The most conservative male will invariably end up with a brightly coloured tropical shirt when he visits Vanuatu. The rich red hibiscus or bright gaudy colours of stylized flowers are printed on thin cotton garments to remind the wearer of their time in the sun. Women can fling them on as pareos or lengths of cloth tied in knots around their waists. Then there are the artistic ones who take a great tropical leaf and turn it into a work of art. For the visitor to Vanuatu this becomes a fascination, a vista of opulence only to be repeated in foyers of fashionable high end establishments.
Palm leaves, especially golden cane, are simplicity itself in large open vases. Cutting them over one meter long and letting them gracefully arch in natural form is the best way to enjoy them. As cut foliage they will last two to three weeks. Clipping smaller fronds and forcing them into curves and shapes is from an era gone by.
Cycad leaf or namele leaf is a custom leaf. It appears on Vanuatu currency and it is in the emblem of the country. In custom, it is placed on a tree to denote ownership, taboo and don’t touch. In a vase, the dark green strong fronds will last even longer than the golden cane leaf.
‘Monstera Deliciosa’ is also known as the fruit salad plant. Very few people realize that the fruit is edible only when it is very ripe. Its large wavy leaves with irregular shaped holes are quite distinct and one of the most popular shapes in clothing decoration. This is repeated in wallpapers, pictures and even mats. For the novice, try taking a large leaf, place it on a canvas and spray around the edges giving a relief pattern, repeat as desired to build up depth.
The huge leaves from the Taro plant have a multitude of purposes. The roadside Taro leaves are often used as umbrellas while the young leaves of the edible taro can be steamed with coconut cream as a green vegetable. Some take inspiration from its strong veins to create logos and photographic masterpieces. Taro not only comes in green but also mottled yellow, or deep veined purple.
All the above leaves are strong and bold but a delight can be found in the ferns and fine foliage that make up the understory of tropical forests. Tiny creeping ficus will hug stones and cement walls. Maiden hair ferns will dance alongside streams or nestle in moist shady spaces. To make sure the maiden hair fern will last in an arrangement, plunge the cut end of the stem into boiling water to seal it. Arrange as desired.
One does not need to have flowers in an arrangement either, as the brightly coloured leaves of the croton plant can be bunched and wired into everything, from a fascinator hat to a table top masterpiece. Crotons will change colour through the season. Some of the insipid looking browns of the dry season may turn into flaming reds during the wet. Keep pruning for new growth and new colour. An old import from Fiji that has made its way into gardens in Vanuatu has seven colours on the one plant. Creamy white, green, yellow, mauve, pink, flecks of red and burgundy. The bush has a second feature that makes it attractive – it remains a dwarf plant.
Vanuatu has a great number of artists who take their inspiration from nature. Next time you are in the market look for genuine prints and paintings on real cotton. They will be the best wearable art you can buy. Cheap knock offs will bleed all through the washing and will fade much faster than the memories of a holiday.
Cornelia Wyllie is the caretaker of Rainbow botanic gardens, entrepreneur and founder of Vanuatu Direct / Fine Foods processing. She is passionate about the nutraceutical values of foods and believes that food is our medicine. Flowers and food are found at discerning stores in Port Vila with distributors overseas. Buying direct is possible and full support and certification for Biosecurity is available on selected lines if these items are sent or taken overseas. Contact [email protected]