The poinsettia. I have never been a great fan of winter-flowering houseplants, and I am not much good at houseplants in general- the whole watering regime flies out of my mind when faced with the delights of gazing at emerging seedlings in a tray. I was once sent a poinsettia for Christmas by a colleague (male) with a heavily patriarchal greetings note with it. To my, only slight, shame, I put the plant outside to die in simmering fury. So, the poinsettia has a bad history with me.
As a tree, how magnificent it is. Granted it is a rangy thing, sending up straight, determined branches outwards and upwards, with the ‘flowers’ or coloured bracts appearing as sunlight drops below 12 hours a day. You can see it all in tree form all over Ethiopia, from the dusty corners of the big city, Addis Ababa, to the high valleys of the countryside.
The colours can be vivid and eye-catching- much more fiery than I have ever seen in the houseplant variety. Especially so if growing in sunshine, whereas in shade, the glossy leaves seem more vibrant. I have been trying to establish how the poinsettia arrived in Ethiopia, as all sources indicate that it is a Mexican native. There is perhaps a clue for the non-specialist. Wikipedia cites that Joel Robert Poinsett (1788-1851), the US Ambassador to Mexico who first sent seed of the plant back to Philadelphia, may have also either brought or sent seed to Egypt. And Egypt is not that far a step to Ethiopia.
Another member of the Euphorbiacae family, is the ‘Crown of Thorns’, or Euphorbia milii. Upright, stout grey stems studded with vicious thorns look forbidding, but the leaves and flowering bracts almost seem to come from another plant, fleshy green and soft pink combined. Toughness, in the form of spines, thick fleshy leaves, and taproot systems that tie plants into the stony, poor soil, is what helps these plants survive and flourish.
Aloes were flowering magnificently in our month in Ethiopia. In the parched drylands of the upper valleys near Lalibela, the colours hit the eye in mid-October, but by the end of the month had virtually disappeared.
An unknown plant, that I haven’t found yet in any guides to wildflowers, is this beautiful Phlomis look-alike that I saw in the hills about 30k from Lalibela. Soft, felted grey leaves with creamy flowers or maybe bracts in pairs, were grouped on a shrub of 1m height and width. In the evening light, it was a magical sight.
And as we were saying goodbye to Lalibela, these accidental magenta-pink wild hollyhocks were doing their best to impersonate an English garden, right by the runway of the little airport.