Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Travels 2010 - Part 6: The Parks and Gardens of Muscat, Oman

After the day-long layover in Germany, the first real destination of my trip was Muscat, the pretty capital of the Sultanate of Oman at the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Like much of Oman, the Capital Region has undergone massive growth and development since His Majesty Sultan Qaboos assumed power in 1970 and began to funnel the country's oil wealth into development and modernization projects. The result is a very modern city that has more or less engulfed a number of original small port towns and fishing villages - including historic Muscat - and now stretches for many miles between the sea and the rocky slopes of the Al-Hajar Mountains. Consequently much of the Capital Region has a somewhat suburban character and is not particularly pedestrian-friendly, with large highways cutting across swaths of malls, office complexes, and sprawling residential areas. Nevertheless Muscat is quite beautiful, thanks to the dramatic landscape, the tasteful architecture of most buildings which often draws on classical Arabic designs, and, last but not least, what in Oman is often termed "beautification": sprawling parks, strips of greenery and flowers along most major roads, landscaped roundabouts, sculptures, fountains, etc. Thus despite being a desert city with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 38 degrees Celsius) for much of the summer, the Omani Capital Region is hardly a drab place. Among the major parks of the region, one of the largest is the Qurum Natural Park or حديقة القرم الطبيعية in the upscale area of Al-Qurum. Though parts of it are somewhat rundown, this park is still quite popular with the locals. It contains extensive lawns, groves of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), many beds of flowers, a rose garden, as well as an artificial lake and waterfall, various pavilions, kiosks selling refreshments, and a playground for children. I suspect that the plantings in this park, like most other parks in Oman, are much more impressive in winter; due to the infernal heat many plants, such as roses, go more or less dormant in the summer months, and only a few annuals such as Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) and various zinnias (Zinnia sp.) as well as a few shrubs such as crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) remain to carry on the show.

 A view of the central lake of the Qurum Natural Park with various decorative pavilions

 Lush date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) - Omanis pride themselves on having over 100 varieties of date palm

 Date palms and beds of fragrant basil (Ocimum basilicum)

 A close-up of the impressive basil bushes

A bed of Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) backed by mixed crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica)

Flowers of a purple cultivar of Lagerstroemia indica

 A flower of Tabernaemontana divaricata 'Plena'

Another set of parks stretches between the old port towns of Mutrah (مطرح) and Muscat (مسقط) along the waterfront walk known as the Mutrah Corniche. These include groves of date palms and various other trees as well as trimmed hedges and lawns set against the dramatic background of the rocky cliffs, fountains and pavilions with golden domes, sculptures, and flower beds lining the road.

View towards the mountains from the Mutrah Corniche

 The largest of the many fountains along the Corniche

A view along the Corniche with what might be its most well-known sight, a tower shaped like an Omani incense burner

Flowers of the  Flamboyant or Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia)

A cultivar of Zinnia linearis

The Mutrah Corniche also includes to more formal parks, the small Kalbou Beach Park or منتزه شاطىء كلبوه    and the Riyam Park or حديقة ريام . At Riyam Park I once again had the distinct feeling that it must be a much more beautiful space in winter, though it was still thronged with local families on evening walks and picnics and there were some lovely white frangipani trees (Plumeria obtusa) in bloom. Kalbou Beach Park is much smaller and simpler but also somehow seemed less out-of-season. It is rather nicely located on a narrow tip of flat land between a small bay and some cliffs jutting out into the sea, and contains mainly trees, a view kiosks, and a small playground.

Plumeria obtusa

 Kalbou Beach Park, seen across the small bay

The main walk in Kalbou Beach Park

A lovely mix of white and purple bouganvilleas clambering up a stand of Casuarina equisetifolia

At the southeastern end of the Mutrah Corniche one ends up in the old town of Muscat, which is nowadays dominated by elegant government buildings, small but pretty mosques, and the official royal palace or قصر العلم - a somewhat eccentric architectural creation which serves mainly representative functions since His Majesty the Sultan mainly resides at various other, more private residences. While not a park in the proper sense of the word, the whole of old Muscat is beautifully landscaped and full of trees and flowers.

The royal palace

The lovely little mosque set in a garden across from the palace

The beautiful flowers of the Golden Shower Tree (Cassia fistula), also know in Arabic as khiār shambar (خيار شمبر), in Hindi as amaltās (अमलतास), and in Tamil as konrai (கொன்றை), in the garden surrounding the little mosque 

I know this is not technically a park or garden shot but I thought it was really beautiful

Bouganvilleas trained as standards

A young specimen of Polyalthia longifolia, a tree very common in its native India which appears to be becoming quite popular in Oman

 Some more bouganvilleas, mainly because I cannot resist the color

When I visited the Natural History Museum close to my hotel in the suburb of Al-Khuwair (الخوير ), I also came across their small garden of important Omani plants. While nothing exciting from a horticultural perspective, it did contain a specimen of the frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra), which played a significant role in Oman's history, its resin being the source of the country's first important export and is still used extensively - frankincense is almost omnipresent in Oman, available almost everywhere and used for everything from perfuming clothes to subtly flavoring cold drinks.

The frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra)

Also in Al-Khuwair is the impressive Zawawi Mosque surrounded by a small formal garden with fountains, Polyalthia longifolia, and bouganvillea hedges.

The Zawawi Mosque with its very formal garden

Finally, perhaps the most impressive park I visited lies at the western edge of the Capital Region. Relatively new, the As-Sahwa Park or حديقة الصحـوة contains formal parterres that seem like somewhat of a mix of European Baroque and classical Islamic influences, palm-lined walks, domed pavilions, and masses of colorful annuals and meticulously shaped evergreen shrubbery.

A walk in the As-Sahwah Park

One of the large sunken parterres

Another sunken parterre, with a pavilion visible in the distance

Some early dates were already ripening in these gardens and they were delicious...On the whole, Muscat's greenery is truly impressive considering the extreme climate and one quickly comes to appreciate the respite provided by the shady parks. However, it also makes one wonder just how much water is used every day in this extremely arid country in order to keep the lawns green at searing temperatures, even if that water comes from sea water desalination...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer Travels 2010 - Part 5: The Palmengarten in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

I apologize for not having posted anything substantial in quite a while; I have been traveling and often lack the internet access and time necessary for longer posts. However, I will try to do a bit better in the coming days. Right now I am in Chandigarh, the beautiful joint capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, and I hope to post about the parks and gardens here soon. For the sake of keeping things chronological, however, I have decided to report on the earlier stations of my trip first and I hope you will find them just as interesting. The first stop on my itinerary was Frankfurt, Germany, due to day-long layover. I chose to use the time to visit the Palmengarten, or "Garden of Palms", a magnificent botanic garden which I had visited a few times with my dad when we still lived in Germany and I was a little kid but had not been to in years.
One of the many outdoor gardens at the Palmengarten, with a formal lily pool, Magnolia grandiflora, and Cupressus sempervirens

A flower of Magnolia grandiflora with the pink blossoms of a Geranium hybrid
Flowers of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) - I was surprised how late these were flowering despite Frankfurt's relatively mild climate; in Boston they usually bloom about a month earlier

The Palmengarten was founded in 1868 by Frankfurt nurseryman and landscape architect Heinrich Siesmayer and opened to the public in 1871. Its original basis was the large collection of exotic plants amassed by a local nobleman, the Herzog or "Duke" Adolph von Nassau, and the garden was originally centered around a large palm house with an attached ball room.

View inside the large historic palm house that the garden was original centered around; parts of it are currently undergoing renovation but the remaining section is still quite beautiful

A vertical garden by Patrick Blanc! Long-time readers of the blog probably know that I am quite fascinated by these since I have written about them before in this post and this one

Fragrant flowers of large-leaved linden (Tilia platyphyllos), which perfumed whole sections of the park at the time of my visit

The garden has been much developed since its 19th-century beginnings with the additions of many outdoor gardens as well as various different greenhouses. Among the outdoor gardens there are perennial beds, a section of recreated Midwestern prairie, an extensive rock garden, formal bedding schemes with plenty of colorful annuals, a rose garden, lily pools, and a large desert garden full of hardy exotics as well as dozens of large cacti, century plants, and other succulents which are planted each spring with their containers and taken out again in the fall to be overwintered in greenhouses.

A view across beds of perennials towards the rose garden

Part of the formal rose garden

An exuberant pink shrub rose (Rosa sp.)

A hardy pink waterlily hybrid (Nymphaea sp.)

A tropical waterlily (Nymphaea sp.) displaying flowers of a much darker shade of pink and reddish leaves

The unusual desert garden

A young Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) in the desert garden

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) in the desert garden

Heavenly scented flowers of white angel's trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens) in a display of potted plants

Among the additional greenhouses the somewhat futuristic-looking complex called the Tropicarium is the largest and most important; its many separate rooms simulate a large number of different warm-climate plant habitats, from foggy deserts to mangroves and tropical rainforest. There is even an entire hall dedicated to bromeliads! Other greenhouses scattered throughout the grounds include a "subantarctic" house which hosts plants from the far reaches of the southern hemisphere as well as a small house for floral displays known as the Blütenhaus or "House of Flowers" and some small houses with Mediterranean and alpine flora.

The entrance hall of the Tropicarium
 One of the desert houses
 A tropical ladyslipper orchid (Paphiopedilum sp.)
 The colossal flowers of the climber Aristolochia gigantea
 A close-up of a flower of Aristolochia gigantea
 A flower of torch ginger (Etlingera elatior)
 The Blütenhaus or "House of Flowers"
On the whole, the Palmengarten is truly impressive and definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the Frankfurt area and have a few hours to spare. The entrance fees are rather reasonable as well and there are several cafés within the grounds. If you want to know more about the Palmengarten, you can find its website in both English and German here.