Autumn flowers of Muogamarra Nature Reserve

It is not often that one gets the opportunity to visit what has to be one of the most beautiful and historically significant nature reserves in the Sydney area: Muogamarra. Because of its significance and fragility it is closed to the public for most of the year, except for six weeks in spring and a few ranger-lead walks throughout the year. One of which I had the privilege to attend last Saturday (18 April).

Despite forecasts of scattered showers the morning sky boasted a nearly cloudless autumn blue. Approximately 15 fellow walkers had come up to the Reserve to follow National Parks volunteer Peter on a walk through the history of the site.

Admittedly, I had booked the walk mainly to get a glimpse of the Reserve’s autumn flora and immerse myself into the surroundings of a place whose natural beauty had blown me away on a previous visit. Others had their own agenda, too. Several Ingress players used the occasion to unlock otherwise inaccessible treasures and badges. Their GPS pings mixed with bird calls as we walked via historic huts and relict rock carvings to J D Tipper’s lookout.

I was fortunate to find a few very knowledgeable plant people amongst the other walkers. Soon were were discussing family features, plant identification tips & tricks, potentially introduced species (e.g. the Gymea Lily), and pointing out wildflowers and fungi (lots of them out after the recent rains!) along the way.

Time to share some of the successfully identified gems (thanks to Les Robinson’s field guide or pure knowledge of other walkers) we spotted:

Philotheca salsolifolia
Philotheca salsolifolia “You shouldn’t be flowering!” exclaimed the ranger upon spotting this Philotheca salsolifolia in front of a scribbly gum tree. Their usual flowering time is later in the year (July/August).
Allocasuarina distyla
Allocasuarina distyla with colour-matching bug.
Acacia oxycedrus
Acacia oxycedrus. The spiky leaves were not enough of a deterrent for a leaf-curling spider to set up its web.
The woody pear, Xylomelum pyriforme
The woody pear, Xylomelum pyriforme, is one of my favourite native plants. Not just for its awesome fruit, but also the pretty glossy leaves with their radiant yellow veins.
Scaevola ramosissima
Scaevola ramosissima. Ramosissima means “much branched” and obviously refers to the leaves. With their fine hairs they reminded me of sundews. But that’s just me – the two have little in common.
Petrophile pulchella
Petrophile pulchella. I feel I owe the genus Petrophile an apology – up until this walk I had referred to them as Isopogon. Yet they are distinguished by their egg-shaped rather than round cones.
Leptospermum squarrosum
        Leptospermum squarrosum – detail of a 2m tall shrub with plenty of pink flowers and round fruit.
Angophora bispida
Angophora bispida. Some of the empty old gumnuts were visited by wasps, maybe to set up a nest? Unfortunately I didn’t manage to capture it on camera.
Hakea gibbosa
Hakea gibbosa. Whole plant view. Les Robinson describes it as a “grotesque, prickly shrub” whose “new stem and leaves are densely covered with loose, white hairs, giving the plant a frosty look”. I could certainly see it standing in front of the tree and I think the upper part of the plant also shows is in this picture.
Hakea gibbosa fruit detail
Hakea gibbosa. Fruit detail. Gibbosa means “having a short, blunt spur or beak”. Yep.
Mushroom
Last, but not least, an unidentified mushroom. With its delicate robe it upstaged all wildflowers. Yet nobody could identify it. Does anybody know what kind of mushroom it is?

The above is but a small selection of plants and fungi we saw on the walk. It was a short walk of approximately 6 kilometers, but with frequent stops and chats it took almost four hours. Yet time passes quickly in such a rich environment. Personally, I can’t wait to be back at Muogamarra come springtime!

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Spider spectacular!

It was a jam-packed weekend of activities in the Garden: The tomato festival invited to visit stalls, tomato tastings, plant & produce sales on the Band Lawn, plenty of kids explored Disney’s Fairy Trail, and for the romantically minded there was a massive red heart painted on the lawn in front of the tropical pyramid inviting lovers to showcase their best Valentine’ Day snaps on https://twitter.com/hashtag/GrassyHeart?src=hash

In the hustle and bustle the information booth served as an island of shade, a corner of quietness almost, only a few steps away from the main path and red train line.

Plus, it had its very own attractions: Not just one, two beautiful (and rather big – well, medium size for Australian standards) spiders were showing off there webs in the bed right in front of the booth, spun between palm and ponytail plant, in perfect height for viewing and photographing.

One was a golden orb weaving spider. One of the smaller specimens I have seen in the garden. Nonetheless, she was surrounded by several little spiders, males presumably who are trying to get lucky – and not eaten.

Not counting the long legs, orb weaving spiders can grow several centimeter big, with large (dependent on species grey or differently coloured) bodies. And yet they maintain a lightness as they elegantly sit in their webs. It seems they barely touch it, only holding on to it with the very tips of their legs.

It is certainly golden orb weaver season – their 3D web mastery is on display everywhere in the garden! Their webs are set up in bushes and trees, often overhead.

The webs glisten in the sun – make sure to look at the webs, especially the stronger (outside) threads from different angles until you can see its golden shine. You might even want to feel the strength and elasticity of the thread by carefully pulling on it. But be careful, the last time I slightly plucked on one of the outer threads the (understandably angry) spider came running towards me. Apparently they are unknown to bite, but better not to provoke her…

Web Repair

What a beautiful photo! View the original on Flicker: https://flic.kr/p/8UZJQN

The second spider on display at the information booth was a St. Andrew’s Cross spider. The web lacks the structural complexity of the golden web orb weaver’s but makes up for it by its distinct zigzag markings.

St Andrews Cross
Another great pic shared on Flickr – check it out on https://flic.kr/p/2gTyiZ

Like the spider in the picture above, the one at the booth has only one zigzag feature. I can’t wait to see whether more “ladders” will be added over time.

The two spiders at the information booth are hard to miss. In fact they seemed to attract almost more attention than the booth itself! People stopped to take photos or to ask what kind of spiders they were. Some tourists hoped they’d be the famously dangerous funnel web spiders and they could finally have a closer look (after being warned Sydney would be teaming of them, yet (luckily) they tend to stay below the surface).

There are of course other many other types of spiders in the garden.

Garden spiders, though mostly absent during the day have set up their large webs. And the clivias lining the borders of the Palm Grove beds are known hang-out spots for net-casting spiders. Unlike spiders with big webs net-casting spiders make small (tiny!) webs i.e. “nets” that they hold between their front legs. Neither the nets nor the actual spiders who resemble a dried wood chip or a little twig are easy to spot, but it’s worth looking for these intriguing little animals.

Net-casting spider

 This photo is taken at the other side of the world, in Costa Rica, but the little fellow looks very similar to the ones you can spot in the Garden in Sydney. Look at the original photo here: https://flic.kr/p/bnc2pd 

Not only did I have the pleasure to look at the spiders and people taking interest in those spiders from the information booth, I was also lucky to discover a copy of the Green Guide: Spiders of Australia. An enjoyable and nicely illustrated booklet that fits in your pocket as you set out to explore the spiderful world. Enjoy!

Visitor’s notes: Zu Besuch in der Flora (Köln)

Ever since touching down in Frankfurt for a busy 3 weeks of long working days I’ve shortlisted some Botanical Gardens to visit in between work, family/friend commitments and catching a few hours of sleep.

1. Die Flora in Cologne

2. Palmengarten Frankfurt

3. Botanischer Garten der Uni Heidelberg

Unfortunately I had to cross the latter two off the list (no time), but was delighted to be able to use the holiday of the Tag der Deutschen Einheit (the German National Reunification Day) on Oct 3 for a visit to the Flora.

Die Flora – what a beautiful name for a Botanical Garden. Not the most imaginative I admit, but with an elegance that lends itself to the French pronunciation “La Flora” (stress goes onto the last syllable).

Entering die Flora from the gate next to the Kölner Zoo the view is drawn to the Wintergarten-Palast. Unfortunately it was closed and barricaded behind a massive scaffolding. It’s supposed to be finished for the 150th anniversary in 2014. By the looks of the scaffolding this seems an ambitious goal. Where are all those rich plant lovers with quick money when you need them?

The fountain and floral display in front of the palace were nonetheless very nice. A bit formal and stylised for my taste (the footprint of bushwalking in Australia for the last 3 years), but building up towards a palace I’m sure it’ll be a grand sight again once restorations are finished.

I set out to get a picture that would focus on the fountain and the floral display avoiding the rather prominent construction site. Such a photographic angle was not possible from the path. And this was the dilemma: stepping on the grass was not an option – set in stone to both sides of the display. Fair enough, if every tourist trampled on the grass for a photo that has been captured millions of times already, not much would be left of the ensemble.

Setinstone_verboten

Still, I couldn’t help think of the sign greeting visitors in the Botanical Garden in Sydney:
“Please walk on the grass. We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, sit on the benches and picnic on the lawns.”

Anyway, I continued my way in der Flora. There were some beautiful theme gardens like…

  • The scented garden, i.e. Duftgarten für Blinde und Sehende

From the small level of the individual plant or flower to landscapes and entire gardens so much is contained and transported through visual impressions. I have to admit I am a very visual person myself and usually neglect the olfactory experience …unless I can’t help noticing it (the stench of Aristolochia or the sweet Osmanthus perfume come to mind). So the invitation to close my eyes and actively sniff and smell opened up a whole new level of experiencing plants. It also meant my strained eyes that tirelessly tried to take everything in, not miss a plant, recognise and compare, read labels and check for flowers or seeds got a rest could rest. What a great relief a scented garden is!

  • A vegetable garden that teaches you Kölsch, the local dialect.

Tucked on the side, but nonetheless popular amongst visitors were vocabulary cards that explained some common vegetable names in Kölsch, the local dialect. I can now order Kappes = Kohl = cabbage and , Gurke = Komkommert (from the French concombre), Schavu = Wirsing in Kölsch.

  • A Hexengarten

The bed in shape of a star it contained all those Kräutchen Hexen would use in their magic potions. What a fabulous idea!

Flora_Hexenpflanzen

It would be tedious to talk about each and every plant I got excited about (too many!). So at this point, I limit myself to these 3:

  • Knees of the Sumpfzypresse (Taxodium distichum)

This big beautiful tree overlooks a little pond. A few meters away emerge its cypress knees. They are thought to assist with airflow in the oxygen-poor swampy soils cypresses grow in.

Flora_Knie

  • Agave flowers

Many of the glasshouses were closed due to required structural repairs. It didn’t look as if those repairs were going to start any time soon…more rich plant lovers to the rescue, please!
Even the slow growing succulents need space and could do with a bigger home. This agave presented its flower literally in front of my nose so I could easily snap some close-ups.

Flora_Blüte     Pollenkörner

  • The Australian corner

This was not the official name. There were myrtles and acacias from Australia and Africa, but also a few true Australians like the Banksias. Educational for me to finally learn what all those plants are called in German!

P1100575

As much as I enjoyed my visit and learned new plant stuff, there was one thing that wouldn’t stop bugging me: The constant reminder to stay off the grass. Seriously, you say it once, maybe twice if there is a particularly precious patch of lawn, but there is really no need to have signs for EVERY SINGLE bit of grass. My understanding of a Lustgarten is that I can lie under a tree. And I was looking forward to it (not having to worry about funnel web spiders). Unfortunately I had to discover this was not an option in the Flora. In fact I was reminded of this continuously. I saw at least 20 signs telling me not to step on the grass.

Keep off! is not a message I want to see without cease when taking a stroll through a garden. I’m all for protecting (precious) plants against people, but those signs really put me off. At first it made me chuckle, thinking this VERBOTEN! message all over the place is so typical German. But being constantly told off and feeling scolded without having done anything – sorry, Flora management, but this really annoyed me. What’s more it spoiled the experience for me.

After a few signs I was at the point of wanting to ask somebody about this flood of signs. Surely maybe there was a good reason for having so many? Unfortunately there was no staff around. But it again made me feel homesick for the Sydney Botanical Gardens and their “please walk on the grass” invitation. Surely for a big garden having to maintain lawns for people stretching out during lunch time and families having picnics this means a greater management effort. Also, visitors potentially introducing diseases like Phytophthora cinnamomi pose a serious threat. And still, the proposition offered to the visitor is so much more welcoming and inviting – something that I would think is very valuable when trying to get the public interested and involved in a dialogue about plants.

To finish on a high note because I did have fun after all, here are some pictures from a glorious bank holiday in die Flora:

Flora_Herbst

Flora_Baum

Flora1

The bats are gone!

Quietly lies the Sydney Botanical Garden these days without its furry winged visitors quarrelling vociferously high up in the trees.

Much to the delight of plant lovers and tree protectors the forced relocation of the bats last month turned out to be very successful for now.  Many trees and palms fell victim to the sharp claws of the bats that cut into the bark tearing open conductive tissue.  This weakens the tree over time until it reaches a point of no return and dies.  Many valuable old trees perished this way.

The bats themselves might also be better off in other locations that are closer to food sources than their resting place in the CBD.  Tracking their daily commutes the bats living in the Garden flew out further and for longer than they would typically do from a location that had food sources at a closer proximity.

This might be a comfort to those who prefer having the flying foxes in the Garden.

Where I will miss the flying foxes personally is not so much in the Garden, but seeing them fly out to their feeding grounds at dusk.

Unlike European bats that swish past faster than you can blink leaving nothing but a shadow, flying foxes slowly wave past, imprinting their batman silhouettes clearly into the sky.

Sydney or Gotham City?

And what a great sight it was to depict them circling above the above the Harbour Bridge pillars being lit up from below.

Swirl

Being reasonable about the bats now gone from the Gardens is one thing. Nonetheless I feel a pang of disappointment that they are no longer part of the inner Sydney night sky.

Sydney harbour bridge and bats

Highgate Cemetery London

Entering Highgate Cemetery is easily done virtually. But real world visitors might struggle with

  • getting off the tube stop “Highgate” (sounds logical after all) instead of “Archway” (yep, that’s the one!)
  • puffing along wondering how London all the sudden got so hilly
  • finding the entrance gates
  • deciding which of the two Highgate cemeteries to go to: East or West, that’s the question here!


Go West!
The choice is yours: East, with Karl Marx as indisputably the most famous inhabitant, a “livelier” atmosphere and to be explored on your own. Or West, more secretively only accessible by guided tour, but according to the receptionist a more romantic atmosphere.
Not quite sure what to make of the livelier atmosphere, we chose the West Cemetery. Which translates into waiting in front of the gate and waiting again inside by a nervous attendant who counted at least 5 times to make sure no more than 20 people were on a tour.

Similarly nervous was our tour guide herself, finding it “highly disconcerting” that people on the tour were taking notes. Suffering from a memory like a sieve, I in turn found that highly annoying. But calmed down as we were to be lead for a good hour on a sunny late September day through the truly romantic cemetery.

We learned about James Selby the clever horse racer who managed to break the record of racing from London to Brighton and back in less than 8 hours. His good luck should continue in the afterlife as his tomb is decorated with horse shoes.

And a prize boxer whose tomb is now guarded by a chockingly real life looking dog.

Eternal watchdog
Eternal watchdog


Then there is Nero, in both life and stone a remarkably peaceful lion, having kids ride on his back at the menagerie of George Wombwell whose tomb he now thrones upon.

Lion Nero, a star in the menagerie and Highgate Cemetery
Lion Nero, a star in the menagerie and Highgate Cemetery




Plants
Plant-wise beeches, pines and many other trees provide shade allowing lush ivy to take possession of most tombs. A patchwork of lichens and mosses add hues of bilious green and off white to most stones and statues.

Celtic cross
Celtic cross


One of the oldest plants counting 300 years of age must be the Ceder of Lebanon towering above the Cedar Circle of mausoleums. According to our guide roots of Cedars tend to weaken and grow shallow the older a tree gets if they are left to spread freely in the soil. Apparently the flower pot structure formed by the Cedar Circle keeps the roots together. This is thought to be the reason for the tree having reached such an old age whilst not reaching maximal height (Cedars can grow up to 40 meters). Would Cedars grown in this climate actually reach their maximum height (Mental note to myself to ask at GPC as they used to have 4 adult Cedars tree…)?

My personal star at Highgate: the 300-year-old Cedar tree
My personal star at Highgate: the 300-year-old Cedar tree


After an hour breathing cemetery air, hearing life and death stories and learning about the history of the cemetery we arrived back at the gate. Cold, as the sun only occasionally brakes through the foliage. A quick look at black and white fotographs and historical drawings and out we were to head for a hot drink. Luckily we found a good tea and cappuchino closeby at the Café in Waterlow Park which neighbors with Highgate Cemetery.

For those eager to learn more about the history of the cemetery consult their website and the usual Wikipedia suspect.

Gärten der Welt, Berlin (Marzahn)

Almost 3 5 weeks ago now, on a lovely sunny late summer day we were driving around Berlin and happened to be in the area of Marzahn. Not a part of Berlin you’d usually visit as a tourist. For those without a car, the U5 and S7 have stops nearby.

I can’t tell you what else there is to see in Marzahn (doesn’t seem to be much, but pls correct me if I’m wrong here!), so we went for the gardens of the world, a big park really.
Entrance is 3 Euros/adult, very reasonably priced.

Now to understand my blog post and my view of the garden you should know that I’m a geek, nutsaboutplants, and I do look at the labelling plates, trying to remember the name (taking notes), comparing plant families and trying to associate the country of origin with one of the many plant hunters who might have travelled that peticular part of the world. But that’s me 😉

Most people might describe the park Gärten der Welt as ideal: A big park areal, generous green lawns, benches and resting spots with the opportunity to buy refreshments everywhere, differently themed little garden sections – from the Oriental garden to the Japanese and Korean ones – all of them little oasises of calmness where the visitor can take in the atmosphere specific to the different gardens. And I loved these aspects – but (big BUT) – where are the labels describing which plant I’m looking it? Which lovely maple is it that which looks so fresh in the Chinese garden? And the impressive bamboo hedge? Or the ground cover in the Balinese garden?
Good that there’s only one Ginkgo species left 😉
Seriously, only having a few plants, by far only a small minority labeled (and not very informatively either…), was extremely disappointing.

The lack of information continued…well, there were information boards (one at the entrance of each garden), not sure “information board” is the right word though, since they didn’t contain a wealth of information. A few more words on the architecture and its unique features of the respective garden would have been very much appreciated.
The herabal garden was the biggest disappointment of all – and most of them you can really almost grow all year round – but there were too many empty pots and more than just “Basil” a little more information would have been much appreciated.

Now that I’ve satisfied my need of complaining, let me mention the things I really liked:
Lots and lots of green space, benches everywhere nicely placed so you get some privacy and don’t feel like sitting on another visitor’s lap. Also picnics seemed to be no problem and kids had – apart from the 2 (?) playgrounds a lot of space to roam freely. Getting from one garden to the other involved a bit of walking, but hey, that’s why it never felt crowded.
There seemed to be a few different cafes and stands to grab some food, but since in good German manner brought our own, there was no need for that.

The general feeling of the different gardens is that they are still quite new, some of them feeling almost void, and apart from the herbal garden, they were are well looked after, plants looking fresh and healthy. Hope my pictures do that, too and convince you that – despite the cons I’ve mentioned above – this garden was well worth a visit. Not sure though I’d make the extra trip, only if there was really nothing else to see and I needed some green (but then again you have so many inviting lakes around Berlin…), but if in the area stop by. Overall I think it is more a local park with some “exotic” garden highlights. And apparently the Chinese garden is the biggest one outside of China (really???) which is a selling point to some tourists…but I’d prefer to visit China one day to see that for myself 😉

More information on the Gärten der Welt here.

Abney Park, London

You can feel about London whatever you want, one thing is for sure: it’s always good for a surprise and will continuously let you explore new things. And Abney Park in Stoke Newington, north-east London (bus stop at Bouverie Road), is definitely worth exploring!

It is indeed a very unusual public park. Most of the park is taken up by the Abney Park Cemetery (for more information see Wikipedia on this). So far not that unusual…
But most of the graves were lushly overgrown by vegetation, trees forcing their way, turning over stones and ivy thickly creeping its fingers over beloved messages to the deceased. There were a few ones dating from 2007 or 2008, but the big majority – if you could decipher the inscription – was at least 100 years old…

In the centre of the cemetery is Abney Park Chapel (more information on Wikipedia) which shares the same fate as most of the tombs – ivy crawling up on one side, trees on the chapel tower; plus some graffiti one the backside, while the door and windows have been removed.

Abney Park Chapel
Abney Park Chapel

Despite the dominance of vegetation left to its own devices and the feeling of having entered the setting of a horror movie or a magical maze, Abney Park is a park – no need to illegally climb fences, there’s a park map at the entrance, a visitor centre, officially labelled paths and botanically labelled trees. And people behave like they’re in a park – meeting up and having picnics (on the tombs, it should be added, which makes you look for pointy teeth…).