Archive for the ‘flowers’ Category



Most flowers, herbs, and plants used at Christmas are associated with very ancient celebrations. In those years before blooms could be airlifted to brighten our bleak mid-winters, the presence of a colorful , growing plant in dark December seemed miraculous, and therefore many stories and tales grew up around these plants. Think of holly (Christ Thorn), ivy (ivy clings, as people should cling to a religion) and mistletoe (used by the Druids as a plant with good luck powers, and as a sign of love in Norse mythology).

But the poinsettia is a much newer addition, the New World’s contribution to Christmas.



Note the small green flowers in the center

In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina, a diplomat who was the first American minister to Mexico, was intrigued with the brilliant red “flowers” topping spindly shrubs all over the country. (The “flowers” are actually brightly-colored bracts, or specialized leaves, which attract pollinating insects to the hidden, tiny green flowers). The local people called them “flame flowers” or “flowers of the Holy Night” because they were used as decorations in Mexican Nativity processions. These flowers, native to Mexico, were known even to the Aztecs, who regarded them as a gift from the gods and called them Cuetlaxochitl.

Dr. Poinsett was an enthusiastic botanist and he sent cuttings home for his greenhouse and to share with friends. They belong to the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. The botanical name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in Latin pulchra means ‘beautiful’, so this means ‘most beautiful’).


Light yellow


Coral with cream edges

About a hundred years later, Paul Ecke of California saw these plants and began to cultivate, interbreed, and experiment with them. The Ecke family built up a thriving business, which supplies thousands of growers around the world with cuttings that produce millions of holiday plants each year.

We can now enjoy red, pink, white, yellow, and marbled colors to brighten the holiday season. Pointsettias can range from miniatures in pots, to 10 to 15 feet tall trees in tropical and sub-tropical countries, like Mexico. I remember tall poinsettia trees in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when we were growing up.


Trees–hard to imagine when we buy our pots here!



Pointsettias are not poisonous to people, but some people have a skin reaction to the milky sap. Also it’s best to keep pets from eating them, as the leaves can cause gastric reactions.

December 12 is Poinsettia Day, to mark the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851. Interestingly, in Mexico December 12 is the Dia de la Vergen (Day of the Virgin Mother) and on that day pointsettias are also displayed.

On one of our Christmas CDs we have a quirly song called “Percy the Puny Pointsettia” by Elmo and Patsy, so now our family tends to call all our poinsettia plants Percy! But, mostly they are not puny, and in fact one of our daughter’s Percys stayed alive for about 3 years in a pot in her house. A fun new tradition!



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Magnificent Cape winelands scenery


Protea, the beautiful national flower of South Africa


Lunch with a view near East London


A penguin colony at Betty’s Bay, not far from Somerset West

My husband, Rod, and I have recently returned from a 5-week trip to South Africa. Mostly it was to see family, but we did get to do some fun, touristy things too. Plus he had a conference at the conference center at Skukuza Camp in the Kruger National Park. Besides Skukuza, we visited Somerset West in the Cape winelands, East London, Kokstad, and Pretoria. Pretoria was our old stomping ground when we lived in South Africa, so it was fun to get together with old friends, re-visit some places and get out to Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute where Rod used to work.



Rod and colleague Isaac C at statue of Sir Arnold Theiler, founder of Onderstepoort


At Inkwenkwezie Park near East London we went on an Elephant Encounter

Over the next weeks and months I will cover the trip, but for now here are a few photos as an overview.







The restaurant at Skukuza has a deck that overlooks the River Sabie, a perfect place for game viewing



Watching elephants across the River Sabie from the deck


Our accommodation—a rondavel— in Skukuza


Setting off on a game drive in Kruger National Park



Hyenas on the road in Kruger National Park



Farm scene near Kokstad



Indigenous cattle in Kokstad





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Small weeping cherry tree by the car park



Japan House

Sakura…cherry blossoms…weeping cherry trees. These signal spring in Japan, and here in Urbana, central Illinois, they are also a beautiful herald of spring.

We are very lucky here on our campus at the University of Illinois, as we have a Japan House, a cultural center run by the University to promote understanding of Japan, its culture and history. It’s a lovely traditional-style Japanese building, with a small enclosed garden to one side, complete with gurgling stream, stone lanterns and a quiet place to sit and meditate. The other side of the Japan House has a serene raked-stone garden and the whole overlooks a pond (complete with turtles and geese), encircled by a walkway, much loved by local residents.





Start of the ‘tunnel’

A number of cherry trees are scattered around our university campus, but the most striking of them all are at the Japan House. There is one weeping cherry tree, a gorgeous tree with thickly clustered pink blossoms, right next to the building, and a couple of others near the small parking lot.

But, because of a generous donation by Dr Genshitsu Sen, we also have the Sen Cherry Tree Alee, the walkways approaching the Japan House. It was planted with cherry trees on both sides in 2008 and now the trees have grown big enough that it’s like walking through a tunnel. In Spring, we feel as though we are passing under a lacy white and delicate pink net, the blossoms on the cherry trees are so thiick. With the stone pagoda lanterns and the raked pebble garden in front of the wooden building, we can almost believe that we are in Japan.


The plaque tells us that Dr Sen was a 15th-generation Grand Master Urasenke Tradition of Tea


cherrylanternAs in Japan, it’s a ritual to go and view the cherry blossoms, to walk under them and be blessed if petals fall on you. Rod and I went last Sunday, as it’s close to our house and we can easily just walk there. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and there were hundredss of others there, doing the same thing; ambling, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, taking photos, posing under the trees or amidst the drooping flower-laden branches. It’s a very special walk, and the collective feeling of happiness is palpable. Just to remind us of how wonderful Nature is, and how a walk in Nature (even in a somehwat urban environment) can really revitalize us.

(Thanks to Rod for the photos)cherrysky



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How’s that for a view!

Rustenberg—Gardens, a Labyrinth, and Wines

A Stunning Combo

Tranquil, beautiful, lush, green, pastoral are words that sprung to mind as we drove up, past pastures with cattle, small estate houses, and vineyards.

Rustenberg is a lovely wine estate in a really gorgeous setting up on a hill, overlooking vineyards, in the valley of the Simonsberg Mountains. It’s literally at the end of the road on one of the wine-route roads north out of Stellenbosch, but is well worth the drive.


Gorgeous Cape-Dutch architecture


Schoongezicht, the old Cape-Dutch homestead


Part of the gardens

What do we find?—lots of pretty, white gabled Cape-Dutch buildings; an impressive, modern tasting room; and lovely gardens ringed with huge oak trees. The gardens have small ponds, a gazebo, flower beds, and the jewel—a labyrinth.

Founded in 1682, the estate has a long history and heritage. The Barlow family has owned it since 1941, and various generations have been very involved in all aspects of wine making there. (The Barlow family had made a fortune with an engineering supplies company established in the early 1900s, also buying and selling woolen goods and Caterpillar machinery, among other things. The company expanded into neighboring southern African countries too. The family had also owned Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West from 1941-1987, so were very involved with wine estates).


pergola2The public Schoongezicht Garden, open every day, is next to the Cape Dutch homestead, Schoongezicht, which dates back to 1814. In 2001, Rozanne Barlow, wife of the current owner of Rustenberg Estate, decided to regenerate and restore the garden. She had walls constructed, and converted the 25-meter-long swimming pool into a lily pond, now home to many fish. The charming pergola, originally built by John X Merriman, is covered in climbing roses, clematis and other fragrant climbers. John X Merriman was a former owner of Rustenberg. He bought it in 1892 and helped to revitalize the estate and to promote tourism in this valley. One range of Rustenberg wines is called John X Merriman, in his honor.

The garden is essentially laid out in a formal style with four different areas linked by pathways, and because it’s so harmoniously done one doesn’t really realize that the garden is quite sizable—about a hectare. The garden is a plant-lover’s dream, best described as “English”, with roses, foxgloves, salvias, agapanthus, sedum, anemones, day lilies and many more. There is always something to catch the eye, no matter the season.


A labyrinth is now part of the gardens

The surrounding landscape of vineyards, green pastures and the majestic Simonsberg labyrinthclosermountain backdrop all help to make this garden a magical place.

The garden is open to the public during the week from 09h30 – 16h30 and on Saturdays and Sundays until 15h00.

There’s also a private garden, the Rustenberg Garden, which is open once a year to the public on Rustenberg Day.

Making these gardens even more magical is the labyrinth.




Outside the Tasting Room

As part of the garden make-over, Rozanne Barlow transformed the site where the old tennis court stood into an eleven-circuit Chartres-style labyrinth, laid out in half brick and river stone. Information boards explain the origin and symbolism of the French Chartres labyrinth. We walked a part of it and it is a contemplative experience. If we had more time (and no demanding kids!) it would be nice to try walking the whole thing.

After that it was fun to wander up to the tasting center to do wine tasting, which was great. The Tasting Room is in the old horse stables, which have been beautifully converted architecturally. We all thought it was a great wine-tasting experience. Our hostess lady was friendly and knowledgeable and we enjoyed chatting to her. The wines are world-class, from an excellent terroir—red clay-rich granite soils on a variety of slopes and elevations. No food is available here though.


Tasting great Rustenberg wines



An excellent rose wine

Wine tasting is R40 per person (waived if you buy some bottles). We did buy a bottle of Petit Verdot Rose (R75) to take back for dinner that night, and it was excellent. We also ordered some wines to be shipped back to USA, and you can also order them to be shipped to UK, I believe.

Wine Tasting and Sales open Mon-Fri 9-4:30, Sat 10-4 and Sunday 10-3. Every day, except Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Good Friday.

Where is it?

Lelie Road, Idas Valley, just north-east of Stellenbosch


An unusual Rousanne wine



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Thanks so much to my friend, Hiroshi Miwa, who lives in Kyoto area of Japan, for sharing these wonderful comparison photos. What a change from winter to spring and its gorgeous cherry blossoms!

The local people call this “the cherry tree tunnel” and the temple associated with it. Taken in Maizuru, Kyoto.

Thanks Hiro!

The temple and its garden with cherry trees still looks gorgeous in the winter snow

The temple and its garden with cherry trees still looks gorgeous in the winter snow

The cherry trees in their winter garb

The cherry trees in their winter garb

Cherry tree tunnel in full bloom

Cherry tree tunnel in full bloom

The temple and gardens in spring

The temple and gardens in spring


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Seen in Chicago, Illinois, and Dijon, France

In Dijon in August we were fascinated by the huge sculpted green metal head in Place Rude (named after Francois Rude, born in Dijon 1784). It’s a central place in the city, surrounded by lovely old buildings, with a fountain and statue of a grape picker in the process of stomping some grapes underfoot in the center, an old carrousel and many cafes and bars.

Outdoor art: green metal head in Place Rude, Dijon

Outdoor art: green metal head in Place Rude, Dijon

So, a few weeks later in Chicago it was interesting to find the head theme there too—in a whimsical fashion.  Every year the city of Chicago does a wonderful job of making the city really pretty  with beds of gorgeous flowering plants in all the parks and down the center of Michigan Avenue, plus colorful flower planters suspended from lamp posts or along the sidewalk. This year, along parts of Michigan Avenue, some of the planters are in the shape of enormous heads, spouting an array of bright flowering “hair”.

Very lovely, according to all the comments we heard.

Many giggles as these kids 'hugged' the statue

Many giggles as these kids ‘hugged’ the statue

This beauty is advertising Mars bar and other chocolate bars

This beauty is advertising Mars bar and other chocolate bars


Another pretty ‘hairstyle’

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Amsterdam's Flower Market lines the Singel Canal

Amsterdam’s Flower Market lines the Singel Canal—view from a bridge

Tulips from Amsterdam advertised

Tulips from Amsterdam advertised

A not-to-be-missed sight, in a country that’s famous for flowers and bulbs

Part tourist attraction, part garden shop for locals, it’s a little different from many other flower markets around the world that tend to focus on cut flowers and bouquets. This is more a market for bulbs, ornamental flowers, indoor plants, and garden/flower novelties, so it’s also geared for locals and not only for visitors—things the Dutch can grow in their apartments, or in planters, or can use as decorations.

Stalls and a few mini greenhouses line the Singel Canal for a whole long block and people parade up and down, wheeling their bikes as it’s a pedestrian zone. At one end are the Munt Tower and a Delft display in a lovely old building. At the other end is Konigsplein, where you can buy a fresh herring from the stand there and then wander easily into the Spui.

Tulip bulbs sold in ceramic clogs

Tulip bulbs sold in ceramic clogs

The market is very busy with an array of amazing growing things in every imaginable color, and bulbs or kits to begin growing an assortment of unusual plants. Not unexpectedly, some of the stalls at the beginning advertise “Tulips from Amsterdam”. Nowadays, the Netherlands is world famous for flower production, including tulips, but actually the tulip originated in Turkey (see an article on tulips here; http://www.viviennemackie.com/Natural_World/Tulips.html ).

Gorgeous flowering cacti

Gorgeous flowering cacti

The selection of goods is wide, bright and cheerful, with lots of fun stuff, like growing herb ‘hair’ on little clay monsters; tulip bulbs in pottery clogs or in tin cans; decorated ceramic balls for floating with water plants; painted wooden tulips; or cute garden gnomes. Many of the diverse plants are very unusual and very beautiful. We especially noted the Venus Flytrap in a glass jar, ready to go, and also “Bonsai to Go”. We also saw large nuts that grow into Buddha palms, kits for growing cannabis, and collections of pretty flowering cacti, so colorful that they actually don’t look real.

The variety of bulbs and seeds for sale is staggering—it would be a most gorgeous garden if you could grow them all. Of course there are tulips of many hues, but also dahlias, amaryllis lilies, even gloriosa superba (flame lilies). Of the flowering plants, we were delighted by orchids, peonies, amaryllis lilies, and even bright bougainvillea. A flower treasure trove indeed! amaryllis

Stop for a light lunch at Amarylles, one of the many small eating places opposite the flower market strip (Singel 540, opposite shop #622, open 7 days a week, 9am-6pm). It offers a good variety of soups, salads, sandwiches, some main dishes, cakes etc. We opted for the soup of the day, which was Dutch pea soup with smoked sausage, served with bread and butter—it was very good and perfect for a cool day. It was way to windy for us to sit at the outside tables but you can get a table inside next to the enormous front windows and still watch the outside activity.

Watching the world go by through the windows of the cafe

Watching the world go by through the windows of the cafe

And People Watching is a wonderful activity in Amsterdam, like a free “show” just for the price of a cup of coffee or a beer. At the flower market it’s just people on foot, or wheeling bikes, or pushing strollers or shopping carts, singly or in groups, stopping to buy something or to gawk at some of the plants, especially the Venus Flytrap. Tourists, locals, many nations, all mingling.

At any restaurant on a regular street beyond the market the “show” becomes more intricate, as it involves people and traffic. We sat outside for a meal at Panorama on Raadhuisstraat, and at Luden on Spuistraat and at both it was amazing to see how many people, wearing all kinds of clothes, ride bikes of all descriptions. They weave skillfully around various straying pedestrians, while some scooters also whizz by on the bike lane. People sit side-saddle as passengers, or kids in a back seat, or pets in a basket. We even saw a guy riding his bike in quite heavy traffic with his dog on a leash running next to him—the dog definitely knew what to do! The bike riders co-exist with buses, taxis and cars. There’s an art to riding a bike here, but people learn it early: we saw lots of kids on bikes too.

More market pics bellow, in no particular order.

Colorful wooden tulips

Colorful wooden tulips

From these nuts, I'll supposedly grow a Buddha palm!

From these nuts, I’ll supposedly grow a Buddha palm!

Some pretty cut flowers too

Some pretty cut flowers too

So many bulbs to buy

So many bulbs to buy

A Venus Flytrap

A Venus Flytrap

For us, this was a novelty but for some folk I guess they really do buy the kit!

For us, this was a novelty but for some folk I guess they really do buy the kit!

Tupil bulbs sold in cans/tins

Tupil bulbs sold in cans/tins

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