Caribbean, Gardener / Jardinera caribeña / Natalia Ortega Gamez

Natalia Ortega Gamez, Maguey Blooming in El Callejón de Regina, courtesy of Natalia Ortega Gamez

The other day I asked my friend Teodoro Clase, one of the main biologists of the National Botanical Garden Dr. Rafael Moscoso Puello in Santo Domingo: what are the areas of greatest biodiversity in the Dominican Republic? He promptly answered: Sierra de Bahoruco and José Armando Bermúdez National Park. The first is located near the border with Haiti and the second sits in the middle of the country, where the highest peak in the region is located: Pico Duarte, which rises 3,098 meters above sea level.

What I love about my country – where I currently live – is its biodiversity, since it allows me to constantly discover new plants and learn their uses. The island of Hispaniola, which we share with Haiti, has a high rate of endemism, that is, many plants are exclusive to our territory, a product of isolation from very early geological ages. My practice as a sculptor and creating crafts with local weavers is closely linked to my interest in botany, biology, and the natural world. Los Tejedores, the project I created with my partner Ricardo Ariel Toribio, is fueled by this search to expand our vision as islanders. Trees, palms, agaves, and vines exist naturally in the Dominican landscape, and, for us, they constitute usable resources.

In my search for plants and fibers, I have been acquiring knowledge about our flora. One of the plants that most impresses me is caña brava (Gynerium sagittatum or wild cane), an herb belonging to the Poaceae family. Rebellious and uncontrollable, it could be called the maroon cousin of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)—a symbol of colonial exploitation in the Caribbean. Unlike the large, controlled plantations of sugar cane, nobody sows wild cane, which grows in the wilderness, always close to where there is water. We recently met a man nicknamed  “Joven” or Young Man who uses the fiber of wild cane to build shrimp traps. Ricardo and I have been testing it, and I dream of being able to create other objects with this interesting fiber.

My personal garden is, more than anything, a garden of herbs and medicinal plants, though there are also many cacti, agaves, edible flowers, and some aquatic plants. I have been studying the Caribbean pharmacopoeia for several years. In my search for medicinal plants safe for human consumption, I encountered ají tití  (Capsicum frutescens or marmoset chili pepper) also known as ají montesino or ají bobito. It is found in all the Antilles. The Taínos used it as a condiment, but also to repel the Spanish invaders; used as a defense weapon, they burned large quantities to produce a smoke akin to tear gas. I have seen this plant several times walking through different forests. I also have one in my garden and I use it to cook. Doing what I imagine has been done since Taínos populated our island, I sow the seeds to disperse them and other valuable plants, so that they never cease to exist.

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This is part of the cluster Caribbean, Gardener. Read the other posts here.

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