Trip to the Amazon Yields Gardening Tips

Spring is here, and plant people everywhere are ready to garden. An intriguing woman from the Caboclo tribe in the Amazon offers inspiration and some unorthodox horticultural advice.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

You may or may not be able to see the evidence outside your window this morning, but winter is over. While it's still too cold for some of you to get started, plant people everywhere are ready to garden.

So for some inspiration, here's NPR's resident plant expert, Ketzel Levine. She picked up a boatload of gardening tips from an intriguing woman she met in the Amazon.

KETZEL LEVINE: She was introduced to me as Doña Raimunda. I don't even know her full name. She's a 90-pound wisp of a woman with a sculpted face and thin, gray hair pulled back into a nubbin. She lives in a big, wooden house just the other side of the equator in the Brazilian Amazon with chickens, roosters, her three grown children, and the family's Volkswagen-sized pig.

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LEVINE: The pig - her name's Muleca(ph) - is very dear to Doña Raimunda. She dwells constantly on the pig's well-being. A few weeks ago, Muleca attacked a male pig who'd been brought in for breeding. She's not meant to have a husband, said the little, wizened woman. She's meant to live alone. Personification, giving human characteristics to nonhuman beings, comes naturally to Doña Raimunda.

HANSEN: Mind how you talk to your plants.

DO: (Portuguese spoken)

LEVINE: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, she only speaks Portuguese. Fortunately, so does her friend and my interpreter, ecologist Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez.

M: Plants, please don't get depressed. You also have to take care of yourself. You can't start reproducing where they're very young. You have to get pregnant when it's the right time.

LEVINE: And do you have to talk to some plants differently than other plants?

DO: (Portuguese spoken)

M: When she talks with the pineapples, she just tell them, you have to eat well. She doesn't tell them, don't get depressed.

LEVINE: Pineapples, it seems, don't get depressed, nor do they have premature fruit. It's the vegetables that are so much trouble. Doña Raimunda's tip number two: If you want cucumbers, don't plant them near cabbage; they'll kill each other, their contempt is so great. Tip number three: Chili peppers are notoriously stubborn, always reluctant to let go of their fruit.

Now, this isn't just one woman's opinion, this is her cultural heritage. Doña Raimunda is Caboclo, an ethnic mix of rural people who live along the Amazon. The Caboclo believe plants and animals have personalities and idiosyncrasies as complex as ours. Some plants have loyalties; others hold grudges, which led me to question whether I'd done anything irreparable all those times I'd gardened while feeling foul.

DO: (Portuguese spoken)

M: She doesn't believe because you are in bad humor the plant will be affected. You are the one who was suffering, not the plants.

LEVINE: Fair enough. Tip number four: Plants are not codependent. But they are susceptible to ill will. Case in point - Doña Raimunda's use of eggs in her garden. Not crushed for compost, not hidden for egg hunts. Instead, they stand upright in a pot of chives like sentinels on sticks. So my question to Doña Raimunda, why the eggs?

DO: (Portuguese spoken)

LEVINE: I can take this one. The eggs are protection against two diseases, quebranto, jealousy, and odeo grange(ph), which we call the evil eye. The eggs distract onlookers from the vegetable's beauty. Doña Raimunda's tip number five: Ugly chives save lives. Though decidedly Caboclo in her thinking, there is nothing predictable about the Doña.

She reminds me of Ruth Gordon, a mischievous imp from the film "Harold and Maude." At age 82, Doña Raimunda is easily as coquettish, wandering around her garden in bright, tattered colors, smoking tobacco in a straight-stemmed pipe.

M: Doña Raimunda, (Portuguese spoken)

LEVINE: Doña Raimunda, why are you blowing smoke on your vegetables?

DO: (Portuguese spoken)

M: She was blowing smoke to protect the plants from crickets.

LEVINE: You've likely heard them chirping the whole time we've been here. Leaf- chewing crickets are a constant problem, which leads us to tip number six: Smokers are welcome in the garden. Oh, I almost forgot, if you're going to follow tip number five and use eggs to ward off evil, you needn't bother if you're growing native plants. They are grounded, says Doña Raimunda. They belong. It's the displaced among us, severed from our roots, who need the eggs.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

HANSEN: Doña Raimunda is the featured subject today on Ketzel's blog at npr.org/talkingplants.

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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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