Plant kingdom

I am waist-high amid rough dun grasses when Charles Frewen begins to shout. Gesticulating excitedly, he points to a gnarled bush of waving tendrils, its tallest branch barely a metre from the ground. “This is the canela-de-ema,” Frewen says. “Locals believe it’s among the most dangerous of the region’s plants.”

We have climbed high into the Serra do Espinhaço, a range of flat-topped mountains that runs through the state of Minas Gerais in central Brazil. The area is rife with rare mammals and plants of unusual appearance, many found nowhere else in the world. Yet to my untrained eye, the low canela bush resembles nothing more perilous than a yucca. I watch as its dainty purple petals ebb lazily in the breeze.

“It can burst spontaneously into flames,” Frewen assures me. “It’s a great cause of forest fires.”

A flamboyant Englishman and second cousin to Winston Churchill, Frewen has set the pace from early morning, leading me from the shaded cool of his 10,000 acre farm’s lower reaches to a stony, scrub-covered landscape cut by gurgling streams and inky-black pools, part of Brazil’s unsung cerrado landscape that is starting to draw the attention of the world’s botanists.

For years, he tells me, locals have used the leaves and bark of bushes found on the cerrado as medicinal cures. Workers on his own farm, Fazenda Toucan Cipó, turn knobbly fruits of unappetising appearance – the ceriguela, a tomato-like fruit that tastes like plum, and the jaboticaba, which grows directly from the tree’s trunk – into delicious puddings and conserves. “Emilia, our cook, makes the most wonderful ice cream from fruits that are unknown outside this area,” Frewen says.

Around 8am, as the burning sun’s rays pick out tiny quartz crystals embedded in the limestone crags lining the path, I rest under a dazzling cloud of lilac blossoms of a Sucupira preta tree.

When we resume our climb, Frewen stops occasionally to indicate the unusual bounty that nature has deposited on his land: the twisted stem of an endemic cactus, a rare fruit resembling a scaly brown ball or a plant whose tiny lilac flower opens only at night. He points out the baru tree, whose protein-rich seeds are served as a snack, and the jatobá-da-mata tree, its engorged seed pods resembling aubergine-hued sausages.

With a last exertion, we throw ourselves down on the mountain’s summit. Nothing disturbs the silence, save the rustling of grasses in the wind. Far below, I can just make out the terracotta-tiled farmhouse at Toucan Cipó and its garden of mango, lemon and tamarind trees.

To the first-time visitor, the cerrado appears almost barren. A hot savannah grassland, it is dotted with low trees and thorn bushes, broken only in places by stands of acrocomia palm. Only in the past decade have scientists woken up to its natural riches. In 2005, Unesco named the Serra do Espinhaço a biosphere reserve, and recent botany surveys suggest the cerrado may have more endemic plants than the Brazilian Amazon.

By chance, Frewen had begun to make noteworthy discoveries long before. “My adoptive father was an Englishman who came out to Brazil in 1970,” he says. “He assembled the fazenda by buying bits of neighbouring land, so I’ve been tramping around it for years.” Eight years ago, Frewen inherited Toucan Cipó and its land (only 10 per cent of which is used for cattle or crops), quickly discovering plants on the property he could not identify from any plant bibliography. With an amateur’s enthusiasm, he began to catalogue them, finally writing a paper he expected no one to read. “Out of the blue I got a call from Kew Gardens, saying they’d like to come and visit,” he recounts.

To Frewen’s delight, botanists from the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and the University of São Paulo have since discovered 13 species of plant new to science on and around the property. Vegetation surveys also uncovered two species long thought extinct and a further 20 known only from a collection gathered in 1825 by Prussian botanist Ludwig Riedel.

The joint Brazilian-British teams have identified 1,145 plant species within a 20-mile radius of Toucan Cipó, more than half the number of native plants in Great Britain. “That’s quite a serious number,” says Daniela Zappi, a botanist at Kew who led the British team. “And roughly one in a hundred is new to science.”

Most of the new finds at Toucan Cipó are micro-endemics, occurring nowhere else on earth. Their limited range makes them vulnerable to mining and to fire: a single wildfire sweeping a hillside could knock out half the known specimens in a day.

Scientists are only starting to chart the full extent of the cerrado’s botanical riches. “We completed a full checklist of all Brazil’s plants and fungi only last year,” says Zappi. “As our research advances, we’ll continue to make new discoveries.”

Last year, Frewen and his wife, Carla, witty raconteurs and compelling hosts, began to accept paying guests at Toucan Cipó. Simply reaching the property is an adventure: the farm is situated 30 miles from the nearest village, a three-hour drive along dirt tracks from the nearest airport at Belo Horizonte.

Guests arrive to find a wood-beamed farmhouse with the relaxing homeliness of a friend’s country house. Its dining room, scattered with silver candelabra and colonial-era chairs of mahogany and embossed leather, opens to a comfortable sitting room with a stone fireplace and bookshelves stuffed with Wodehouse, Fitzgerald and Greene.

Breakfasts of papaya with lime, honey and freshly baked bread, all produced organically on the farm, and dinners of lettuce soup, roasted oxtail – along with generous helpings of Frewen’s colourful anecdotes – are served on the veranda or under a lychee tree in the garden.

It’s possible to fly-fish, canoe and go caving nearby, but the fazenda’s great strength is a landscape that provides endless objectives for an undemanding meander. I awake each morning to a rousing dawn chorus, heading out on foot to a nameless waterfall or to the River Cipó’s rockpools, where kingfishers flash along the bank.

Back at the fazenda, Frewen mixes caipirinhas in a distillery he has built in the basement and is telling me the scientists have named one of the newly discovered species Pilosocereus frewenii in recognition of his contribution. The plant, a dwarf cactus, is covered in tiny hairs. “I’ve had alopecia since I was nine and haven’t a hair on my head,” chuckles Frewen. “I guess they thought that was funny.”

Colin Barraclough was a guest of Toucan Cipó, which can be booked through Azul Travel. Renting the fazenda, which sleeps up to eight, costs from $1,500 per day, including all meals and guided excursions

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