About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

Now There’s Proof: Bees Make Bigger Plants

Bumblebee pollinating mustard plant/ Photo: University of Zurich (UZH)

There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about pollinators, especially of the fuzzy yellow and black kind. Now comes news that bumblebees not only help plants propagate, but they also have a positive effect on their size, fragrance and color. It’s all part of a new experiment by researchers at the University of Zurich that proves bees do it bigger and better.

Of course we all know by now that pollinators are essential to the propagation of plant species.

Bee covered in pollen

But the recent study undertaken by evolutionary biologists from the University of Zurich (UZH) found that plants change in significant ways depending on the pollinator. Specifically, those plants pollinated by bumblebees are larger in size, more fragrant and have brighter color (as evidenced by a greater UV color component.) This has big implications for the plant world.

 

THE EXPERIMENT

For their experiment, UZH professor Florian Schiestl and doctoral student Daniel Gervasi used field mustard (Brassica rapa). A common field weed, field mustard is the origin of many cultivars including canola, turnip and bok choy.

Field mustard

The researchers divided the plants into three groups, allowing the first group of plants to be pollinated by bumblebees, the second by hover flies and the third by hand. They then followed the field mustard for nine generations. Afterwards, they analyzed the pollinators’ effects on the plants.

(A word on hover flies. Hover flies may look like bees or wasps, but they are actually flies with black and orange markings. They’re important pollinators whose larvae love to feed on aphids.)

A hover fly

THE RESULTS

Not to disparage the hover flies, but after just nine generations, they simply couldn’t keep up with the bees when it came to affecting the evolutionary success of the plants. In contrast to the plants pollinated by the bees, those pollinated by the hover flies were smaller and their flowers were less fragrant. The flowers were also forced to self-pollinate more to make up for the flies’ lower efficiency.

Plants pollinated by bumblebees (left) and hover flies (right) Photo: UZH

 

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

It’s a known fact that different pollinators have preferences for different plants, but the dramatic changes in the test plants after just nine generations came as a surprise to the researchers. Most evolutionary changes occur over a much longer period of time.

UZH professor Schiestl drew the following conclusion:

A change in the composition of pollinator insects in natural habitats can trigger a rapid evolutionary transformation in plants.

Before we jump all over the hover fly, let’s remember that all pollinators are good. What this study shows us, however, is that some are better than others (namely, bees). The fact that their species is threatened could have a direct impact on our agriculture, not to mention our garden plants as they make the necessary adaptations.

This is of particular concern given the recent decline in bumblebee populations due to pesticides and other environmental factors. With less bees available, plants such as field mustard might be forced to rely more and more on other, less effective pollinators like hover flies, with the results being weaker flower fragrances and increased self-pollination.

Yet one more reason to get busy saving the bees.

 

For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Cascading forsythia hedge

My sister Cindy was born in late March and every spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. I can still remember my mother’s voice: these are for-Cynthia she would say. My little sister would puff up with pride and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that later on she naturally gravitated towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary yellow bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.

Although I was secretly envious that a flower bloomed specifically for my sister (or at least our mother led us to believe that was so), I grew to welcome the appearance of the sunny blooms each spring. Forsythia, for me, will be forever linked to my sister Cynthia, to March and the happy return of warmer weather.

 

It’s not the best choice for a martini

It may not taste good in a tapenade either, but forsythia is nonetheless a part of the olive (Oleaceae) family. Together with other showy members of the same family (most notably lilac, jasmine, privet and osmanthus), it is cultivated primarily for its beautiful and fragrant flowers. The genus is pretty small – just 7 species of mainly deciduous shrubs from Eastern Asia with one species from southeast Europe. Of these, a number of hybrids have been produced.

Flowering forsythia in botanic garden

 

It’s all about the flowers

Forysthia’s early spring flowers are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this deciduous shrub. Opening before the leaves unfurl, the abundant, bell-shaped blooms are produced in clusters of 2 to 6 on last year’s wood.

Forsythia buds

Forsythias flower on last year’s wood

Formed of four petals and joined at the base to form a tube, the flowers can range in tone from pale to deep yellow depending on the variety.

Close-up of a forsythia flower

The blooms are immediately followed by dark green foliage that sometimes turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall.

Leaves following the blooms on a forsythia shrub

Forsythia foliage follows blooms

Barring any unforeseen cold snap, forsythia flowers can last for between two to three weeks. Or if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to snap off a few branches, put them in a vase of water indoors and in a few weeks you’ll have sunny yellow blooms right smack in the middle of winter.

Forced early-spring blooms in a glass vase

Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors

Why isn’t my forsythia blooming?

This is a question I’m often asked as a garden designer. Since flowers are produced on the prior year’s growth, it’s important to prune the shrubs right after they flower. Otherwise you risk cutting off all of next spring’s blooms. Less frequently, unusually cold weather for prolonged periods of time can also negatively affect blooms for the coming season.

If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll trim off next year’s flowers

One drawback to some of the larger varieties is that forsythia can get large and unruly pretty quickly. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive with the pruning shears at the appropriate time. (I hack mine down by a third every year after bloom.) They’ll quickly push out new growth the following year.

I’ll never understand, though, why some people insist on pruning these shrubs into boxwood-or lightbulb-like shapes.

 

Why is it called forsythia?

The genus forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804) who was superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace and founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

William Forsyth (1737-1804)

What are the best cultivars to plant today?

Two native Chinese species, Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) and Greenstem forsythia (Forsythia viridissima) were the earliest species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. Each has played a role in the development of most modern garden species. Forsythia suspensa remains a popular plant and is still widely cultivated for its size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10- high. Its characteristic weeping form makes it a great hedge plant, especially on embankments where its cascading blooms can be fully enjoyed.

 

pale yellow-flowering Forsythia suspensa

Forsythia suspensa

But perhaps the most popular variety today is a cross between Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima called Forsythia x intermedia. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border Forsythia, the medium sized shrub has the golden yellow flowers most commonly associated with the plant and an upright habit (although as it matures it takes on more of an arching form.) Many hybrids have been selected from this cross including dwarf and compact forms.

Golden yellow-flowering Forsythia x intermedia

Forsythia x intermedia

Save the larger, deep-yellow cultivars like ‘Beatrix Farrand’ for hedges where the plants can grow unimpeded to 8- to 10- feet or more and plant the smaller, more compact varieties close to the house or in the flower border. Great cultivars like Golden Peep (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Courdijau’) and Goldilocks (Forsythia ‘Courtacour’) are dwarf varieties that grow to 24 to 36 inches tall and wide. Or try the slightly smaller Show Off brand Sugar Baby.

I’ve had experience with Gold Tide (Forsythia ‘Courtasol’), which is also considered a dwarf, but likes to be wider than tall, so beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.

 

Forsythia likes to put down roots 

Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not as desirable in a garden. Most springs, I mercilessly chop off these offspring from the parent plant to keep things under control.

Plant forsythia in full sun to part shade. To produce blooms, the shrub needs a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day, with the most flowers being produced in full sun. Like most plants, forsythia performs best in well-drained soil.

 

Everything’s Coming Up Orchids At Smithsonian’s Spring Show

hirshshorn orchid display

Orchids on display at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum

Every spring, the Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden mount a spectacular orchid show for the public. The collaborative exhibition alternates between the two venues and provides different ways by which to appreciate the exquisite flowers. This year’s show is particularly striking because it is housed in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum whose modern architecture provides a whole new perspective on the exotic blooms.

Guarianthe aurantiaca ‘Kitty’

This is the first time the exhibition has been held at the contemporary museum. Titled orchids: A MOMENT, the display is housed in a curved gallery created by the Hirshhorn’s own designers and is composed of random-shaped cubbyholes, each featuring a single orchid species. The artistic structure occupies the better part of the museum’s main lobby and allows visitors to move around the display at random while experiencing their own personal ‘moment’.

Rhyncholaeliocattleya Memoria Grant Eichler ‘Lenette’

As I toured the modernist structure, I couldn’t help but appreciate the forms, textures and colors of the orchids for their aesthetic value, displayed as they were like fine objects of art. Showcased in their individual white boxes, the flowers are strikingly beautiful on their own while also presenting interesting combinations as a group.

I love how the boxes’ clean lines perfectly frame the roots, leaves, stems and flowers of the plants while the white paint makes the colors pop.

Miltoniopsis hybrid

According to the Hirshhorn website, there are over 100 different orchids represented, all of which have been selected from the Smithsonian Gardens and U.S. Botanic Garden collections. One of the ‘orchid interpreters’ explained to me that the display is changed every two weeks, making for a new experience almost every time you visit.

Dendrobium utopia ‘Messenger’

Since 1974, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) has grown from five plants to over 8,000 specimens. An invaluable resource for educational programs, exhibitions, and scientific research, it is maintained in the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, Maryland by staff, interns, and volunteers.

Maxillaria sp.

The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) is the oldest botanic garden in North America. Its main mission is to highlight the diversity of plants worldwide, of which orchids make up the most significant group.

Phaleonopsis hybrid novelty

Angraecum sesquipedale ‘Winter White’ x A. sesquipedale var. bosseri ‘Summertime Dream”

 

The exhibit includes a series of time-lapse videos embedded in the structure that show orchids in the process of blooming. The continuous show flows across five monitors interspersed among the flowers.

orchids: A MOMENT is on view at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC through May 14, 2017. For more information on the exhibit, click here for the Hirshhorn website. For a detailed chart of this week’s display, click here for the Smithsonian gardens website.

 

Butterfly Weed Tops Competitors To Win Perennial of the Year

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” – A.A. Milne

There’s something about the color orange that really appeals to my senses. Not nearly as aggressive as red, it nonetheless calls attention to itself in a cool, refreshing sort of way. So I was happy to hear that recently, an orange-flowering species received a perennial plant’s highest honor. In late November 2016, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was named 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year.

The designation Perennial Plant of the Year is awarded each winter by the Perennial Plant Association to the plant that outshines its competitors not only in appearance, but also in its noteworthy characteristics. In order to be considered, the perennial must be able to grow in a wide range of climates, require little maintenance, have multiple seasons of interest and be relatively pest and disease free.

That can be a tall order for a medium-sized plant like butterfly weed, but its unique qualities enabled it to more than rise to the occasion.

A milkweed relative

Native to much of the continental United States as well as Ontario and Quebec, butterfly weed grows wild in a variety of climatic conditions including dry forests, along roadsides and in open fields and prairies.

Butterfly weed in a northern Illinois prairie/Photo: Jason Patrick Ross 

A member of the milkweed family, it tops out at about 1 to 2 feet. Its preference for average to dry soil make it naturally drought-tolerant.

Butterfly weed’s large clusters of flowers are a brilliant orange-yellow, a beacon among other subtler-toned plants. Happily blooming from June through August, they produce copious amounts of nectar that attracts hordes of butterflies, birds (in particular, hummingbirds) and a wide assortments of insects throughout the growing season.

The distinctive flowers are actually composed of five petals that stand up and five petals that hang down. Called hoods, the petals that stand up enclose a single orange horn that when cross-pollinated, forms a follicle.

Later in the season, the follicle opens up along one side to disperse silky-tailed seeds.

Not to be outdone, butterfly weed’s foliage has its own attractions. Long and pointed, the 4″ leaves provide food for the larvae of native Monarch butterflies, while also lending a deep green backdrop to the brilliant flowers.

All in all, it’s like a shot of adrenaline for the garden.

 

Designing with butterfly weed

In order to flower, butterfly weed needs plenty of sun. Plant it in full sun in moderately dry soil.  Almost any soil type will do (remember it likes prairies), as long as there’s plenty of good drainage. If soil stays too wet, the plant can rot at the crown.

For an eye-catching composition, pair butterfly weed with other strong hued perennials like liatris spicata, echinacea ‘Double Scoop Raspberry’ and hemerocallis ‘Stella D’Oro’.

Or let its orange flowers provide a splash of color among subtler tones like lemon-yellow hemerocallis ‘Happy Returns’, white phlox ‘David’ and apricot cosmos.

(By the way, butterfly weed makes excellent, long-lasting cut flowers.)

A word of caution: Left unattended, butterfly weed loves to spread. Deadhead it regularly to keep it from self-seeding. It’s best not to cut it back in the fall, but rather wait until early spring. The plant has a deep taproot, so it doesn’t like to be moved.

“Without butterflies, the world would soon have few flowers.” Trina Paulus

 

What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter during a warm spell. With all the erratic weather patterns we’ve been experiencing lately, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.

 

The underground world of bulbs

To understand why spring bulbs can withstand a little early growth, it helps to take a peek underground.

Just like a seed, a single bulb contains the entire life cycle of a plant, including roots, food storage “leaves” and a flowering shoot. As soon as you plant them in the fall, spring bulbs start growing.

The action begins in the bottom part of the bulb known as the basal stem. During the winter months, roots begin emerging from the underside of this base. As they penetrate the surrounding soil, they absorb water and other nutrients, which they store in the fleshy leaves of the bulb called scales.

In some flower species (think allium), a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the bulb’s scales from damage and drying out.

Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out

The scales provide food and protection to the flowering shoot, which contains the above-ground parts of the plant, including stems, leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot grows slowly upwards within the bulb. Once warmer temperatures hit, the leaves break first through the soil where they begin converting sunlight into energy. Weeks later, the flowering stems begin to emerge.

The key thing to remember is: Leaf development occurs independently of flower development. The leaves might jump the gun, but flowering shoots need an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before they begin sending their stems up out of the bulb and towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.

Strategies for protecting early growth

If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause its leaves to yellow and die back, but your bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.

There are a few strategies, though, you can undertake now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flower shoot.

1. Cover your plant

Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

 

2. Water

Bulbs will rot with too much water, but if there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, providing them with a little extra water during the day helps the bulb expand and grow. Make sure your soil has good drainage, though.

 

3. What to do if flowers start to appear 

If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually doesn’t affect flowering in the coming months.

 

4. Plant bulbs late in the fall

The later you plant in the fall, the longer the bulb will take to sprout in the spring. Wait until the temperature is cool enough (40s or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. I plant mine in early December.

And make sure to plant bulbs at three times their height in depth with base down and bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can cause premature growth.

 

 

The Case for Living Large With Russian-Cut Roses

Russian-cut roses

I grow roses in my garden and would never think of cutting one before its prime. However, when it comes to buying roses locally, I opt for blooms that are still tight in the bud. Why the disconnect? It’s mainly habit, I suppose, and the fact that we Americans are only beginning to discover the perks of Russian-cut roses.

 

 

Russian-cut roses are not actually grown in Russia

Russian-cut roses are a common cut in Europe, but contrary to what their name implies, they were not grown in Russia. Rather, the term refers to roses that were harvested at the peak of their development; a time when their petals are more mature as opposed to the more common practice of cutting them when their buds are still tight. This makes for a rose with larger, more open blooms, longer stems and improved performance.

 

Why are they called Russian?

The term Russian-cut comes from the Russian tradition of giving a single, spectacular bloom as a token of appreciation. As an old Russian saying* goes,

“A saying is a flower, a proverb is a berry.”

 Angelica Privalihin “My Red Rose”

Of course this differs substantially from the American tradition of giving one-dozen roses. (By the way, in Russia giving a bouquet of flowers in even numbers is considered very bad luck and a major faux-pas.)

 

Why this method works

Evidence shows that roses that are left longer on the stem develop brighter colors and larger, more spectacular blooms than roses harvested in the tight-bud stage. This takes some patience to achieve. Growers must wait one to two weeks longer than normal before harvesting their roses. Doing this enables them to reap big rewards: the blooms typically average 50 % larger, and they last just as long or even longer than traditional, tight-cut flowers.

Why is this so? Because extending the growth period allows the flowers to absorb more nutrients that in turn allow them to continue to grow and develop. Longer nutrition and exposure to sunlight provides more sugars to the stems and leaves of the plant. The rose then uses this extra energy to produce bigger blossoms.

Nowadays these spectacular roses, which can feature 3 foot stems and blooms measuring 3.5 to 4 inches across are mostly grown high in the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia.

Rose harvest in Ecuador

Of course it costs growers more to wait the extra week and then package and ship larger flowers. There’s a premium for these larger blooms. But if you’re looking to make a big impact, you can’t do better.

So far, in the United States where Russian-cut roses are also known as European or Designer-cut, buyers are not entirely convinced, still holding on to the belief that normal, tight cut roses will last longer in the vase. They’re not entirely willing to pay the higher price for Russian cut roses, either. I’m guessing the exception to the rule is weddings, where a big impact is usually the goal. Perhaps we should begin applying that thinking to our everyday flower purchases.

*Mertvago, P. (1996). The comparative russian-english dictionary of russian proverbs & sayings. New York, NY: Hippocrene Books.

s ISBN: 0-7818-9424-8

 

 

Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.

A TRADING PLATFORM BUILT FOR SPEED

Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed (to accommodate flowers’ perishability) and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.

HOW THEY DO IT

When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: www.hollandfoto.net / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when placing your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.

 

Iguazú Falls: Sustaining Life In An Ancient Jungle Garden

Iguazu Falls

Do waterfalls count as gardens? They certainly make life possible for tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna. I thought I had seen waterfalls until I visited Iguazú, Argentina. Nothing could have prepared me for the staggering beauty of these falls that hold the distinction of being one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Iguazú is located an easy 1 ½ hour plane ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’d consider it a great way to go, not only for the brevity of the trip but the fact that your first view of the falls is from the air. As we neared the airport our pilot signaled to us to look out our windows as he tipped the plane one way then the other to give us all a bird’s eye view of this astonishing interface between land and water.

View of the falls from plane window

And what a view it was! As if cut with a jagged knife out of the emerald green plateau, the falls appeared bright white against mahogany-colored rocks arranged in a crescent-like shape, much like a Roman amphitheater. As we gawked out our windows, we could almost sense the water roaring over the reddish-brown cliffs. Here and there, fingers of spray drifted up from the crevice, giving the illusion of wispy clouds escaping up from amidst the dense tropical jungle.

We could barely wait to start our day.

THE WIDEST FALLS IN THE WORLD

So what makes these falls so special that they lay claim to being one of the seven natural wonders of the world? The main reason is their incredible width, which is the largest in the world. Composed of 275 individual drops, the Iguazú Falls span an astonishing distance of 27 meters (or roughly 1.7 miles). Compare this to Victoria Falls’ width of 1708 meters (roughly one mile) and Niagara’s length of brink that measures 1203 meters (roughly 0.7 miles.)

No wonder that upon seeing Iguazú Falls, the United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed,

Poor Niagara!

Of course this also makes the falls nearly impossible to capture, but you get the picture.

 

ONE RIVER, BIG FALLS

Spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazú Falls form a line along a deep chasm carved from layers of ancient sandstone and dark, fine-grained volcanic rock. The falls are shared by both countries and serve as the official international border. There is an ongoing dispute as to whose side is better.

Brazil on the left, Argentina on the right

The source of the falls, the Iguazú River, is located in Brazil. As it crosses the plateau, the river joins up with other tributary streams, traveling across 1,200 km (roughly 746 miles) until it reaches a series of faults formed in the rock. There, it pauses before thundering over the brink and tumbling down into a canyon that drains into the Paraná River.

Falls tumble down into the Paraná River

At its highest point, the Iguazú River drops vertically some 80 meters in a series of cataracts called the Devil’s Throat. About half of the river flows into this long and narrow chasm. This makes for an enormous amount of water, accompanied by a deafening roar and soaking sprays of water. As the roiling river tumbles over the brink, perspective turns upside down as rainbows appear below clouds deep in the canyon.

Devil’s Throat

 

JUNGLE GARDEN

The enormous quantities of tumbling water and soaking humidity have spawned a highly specialized ecosystem full of life in the surrounding Misiones Jungle. More than 2,000 species of plants and animals call this lush rain forest home including giant anteaters, caoties with their ringed tails, howler monkeys, jaguars and the giant rodent known as the capybara. There 4000 bird species, including rainbow-colored toucans and parrots. And there are also 80 known tree species, making for a diverse tapestry of vegetation.

Caotie

Ferns and wild impatiens growing on canyon floor

Together with the Iguazú National Park in Brazil, the Argentinian park constitutes one of the most significant remnants of the interior Atlantic Forest, over 85 percent of the original area of which has been deforested since its discovery over 500 years ago.

In Iguazú, life is multi-layered. Plants grow one on top of one another from the canyon floor on up to the giant palms anchored to the waterfalls’ lip. Ferns grow on moss, lichen grows on rocks, and air plants and orchids can be seen sprouting from tree branches. The falls teem with fertility.

Bright green lichen, moss and ferns that cling to the rock even as the roaring waters flow around them.

To view the falls, visitors have the option of taking an upper or lower walkway, which give them different perspectives on the falls.  An open-air train loops around the outer edge of the park to the trail leading to Devil’s Throat. The walkways are mostly raised steel walkways that hover over the jungle. Along the way, numerous look-outs provide dizzying views of the cascading water.

Look-outs provide bird’s eye views of the falls

For the truly adventurous, there are zodiac rides that take you under the falls to experience the power of all that water. The 12-minute adventure involves plowing headfirst into the waterfalls while a guide films you drowning in white water. I can attest that this is an unbelievable experience, especially on a 95 degree day in the jungle.

For more on Iguazú Falls click here for the official website. The name Iguazú comes from the area’s indigenous people who named the falls ‘great water’. The first European to “discover” the falls was Spanish Conquistador Cabeza de Vaca in 1541.

 

A Little Taste of Japan In the Heart Of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardin Japonés

There are so many beautiful, themed gardens in Buenos Aires I’ve almost lost count. But, there’s one last gem I’ll profile before we return next week to the United States. Located in the city’s Palermo neighborhood, it’s the zen-like Jardín Japonés. Think acres of green foliage, a shimmering lake spanned by lipstick red bridges and colorful clusters of over-sized koi, and you’ve got the picture.

We happened upon the Jardín Japonés on a sizzling hot day when most of the other public gardens were closed. Spying some Asian-style buildings amidst the trees in the distance, we made a beeline across a park towards the sloped-roofed structures. Along the way, we passed the customary assortment of cheerful dogs and professional dog walkers.

A professional dog walker (paseaperro) in Plaza Allemania

Located behind a tall wall and bordered on all sides by traffic-congested avenues, the Jardín Japonés proved to be a quiet oasis in the heart of a boisterous city. Originally given as a gift to Buenos Aires from the Association of Japanese Immigrants, it was constructed in 1967 to celebrate the visit to Argentina by Japan’s Prince Akihito and his wife in May of that year. The future royals’ visit was a big deal for Buenos Aires and the garden was to receive other similar official visits over the ensuing decades.

Entrance to the Jardín Japonés

Today’s 6-acre garden, however, is mainly the work of a Japanese born landscape architect named Yasuo Inomata. The city of Buenos Aires hired Inomata in the mid 70’s to redesign and enlarge the Jardín Japonés to look more like a traditional Japanese garden. Inomata modeled his design after a zen garden, focusing heavily on the critical elements of harmony and equilibrium. The renovation, which was completed in 1979, has since become a bridge for the city’s residents and its visitors to understanding the Japanese culture.

The first thing you notice when you enter the Jardín Japonés is a large artificial lake spanned by three traditional-style Japanese bridges. Painted a distinctive deep red, the bridges each take different forms and carry different symbolic meanings. The largest of the three is the Puente Okayama, also known as Puente Zig Zag Okayama. The flat bridge skims just above the water and meanders back and forth across the northern end of the lake.

Puente Okayama (the zig zag bridge)

The second bridge, called Puente Yamagata, takes the traditional arced form. Also painted red, it is a standout in the middle of the lake. (Also perpetually clogged with tourists, so a clean photo is pretty much out of the question.)

Puente Yamagata

The third bridge, el Puente Plan Ibaraki, is made from rough-hewn planks in a burnished red. The site plan shows it traversing a small cove at the opposite end of the lake. During our visit, however, we observed only two piers facing each other across the water. I loved how the open space between the two piers raised questions as to whether they were meant to connect or simply observe each other. Whether or not this was purposeful, it was one of the most memorable spots for me in the garden.

Puente Plan Ibaraki

At the far end of the park is a large Japanese building housing a restaurant, library and cultural center. There is also a traditional-style Japanese tea house. But what really caught my eye was this checkerboard lawn to the right. Crafted from bright white paving stones and lime green grass, it made me feel like we had popped in on Alice in Wonderland.

Checkerboard lawn

Directly behind the checkerboard lawn and adjacent to the center is a shop selling traditional Japanese plants such as bonsai, orchids and azaleas as well as other native flowering plants.

Plant store

And on the other side of the tea house is a rose garden.

Rose garden

A big draw for children is the giant koi and carp that live and feed in the garden. They swim in colorful clusters along the fringes of the lake and under the bridges where visitors are encouraged to feed them. Their open mouths can be seen bobbing above the surface.

We stopped for a fruit smoothie at the Salon Mie next to a large bell dedicated to immigrants. Its big gong-like sound resonated across the park and sent powerful ripples through our bodies. It was the perfect accompaniment to the next small patio, the Patio Hiroshima, which displays three numbered trees that are descendants of larger trees that survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

The sign reads that the surviving trees were located within a 2000 meter radius of the center of Hiroshima and that the city has registered 170 trees ‘a-bombardeados’ for which they have been given a plaque and a special name. That name is:

HIBAKUJYUMOKU (TREE SURVIVING THE ATOMIC BOMB)

In addition to these highly symbolic areas, the garden boasts more than 150 species of trees and a huge variety of plants representing a combination of Japanese and native Argentinian species. There are acres of white and pink azaleas, Japanese Matsumae-fuki cherry trees. mugo pines, magnolias and Japanese maples as well as native oaks, cedars, tipas and Pal Borracho trees. There are also beautiful mini waterfalls.

And carefully composed arrangements of stones.

The many different elements appear to have happened there naturally, although in the architect’s own words, this is a deliberate misconception.

Inomata said:

Japanese gardens that I create express an element of Buddhism called gokuraku (pure land). In these gardens, the trees and flowers are not arranged in a structured manner so that they can imitate what is found in nature [  ]. At first glance, they may appear disorganized, but in reality they follow an order.

Unlike most other public gardens in Buenos Aires, the Jardín Japonés costs money, with all proceeds going to its maintenance, which is administered by the Fundación Cultural Argentino Japonesa. The garden is also home to festivals and other cultural activities promoting Japanese culture within the city.

For more information on the garden, its location, hours and scheduled activities click here for the official website.

Buenos Aires’ El Rosedal: Taking Time To Smell The Roses

‘A collection of old roses gives a great and increasing pleasure.’

–Vita Sackville-West

There are rose gardens and then there are rose gardens. It’s not every day you come across a rose garden covering nearly 10 acres. But Buenos Aires’ El Rosedal, commonly known as the Jardin de las Rosas (Rose Garden), is just such a place. And the magnificent space is immaculately maintained and surprisingly, free to the public. Continue reading