Saturday, October 30, 2010

First Morning Glory Flower

After being stuck in a rather dark and chilly dorm room last year, I am now in a room with several big, south- and west-facing windows. As a result, I have been able to accumulate many more house plants than in my previous college years. I also decided to embark on a little experiment and planted some 'Grandpa Otts' morning glory seeds (Ipomoea tricolor 'Grandpa Otts') in a pot in the brightest window right after getting back to campus two months ago. Today, the vines opened their very first blossom.

The flower as seen from the side

In originall trained the vines up along the window pane using thin stakes and strings suspended from the top of the window frame but once they reached the top they started twisting chaotically in every direction and though the effect was not quite what I had expected I gave up trying to coerce them into a tidier pattern. They appear to like it because now they are setting lots of flower buds.

The flower as seen from the window side

Considering how many more buds the plants have I hope that this is only the beginning; nevertheless, it is already quite satisfying to have achieved even one flower, seeing as I had never grown morning glories inside and even in the garden they only ever seemed to do well for me when I just scattered the seeds and then left them to their own resources...

Summer Travels 2010 - Part 16: The Gardens of the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, India

After leaving Lucknow I traveled on to the South Indian city of Hyderabad, capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Also known as the City of Pearls, Hyderabad was the capital of an independent princely state until 1948. Ruled by the Nizams of Asaf Jahi Dynasty, it was the largest and richest of the princely states which had retained independence from British colonial rule, at least in internal matters. The Asaf Jahis as well as several of the premier aristocratic families associated with their court came from North India during the time of the Mughal Empire and traced their origins to Iran; prior dynasties, too, had ties to the North, and Hyderabad has therefore long been a meeting place of North and South Indian cultural forms, traditions, and even languages. A wealth of diamond mines and the pearl trade also made the city rich and it developed a unique composite culture famous for its refinement and opulence. Hyderabad was also quite progressive in many ways; its Osmania University, established in 1917, was the first modern university in India to teach in a local language.

A view from the third courtyard of the Chowmahalla Palace towards the front of the complex

View across the first courtyard

The front of the Durbar Hall as seen from the first courtyard

Hyderabad's illustrious past has left it with many fascinating monuments; one of the most beautiful is the Chowmahalla Palace, one of the many former palaces of the Asaf Jahis. Begun in 1750, this complex developed over a century and actually contains a number of different buildings - the name "Chowmahalla", in fact, means "four palaces". Nevertheless, it is a harmonious composition, with various halls and long galleries arranged around two large garden courtyards and a smaller one in between, all nestled in a corner of the historic Old City. Like Hyderabadi culture in general, the architectural style of the buildings is a unique blend of different influences, and though not all of the original complex is preserved, the remaining part now open to the public as a museum is still quite stunning. The two large courtyards are centered around big rectangular tanks with delicate fountains and contain a mixture of palms, ornamental trees, flower beds, and potted plants.

 The galleries surrounding the first courtyard

One of the fountains in the first courtyard, surrounded by royal palms (Roystonea regia), hedges, and beds planted with miniature roses (Rosa sp.)

A bed of pink and purple Pentas lanceolata

Allamanda schottii and Ixora coccinea in the first courtyard

Blossoms of Plumeria obtusa in the small middle courtyard

Both of the water tanks are raised above the level of the surrounding plantings and walks but the one in the third courtyard is quite a bit higher, with a walk around its edge that is decorated with a profusion of potted plants. In general, the planting of this courtyard is a bit more varied and colorful than that of the first two courtyards. It includes plants like pink oleander (Nerium oleander), flamboyant trees (Delonix regia), and canna lilies (Canna indica). The building façades, too, are painted in a more saturated shade of yellow and so the overall effect is richer, more exuberant than that of the first two courtyards, which have a cool elegance due to the dominant contrast between the white and cream shades of the architecture and flowers such as Plumeria obtusa and white miniature roses and the lush green of the foliage.

View across the third courtyard

 Close-up of the flowers of bush allamanda (Allamanda schottii)

 Another view along one side of the third courtyard. The grey building visible in the distance is the Mecca Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India

 Some form of Jasmine (Jasminum sp.)

 View along the terrace overlooking the third courtyard - Notice the planters filled with spider lilies (Hymenocallis littoralis)

 Gazebos in th area immediately adjacent to the third courtyard

 Another view of some the plantings
Inside the various palace buildings there are a number of different exhibits. Some rooms are furnished more or less as they would have been when the Nizams still used this palace, others are set up more like a traditional museum and display textiles, historic weapons, porcelain, and other treasures from the Asaf Jahi court. There are also exhibits explaining the history of the family and of Hyderabad, as well as a gallery space used for temporary exhibits. At the time of my visit, it contained a very interesting exhibition of contemporary South African art in honor of South Africa's hosting of the Soccer World Cup this summer.

 The interior of the Durbar Hall

One of the rooms kept as it would have been in the later days of the Nizams' use of the palace

One of many opulent chandeliers

Courtly clothes and other textiles

Surprisingly, for much of my visit it almost felt as if I had the palace to myself. Granted, it was a rainy day - though I think the warm mist just made the place more charming - but I was still surprised that there were relatively few visitors. In any case, it is a beautiful place to spend an hour or two and the informative exhibits convey a good general sense of the history of Hyderabad and the Nizams. If you want to find out more, you can also visit the Chowmahalla website .

PS: I apologize for the variation in font sizes; Blogger keeps doing that to me and I have yet to figure out how to fix it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fall Flowers

Autumn is upon us and the leaves are falling fast but today was a lovely warm day and on my way back from mailing some transcripts and other graduate school application materials I could not help but stop and take a few pictures of some of the plants still in bloom.

 Fall foliage and a lush bed of New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Close up of the aster flowers

A tall monkshood (Aconitum sp.); in real life the flowers were more purplish

I also once again passed by the bed of Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield' which I posted about last fall. It is just beginning to flower but is already beautiful. Nearby I came across two oddities: a species of Rhododendron with small pink flowers that either differs drastically from other hardy Rhododendrons in its flowering time or is very confused about the season and a number of blue bearded iris (Iris germanica), which are either similarly confused or a representatives of a repeat-blooming variety - Is there such a thing?

Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield'

Rhododendron sp. - Naturally fall-flowering or just confused?

Bright blue bearded iris (Iris germanica) - Also a bit odd at this time of year

I hope you enjoyed these...Now back to my application essays...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Articles about German Botanist, Environmentalist, and Former First Lady Loki Schmidt

Hannelore Schmidt, called Loki, was the wife of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt as well as a prominent botanist and conservationist. She passed away this past Thursday at the age of 91. Here is an article from the German newspaper Die Zeit that talks about her life and her efforts around plants and nature more generally:

Von wegen Blümchen-Loki

Unfortunately I could not find an equivalent article in English but here is the article The New York Times published upon her passing:

Hannelore Schmidt, 91, Wife of West German Chancellor, Dies

I remember receiving her beautiful book Die Botanischen Gärten in Deutschland ("The Botanical Gardens in Germany") as a gift from my maternal grandmother and reading it cover-to-cover many times, to the point that many of the pages have become dangerously loose. Her work will certainly be remembered.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Summer Travels 2010 - Part 15: Some Gardens and Monuments in Lucknow, India

I know I have not posted in a few days and that there has not been very much variety in the types of posts I have put up lately but between my course work and graduate school applications I unfortunately have not had much time to work on the blog in recent weeks. In days to come I will try to get back to more varied content; for now, please bear with me as I post some more of what I hope are pretty and/or interesting garden-related pictures from my travels in India this summer.

Entrance to the Shah Najaf Imambara flanked by royal palms (Roystonea regia) and stands of potted plants

After leaving Chandigarh, my next stop was the Lucknow, the capital of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and once the center of a glittering dynasty of Muslim Nawabs before being annexed by the expanding British colonial empire in 1856. Once known as the "City of Gardens", Lucknow has long been famous for the sophistication of its culture and the refinement of its cuisine and the manners of its inhabitants. Unfortunately not much survives of the gardens that once appear to have dominated the cityscape and Lucknow today is a chaotic and crowded city in which modern every-day life has settled somewhat uneasily into the crumbling shells of the past. However, some of the city's famous charm still survives; the food is still delicious and people continue to be notably polite. Scattered around the city many fragments of that older Lucknow of playful elegance remain, as do some stunning monuments that are well worth a visit.

 The huge Bara Imambara as seen across its courtyard
The entrance courtyard of the Bara Imambara

Rows of potted flowers, including moss roses (Portulaca grandiflora) and what appears to be some species of Crinum, on the steps at the entrance of the Bara Imambara

Since the dynasty that made Lucknow a political and cultural center as the capital of the princely state of Awadh followed Shi'a Islam, monuments peculiar to that branch of Islam are a conspicuous feature of the city. Chief among Lucknow's attractions are the imambaras, congregational halls used by Shi'as for the communal mourning of the Imam Hussain during the month of Muharram and also often serve as the mausoleums of some of the notable people associated with their construction or upkeep. The most well-known is the Bara Imambara or "Big Imambara", an enormous hall set in a complex that also includes a large mosque, an elaborate step well, several monumental gateways, and a multi-story labyrinth of passageways, galleries, and turrets which sits above the main hall. Not far from the Bara Imambara lies the Hussainabad Imambara, also known as the Chhota or "Small" Imambara. It is a much more intimate and ornate complex, which in addition to the Imambara itself also contain the tombs of some of the Awadhi royalty and a small mosque, as well fountains, pools, and an almost dizzying array of other decorative details.

The pale blue entrance gate to the Hussainabad Imambara Complex

The Hussainabad Imambara as seen from the entrance of the complex - Notice the small arched bridge spanning the central canal and the plantings of juniper (Juniperus sp.) and Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) along its edge

Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a cypress

The tank and fountain on the terrace immediately in front of the Imambara

Small ornamental water chutes or chadars leading from the level of the terrace to the main courtyard below.

A third imambara worth seeing is the Shah Najaf Imambara, which sits among a lot of greenery just up the street from the city's main modern shopping mall and was recently renovated. Other monuments of interest include the remnants of the palaces of the Nawabs as well as some large royal tombs and the unusual gate known as Rumi Darwaza or "Roman Gate".

 A large royal tomb

 More royal tombs, as seen from an adjacent park

 The Rumi Darwaza

 Apart from these main architectural attractions there were also many smaller things that I liked in Lucknow, details that are perhaps not that special but that made me smile nevertheless. Among these was the life that took place on the rooftops of the rather humble neighborhood which my hotel room overlooked. Right below my window, one house had a veritable rooftop garden which impressed me due to the care and effort that obviously went into keeping it lush and blooming.

 Rooftop garden below my hotel room window

I hope you enjoyed these snap shots from Lucknow and I will be back with more soon!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Interesting Article about Heirloom Vegetable Varieties and Their Preservation

The newest article in  The New York Times' "In the Garden" series focuses on a business model aimed at preserving rare heirloom vegetable varieties and disseminating them more widely among the gardening public:

In the Garden: A Seed Library for Heirloom Plants Thrives in the Hudson Valley

I thought the emphasis on local, self-selected varieties was particularly interesting...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Navaratri!

Today marks the beginning of Navaratri, a nine-day Hindu festival - the Sanskrit name translates to "nine nights" - which celebrates the Goddess or female aspect of the divine in nine different forms. Like many Hindu holidays, Navaratri is celebrated in various different forms across South Asia and among the Hindu diaspora elsewhere.

 Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina - Many forms of the Goddess are commonly depicted holding a lotus bud

The "nine nights" are followed by the festival of the "tenth day" or Dussehra, which concludes the celebrations and is also known as Vijayadashami. In some parts of the Hindu world  this represents the climax of the celebration of the Goddess, while elsewhere it is more of an independent holiday focusing mainly on the god Rama. And among the many traditions associated with Navaratri and Dussehra, there is even one that is at least somewhat pertinent to the usual subject matter of this blog: in some parts of northern India, people plant barley seeds in clay pots on the first day of Navaratri, and on Dussehra the nine-day old sprouts or noratras are used as a symbol of good luck.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Summer Travels 2010 - Part 14: The Yadavindra Gardens at Pinjore near Chandigarh, India

On my last day in Chandigarh I took a taxi out of the city to visit the Yadavindra Gardens in the foothills of the Shivalik Range just to the north. Laid out in the 17th century by Nawab Fidai Khan, a foster brother of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the architect of the famous Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the gardens display many of the features commonly associated with Mughal gardens, such as long water courses punctuated by delicate fountains, rows of cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), and arched pavilions or baradaris. Since it sits on a hillside, the garden is divided into several terraces, each bisected by a long canal which cascades onto the terrace below either in a translucent sheet of water that forms a curtain in front of  rows of ornate niches or chinikhana that would have held candles of vases with flowers in the olden days or over a chadar, a steeply inclined and finely textured chute that breaks the water up into a delicate, sparkling ripple. Unfortunately at the time of my visit only some of the canals were actually filled with water and only the main fountains between the second and the third level of the gardens were operating. Furthermore, restoration work was going on in various parts of the garden, July clearly being the off season as far as tourism in this region is concerned.

The top level of the garden as seen from the entrance

View across the second terrace toward the first

View from the edge of the second terrace over the lower half of the garden

 One of the chadars or textured water chutes

 A chinikhana that would have held lamps at night to illuminate the sheet of water falling in front of it

Even before Fidai Khan laid out his garden at Pinjore/Pinjor/Pinjaur, the site had been noted for its natural beauty and the spring that provided it with water. Although it was first  mentioned in writing in 1030, legend holds that Pinjore served as a refuge of the Pandava brothers, heroes of the great Indian epic Mahabharata, during their time of banishment. As for Fidai Khan's creation, Constance Villiers Stuart includes a beautiful description of how she found it around the turn of the 20th cetury in her book Gardens of the Great Mughals, the full text of which can be found here. While no longer entirely accurate due to a hundred years of restoration work, tourism, and just everyday gardening, I still think that description evokes the place marvelously and deserves to be quoted at length:
On the second terrace in the middle of the garden was a large tank in which was built a little water palace with a causeway leading up to it from the south bank, the building set slightly to one side of the centre, to leave an uninterrupted view down the main canal from the upper garden. Round the water pavilion fountains played, and on each side a watercourse, now dry and filled with a tangled growth of cypress trees and roses, shows where in former days canals had led up to the gateways on either side. The garden lay wild and neglected. Tall grasses waved down the long side-walks, all but hiding the raised chabutras at the crossing of the ways. Thickets of fruit trees filled the squares, large leaved plantations overshadowed the walks, while here and there a stray rose bush was to be the borders of the long canal, here, at last, was a real Indian garden. Here were the roses and pearl-flowered jasmine, with zinnias and marigolds, scattered among them, leaning over the water's edge to kiss their own reflections. Tall palms were planted at intervals, their leaves nearly meeting across the stream, where the slender fountains shot up through them, falling back in diamond spray. In the borders the green spears of the narcissus just showed above the ground - the sweet-scented flowers which Babar loved and planted in his new gardens at Agra, together with roses "regularly and in beds corresponding to each other." His orange trees, too, of the Garden of Fidelity, - with which he was so pleased, - here they were and citron trees, their boughs bending with their load of pale yellow fruit. Below each waterfall day-lilies grew, their green leaves trailing in the little ripples. A soft mist of blue ageratum lay in wreaths under the fruit trees and on the lowest terrace the lagerstroemia bushes had been a blaze of color in the rains. Here it was self-revealed - the garden of the poets, of Sadi, Hafiz and old Omar. Through an enchanted door I had stepped right into the background of some old Mughal miniature. Even the peacocks and birds of its illuminated border called to me from the trees. (Villier Stuart 224-226)
Of course this passage might be problematic in its sweeping statements and blatant Orientalism but I think Villiers Stuart's obvious enthusiasm for the place and the wealth of descriptive detail she offers convey the allure of this garden far better than a more sober text could.

 View from the lower section of the garden uphill

The water palace in its tank - it is currently undergoing restoration work

 A hedge arch leading to the outer parts of the gardens

One of the larger paths in the lush orchards that form the outer part of the garden

In the mango orchards

In addition to the plants mentioned by Villiers Stuart the flora of the garden also includes quite a few plants that are perhaps a bit more unusual. I was very happy to find a retaining wall clad in Thunbergia laurifolia, a large tropical vine which produces clusters of massive pale blue flowers that appear to deny its close relationship to the common black-eyed Susan vine. A large stand of Strelitzia nicolai caught my eye near the entrance, and close to the staircase that descends from the second to the third terrace a particularly brilliant croton (Codiaeum variegatum) caught my eye. Architecture might be paramount in this garden but that does not mean that it has nothing to offer to the plant enthusiast.

Plantings on the second terrace, including beds of hybrid tea roses (Rosa sp.)

Scarlet sage (Salvia elegans)

A fairly typical arrangement of potted flowering and foliage plants

Pink moss roses (Portulaca grandiflora)

Some flowers of Thunbergia laurifolia

 An intensely colorful, narrow-leafed cultivar of Codiaeum variegatum

 Strelitzia nicolai

 Orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) and scarlet sage (Salvia splendens)

Another display of potted plants in the uppermost portion of the gardens

Another beautiful blue flower, this one produced by what is probably Thunbergia natalensis

On the whole, the Yadavindra Gardens at Pinjore are a  beautiful place to while away an hour or two and their design continues to be impressive even after the many small modifications and various cycles of neglect that the gardens have had to endure over the course of several centuries. Hopefully they will be even prettier after the renovations currently being carried out have been finished. In any case, Pinjore's melancholic lushness makes it well worth a visit.

Sources:  Gardens of the Great Mughals by Constance Villiers Stuart, 1913.