we finally made it home. The little purple flower has been around.  Now, dried out and pressed flat, it has lost its beauty, but not its ability to stir up memories.

I didn’t make it to the top of Cotacachi that day, but that’s okay. My son did – and he brought me back a treasure.

This all got me to thinking about the stages of life.  In a nutshell:  when you’re young, energetic, and passionate, it’s all about getting to the top of the mountain (and getting there first is the icing on the cake).  Then, when you’ve got a few mountains under your belt, it becomes more important to stop every now and then to smell the flowers.  Eventually, the mountains get steeper, priorities change, and life’s mysteries begin to unravel and make sense.  Then, it’s all about looking back as you climb, finding a good place to stop and sit on occasion, and enjoying the view.

A Few Heliotrope Facts:

1) Heliotrope is known as the “flower of love”and was one of the favorite fragrances and colors of the Victorian Era.

2) It was discovered in 1735 in the Peruvian Andes by a French doctor and botanist named Joseph de Juissieu, who was on a scientific expedition to South America.  De Juissieu didn’t get back to Europe for 20 years, and many of his other findings were stolen or lost at sea.  Despite all his years of work in botany, the heliotrope is the only find that is widely attributed to him, although there are later references to his being the first explorer to send Erythroxylon coca (cocaine) to Europe.  The doctor ultimately went insane, perhaps because he felt he had nothing to show for all those years of research and travel. 

3) Heliotrope in Latin means “turning toward the sun” and the plant was nicknamed “cherry pie” because of its sweet fragrance.  But this luscious scent hides the fact that all parts of the plant are poisonous.

4) For more than 200 years, heliotrope has been used as the name of a pink-purple color.  It’s been used many times in literature from Tolstoy to Wilde, Joyce, and Wodehouse as a color for gowns, shirts, pajamas, and luggage.  The colored pencils on Tyrone Slothrop’s desk in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow include the “hard-to-get heliotrope.”

5) During the 1950s and 60s Venus Paradise was a popular brand of colored pencils.  Heliotrope was one of the colors, along with other shades that had catchy names, such as Sarasota Orange, Deep Chrome Green, Arizona Topaz, Poppy Red, Peacock Blue, and Hollywood Cerise. 








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