There is only one image of the famous Jardim Botanico: the orchids...
The rarest and most exquisite plants in the world grow in profusion in Brazil. The 'Orquidario' at the botanical gardens was a knockout. There were orchids of every pattern, colour, and shape -- bright yellow-veined, striking pink, ornate scarlet, drooping violet, and blooming white. Surely the most exotic flowers in the world?
The gardens were started in 1808 by the exile Portuguese Emperor Dom Jao, who created it out of virgin jungle. He meant to create the Brazilian equivalent of Kew Gardens. I think it is one of the forgotten treasures of Rio. Most tourists hit the Corcovado or Sugarloaf, but along with Maracana, this was my favorite discovery on my latest trip to the Cidade Marvelosa. Brazil is probably themost diverse ecosystem on the planet, with so many plants and animals that many have not been discovered and catalogued yet. Many of these wonders are kept at the botanical garden, which is 60 acres of jungle and planned garden under the shadow of the Tijuca NP. This great jungle surrounds Rio in enclosing mountains, and if you are lucky, you may see animals from the NP, ie, monkeys and agouti. They will be exploring the botanical gardens just as you are.
It is situated at the far extremity of the Zona Sul, between the mountain jungles of Tijuca and the immense lake Lagoa de Freitas. It covers the foothills of the mountains, and the best way to get there is to take a taxi from Ipanema/Copacabana for about 10 reals. It is 4 reals’ entrance fee, and my advice is to buy a map at the entrance. The place is immense, and you could easily miss many of the little attractions that the gardens are so famous for. When I first started walking, I was struck by how different these gardens were to all the other botanical gardens I had visited all over the world. The difference, of course, is the near-perfect climate. Although I was there in September, the equivalent of their early spring, the temperatures in January/February can reach forty-five degrees C, with high humidity. This high temperature, combined with Rio's frequent rains and hot sun, has created a paradise for plants.
As you wander the gravel paths, soaring jungle trees predominate. Palms over 40 feet soar above you, their spaces broken by plants from all over Brazil. The trees I recognised included teak, mahogany, and of course, Brasilwood. These, since being planted in 1808, had grown into a profusion of shapes -- twisted boles and winding roots were everywhere I looked. Dotted in between were a thousand cycads, fronds, lianas, and bushes, all from the Brazilian interior.
My first major stop was the magnificent cascade in "the English fashion". The cascade rushed and bounced over a stone staircase, almost obliterated by jungle plants. Tucked behind up the slope was a "folly," an ancient Victorian observation post with views across the gardens. Nearby was Lagoa Frei, a lake surrounded by colossal bamboo stalks and verdant trees. This was where the famous Amazonian water-lillies -- Victoria Regia -- were grown. They must be seasonal, as I only saw the smaller variety, and then only one or two. A water bird and egret decided they liked them and sat squarely and precariously in the middle of the lake.
Then next was the "Insectouros", where the flesh-eating plants were kept. Smaller than the B-movie variety, these were popular with Brazilian schoolchildren, so it was quite a squeeze in the gruesome greenhouse. For all to see were the Venus Flytraps, which were absolutely tiny, but their snapping jaws were still there. The Diouna(see photo) was an elongated plant where a landing fly or insect would slip into the long stem. There, the plant’s strong digestive juices would slowly dissolve the insect over a week, and for the first few days, it would still be alive.
Then a trellis-covered colonnade led to the 'Orquidaria'. A security guard stood outside, carefully watching all those who wanted to view these valuable commodities. Inside was a white-marble circular atrium packed to the rafter with hundreds of blossoming orchids. Notoriously hard to grow and exceptionally rare (even in the Amazon), here were hundreds and hundreds of the flowers. I was bowled over. Their slender stems ended in flowers with protruding faces -- veined with red or dramatic white. Next door was another greenhouse housing plants native to the surrounding national park. One of the most impressive things about the jardim are the giant peaks surrounding it. This was brought home by the sight of the Christo Redentor in the distance and, occasionally, the branches waving, showing that wild monkeys were in the vicinity.
The central area of the park is the one which appears on all the brochures. The Charariz Centrale is a baroque fountain sitting at the centre of a wheel, from which palm-lined avenues spiral out. The palms (see photo) are so tall that they block out the sunlight, and each one is planted in perfect unison with the other. Finally, there is the Regica Amazona -- a replica of the Amazon rainforest based around a small lake. Reachable by bridge over the lake is an island with a reed hut. A mannequin of an Indian signifies the life of the Amazon, while the lake itself is choked with waterlilies and fronds of plants.
The sixty acres of the park are maintained by a gang of exuberant Carioca gardeners. There seems to be a whole army of them, and they seemed to be having a good time as they moved around the park. I found myself envying them. It must be a wonderful job in the sunshine, with good workmates. Every gardener I passed nodded a greeting. The Jardim Botanico is a hit for them as well. One of the wonders of Rio?