Find the Heliotrope

Heliotrope plant (photo by Hubert J. Steed)

Heliotrope plant (photo by Hubert J. Steed)

Here’s a challenge for November — find the heliotrope. It’s there, around us, hidden among the rainbow of prolific colors in the Guatemalan spectrum, in weavings, on some walls, along the roadways. I said heliotrope, mind you, not fuchsia, indigo, lilac, mauve, periwinkle, or any of those other shades of violet that are also to be found in the Highlands.

Heliotrope, as in the pink-purple-vivid lavender flower native to all Central and North America except far into Canada. Heliotrope, as in the pretty wildflower or potted plant with the sweet scent of vanilla or cherry pie. Heliotrope, as one more color to be sure you have on your palette should you plan to paint this colorful country.

Several Mayan weavings incorporate the heliotrope shade as a dye for the native cotton. Our friends at the wonderful Ixchel Museum say the Maya weavers use indigo root and pull the naturally coffee-latte-colored cotton out of the dye-pots before the indigo makes it too, well, índigo. See if you can spot the heliotrope shade in dozens of the magnificent weavings at the Ixchel next time you visit, or on the rich brocades of the women’s huipiles from San Antonio Aguas Calientes near La Antigua Guatemala. It’s there, a subtle thread among the reds and yellows and browns and blacks.

In most of North America, the heliotrope plant is a summer-only bloom along roadways or in pots from nurseries. Great-grandmother loved heliotrope in her garden. Then it fell out of fashion, now it’s back again. Never out of fashion in Guatemala, though. Here it blooms year ‘round, anywhere above the hot coastal littoral. The scent is delightful, for us and for cattle that might munch it. That’s not a good idea, though. Heliotrope is a deadly poison to cattle, and it’s a plant pest in fincas. It gives us humans gastric distress too, though not deadly. So find the color, enjoy the sensuous scent, but please eat vanilla flan or cherry pie, and not the sweet-smelling heliotrope.

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