Katoomba in The Blue Mountains

Katoomba, a small town in the Blue Mountains renowned for its hiking, rock-climbing and caving is a short train ride, 120 west of Sydney. I had expected, given the name ‘Blue Mountains’ to be greeted by spectacular alpine scenery on arrival. I was some what disappointed when there wasn’t so much as a rolling hill on the horizon. I turns out that Katoomba is on top of the mountain, and geologically speaking the region isn’t mountainous but a high plato and network of steep canyons and valleys. A short walk from the hostel in the centre of town reveals the spectacular scenery, which doesn’t tower above you but drops away vertically beneath your feet.
The Three Sisters sandstone rock formations and the Jamison valley.
The vast canyons have eroded more than 500m down through layers of sandstone, shale and clay. The cliff edges drop vertically more than 100m down to the forests blanketing the valley floor. Looking down there are distinct changes in vegetation from rain forest at the bottom of the valleys, supported by plentiful ground water rather that abundant rain fall, which is dark green and has a notable absence of Eucaliptus, of which there are over 100specied in the Blue Mountains alone. Rising up the slopes are the wet sclerophyll forests dominated by tall open stands of Eucalyptus with open canopies more that 60m in height, with an under story of soft leaved trees, climbers and grasses. Following layers of clay within the sandstone cliffs are hanging swamps where the ground water peculates out above the clay forming bands of  mosses and ferns that eventually drop from the cliff faces under their own weight. Finally the top of the plato consists of dry sclerophyll forests of open shorter, stands of Eucalyptus with a shrubby under story of flowering shrubs with small, tough spiny leaves.
One of the smaller tree species forming the under story of the forest in the botom of the canyon. I’ll let you know what it is when I find out.
The blue colouration of the mountains is down to the glaucus colour of the Eucalyptus leaves through the haze. Dropping down into the canyons down steep flights of steps carved into the rocks the atmosphere becomes noticeably cooler as you enter the humidity of the forest. Two trees dominate this part of the reserve, the Blue Mountain Gum Eucalyptus deanei with id towering smooth white bark and the Turpentine tree Syncarpia glomulifera with depictured bark, many of the trees burnt out completely in the core of the trunk by past fire storms and still supporting lush canopies. Tall tree ferns Cyathea australis lined the paths along with shorter squatter Dicksonia antarctica.
Blue Mountain Gum Eucalyptus deanei
Turpentine tree Suncarpia glomulifera
It was my first impulse to head straight down into the rainforests, however it turned out to be the high open forests on the tops of the canyons that support the most diverse range of flowers.  Here the soil is much drier and nutrient poor as they are leached to the valley floor. The scrub consists of many different varieties of  Acacia, Boronia, Grevellia, Hakea and pea plants (family FABACEAE) according to my book on wild flowers. There were many Banksias with remnants of past flowers and tough woody seed capsules that guard against fire, that unfortunately had finished flowering. There were other members of PROTEACEAE in flower along with many other wild flowers.
Isopogon anemonifolius PROTEACEAE
Banksia Eric folia PROTEACEAE
Telopia speciosa PROTEACEA
Lambertia Formosa PROTEACEAE
As is always the way I took pictures until the battery in my camera could carry on no more. Literally minuets after I rounded a corner and discovered not one but two different orchids in full bloom. My camera mustered up enough strength to take a quick snap or each. Fortunately they were not too far out so I hiked back up to the early the next morning, when the light was much more amenable of photography to take some more. The pale pink, butterfly shaped orchid has a mechanical anther which when the flower is genteelly touched, flicks suddenly like the arm of a catapult delivering a sticky package of pollen onto the back of an unsuspecting insect.
Haven’t been able to name these yet either, sorry!

Sydney Botanic Gardens

After a long flight to Sydney and the chores of sorting visas, bank accounts and accommodation I made a bee line for the botanic gardens. Not having adjusted to the time difference I was wide awake at 3am, tossing and turning restlessly for a while I decided it was best to get up, head out and walk down to the Sydney Opera House to watch the sun come up over the harbour. The gardens are next to the Opera House and I snuck early enjoying the parkland and plantings, lit by warm hazy early morning sun all to my self, bar a few eager joggers. Its immediately clear that Sydney rarely if ever gets a frost as everything that I’ve spent the last few weeks digging up and lugging under cover is beaded out on mass.
Wandering around with my little compact camera it was frustrating looking up into sprawling fig trees with broad buttresses and branches propped up bur aerial roots, with shafts of light beaming through and not being to cram the image into my tiny lens. I wished I could zoom in on the fruit bats, wondered what a picture staring straight up into a grove of massive Washingtonia robustas would look like through a fish eye lens and the details I could pick up if only I had a macro. Well I have done the best I can for now and better find some fruit to pick soon so I can afford a camera that will do the job. You can’t have a good blog without good pics!
 
Ficus species.
There were several large plantings of Bromeliads, which once established with pups on pups make a fantastic ground cover, not bad considering their loft origins. Bearing their origin in mind they would take perfectly to vertical gardening and were displayed as such on a wall entering into the pyramidal tropical glasshouse. The planting had become a bit sparse in places and unfortunately it had been planted using aluminium mesh to retain the plants, had this have been sprayed green or black the wall would have looked more complete. At the very top the wall was toped with large yellow bromeliads which created a stark contrast with the sky. ‘The Rainforest Garden’ has recently posted an article on planting a vertical picture garden and Urban Jungles blog ‘Jungle Drums’ shows how I built a 12 foot high DIY herbaceous wall emulating the rather expensive hydroponics techniques pioneered by Patric Blanc.
The garden is inhabited by some rather noisy fruit bats hanging from bare branches like withered leaves. They are recognised for their role in pollinating and seed dispersal but do in great numbers cause considerable damage to the trees. Several trees had been completely killed. As a result a sign informed that the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service has granted a licence for non-harmful relocation of the bats, but didn’t specify how.
Whilst travelling through the suburbs of Sydney are great views across endless rooftops splotched with the canopies of Jacaranda in full bloom. Here is a Jacaranda in bloom with bright yellow Furcaria.
Frustratingly it always seems to be the most interesting plants that are lacking their labels. Here’s a few natives that caught my eye, labels intact. Alloxylon flammeum ‘Red Silk Oak’ from the Atherton tablelands in Queensland. Ephedra tweediana, forming a tangled ball of lime green twining stems. It belongs to a genus that is said to share characteristic with both that of modern flowering plants and more ancient carboniferous species.  Whatever its makeup it’s got great character. The sparsely Podocarpus smithii, from North East Queensland, which looked wilted from a distance but on closer inspection produces silvery pink soft new foliage among clusters of pale yellow catkins. Nearly opened Banksia serrata found all up the east coast far as South Queensland. Acacia calimifolia from the South East with small sulphur yellow pompoms amid silvery, fine, flowing foliage.
Alloxylon flammeum
Ephedra tweediana
Podocarpus smithii
Banksia serrata
Acacia calimifolia
Here’s one last picture of he flower of Neomarica caerulea against the foliage of Canna ‘Durban‘, the outer petals contrasting spectacularly with the orange/russets of the Canna leaves which match beautifully with the markings of the centre of the flower.
Neomarica caerulea and Canna ‘Durban’

Henri Rousseau

Surprised Tiger
A good friend of mine, ‘Kirsty Willingham’, has just introduced me to the work of the artist ‘Henri Rousseau’. I’m astonished how I have not discovered his work before now; the work of an artists whose paintings purvey the very feeling, atmosphere and exuberant lushness that all exotic gardeners strive to create within our gardens.
Henri Rousseau was born on the 21st of May 1844, in Laval, Mayenne in the Loire Valley. He was said to be mediocre in high school, but won prises for his drawings and music. He worked for a lawyer and studied law for a while, but ended up serving in the army for four years from 1863. Following the death of his farther in 1868 he moved to Paris to support his widowed mother, working as a government employee. He married Clemence Boitard in 1868, the fifteen year old daughter of his land lord. They had six children, but sadly only one survived. In 1871, he was appointed as an octroi tax collector on goods entering Paris. His first wife died in 1888 and he then married Josephine Noury in 1898.
All though he was recognised to have an artistic talent from an earl age, it was only in his early forty’s that he began painting seriously. He retired at the age of 49 to paint full time. Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”. He admitted taking “some advice” form two established artists ‘Felix Auguste-Clement and Jean-Leon Gerome, but was considered essentially self taught. He painted in layers, starting with the sky, adding layers of foliage, using over fifty shades of green and finishing with animals and people in the foreground. His style of art was not academically recognised, his oeuvre was modest and being relatively poor, he painted using student grade paints. His works were regarded as naïve and primitive, and it was only by a stroke of luck that Pablo Picasso saw one of Rousseau’s canvasses for sale on the street to be painted over. Picasso immediately recognized his talent and went to meet him. In 1908, a banquet was held in his honor bringing his art to the fore.
His best known paintings were of jungles, but remarkably he never left France or saw a jungle. The inspiration for his works came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens of Paris. Rousseau died on the 2nd of September 1910. Although ridiculed during his life, he became recognised as a self taught genius producing works of high artistic technique.
I couldn’t help myself and had to share these paintings for those who, too, may have not yet have discovered these remarkable, colourful and exotic works of art.
Two Monkeys
Jungle with Tiger and Hunters
Here are a couple of other paintings emulating the style of Rousseau.
 Night in Eden Jungle, by Joel Gauthier
Rousseau Jungle, by Louis Rosemond


Now and Then

Every garden blogger right now is blogging about the autumn colour, and why wouldn’t they when it looks this good. Above is the drive into Urban Jungle plant nursery where I have worked since the spring. The large bunches of bright white berries on the Cordyline australis, Silver Birch bark (Betula pendula) and autumn leaves illuminated by low evening sun. I noticed through the season that red leaved Acers seem by far the most popular choice. Those with innocuous, plane green leaves sit almost unnoticed. It’s only with the cooling, shortening days that these plane green cultivars, like Acer palmatum ‘Japanese Sunrise’ (bellow) come into their own, putting on a brief but spectacular display. And spectacular it is!
This time of year the nursery seems quite bare. Being a specialist in exotics, only the most robust specimens, clipped, top-dressed and stood in ranks, remain outside for the winter’s onslaught. In the bubble-wrapped greenhouses it couldn’t be more different. When customers say they haven’t got room for another plant they should take a look in any exotic plant enthusiast’s greenhouse in the winter. Bellow is one of the heated greenhouses stuffed to the gunnels, Liz, one of the nurseries owners, fighting her way through the foliage and me inspecting an angles trumpet (Brugmansia ‘Aurea’) oblivious to what’s going on around it and flowering its heart out regardless.
The jewel in the crown of the nursery is the show garden, where we went all out this spring to show just how exuberant exotic plantings can be. The growth and atmosphere surpassed all our expectations. If you were to visit the garden today in mid November you’d be confronted by something that resembles the surface of the moon spliced with the aftermath of a category five hurricane. We obsess over weather forecasts trying to guess when the first frosts will come. A call has to be made and the plants must be cut down in their prime. Today we lifted the last tender plants to Liz’s great relief as I leave in only a few days. Now we can rest assure knowing we beat Jack Frost this year.
The following pictures are a look back throughout the summer capturing the garden at its peak. This is what makes all the digging, potting and hauling worth it.
Top left: Hedychium ‘Tara’
Top right: Ornamental gourd
Middle left: Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’
Middle right: Brugmansia ‘Aurea’ and Canna ‘Wyoming’
Bottom left: Dahlia, Nasturtium leaves and Canna ‘Durban’
Bottom right: Dalia ‘Chimborhiza’

A Landscape Devoid of Green

I wouldn’t be fair to write about Mt Taranaki without following it up with a blog about New Zealand’s Central Volcanic Plato; so here it is. After mine and Craig’s arduous assault of the summit of Taranaki we took an all together more leisurely trip to the upper reaches or Mt Ruapehu by ski lift; perfect! The sun, low in the sky, with its golden rays enhanced the rich colours of this young, mineral rich terrain. Only sulphur yellow lichens have so far colonised the upper slopes, a vibrant contrast with oranges of the rock and stark blue sky.
What else to do but lay back in the sun and take in the view and warmth of the sun. That was all well and good, but we had a chair lift to catch to avert a long walk down. As backpackers we generally travelled on a budget and often cooked and slept by the road side, but having spent the last few months fruit picking we deserved a little extravagance. The conditions couldn’t have been better. It was a perfectly still crystal clear evening so we booked ourselves onto a scenic flight over the volcanoes. We circled steaming vents, azure creator lakes and marvelled at the blackened cone of Mt Ngauruhoe casting its dark shadow across the North Island.
 
The following morning was less than perfect as we set out on foot for a closer look at the creator lakes. After a good hike into a brisk wind we were spared brief few minutes view down onto the lake rimed by yellow and orange bacteria before the cloud base descended and the rain set in. I enjoy hiking in the rain especially in mountainous terrain as it makes for dramatic landscapes, enriches the colours and fuels the waterfall. With the peaks and distant slopes concealed by veils of mist you’re free to admire the smaller things. The higher exposed slopes were not devoid of plant life but were certainly devoid of green, perhaps an adaptation to high levels of light.
On the higher scree plains hummocks of a grey moss/lichen offered shelter and anchorage for the hardiest of the alpine species to gain a foothold. Huddled together, barely poking their heads above their hosts, these tough little plants create gardens in miniature. Bellow the golden, coral like Hebe cupressoides, ruby red Parahebe hookeriana, emerald Olearia nummulariifolia and the blue, pink and red tinged Dracophyllum recurvum nestle together, and black lichens splatter the rocks.
Celmisia incana with is frosted silver leaves, and the bronze grass Chionochloa rubra, animated by the wind, are two more beautifully contrasting plants found on less exposed slopes along with Phyllocladus alpinus with its flattened blue/grey stems.
 
I have often thought about creating a garden without green, and people often jeer at the concept as dull and funereal. The botanical richness and beauty of these high alpine slopes are certainly a great inspiration and show the wealth of colours and forms that plants have to offer. Ok, so a garden with out green may no afford the jollity of herbaceous boarder in full bloom but I think it would certainly hold its own in the detail. This is one concept I will definitely work on.

 

Volcanos and Giant Cordylines

As I’m still very much in the UK, and busy helping to prepare my friend Will’s garden for winter, I thought I’d take a look back at a past adventure.

A stalwart of all temperate exotic gardens, and vital for winter structure, is the good old Cordyline. These robust Palm like plants are used so much so, especially in the south west of the UK, that they have acquired the common names of Cornish and Torquay palm or less elegantly the Cabbage Palm. While travelling a year or so ago around New Zealand, during the southern summer I came across a couple of fine specimens in habitat.

 One of the defining features of the north island of New Zealand is Mt Taranaki (above) soaring 2518 metres above the flat pastoral land. The mountain known commonly as Egmont is in fact of volcanic origin, being thrust up through the landscape by immense forces below the crust. Craig Knight, who I was travelling with, and I set out for the summit on an unremarkable grey and drizzly day. Zig-zaging our way through the lush forests that ring the lower slopes, marvelling at the trees laden with Mosses, Ferns, Astellias, Orchids and where the mosses and leaf litter had settled in the crux of swollen bows, small trees and Cordylines that would otherwise reside on the ground. These dripping forests of moss laden and tangled branches became the setting for the Goblin Forest in the Lord of the Rings. As we hiked further up the volcano, the steeper the path rose and the lower and thinner the forest canopy became. Here, where there is much les competition for light and an abundance of water peculating down from the ice cap on the summit and regular rain fall, grows the imposing Mountain Cabbage Palm, Cordyline indivisa.
These distinctive plants with their lush heads of broad leaves (10-30 cm wide and 1-2 m long) seem almost alien among the surrounding bush. This is a striking plant and could create an air of exoticism in any garden. Cordyline indivisa is however notoriously difficult to cultivate. Growing primarily in elevated areas it needs a constant supply of water and a cool position free from all but the lightest of frosts. Below are some young plants in Tresco Abbey Garden in the Isles of Scilly.
Leaving the tree line behind and climbing beyond the grey cloud, the path became steeper still and we emerged into warm sunlight catching our first glimpse of the summit, the looming grey snider cone piercing the sky above. There was no more zigzagging from there on, those ahead of us making a bee-line strait to the top. We were now on all fours, calves burning, scrambling at no great speed up a steep loose pumice slope. Pausing for a breath at a jaunty angle we remained alert as we dodged rocks hurtling by at great speed, dislodged by those higher up.
The cone of Mt Taranaki remains plugged with ice throughout the summer months and is pockmarked with holes made by fallen rocks that heat up in the sun and slowly sink out of sight. The summit provided views out across a cloudscape in every direction. The only landmark visible was the broad bulk of Mt Ruapehu and the perfect flat toped cone of Mt Ngauruhoe out to the east in the Central Volcanic Plato. (Below Craig at the summit.)
Driving east through mile after mile of  irrigated, fertilized intensely green pastoral land, Mt Taranaki still a good size in the rear view mirror, we came across a loan Cordyline australis standing just off the road. This had to be the biggest by many times and certainly the finest of all the Cordylines we saw across both islands. This chap would rival an oak. Rather irritatingly, good old Wikipedia informs me that the biggest Cordyline in fact stands at the northern tip of the South Island in Golden Bay. It is said to have a circumference at the base of 9m and a height 17m and is estimated to be 400 to 500 years old. If this one isn’t the biggest it must be the most perfectly formed.
On my next venture to New Zealand I’ll have to visit Golden bay to see if it really does harbor the biggest Cordyline.