Cantua, is a small genus of flowering shrubs and trees in the phlox family that contains about 12 species, all of which are restricted to the Andes regions of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Cantua buxifolia, commonly called flor del Inca or "flower of the Incas" in Spanish, is found in high valleys of both Bolivia and Peru, and has national flower status in both countries.
Long, tubular flowers emerge in mid to late spring and can be colored white, yellow, orange, magenta, or red, with some varieties sporting multiple colors. Cantua is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds. An evergreen shrub, the flor del Inca can reach six to eight feet in height with a similar width and is hardy to about 25 ℉. It likes moderate to regular water and full sun. The specific epithet 'buxifolia' is derived from the plant genus Buxus, or boxwood, and 'folia,' the plural form of the Latin word for 'leaf,' in reference to the shrub's boxwood-like, oblong, oval-shaped leaves.
Culturally significant to the Incas, the sacred flower of Cantua buxifolia was likely used in religious and political ceremonies. It was reproduced in pottery designs of the era (12th - 16th century), and is still used ceremonially in the funeral rites of native populations in Peru. In an Incan legend, two wealthy kings, Illimani and Illampu, each owned vast quantities of land and had one son. Out of jealousy over wealth, one king attacked the other and each was mortally wounded. Although each son was against this attack, at the death bed of their fathers each was made to promise to continue the war to avenge their father's death. Bound by their promise the sons mounted a second attack, and this time they mortally wounded each other. Before death, each son forgave the other, and their servants were asked to bury their bodies side by side on the battlefield. Mother Earth appeared to the sons and told them they should not suffer for the wrongdoing of their fathers. As a result, she made their fathers' stars fall from the sky, forming the two highest mountains on the Andean Plateau. The rivers that are formed by the seasonal runoff from these two snow-covered peaks are said to be the fathers' tears of regret. These rivers flow through the valleys where Cantua grows, and these plants are considered a symbol of unity. Red and yellow were the colors of the kings' sons, and multiple-colored flower forms containing red, yellow, and green, the latter color representing hope, exemplify this unity.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Corey Barnes. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell and David Kruse-Pickler