That “rare find” feeling

Today I am sitting at my desk wearing high heels. This is noteworthy, I usually only wear flats. For the simple reason that I cannot walk in high heels, not even the few meters from the car to the bar. So I need to wear them sitting down.

What’s special about the pair I’m wearing is that they are Gucci pumps, usually well out of my range but within budget thanks to a lucky find at Vinnies. Vinnies is my favourite shop because of those unexpected lucky and rare finds. Hunting for them is a big part of the pleasure shopping there. And on the rare occasions that you do make a good find, you love it even more.

I guess plant hunters must feel similar when they throw away the machete to kneel down and examine a rare species that’s not a common weed or abundant everywhere else. In fact, I already feel a little bit of a thrill when I come across a rare species in the garden. It’s a privileged “wow” feeling of looking at a plant that grows right in front of me while I know that it grows hardly anywhere else. It’s sad, too. Most of the rare plants are at the same time threatened in the wild. There is an entire “Rare and Threatened Plants Garden” in the Sydney Botanical Gardens highlighting this issue.

Rare plants can be spotted everywhere in the Botanical Gardens though. The other day I came across the palm Pritchardia maideniana
planted not far from the Tropical Centre.

Rare Palm

It is a species that was formally described in 1913 from two mature plants here in the Garden. To this date, however, nobody has found it in the wild. It’s a garden-only plant! Whilst there are still corners of this earth to be discovered and species to be described, chances of it being found in the wild are slim.

In the meantime Pritchardia maideniana has been propagated and shared with other Botanical Gardens. This is comforting. At the same time it underlines the importance of Botanical Gardens in conservation. It also leaves a feeling of pride to be part of an organisation that enables rare plants to live, grow and even spread.

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

Cups of colour

This morning on my training ride I was reminded of (yet another) new group of beautiful trees I only recently discovered: the Kurrajongs. Well, they are hard to miss when in full bloom and I certainly remember seeing them two years ago, when arriving in Australia.

Brachychiton bidwillii at the Mount Annan Botanical Gardens
Brachychiton bidwillii at the Mount Annan Botanical Gardens

It might be heightened awareness or so I like to believe, but this year they stood out even more. Whilst the bloom of the unmissable Illawara flame trees has come to its end, other Brachychitons are still going.

Like the one this morning. A tall tree, amongst the ash green canopy of Ball’s Head Reserve, a pastel pink crown barren of leaves.

There is no time to stop and look at plants during a training ride.

Brachychiton discolor flower cups
Brachychiton discolor flower cup

From the absence of leaves, its habit and the cups of flowers scattered on the ground I take it to be a Brachychiton discolor.

A beautiful specimen of this tree grows in the Sydney Botanical Garden not far from the Tropical Centre.

Brachychiton discolor flower cup detail
Brachychiton discolor flower cup detail

Less striking in colour than B. acerifolium or B. bidwillii the flower cups are of an elegant pastel pink.

The shape is most remarkable: pretty, firm bells that look as if cast into shape with a rough finish and remnants of plaster dried on the outside.

Wikipedia claims there are separate male and female flowers. The dozens of flowers I examined however looked exactly the same…are they on separate trees, or flowering at different time?

No black thumb after all?

As much as I love pretty much everything plant-related, there has been one big, no huge area that has managed to escape my comprehension and capability: growing plants. Yep, when it comes to gardening, I suck. I can weed, plough, rake, harvest, but grow? No, no!

Dubbdd the black thumb it’s been a frustrating experience, every attempt resulting in (mostly) sooner than later death; even with so-called idiot-proof herbs.

What’s even more annoying is that my parents have the most beautiful, bountiful garden where everything just magically seems to thrive. Orchids on the edge of suicide under my care revive in my mom’s hands producing one mocking flower after the other. Rare wildflowers become self-seeded regulars and veggies turn into weeds.

Green thumb genes obviously skipped a generation. But apparently there is hope: Liza from Good to Grow (wonderful blog!) seems confident that it is only about the right care.

I remain suspicious as to supernatural powers playing a role, but that gives me something tangible to work with. Sure for most plants there has to be a recipe, an instruction on how to grow it best under certain conditions.

Craving success and being limited to what I can grow on my balcony garden surely herbs (idiot-proof, remember?) are an easy beginners’ choice.

So I start my homework. First up: know your growing conditions. Here are my essentials:

  1. Exposure to sunlight
    For a balcony garden, soil is provided by high quality potting mix (five red ticks!), so knowing how much sun your precious few square meters are getting is essential.
    For mine it’s afternoon sun, 4 hours maximum during daylight savings.
  2. To water or not to water, that’s the question here.
    Even the most robust cactus will need the occasional drop, but knowing whether the plants you’re growing like wet feet or good drainage seems important.
  3. Temperature
    Frost is not a problem in Sydney, so I’d consider it less important.

Ok. Now to the plants I want to grow. As much as I’d love to have glowing tomatoes and shiny chillies, I think my westernly aspect balcony won’t be the right setting.

Set on herbs, I am trialling basil, thyme and peppermint. From the seed packet alone it seems it should be a fairly easy task. Marketing trick I suppose.

But growing herbs might not that easy after all as this excellent blog post featuring tips and tricks by Renee Wierzbicki points out.

So I shall wait and look after my pots and see.

To my great delight, I see already:

Thyme

 

and basil

peppermint pending.

Watch this space for further news.

And if everything fails, my heart is set on growing a completely different type of plant: a Wollemi Pine – sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

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

The Great Confusion: Australian Plants

It has been over a year now that I made the big move to Terra Australis Incognita. Unfortunately, I feel no wiser since, in particular with respect to many of the native plants.

Having learnt to weed out Tradescantia and Ehrharta in bushcare sessions at the local reserve, the staggering wealth of native plants (apparently more in the Sydney region alone and in the UK altogether (source: info plate in Botanical Garden Sydney) still remains rather concealed to me. Confused by all the gum trees, wattles and grasses, my knowledge of the greenery around me is pitiable.

Fortunately, there’s an app course for it. Provided by the Lane Cove Council (for example, sure other councils would offer similar ones) it comes in form of a 4-hour workshop. Lead by experienced bushcarers and accompanied by excellent course material, both common native plants and notorious weeds, probably even more common in the end, are covered in botanical detail.

It is by no means a gardening workshop, even though a few tips and tricks on how to grow natives (or kill the weeds) are included.

From theory and singular plant specimen to practice and the bush. Meaning not just one plant exhibiting identification characteristics beautifully, but all of them – good and bad, or easily confused ones – at once.

That’s where it got tough again. And where successfully identifying a Commelina cyanea from a Tradescantia fluminensis feels like an achievement.

Commelina cyanea (image by MargaretsFamily on flickr)
Commelina cyanea (image by MargaretsFamily on flickr)
Tradescantia fluminensis (image by Mollivan Jon on flickr)
Tradescantia fluminensis (image by Mollivan Jon on flickr)

The native plant and week identification course is a great start or refresher and provides a lot of help (workbooks and brochures) and encouragement to go out again and open one’s eyes to the beautiful Australian flora.

For upcoming workshops, check the Lane Cove Council website or the North Sydney Council Bushcare Calendar.

Finally, a shrub with a name: Westringia longifolia

It is frustrating to not know your plants. As if shops and restaurants had no names. How to desribe to a friend where the coffee is really good or in which store window you saw that lovely dress on sale?

Luckily, some plants around our apartment block still wear their name tag. So I can firmly say that a very healthy-looking Westringia longifolia (of course, one of those native Australian plants I had never heard of before!) is in full bloom.

Westringia longifolia bush
Westringia longifolia bush

Here is a close-up of the little white flowers.

Westringia longifolia
Westringia longifolia flowers

PlantNET provides more information on this species for the taxonomically interested.

 

A desktop with a purpose

It’s the little things that can make a lasting difference.

I find one of these little things is having a customized desktop background displayed that reminds you of the good things, the happy moments. In between all the clickings and clackings it gives me a moment of my own space, of peace and quiet.

Naturally, most of the pictures on my desktop are from the outdoors, of plants mainly, and a few landscapes. Looking at them brings me back to the place where I took the picture. That’s important – not that it is a great picture (even though I am proud of my good shots), but for the picture to work I have to associate a place and experience with it.

But enough words. Allow me to share a particularly vibrant image with you: that of a bright yellow plant flowering in the courtyard of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Bon voyage (wherever your thoughts may take you)!

Bright and yellow at the National Museum of Cambodia
Bright and yellow at the National Museum of Cambodia