Wakan, Oman

Last week, I was given a tour of the site of the Oman Botanic Garden.Located in Al Khoud, about 20 kilometers west of Muscat, the Garden is being developed on 423 hectares (1,045 acres).  It is one of the largest botanical enterprises in the world and will feature plants found in all of the plant geographical regions of Oman.

While touring the site, I met Abdulrahman Al Hinai. As an ethnobotanist, he has been gathering plants and stories from around Oman. Stories about plants used for food, medicine and culture. Stories that are being lost as the old wisdom, held in the minds of old men and women, fade under the onslaught of time and modern culture.

We arranged to go into the mountains the next day. To the mountains, the Western Hajar, and to one village in particular, Wakan, in search of a rare variety of lentil.

It rained that night, torrential rain washing the streets of Muscat and filling the wadis with water. Wadis are ravines or dry creeks except in the rainy season. One moment they can be dry gravel beds, the next, with dark clouds in the mountains, they can be a torrent.

The next morning, meeting Abdulrahman, he told me that some of the mountain passes had been washed away and he wasn’t sure if we could reach Wakan. There was a momentary pause and we both said at the same time, “Let’s go anyway”.

We stopped to look at the rushing water in a wadi. Around us, locals were taking photographs of the water. In the desert, water is an event. Along the margins of the water, Saccharum kajkaiense , a relative of Ravenna grass, with  giant cane (Arundo donax),  and a rush, Juncus rigidus  began to turn green.

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Onto Wakan we went, passing through gravel desert and dark hills and cliffs of ophiolite, an igneous rock thrust up from the oceanic crust. Oman is a geologist’s dream.

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Wakan is 2,000 metres above sea level and is a small village winding on top of a crest of rock and looking down to Wadi Mistal below. It exists because of year-round mountain springs that provide drinking water and irrigation for many small terraces of subsistence crops. Like many habitations in Oman, you see the green clusters of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera ) before you see the houses.

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The terraces are small and defined by raised soil “walls”. Each has a gate of a rock that can be removed to direct water that comes from a central water channel – falaj in Arabic. Walking past terraces of garlic, wheat, a kind of fava bean, and spring leaf crops, we came upon three elderly men sitting in the shade. A fast and loud conversation took place between them and Abdulrahman. I just smiled. We all shook hands. Such soft and respectful handshakes. One of the elders was carrying a bag of male date palm pollen. Hand pollination of female date palms is one of the oldest agricultural techniques in the world and it was time for the palms of Wakan to be pollinated.

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Abdulrahman and the gentleman with the date palm pollen

Abdulrahman and I climbed 700 steps through the village talking about ancient techniques of subsistence farming, varieties of crops that are drought tolerant and the need to preserve and protect botanical knowledge  as a cultural necessity. The steps were shaded by fig, pomegranate, apricot, almond and peach trees. A few flowering herbaceous plants  grew in the terraces. They were of more interest to us than the village inhabitants. They rarely name a plant that does not have agricultural or medicinal value. We found Gladiolus italicus  and the rare orchid, Epipactis veratrifolia growing at a base of a wall.

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Gladiolus italicus
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Epipactis veratrifolia

Walking down the steps, we encountered the three old men. We were invited to enter the village men’s meeting room, the majilis : مجلس,  where we sat on cushions and conversed. Bowls of dates were brought and sweet oranges quartered and offered. Once again, the conversation was loud and vibrant. I smiled a lot. At one point, one of the men, hand shaking with age, pulled out a very old cell phone and slowly dialed a number. Words were spoken and the phone was given to Abdulrahman. What appeared to be a very detailed conversation ensued and I was told later that this was a conversation about lentils (!) The farmer and Abdulrahman were discussing the old variety of lentil that was in the farmer’s possession. The farmer, being half way up the mountain  with his goats and not near his farm, offered to show the ethnobotanist the lentil next time he came to visit. This appeared to cause great excitement amongst my hosts. Once again we shook hands. They are beautiful, tough, sweet, hard men.

The confluence of time struck me as funny. Visitors arriving in a modern 4-wheel drive car to an ancient village to see farming techniques that are at least 2,000 years old and discussing lentils on a ten year-old Nokia mobile phone so that the lentil can be grown at a modern botanic garden.

It was a perfect day.

How many a desert plain, wind-swept, like the surface of a shield, empty,impenetrable,have I cut through on foot ?

Joining the near end  to the far, then looking out from a summit, crouching sometimes, then standing, while mountain goats, flint-yellow, graze around me, meandering like maidens draped in flowing shawls.”

al-Shanfara

 

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45 million flowers

I am now in Dubai, at the beginning of a two-week journey to learn a little about the Middle East and some of its gardens. After a fifteen hour flight, half of my brain has stopped working and, looking at myself in the mirror, I look like a very old baby.

This morning I went to the Miracle Garden. It is a little hard to describe. It is 72,000 square meters in size and contains 45 million flowering plants, most of them Petunias.

Hundreds of thousands of people visit this ‘desert paradise’. While the future of gardens is based on sustainability, environmental sensitivity, using native plants and so on, public gardens are dependent on popularity. The Miracle Garden is hugely popular and, while I may think it vulgar and kitsch, many don’t share my view, and flock to the garden in droves. It is so popular that they are planning on installing air-conditioning coverings over sections of the garden so that it is cool in the 100 degrees plus weather of the summer.IMG_5207.CR2IMG_5182.CR2

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Con mucho gusto !

IMG_5144Two days after returning from Costa Rica, I am still dreaming.Three days from now I will get on a plane and fly 14 bum-numbing hours to Dubai and then to Jordan, Oman and back to Dubai and home. A series of new experiences awaits.

But I cannot leave without saying goodbye to Costa Rica. Here are a few photographs.

Like lover's lips. A rare Plumeria.
Like lover’s lips. A rare Plumeria.
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Stem ginger

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 PURA VIDA

Ruby red , pink and hairy

Last week, while slouching around the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, I came across many plants that were new to me. I hiked close to the Tarcoles River and visited, for the tenth time, the Carara National Park, one of my favorite places in Costa Rica. Carara is important for many reasons. It is a transition zone between two climate types – sunny and dry and cloudy and humid. It contains a significant area of primary rainforest and is a nesting place for many Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao cyanoptera). White-faced capuchin monkeys ((Cebus capucinus) are common.

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White-faced capuchin
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Scarlet Macaw

 

Further south, near Dominical, I visited a private garden designed by a friend, Dennis Schrader of Landcraft Environments, Ltd.  http://landcraftenvironment.com/ .I will write more about this wonderful garden later and elsewhere. There were three plants and one bird that caught my attention.

The bird, the northern jacana (Jacana spinosa), was much disturbed by visitors to the water-lily filled lake that is its home. Raising its wings in territorial defense, the yellow wings against the dark brown body were striking.

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Northern Jacana

 

As to the plants, the first is Siam Ruby Banana. I have never grown this, not even in the halcyon days at Chanticleer. In Costa Rica, the banana was freshly unfurling. The leaves are ruby-red sprinkled with lime-green flecks. Strong with color even under the shade of large Heliconias, it is listed as growing to a height of 8 feet. Here, the young growth was just above 3 feet. Siam Ruby is a sport of a banana found in Thailand (Siam), hence the name. What a treat.

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Musa ‘Siam Ruby’

 

There are between 200 and 250 species of Heliconia, and a number of hybrids and cultivars.  In Costa Rica, in the house of the private garden, there was a tall, glass vase. In it was a sublime flower arrangement of the pink and the hairy Heliconia.  The pink (Heliconia chartacea) is unusual in that the waxy bracts are a bright pink. There is a cultivar, ‘Sexy Pink’. The species is sexy enough. The other Heliconia, one that really made me drool, is the hairy one. My knowledge of Heliconia is limited to say the least but if I could grow just one, it would be H. vellerigera. The bracts are red-orange and are covered with a soft fur. I may be wrong about the species. It matters little.

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Heliconia chartacea

 

 

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Heliconia vellerigera

 

 

 

It would have been horticulturally pornographic if the flower arranger had included Heliconia vaginalis but, in this case, restraint held firm.

To paraphrase a quote by David C. Day, “The flowers are louder when there are fewer of them.”

 

 

Black Coral Pea (Kennedia nigricans )

Flowering outside my door today is the Black Coral Pea. Native to south-western Western Australia, it’s a tough vine that doesn’t seem to be deterred by clay soil and dry conditions. The leaves are leathery and evergreen in the Bay Area and it doesn’t mind a touch of frost.

It is vigorous. I bought a 6 inch plant  from Annie’s Annuals and planted it in the summer of 2014. It’s now 15 feet high. Despite the vigor, it is easy to handle as the vine is twining rather than grasping.

The black and yellow flowers are unusual and exquisite.

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The species was first  described by John Lindley in 1835 in Edward’s Botanical Register. It  was named after John Kennedy, of the famous London nursery of Lee and Kennedy.  The nursery was famous for its introductions of Fuchsia magellanica and Dahlias to the English garden world. From the French, they introduced roses grown as standards (it’s hard to forgive them for that).

 

 

Alnwick, Northumberland, U.K

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Alnwick Castle

The modern garden at Alnwick Castle dates back to its inception in 1750. The castle is the second largest occupied castle in the U.K. The first is Windsor Castle. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was renowned for the then innovative design and conservatories filled with exotic plants. The greater landscape, the rolling parkland surrounding the castle and echoing the meander of the river Aln, was designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, England’s greatest gardener of the 18th century.

The enormous, modern changes in the gardens at Alnwick are due to the vision and determination of Jane Percy, the 12th Duchess of Northumberland. Restlessly creative and with an irreverent spirit, she developed the idea to create a modern garden, a garden for entertainment, for spectacle, for education, and a safe place to play. She wanted a grand  public garden of classic symmetry and beauty, a garden for four seasons, day and night.

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One of the many fine sculptures in the Water Garden. Coanda

 

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Children playing with toy tractors at the base of the Grand Cascade
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The Grand Cascade

 

A very grand and adventurous garden indeed. And Her Grace is not without a sense of humor. Engraved in stone is Omnia, hospites, vidistis Vobis gratias agimus Nunc, fortuito mingo .

Translated from the Latin, this means Visitors, you have seen everything. We thank you. Now happily piss off.

The Alnwick Garden

 

 

 

Silence

We talk too much and see too little.

Last year, I drove from my home in California, to the White Mountains on the California/Nevada border. Ostensibly this was a pilgrimage of sorts. A journey to see the Bristlecone Pines, one of, if not the oldest, living things on this planet.

High on the mountain, in the Inyo National Forest, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) grows in the dry, sun-burned whiteness of the Taiga and Boreal Forest eco-region.

The oldest trees have been dated to about 5,000 years old. To visit them is to enter into a place that could be called a cathedral, a temple, mosque or sacred space. It is very quiet on top of the mountain and in the presence of the pines. A profound quiet that slows the chattering mind. There is nothing to do here except breath and see.

Last March, I gave a talk at the San Francisco Flower Show. What struck me was that all of us were talking about plants, beauty, horticulture, and the well-being that plants bring to our lives. We were doing so in a dark, enclosed auditorium, with a somewhat morbid atmosphere. Meanwhile, outside, in the hills and grasslands of Northern California, the real flower show was happening. It had been spring since late January, and despite the lack of rain, the hills were exploding with wildflowers. Yet here we were, talking about the joy of plants at the same time that we were denying our audience the opportunity to go outside and see the real thing.

We talk too much and see too little.

It may be that we are afraid of the contemplative silence that plants and gardening brings to us. We may value silence but we only give it lip service, so to speak.

But gardening brings us to silence. Valuable exchange of information, communicating our successes and failures is important in this horticultural art. But so is the path to a quieter environment and a quieter mind. We know, intuitively if not scientifically, that we are going crazy from the increasing noise of our civilization. Years ago, when audio guides to gardens were being touted, I was approached by a company who wanted to sell me this technology. I replied to their sales pitch by saying, “Wouldn’t it be a more rewarding experience to hear the wind in the grass, the birds in the trees, the bees buzzing?” They looked at me as if I was mad and out-of-step. I have been that way for many years, fortunately.
I am not seeking silence but quiet. Quiet enough to listen to what was going on. What was really going on – the hum of nature. Quiet enough to slow down the constant voice in my head. Quiet enough to draw close to an object deserving of veneration, an ancient tree or the busy silence of growing plants. We don’t chatter through a movie or a concert, why would we when we go for a walk in nature, or when we are weeding? The soap opera of our lives can be put on hold for an hour or two at least.

After San Francisco, I went to Tucson, Arizona. One of the pleasures was hiking in Sabino Canyon, outside the city. I was grateful to receive information about granite formations and Mexican Blue Oaks but more grateful to be left in silence to hike down the canyon. I know a little about Saguaro cactus and could talk and write about them. More profitable for my mind and body, was to walk among them in silence, absorbing them, paying attention to them. I had questions but I let those questions fade for the more pleasurable experience of being.IMG_1489_1220.CR2Sabino Canyon.
With noise comes a lessening of experience, a lessening of our attention and a diminution of our capacity for deeply felt experiences. Love and appreciation of nature, whether wild or tamed, requires us to be quiet. In order to hear we must listen. In order to feel we must touch. In order to garden we must shut up.

Speak not, I passionately entreat thee, till thy thought hath silently matured itself, till thou hast other than mad and mad making noises to emit: hold thy tongue till some meaning lie behind to set it wagging. Consider the significance of SILENCE.” Thomas Carlyle.