As I walk through this tunnel of bamboo and listen to the wind whistling through the leaves of the foliage surrounding me, the American names haphazardly etched into the bamboo stalks remind me: no, I am not in the Shunan Bamboo Sea, where the lofty bamboo towers high and bends over to create natural arches that support its weight, like the ones formed above me now. In reality, the pastel-colored houses that rise blocks away from me scream the city of San Francisco, California, not the province of Sichuan, China.
The paths of the San Francisco Botanical Garden take me through Temperate Asia, a sector of the garden dedicated to Asia’s endemic flora. Perhaps it was the buttery petals of the Magnolia campbellii or the gentle white flowers cleverly hiding between the endless array of ornamental shrubs, but I realize I have somehow managed to get lost in this foreign land. Wandering aimlessly, I feel as though I am trapped in a Buddhist meditative labyrinth. After nearly an hour-and-a-half of meandering, I stumble upon a dirt-caked garden map left behind by another traveler and quickly see that I have so much more to explore.
Map in hand, my virtual passport brings me to a Mesoamerican Cloud Forest. I ascend to an elevation of perhaps only twenty feet above sea level, yet I find myself in a new scene only possible at elevations of thousands of feet. I am taken aback by the power of San Francisco in perfectly replicating the dark, mysterious rainforests of Central America with its cool, signature fog. The speckled, saffron-colored flowers of the Argentinian Bomarea plant, which latches onto the vines growing beside me, remind me of the noble foxgloves I spotted in New Zealand when I traveled there thirty minutes ago. Meanwhile, the trumpet flowers bloom amongst the vines and leafy plants that stretch outwards from the forest walls. They play an exotic fanfare, celebrating the biodiversity of the rainforest and all its thriving flora.
As I travel past a manicured Camellia Garden reminiscent of the English Victorian era, I come across a Gondwanan time machine offering to show me the plants of days past. I find myself transported into the Early Devonian period, where emerald ferns peek out from the shadows and vie for the sun’s attention. By the time I reach the Eocene period, I recognize the creamy magnolia petals and flowering shrubs I had seen in my Asian travels. As I advance through Earth’s prehistoric eras, I watch the plants’ complexities flourish and features evolve. I find myself silently applauding Earth’s plant kingdom in learning to spread its seeds through fruits that now can travel around the world, connecting people and cultures alike.
After having traveled to nearly every continent, my passport brings me home, to the garden of native Californian plants. I smile at the bright California poppies that I otherwise see lining the side of Highway 12. I admire the manzanita tree, whose smooth bark reminds me of dark chocolate. I surrender to the majesty of the coastal redwood grove and shed a tear (or five), respecting the Sequoia sempervirens’ strength and fearlessness in the eyes of fire and all other foes. I aspire to be the coastal redwood. I realize that, despite having traveled through time and across the world thanks to the unifying power of plants and the San Francisco Botanical Garden, there’s no plant like the coastal redwood, and there’s no place like home.
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