Wandering around – looking at stuff.

It’s what I do best, I think. It’s not too difficult. I’ve written a book about it. It will be out in late August, 2018.

It is Spring in California. Time to wander around and look at stuff. And on a fine day, I popped down to Point Lobos Natural Reserve near Monterey. It is one of my favorite places on earth. (Point Lobos )  and it’s just two hours from where I live.

The first thing I saw was Fremont’s star lily which has had its name changed from Zigadenus fremontii to Toxicoscordion fremontii. An apt change given that this bulb is more poisonous than strychnine.

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Point Lobos is famous for its relict stand of Monterey Cypress – now Hesperocyparis macrocarpa. 

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Algae – noticeable on trees and rocks of the shadowed north-facing trees is green algae named Trentophilia. Its orange color comes from carotene.

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The California State lichen -Lace lichen  (Ramalina menziesii). Its name describes it as it hangs down in ghostly strands like pieces of Miss Haversham’s wedding dress.

Up the coast I wandered. To the UC Santa Cruz and its collection of Australian plants.

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Banksia spinulosa


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Banksia grandis


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Eucalyptus preissiana


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Banksia victoriae

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It was a fine, fine day.




Temple Granding in Laos

I traveled to Luang Prabang in Laos for the third time in eighteen months. I have become enamored.  I have also been helping Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden with a number of things. I have friends there.

I  had time to wander around town,and to look at the many temples that are of great importance to the Lao people.

Near my hotel, the Cold River Inn – a fine and affordable small place – is  Wat Wisunarat , the oldest temple in the town.IMG_4512

“Dating back to 1513 and the reign of King Wisunarat (Visoun), Wat Wisunarat is Luang Prabang’s oldest temple and was once home to the Prabang Buddhas. The history of the temple is colourful with it being originally crafted from wood before being burned by Black Haw riders in 1887. The Black Haw riders were part of the Black Flag military rebel group led by a Chinese commander at the end of the 1880s. Post invasion, it was rebuilt using stucco and brick and retains some original pieces including a stupa that was created in 1503 along with some other small Buddha icons although many were stolen during the Haw raid. Over the years the temple has also acted as a Museum of Religious Arts and as such now homes an array of religious artefacts and precious items relating to both Buddhism and the royal family. The temple is a celebration of early Lao architecture with wooden windows reflecting the Wat Phou Temple in the South of the country coupled with stucco work that is classic Luang. Restoration work was carried out in 1895 and then again in 1932.”

“The main attraction of the Wat Vison is the Stupa of Great Lotus built in 16th century. The 34.5 meters high stupa features Sinhalese style, the only one of its kind in Laos. The stupa is also referred by locals as Watermelon Stupa for its dome resembling a watermelon. Its interior was once filled with small Buddha images made of precious materials and other sacred items, many of which were stolen or destroyed during the Black Haw raid. Some of the remaining Buddha images are preserved in the Royal Palace Museum and others are housed displayed in the sim of the temple.”

It had rained for a couple of hours before my early morning visit. The air was fragrant with petrichor, that wonderful smell when rain falls on the earth. In the air also, the smell of smoke from the many small kitchens. Breakfast was coming.

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At the entrance of the temple are two banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis – although banyan covers a number of species) home to the spirits of Luang Prabang. Animism still lingers in Laos, despite being displaced by Buddhism and then Marxism.

From Wat Wisunarat, I walked to Mount Phoussy, its golden stupa prominent.

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From the top, you look down upon the center of town and the mother of rivers, the Mekong.

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The garden, Pha Tad Ke, is round the bend, hidden from sight.

Walking down from the Mount, you come to the newest temple, built in 2006, Haw Pha Bang.

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Walking into the center of town, I came upon a food market.

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Then to another temple -Wat Mahathat. It was built in 1548 and restored in 1910.

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I like this temple  complex very much, partly because of the paintings of hell painted on either side of a temple door.

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And I thought hell was the 16 hour plane ride home.

Puya Vida

From Peru to Chile. From the high mountains to the low desert.

I began the second half of my South American journey at the garden of Ximena Nazal. She is a garden designer, nurserywoman and lover of Chilean flora.Her garden of  four hectares is an eclectic collection of plants. Her design is both delicate and chaotically romantic. It is wonderful.

There is not a camera big enough to capture the  dense beauty of her garden.



One of her many passions  is the genus Puya. While at her garden,she introduced me to one that was in flower. We were to see many more in the wild.

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Puya caerulea

When she is not designing, gardening ,and doing countless other things, she organizes and leads botanical  trips to various parts of Chile. I wanted to see the Atacama desert, a 1,000 mile strip of land along the Pacific coast. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world but it had recently received rain and, rumor had it, was full of flowers. So, with Ximena leading the way, off we went.

We headed north, up Ruta 5 towards La Serena. Passing through rolling hills, she uttered an expletive – something to do with seashells and mothers – and screeched to a halt on the side of the road. There was a meadow of  Leucocoryne coquimbensis (Glory-of-the-sun).

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Growing with it was Schizanthus litoralis.

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and many Alstroemeria, including Alstroemeria schizanthoides.


Echinopsis chiloensis , a tree-like cactus, was coming in to bloom.


as was Palo de yegua, Fuchsia lycioides.


We headed north to a nature  preserve (Bioparque Puquén) at Los Molles, on the coast.


Flowering in great numbers was Calandrinia ( Cistanthe) longiscapa with Echinopsis chiloensis and another cactus, Eulychnia castanea.

IMG_3912 As if this wasn’t bounty enough, large clumps of Puya venusta were coming into flower.


Traveling further north towards the center of the desert, things began to change.

IMG_3963 (2)Millions of tiny Helenium atacamensis covered the ground.

And   hierba del salitre (Frankenia chilensis)

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As the ground became more sandy, clumps of  Quinchamalium chilense began to appear.


and in pure sand,


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Cruckshanksia pumila

And dotted in between the yellows and oranges, Alstroemeria wedermanii.

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Driving out of the desert, we stopped for a picnic and watched a herd of  guanaco, a relative of llama, alpaca and vicuna.

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Resting in the warm sun, I began to doze. Ximena on the other hand, had something else in mind. “You must see this”, she said. She pointed to a long, languorous  plant drooping down the rocks.  Bomarea ovallei is a member of the Alstroemeria family. It grows down the rocks with a terminal cluster of red flowers.

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It was beginning to fade in the heat of late spring. So was I.

But there was one more plant I wanted to see – the Chilean Wine Palm. We left the desert and headed south to  a preserve near Ocoa, Parque Nacional La Campana. Although not far north of Santiago, it is little visited by tourists.

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Jubaea chilensis is one of the great trees of the world. To see it in the wild was a great honor.

There were Puyas on the rocks


and, flowering golden yellow, Cassia closiana.


It was a perfect trip.  Made perfect by my guide and friend Ximena Nazal.




Getting high in Peru – Part 4

You can take the train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco if you like but you would be missing a lot. My traveling companions and I drove back. We made an important detour from the Valley of the Incas up into the mountains to Moray. It is 11,106 feet above sea level and is an agricultural center in the high plains. Fields were being prepared for the rains to come in May and June. Many varieties of potatoes are grown here, as is barley and corn.

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On the way to Moray, we came upon this.


A single flower in dry grassland. It elicited considerable debate and I had to turn to a higher authority, Panayoti Kelaidis, for help. With much electronic to and fro, he came up with this – Pyrolirion. Pyrolirion tubiflorum  or Rhodophiala bagnoldii or Rhodophiala auracana. Whatever the or, it is a lovely bulb.

Moray has a  very interesting and beautiful set of ruins. Lifting from Wikipedia – “The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is approximately 30 m (98 ft) deep. As with many other Inca sites, it also has an irrigation system.

The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom. It is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. Speculation about the site has led to discussion about Moray as an Inca agricultural experimentation site”


And with that, we staggered back to Cusco and on to the next adventure.

Getting high – in Peru ( Part 3)


The train leaves early and travels alongside the Urumbaba river. As we descended into the part of the valley that is the entrance to Machu Pichu, the area became humid and tropical. Large bromeliads hang from the trees. There are  glimpses of orchids and many plants we don’t know. “Isn’t that a ..? ”

Arrival in Aguas Calientes is a little frantic. We rushed from the station to the line of buses. We pass stands and shops lining up their authentic Inca wares – made in China.

The 8 km bus drive up to the entrance of the site is windey wonderful. On arrival, we disembarked and joined the line for the entrance. It was the early morning shift but already the throngs were gathering. Up a few steps and…oh my.


The air was fresh, the sun strong and warming.

Much has been written about Machu Pichu. Later, reading about the place, I came upon a piece of speculation that fascinated me. It is possible that Machu Pichu was built, occupied and then abandoned  in a time span of  just 100 years. New findings from current archaeological digs are producing new information. There is much more to learn.

The first plants we saw were  growing  out of the walls and terraces.

According to Hortus Veitchii, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, writing in the Botanical Magazine, described Begonia veitchii  as “the finest species then known”, saying:

“Of all the species of Begonia known, this is, I think, the finest. With the habit of Saxifraga ciliata, immense flowers of a vivid vermilion cinnabar-red, that no colorist can reproduce.”

Begonia veitchii


The begonia combines well with young Alpaca.

Visitors to Machu Pichu are kept in order. There is a one-way system of trails with guards at junctions making sure you don’t transgress. It makes for efficiency of sightseeing as well as minimizing damage from the millions of feet that trample.

Around a corner, a marvel, a wonder.


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Puya berteroniana


The turquoise puya has six -foot high flowering stems with turquoise-emerald flowers with bright orange anthers. The common name of the species is misleading, a number of Puya have turquoise flowers. Much later, in Chile, I had extensive conversations about Puya.

But how wonderful for the Inca to build such a wonderful backdrop for this incredible plant.


and there  is this,


some orchidaceous loveliness.

After many hours of exploring the area, it was time to descend to catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. There are two ways of doing this, by bus or by walking 4 -5 kms downs a steep stone-stepped path. We chose the path.

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The steps are dislocating but you do see a wonderful number of plants such as Alnus jorullensis, Juglans neotropica, Podocarpus glomeratus, and Buddleja incana , as well as many bromeliads and orchids. You can enjoy the flora while smiling  at but secretly hating the young people who are climbing UP the steps.


Getting high – in Peru. Part 2

Into the sacred valley full of lush agriculture and the beginning of Puya sightings, we stopped for the least greasy empanadas and a drink flavored with what we were told was ” a sacred berry.” Everything is sacred here. Given that we know so little about the Inca and much of what we do know was made up by the Spanish, it is impossible to know what is true. What is evident is that the Inca were extraordinary engineers and builders, constructing highly elaborate villages and towns with agricultural terraces, aqueducts, roads and communication systems.



Puya species


43 miles from Machu Picchu, Juan Grimm has designed a high-altitude garden  for the Tambo del Inka hotel. With a backdrop of Ch’iqun Mountain and the famous terraces and ruins of Quispiguanca, a fifteenth-century Incan royal estate nearby, there is a clear point of reference.

Although… although it seemed an odd landscape set among such powerful mountains.



I have yet to see a garden that can ever match, let alone improve upon, a natural site.

Taking a detour from the main road, we drove high into the mountains.


At close to 12,000 feet there were Alpaca



and all manner of wonders.



especially this unusual yellow form of –


Austrocylindropuntia floccosa

This species occurs in Peru (Cajamarca, La Libertad, Ancash, Lima, Junín, Huancavelica, Ayacucho, Cuzco, Arequipa, Puno, Moquehua) across the Andean uplands at high altitudes and in Bolivia in La Paz (Hunt et al. 2006). It can be found at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,300 m ( according to the IUCN Red List).

Down and onward then to Ollantaytambo, on the Urubamba river.


Ollantaytambo is where you get the train to Aguas Calientes and then the bus up the mountain to Machu Pichu. It’s a lovely village with extraordinary plants growing out of the rock walls. Brugmansia atrosanguinea being one.


The town has some of the largest Inca ruins – lines of terraces and towers reaching high into the mountains.

Plant nuts could spend days looking at what grows out of the walls.



and  along the streams


My traveling companions and I had bought our tickets to Machu Pichu on-line and were ready for the 4 a.m. rise to grab a cup of  coffee and walk down to the station to catch the first tourist train that takes you along the Urumbaba river.

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Getting high – in Peru. Part 1.

Two weeks ago I was in Cusco, Peru. It is 11,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 20,000 feet. It is hard to breathe and soroche – coca tea –  is served by concerned hoteliers, to help with the altitude sickness. For me, it wasn’t too bad although I did glance at the oxygen tank in the corner by the reception.

The first thing is to go to the market where there is an abundance of squash, potatoes, corn, fruit and faces.





I came here because of two people. Juan Grimm, Chilean landscape architect, and Ximena Nazal, Chilean nurserywoman and naturalist. I met both last year.

When I interviewed Juan last year, he talked about the Inca. “It is ironic that when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, the Inca Empire was probably the largest in the world.”  This statement, and others he made, stimulated my desire to go to Peru.  Ximena said one word, “Puya”. More of that later.

Cusco is the starting point for travelers to Machu Pichu. The city square is crowded with tourists wearing enough outdoor gear to conquer any mountain. We tourists like our GoreTex and Patagonia clothing, all straps, pockets and sturdy boots. As I found out later, getting to Machu Pichu is easy and, apart from those sturdy souls who hike there, most of us could go  wearing a lounge suit or summer frock. But swathed in recycled tire fabric, off we go.


Cathedral of Santo Domingo., Cusco. Built on a foundation of stone cut by the Inca.

I had a arranged to travel through the  Sacred Valley of the Inca to Ollantaytambo, the jumping off point ( so to speak) for Machu Pichu. My traveling companions and I were met by our young driver who whisked us off to the nearest ruin. Sacsaywamen is the ancient  capital of the Inca empire, although I was told the same thing about three other places. It is quite impressive and has an extensive and fascinating history which we largely ignored. We being plant people, our attention began quickly  to wander away from ruins to plants. And, as many of you know, if you can’t spend at least an hour discussing the nomenclature of some scrubby tree, life loses its luster.





Polylepis australis. A tree endemic to Peru and Argentina.


A short drive from Sacsaywamen is Puca Pucara, meaning red fort. We walked around this, mainly to satisfy our driver, and then became excited by the plants in the adjacent parking lot.

Cantua buxifolia  (Polemoniaceae) is the national flower of Peru, and comes in many colors. There is an Inca legend associated with the flower but it’s not very interesting, just the usual tale of betrayal, slaughter and redemption.

Still frothing about Cantua, we commenced our drive into the valley.


That’s enough from me for the moment.


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