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.

Planting the Seeds For A Happy New Year

‘Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.’ – Alfred Austin

My first adventure with gardening of sorts involved a decrepit white begonia in a cast iron pot belonging to my mother. Frail and anemic and sporting only one bloom, it languished, (but never died!) in its water logged container. I decided to give it a haircut to see what would happen.

I was very young and my first cut was rather severe. My mom and I waited anxiously for the plant to recover. But over time it did, and as I began experimenting more and more with the forlorn little specimen, I eventually discovered that by careful pruning I could coax the plant into a more uniform shape.

I also found that by playing with the plant’s watering schedule, the begonia gradually lost its yellow-green color and formed deep green healthy stems. Finally one day, I was rewarded with a few tentative white blooms.

Gardening has taught me a lot over the years. I’ve learned to anticipate the needs of my plants and to sense when they’re thirsty or feeling poorly. I don’t love weeding, but I know that it is an essential chore to help my plants thrive. I’ve become sensitive to the slightest shift in the sound of the wind rustling through leaves, the particular calls of my neighborhood birds and the stillness that envelops the garden with the approach of a storm.

These things and more, await even the most amateur of gardeners (and we are all gardeners.)

So as a new year begins, I ’d like to share a few things I’ve learned from a life taking care of plants in the garden. These are not resolutions so much as ways of looking at things. (You don’t need to be a gardener to ‘get’ them.) Here goes:

 

No matter how long the winter, spring always arrives.

Following the particularly rocky year we’ve all experienced in America and abroad, this comes as a reminder that things never stay the same and that life can spring forth from even the darkest of times.

 

Perennials may look like they’ve died, but they’re only resting beneath the surface.

And not only are they resting, they are gathering strength for the coming spring.

 

A little TLC can make almost anything look good.

This goes beyond a good haircut. All living things respond well to a little personal attention. And practicing tender love and care benefits the giver, too.

 

It’s important to periodically clear the weeds.

When weeds become invasive they can have a devastating effect on life’s quality. Taking the time to remove them benefits everyone.

 

Nursing a sick plant back to health produces a really good feeling.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of bringing a sick plant back to health and being rewarded with new foliage and blooms.

 

Life springs eternal

Ok, so maybe this sounds a little hokey, but all gardeners know that new life is always waiting just below the surface. May 2017 be the year that we all strive to tend our own gardens by pulling the weeds, extending a hand to those who need it and appreciating those cycles of life that are so essential to our well being. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Jardin Botanico in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardín Botánico

 

New Study Reveals Ants Know How To Grow Plants

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“Even the sharpest ear cannot hear an ant singing” -Sudanese Proverb

(Red ant on Fijian palm leaf)

Just when you thought you’d heard it all, this week comes the revelation that a certain species of Fijiian ants has been growing plants for millennia.  And they’ve been doing so for far longer than humans. The ants have been growing crops and establishing their colonies within them all while tending their own teeny tiny community gardens.

Researchers from the University of Munich in Germany made the surprising discovery while studying a species of ants called Philidris nagasau. The ants, which are indigenous to Fiji, establish their colonies high in trees on the tropical islands. While observing the ants’ behavior, the scientists discovered that the insects had formed specialized communities devoted entirely to gardening. And they were growing fruit.

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Tropical forest in Fiji

While the earliest known human farming dates back roughly 23,000 years, DNA evidence suggests that Philidris nagasau may have been growing plants as far back as 3 million years. And not only have they been growing fruit, they’ve been cultivating six different species of the same plant known as squamellaria. Squamellaria is a genus of flowering plants in the Rubiaceae family (that includes the coffee plant among others.) It is endemic to the islands of Fiji.

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Squamelleria fruit in macaranga tree

Although many epiphytic plants (plants that grow harmlessly on other plants) have teamed up with ants before to gain nutrients, this is the first instance of a single species of ants actively engaged in planting and fertilizing the seeds of a plant.

How they garden

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“The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.” – Ezra Pound

It turns out that the Fijiian ants are involved in every aspect of gardening, from planting to harvesting, which has a direct impact on their housing and social behavior. The process begins even before the squamelleria are ripe, when the ants start gathering the fruits’ seeds and sowing them in elbows and cracks of the host tree’s branches. As the seeds germinate, the ants stand guard over the tiny sprouts, while fertilizing them with their feces.

ant-drawing

Once the squamelleria begin to mature, they swell into soft, bulbous structures composed of many chambers called domatia. The domatia serve as the ants’ home once they’re large enough for the mini gardeners to enter. As the fruits expand in size, the chambers do, too, and more and more fertilizer-producing ants move in, thus establishing a relationship that is beneficial to both parties.

The ants live inside the domatium during the life of the squamelleria where they form ever expanding colonies. Once the fruit appears, the ants eat the sugary flesh, collect the seeds and repeat the cycle.

According to the researchers, each ant colony farms dozens of fruit plants at the same time, while producing a system of mini highways that link one to another. The entire connected network of community ant farms often encompasses many trees.

palms

Researchers have never encountered these ants living anywhere other than in these fruits nor the plants living without the ants. Neither species can survive without the other.

The study was led by Professor Susanne Renner and Guillaume Chomick and published in the journal Nature Plants.

 

Why Leaves Change Color and Other Fun Fall Facts

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Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

-Albert Camus

Camus has a point. I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective; that is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while, untended, the leaves ‘bloom’ above us.  And each year, nature provides new surprises, awing us with colors so vivid and color combinations so daring as to leave little doubt as to her power to create designs so far superior to our own.

While it’s generally believed that cold weather brings on the change in the leaves’ color, the process is in reality a bit more complex. Yes, temperature and weather can affect the intensity and duration of color, but the real reason for the change lies in the growth process of the tree itself. And just like flowers in the garden, each tree species has its own colors and ‘bloom’ period that corresponds with the closing of each growing season.

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Nature’s garden

Why do leaves change color?

Leaves change color due to the process of photosynthesis. During the growing season, leaves act as food factories for the plant, capturing sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar. A chemical called chlorophyll, which absorbs light energy, is responsible for making this happen. It is also the reason why most leaves are green.

In fall, however, as temperatures drop and the days get shorter, the leaves stop their food making process. As the chlorophyll naturally breaks down, the green color disappears from the leaf and yellow and orange pigments become visible. Although unseen until now, the colors yellow and orange are present in the leaf throughout the growing season.

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Orange-yellow sassafras leaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Still other chemical changes during this shut-down stage result in altogether new pigments being developed such as the colors red and purple. These colors emerge as a result of varying amounts of sugars that are trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis shuts down.

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Maple tree in fall

As fall progresses, the cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem weaken and the leaves begin to fall from the tree. The additional pigments begin to break down and the only color left is brown. Some plants, though, (like oaks) retain their brown foliage for a good part of the winter.

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Sycamore leaves turn shades of brown

Weather has a big effect on color

Weather conditions can affect the leaves’ color and duration and are the reason why each year the landscape looks slightly different. These conditions include temperature, amount of sunlight and available water supply.

Lots of sunlight combined with low temperatures, for instance, produces brighter reds but shortens their duration. An early frost, however, spells the end of the show. And drought stress during the summer can result in early dropping of leaves before they have a chance to form any color at all.

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Sugar maple leaf in process of changing color

Surprisingly, a combination of rain and overcast days tend to increase color intensity.

yellow-orange-leaf

 

While the best and brightest show usually follows a growing season with ample amounts of water followed by a dry spell.

sugar-maple-image

 

Is the Self-Healing House the Garden of the Future?

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Image via Edwin Indira Waskita

There’s a fascinating image that has stuck with me ever since, years ago, I read the sci-fi novel Goodbye and Thanks For All the Fish (the fourth installation in the series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) In the novel, author Douglas Adams describes a four-walled house turned inside out. If you entered the house, you found yourself ‘outside’ in a green space, complete with lawn, benches and walking paths. If you exited the house, you found yourself ‘inside’ in a far less desirable place Adams termed the Asylum. Continue reading

The Asparagus Story

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Sometimes things are bound to grow on you. From an early age, Bess Abell (born Elizabeth Clements) knew that asparagus held an important place in the life of her family. Her mother was a great fan of the leggy vegetable, as was her father, Earle Clements, former Governor of Kentucky (1946-1950), who was an avid gardener and talented chef, too. Continue reading

The Return of the Purple Martin

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As all gardeners know, working in the garden is not just about plants. Being outside with your hands in the soil makes you keenly aware of animal life, too. Over the years, I’ve gardened in tandem with a majestic blue heron, a band of three crows, a tiny brown rabbit and a furry red fox, all of who have added immeasurably to the enjoyment of my garden. Now, with the arrival of warmer weather, I’m awaiting the return of the purple martins. Continue reading

The Upside Down Flower World of Artist Rebecca Louise Law

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St. Christopher’s installation by Rebecca Louise Law/Photo: stchristophersplace.com

Last week in London, British artist Rebecca Louise Law literally turned the flower industry on its head. She suspended 1,200 fresh flowers upside down over the West End’s St. Christopher’s Place. The pop-up display, which was designed to celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, immersed winter-weary shoppers in a colorful oasis as they drifted head first through the suspended garden. Continue reading