Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Unfortunately Hurricane Sandy rather decimated most of the ornamental fall foliage and pumpkin-based decorations around here, or at least made them very soggy and sort of sad-looking, so here is a mildly odd cannonball tree flower (Couroupita guianensis) from my summer travels instead:

Wishing everyone a fun and candy-filled day!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eid Mubarak!

Lovely Modernist Architecture of the National Mosque of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur

عيد مبارك

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lady Gaga Ferns!

A group of researchers from Duke University are naming a genus of 19 fern species after the pop star Lady Gaga, including two newly discovered species that will be bear the names Gaga germanotta and Gaga monstraparva. The former honors the singer's real-life last name Germanotta, while the latter, "little monster gaga," is a reference to the phrase "little monsters" that she uses as a term of endearment for her fans. Here is the whole story in an article from Duke Today:

Nineteen Species of Fern Named for Lady Gaga

I particularly like the fact that it was not just a random tribute but that, from the distinctive GAGA DNA sequence to the Gaga costume-like gender-fluid gametophytes, these plants actually reminded the researchers of the singer.  Apart from that, I really appreciate their explicit effort to send a positive signal in favor of LGBT visibility and equality as well as marginalized groups and individuals more generally.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fall Flowers

I came across these yesterday morning as I passed a nearby park on the way to buy groceries:

These make me wish more people planted fall-flowering bulbs...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Summer Travels 2012 - Part 4: Revisiting the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore

Though Singapore's new Gardens by the Bay were quite awe-inspiring, I was also very happy to revisit the Singapore Botanic Gardens which I had earlier toured - and blogged about - on my previous visit to the country. Somehow I enjoyed it even more on this second visit, perhaps because I was less focused on the big attractions and paying more attention to the lovely details in between.

One of many lush water features

Monitor lizards!

Plumerias galore! Light pink...

... deep pink...

... and two-tones.

More lush greenery

Architecture that quite literally merges into the garden

Now that fall is in full force here in New England and green is rapidly being supplanted by earthier tones all around me I am only craving this vegetal luxuriance all the more...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Flowers and Fragrance

I did something I do not usually do today and bought some cut flowers. While doing my grocery shopping at Trader Joe's this afternoon I was seduced by some particularly nice bunches of spray roses and decided to treat myself. Then I noticed the big bunches of Eucalyptus gunnii branches which they were also selling and decided to get some of those as well.  Some weeks ago I had stayed with a friend and her sister in their apartment in New York City and they had similar branches - presumably also bought at Trader Joe's - scattered throughout the apartment, gently perfuming the air. So when I saw the branches at the store I thought I might emulate that effect.

The roses...

... and the eucalyptus

I am glad to report that it has been a success so far. Throughout my entire apartment there is now a mild eucalyptus fragrance and the branches also look lovely in their vase. Of course, the roses are a bit flashier in their luxuriant decadence...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Summer Travels 2012 - Part 3: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

I know I have been miserable at updating this blog as of late but do not give up on me just yet. One of these days I will be less overwhelmed by school work and will once again manage to post blog-worthy material as it accumulates. In the meantime, and in an attempt to catch up a bit, this is the next installment in the series of posts on gardens I got to visit this summer. The grandiose Gardens by the Bay had just opened when I arrived in Singapore from China and of course it was at the top of the list of places I wanted to see. Since the gardens were so new, I had seen very few real pictures of them - mostly architectural drawings and the like - and so I had very little idea what to expect once I got there. Coming from the Bayfront MRT Station, I entered the gardens via a lofty bridge over a broad canal which offers some tantalizing first glances into the park.

One view from the bridge...

... and another...

... and a detailed look at some of the plantings.

The first of a series of theme gardens that one encounters at the end of the bridge is the Malay Garden, one of four "Heritage Gardens" intended to evoke the horticultural traditions associated with the four principal ethnic groups associated with the creation of Singapore, namely Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans. In the Malay Garden, the garden practices of the Malay village or kampong are meant to be represented through lush plantings that mix flowers with coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) and all kinds of other useful plants arranged around a pavilion that recalls traditional architecture. There are a number of informational plaques which give explanations about life in the kampong, the uses made of plants, and the way aristocratic and royal gardens in the region may have looked prior to the colonial encounter.

Sign at the entrance to the Malay Garden

Section of one of the informational signs

 A general view in the Malay Garden - as almost everywhere, the paths are very broad, the layout meandering

Next I reached the Chinese Garden, which I thought was by far the most well-done of the Heritage Gardens. Clearly it was a very different space from the historic gardens I had just visited in Suzhou and yet I thought it captured much of the aesthetic of that heritage while updating it to contemporary circumstances and adapting it to Singapore's tropical climate. 

The sign

A view of the interior section of the garden

Information regarding flower symbolism in Chinese culture

Decorative detail with a twist - children are encouraged to make pencil rubbings of stone reliefs like this one that are scattered throughout the small garden and depict plant species important to Chinese tradition

There are even some historic garden photographs!

As much as I thought the Chinese Garden was a success, the Indian Garden that followed next was a complete and utter disappointment. It is supposed to be laid out in the overall shape of a kolam, a radial floral design commonly drawn on the thresholds of homes and other buildings in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to which most Indian Singaporeans can trace their roots. The effort to engage with Indian horticultural heritage does not appear to have gone much further than that. There was nothing particularly Indian about the style of planting and ornamentation, except perhaps for the presence of some strangler figs, certain palm trees such as palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer), and various terracotta sculptures. To make matters worse, the printed information given on the signs does not concern itself with some aspect of garden making or agriculture proper, as it does in the other heritage gardens, but gives a rather ramshackle assortment of stereotyped and superficial information about Indian medicine and religion. Perhaps the most obnoxious thing that caught my attention was the fact that a short blurb about the use of flowers in Indian rituals was illustrated with a photograph that I am fairly certain showed offering arrangements from the Indonesian island of Bali, which are quite distinctive and famous. While the predominant religion on Bali is a form of Hinduism, its culture - including its votive offerings of flowers - are very different from those found in India. It makes one wonder if someone simply did a quick Google image search along the lines of "Hindu floral offering" and used the first pretty picture that came up. I know I am ranting a bit here but as someone who is working to become a scholar of South Asia and has an intense interest in the region's gardens and gardening traditions, I found this section of the park, while visually pretty, rather pathetic with regard to content.

The sign for the Indian Garden

A strangler fig or banyan (Ficus benghalensis) at the center of the Indian Garden

Terracotta horse sculptures

To return, however, to a happier note, the remaining Heritage Garden, called the Colonial Garden, turned out to be much better. Dedicated to explaining the various crops of spices and dyes that colonial planters farmed on the land that would become Singapore, this section is not only visually pleasing but also coherent and very informative. Unfortunately, I somehow failed to take any useable pictures of this part of the gardens. Luckily, though, that was not the case elsewhere. The other half of the complex's outdoor gardens that at at time been completed are arranged around a number of botanically-themed sections, including "Secrets of Trees," "World of Palms," and "Understorey". While these all offer impressive botanical collections arranged in beautiful planting schemes as well as tons of information, I often found the purely decorative garden spaces connecting all these nuclei to be the most beautiful.

A grassy path

Orchids and bromeliads

A traditional stone lion and some rather futuristic trellises amongst the greenery

Massive stone planters and colorful foliage

Amongst the palms

Seeing red

One of the many varieties of Plumeria blooming throughout the gardens

Of course, the centerpiece of the outdoor gardens is the iconic Grove of Supertrees at their center. I found viewing these structures in real life to be an almost surreal experience.  Despite being very much real and of massive size, their intricate design makes them somehow appear like gigantic computer renderings even in three-dimensional space. The "trunks" of these structures are covered in vertical gardens comprised of thousands of epiphytes and the branching tops are colorfully illuminated at night. Moreover, the largest of the "trees" features a restaurant at the top, and there is a suspended viewing board walk that connects the trees of the central grove. However, the structures are not just supposed to fulfill aesthetic considerations; they also collect solar energy and are integrated into the cooling system of the nearby conservatories.

The central grove with the viewing bridge

Another view

The plantings on one of the "trunks"

Now, for the pièce de résistance, we come to the two massive conservatories that form part of the park, known as the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. While entrance to the rest of the gardens is free, admission is charged for these two super-greenhouses, with local residents paying a lower entrance fee than visitors from abroad. At either price, however, this attraction is well worth the money. The Flower Dome, which is the lower and broader of the pair of structures, features the flora of the worlds Mediterranean and arid subtropical ecosystems as well as a show-stopping display garden of temperate-climate garden flowers. In the more conical Cloud Forest, an artificial mountain peak complete with waterfall is entirely covered with the flora of wet tropical mountain forests, including brilliant orchids and rhododendrons. Visitors ascend to the top via elevators inside the "mountain" and then descend back down via a canopy walk of sorts that spirals around the mountain. In both greenhouses, there is a great focus on education, particularly with regard to environmental issues, and apart from botanical information about the plants and their ecosystems there are extensive displays highlighting the threats human activity poses to plant diversity and the environment more generally in the regions evoked through the plant displays. I went into the Flower Dome first, so I will begin there with the pictures:

View over the central display garden

View towards the South American section, with Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) and monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana)

 Lovely plantings in the South African section

Though all of it is stunning, I was particularly taken with the desert section of the Flower Dome, mainly because it featured a wide array of beautiful desert roses (Adenium sp.), always favorites of mine:
A white double cultivar...

... and a simple pale pink...

... a fancy red and pale yellow double...

... and some more aggressive red...

... and finally some more pink.

Not to be outdone by desert roses, real roses (Rosa sp.) are also represented in the flower dome in many beautiful varieties:


... and sulphur yellow...

... and velvety purple...

... and some pink...

... and a paler shade.

In the Cloud Forest, everything is a bit more geared towards the vertical - the canopy walk is high enough  to be a bit scary for someone with a fear of heights - but the flowers are just as brilliant.

The "mountain" with its waterfalls

One of many impressive views

Beautiful orchids, while present throughout the Gardens by the Bay, are particularly prominent here

For me the special stars of the Cloud Forest were the tropical rhododendrons or vireyas, which I had never before seen in such great variety or flowering with such abandon:

Elegant pink...

... gorgeous pastels...

... glowing orange...

... luscious cream...

... fiery red...

... a delicate beauty...

... and a curtain of shimmering color.

On the whole, then, the Gardens by the Bay are a definite must-see if you happen to be in Singapore. The scale is breathtaking and much of the design quite innovative and fascinating. If nothing else, the sheer range of plants on display and their excellent state of cultivation should get any garden lover excited. To learn more about the Gardens by the Bay, you can visit their extensive website here.