Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating; this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity.

The story goes that King Nebuchadnessar II built the gardens for his homesick wife who found the flat, desert terrain of Mesopotamia depressing.  To please her, he created an artificial mountain out of red clay bricks and embellished it with an ascending series of tiered gardens. The plants, which included trees, shrubs and vines, cascaded from the many terraces, giving the very real impression that they were floating.

Artist’s rendering of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon/Photo: unmuseum.org.

By some accounts, the gardens measured 400 feet wide by 400 feet long and towered as high as 80 feet in the air. A stairway led to the uppermost level. Beside the stairway were a series of mechanical screws through which water was continually pumped from the Euphrates to the top of the garden from where it then trickled down. Historians estimate the gardens may have used up to 8,200 gallons of water day to irrigate the plants in this way.

Whether or not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon every existed, I later learned that hanging gardens do flourish in many parts of the world, and just as in Babylon, they often take root in desert environments. Unlike King Nebuchadnessar’s garden masterpiece, however, they are naturally generated and need no help from man. But don’t discount them; they are every bit as grand a feat of landscape engineering.

About Hanging Gardens

Of the many beautiful hanging gardens to be found around the world, Zion National Park lays claim to some of the most unusual. This is largely due to the rock formations that make up the park. These formations, known in geology as the Navajo Formation, provide the perfect environment for hanging gardens to develop.

Unlike their more pampered cousins, hanging gardens are composed of plant communities with a singular ability: they are able to establish themselves in rock, often in desert environments that are hostile to their very survival.

In Zion, we have the Navajo sandstone to thank for these suspended treasures. The deep red sedimentary rock, while by all appearances solid, is highly porous. This allows it to soak up rainwater like a sponge, creating a unique habitat for water-loving plants to thrive in places they would normally never be able to grow.

The combination of this porous sandstone and adjacent levels of impervious (Kaibab) limestone, create the perfect conditions for hanging gardens of all sorts of varieties to develop. As water seeps down through the sandstone, it pools in places where it hits the impenetrable stone. Then, as gravity does its magic, the water fishes its way downward through joints and cracks in the impervious strata, slowly nourishing the hanging gardens that cling to its rocky walls.

Water ‘seeps’ can range from small moist patches on stone to short-lived trickles to full-fledged gushing streams or pools that weep all year. A true hanging garden forms where there is constant seep as well as shade during much of the day to keep plants lush and moist. Plants like ferns, wildflowers, grasses and mosses are often found in these well-watered areas.

It’s a lot like a vertical garden.

 

The Phenomenon of Weeping Rock

Zion’s most famous hanging garden is called Weeping Rock. It is reached by a short but steep trail up a rocky hillside. As the path clears the final rise, dry sand and gravel give way to moss and slippery rocks fed by long ribbons of water oozing from a canyon above. Formed of impermeable shale, the canyon floor sheds the water down through the porous rock until it finally finds a place where it can penetrate.

At Weeping Rock, the permeable layer has eroded further than the impermeable layer of rock, forming a shelf where water can collect. The water streams down the sandstone walls and across the terrace, eventually cascading over the edge into a pool below.

Weeping Rock at Zion National Park

Pool where water collects under Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock is best viewed from beneath its natural arch, which features a garland of mosses and ferns. The seeping walls of the crescent-shaped stone terrace are home to lush green vegetation, which includes wildflowers, ferns, grasses and orchids, all of which can be found growing right out of the rock. Some are even growing upside down.

Aquilegia grahamii columbine

The columbine Aquilegia grahamii, known to grow in extremely fragile environments, is also found growing throughout the park. Its brilliant yellow and mango blooms add a bright touch to the red stone walls.

Orchid and columbine growing out of the rock walls of Zion

As do orchids, monkey flowers and other beautiful plant specimens.

For more information on Zion National Park and its hanging gardens, click here for the National Park Service website.

Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers.

Brian Head Peak

The Patchwork Parkway is unique in that it follows ancient Native American routes as it climbs from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in the process passing from one climatic zone to another. At 9,300 feet it encounters Brian Head, one of the highest-elevated occupied towns in Utah. The focal point of Brian Head is Brian Head Peak, which at 11,307 feet is the center of the Grand Circle of National Parks that includes Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Indian paintbrush on Brian Head Peak

I drove part of the Patchwork Parkway last year but never made it as far as Brian Head Peak let alone experience the wildflowers. So this week, my daughter and I took the car and set out again, picking up the route at a small town called Panguitch. True to its name, the Parkway wove us through a colorful assortment of cultures, villages and climates. At the lower elevations we passed through one-street towns with a single cross street, their one story storefronts simmering in the hot afternoon sun.

Climbing higher, the temperature dropped as we entered the Dixie National Forest. Donning sweatshirts, we pulled off at the turn outs to admire the ever expanding view. But the real surprise came when, crossing the rutted landscape of the Markagunt Plateau, we glimpsed the smooth green face of Brian Head Peak itself, rising like a giant whale out of a sea of wildflowers.

Approach to Brian Head Peak off Patchwork Parkway

It’s hard to imagine how flowers can thrive in such wide open spaces with poor rocky soil and only scant precipitation for water. But here they were, vast fields of them, gently swaying in the keen mountain air. The wildflowers spread outward through the landscape in long waves of purple, yellow, orange, pink, white and blue, representing an astonishing variety of species.

Turning off of the Parkway, we chose a narrow dirt road that climbed around Brian Head Peak to the right. As it followed the curve of the hill, the dusty track rose through a sloping meadow thick with flowers. Our car passed through broad drifts of blue-purple mountain larkspur interspersed with small-flowered penstemon, its double clusters of lavender blue flowers teeming with bees. There were pint-sized groupings of woody aster with its bright yellow eye and here and there, the feathery bristles of Indian paintbrush added a bright red accent to the picture.

Tall mountain larkspur

Showy goldeneye, a member of the sunflower family

Small-flowered penstemon and bee

Further up the rise, the broad swathes of meadow flowers gave way to lone clusters of flowers common to upper elevations. Stubbornly clinging to the steep rocky slope were pale white columbines and 4-foot high clusters of tall mountain bluebells. The bluebells’ deep blue nodding blooms and bluish-green leaves, more akin to a woodland setting, provided a stark contrast to the dusty grey soil.

White columbines

Tall mountain bluebells

Closer to the peak, the white columbines were joined by others in pastel shades of blue, including the white and lavender Rocky Mountain columbine with its distinctive white cup and fringed yellow center. The Rocky Mountain columbine is the state flower of Colorado and its colors are symbolic. The blue petals represent sky, the white cup snow and the yellow center symbolizes Colorado’s gold mining history.

Rocky Mountain columbine, the state flower of Colorado

Finally we mounted a rise and the summit appeared before us, a rocky plateau whose only feature was a lone cabin perched on the edge of a cliff. A sign read that the structure was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. From this vantage point, you could see parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, part of a staggering vista that extended in every direction for hundreds of miles.

Civilian Conservation Corps hut built in 1935

Yet, even here in this inhospitable place, plants were growing. Moss spread tiny green carpets while tucked into the bare rocks were colonies of colorful rock lichens. And on the cliff face itself the rocks were spattered with neon patches of Pleopsidium, a lichen that prefers the surface of vertical rocks.

Neon-colored lichen growing on the cliffs of Brian Head Peak

Not to be outdone, the bright yellow blooms of cinquefoil provided a welcome touch of greenery at the cabin’s threshold.

Cinquefoil blooming at 11,000 feet

All in all, a great day spent in nature’s garden.

Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world.

 

ABOUT

Located at York Street, the Denver Botanic Gardens unfolds gradually, as step by step one beautiful garden flows seamlessly into another. There are 17 arid gardens showcasing plants that thrive in Colorado’s dry climate, internationally inspired gardens, ornamental gardens, shade gardens and water gardens. And that’s not all – there’s an ornamental vegetable garden and countless garden ‘vignettes’ in between, enough to make your head spin with all the horticultural inspiration.

Here are some highlights of the different gardens I visited.

The O’Fallon Perennial Walk

I love to meander, so we didn’t bother looking at the map and within moments found ourselves at the base of the O’Fallon Perennial Walk. Backed by a hedge of formally pruned native juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), the impressive border featured many of the plants I use in my designs back East. There were generous drifts of colorful bearded irises, yarrow, perennial geraniums, lime green lady’s mantle and ice blue amsonia (Texas Star) along with roses, boxwood and barberry, to name just a few.

Apricot Iris germanica

Aside from the beautiful plants, the cool thing about this border is its design. The hedged borders are angled so that the views from the north end (viewed in photo) make the south end appear farther away than it actually is. I also couldn’t help but notice that the plants were double the size I’m used to seeing – must be the dry Denver air!

Next up were a series of gardens called the Romantic Gardens. The Tuscan-style Schlessman Plaza features rustic stone columns, stucco walls and a pair of brick and stucco pavilions. The formal beds are planted with perennials and shrubs and flanked by ornamental crabapple trees.

Schlessman Plaza

Ornamental crabapples at Schlessman Plaza

The Fragrance Garden features raised beds of bright-colored perennials including  Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Dianthus ‘First Love’, Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue,’ Monarda ‘Marshall’s Delight’, Nepeta and copious amounts of Love-In-A-Mist (Nigella) all accented by the silvery foliage of Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ (Silver Fountain Butterfly Bush) and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. The drought-resistant plants and shrubs are further enhanced by the grey stucco wall.

 The Fragrance Garden

Rounding a corner, we stumbled on an elliptical garden centered on a brilliant red and yellow Chihuly sculpture. The sunken garden entitled The Ellipse features roses from the May-Bonfils Stanton collection along with hydrangeas, lilies and daylilies chosen to coordinate with the jewel-toned glass (which reminded me of a red hot poker flower). The sculpture was specially commissioned for the Denver Botanic Gardens and installed in 2014. It is called ‘Colorado.’

The Ellipse in honor of Nancy Schotters

Path bordered by Sweet Alyssum that encircles the Ellipse

Reflecting pool at the end of the Fragrance Garden

The Herb Garden, to the left of the Fragrance Garden, was designed for ‘health and culinary enjoyment’ according to the brochure. The garden is maintained in collaboration with the Metro Denver Herbalists and includes basil, thyme, oregano, lavender and lemon verbena and other Italian herbs. Some of the herbs are used to make soaps and other herb blends that are sold in the Garden Shop.

Herb Garden medallion made of Wooly Thyme

Close-up of the medallion

Adjacent to the Herb Garden is the Scripture Garden, a contemplative space filled with plants that originate in the ‘Fertile Crescent’; the area common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Many of the trees, shrubs and flowers symbolize the various faiths’ religious stories. This includes a stand of olive trees whose species is native to the Mediterranean area. Unable to withstand the Denver winter, the trees spend the coldest months indoors in the garden greenhouses.

The Scripture Garden

From this quiet area we headed to the Space Pyramid, a futuristic-looking grey and black mosaic pyramid located at the heart of the garden. The Pyramid is home to a 60-inch spherical globe that simulates how the earth looks from space.

Space Pyramid and fountain at Denver Botanic Gardens

Adjacent to the Space Pyramid is the Ornamental Grasses Garden. Who knew there could be such variety? The beautiful garden encompasses a wide variety of traditional and new ornamental grasses including Indian ricegrass, switchgrass, cutleaf staghorn sumac and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) a native to the eastern plains of Colorado.

Ornamental Grasses Garden

The sculpture in the back is called ‘So Proud Of My Children’ and was created by Nicholas Kadzungara.

I loved this garden space with a sheet metal sculpture by Alexander Calder entitled ‘Polygons on Triangles.’ It was the perfect counterpoint to all the torch lilies.

Another view of the orange and yellow torch lilies, so striking popping up from among the grasses.

June’s Plantasia showcases the plants and planting traditions of Asia. River rocks, designed to mimic the flow of water, cover the paths and change direction depending on where you want to walk. For example, the direction of the river rocks on the bridge matches the direction of the stream below.

River rock path in June’s Plantasia

Close-up of river rocks

Allium silhouetted against a black rock in June’s Plantasia

Here are some garden vignettes near June’s Plantasia

Iris ‘Wake Up Call’

The Dwarf Conifer Garden displays the largest collection of Jerry Morris’ dwarf conifers in the world. Morris is internationally known for his groundbreaking work with conifers, including the development of species with more desirable traits like bluer foliage, longer needles and better disease resistance.

Jerry Morris Conifer Garden

A secluded spot nearby.

Compared with all of the greenery we had just experienced, the Rock Alpine Garden was a breath of dry air. This garden features plants from high elevation regions around the world. The landscape includes over 2000 different plant species. Rugged rocks add to the garden’s appeal.

Rock Alpine Garden

The Gates Montane Garden was created in 1961 by S.R. DeBoer as a tribute to the late Charles C. Gates.  It is designed to mimic the mountain setting of the Gate’s property in Bear Creek Canyon. The shady woodland path is a nice contrast to the Alpine Garden with its mix of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Columbines in the Gates Montane Garden

The Plains Garden depicts what the Denver landscape looked like prior to development. The majority of the seeds were procured from within 30 miles of Denver and represent such signature plants as Blue Grama grass, Buffalo grass and Liatris punctata (spotted gayfeather.) This garden survives on precipitation alone.

Plains Garden

Water plays a dominant theme in the Denver Botanic Gardens through which it meanders, alternately taking the form of streams, reflecting pools, fountains and water courses. We stepped out from the Plains Garden to encounter a large paved space crisscrossed by water pathways. Known as the Monet Pool, the water garden features an impressive array of waterlilies, lotus and cattails.

The Denver Botanic garden is a world leader in aquatic gardening and variety and breadth of aquatic plants.

The Monet Pool

The Potager, or Kitchen Garden, is encircled by the Monet water pathways. The edible plants are arranged in ornamental patterns.

Le Potager

These gardens are only a fraction of what you can see at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which brings new surprises with each passing season.

At the time of our visit, the gardens were embellished by sculptures by Alexander Calder. For more information on the gardens, click here for the Denver Botanic Gardens website. And don’t forget to visit the Conservatory for more eye-opening experiences.

 

Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations.

About

Located high on a hill in Washington, DC on the northern edge of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is an historic property, including a 19th century house, art museum and gardens of world-class distinction. It is the legacy of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, noted philanthropists and collectors of art, who purchased the property in 1920. At that time, the now 53-acre estate included an 1801 Federal-style home, six acres of steeply graded farmland and a series of sadly neglected gardens.

Entrance to main house at Dumbarton Oaks

The Blisses had just arrived home from two decades abroad and were keen on creating ‘a country estate in the city.’ They fell in love with the sloping terrain of Dumbarton Oaks and spent the next twenty years renovating the house and expanding the gardens. To help her transform the land, Mildred hired renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand. The project, which was to end up encompassing both formal and informal designs, is today considered to be Farrand’s most ambitious garden.

A view across today’s many-tiered garden

Beatrix and Mildred worked together to design and build an intricate landscape with a distinctive American flair while incorporating elements of Italian and English garden style (assimilated during the couples’ extensive travels abroad). This allowed the garden to remain flexible and over time, it has evolved to include new designs, plantings and ornamentation. Some say that the women created one of the “greatest garden ensembles in American landscape history.”

Mildred Bliss/Photo: Dumbarton Oaks

To preserve her vision, Farrand documented all her plants and the reasons for their selection in The Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks. Completed in the 1940s, it remains the key resource for maintaining the gardens in the style Beatrix and Mildred intended them to be.

In 1940, the Blisses cofounded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to display their collect of rare books, documents, art and other objects accumulated during their years abroad. They also donated the mansion, outbuildings and formal gardens to Harvard University (Robert’s alma mater).

An unusual azalea variety at Dumbarton Oaks

In 1963, a Garden Library was added to the house to display Mrs. Bliss’s collection of rare and modern garden books. And today, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection is a Washington, DC institute administered by the Trustees of Harvard University. In addition to offering fellowships, internships and exhibitions in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape studies, Dumbarton Oaks includes a Museum of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and a Music room that provides a venue for concerts and lectures.

In a 1940 letter to his wife Mildred, Robert wrote,

‘At Dumbarton Oaks you have created something very beautiful, very special both in the garden and inside the house. It will remain a monument to your taste, knowledge and understanding – a delight to all who visit it and a great resource to those who are fortunate enough to work there. ‘

 

THE GARDENS

Farrand’s 1921 design was built around a phased transition from formal to informal spaces, ending in a woodland landscape (also designed) in the valley below the mansion. The design included numerous ponds, streams and garden ornaments all of which provided focal points in the gardens.

Today, the garden staff continue to evolve the gardens, creating one magical space after another.

The Tour

A visit to the gardens begins behind the main house on the Arbor Terrace, a broad swath of lawn overlooking the lower gardens.

The terrace is bordered by stone walls and an arbor that, at the time of my visit, was covered in wisteria.

Descending a staircase flanked by boxwood hedges (the garden’s central axis), we passed a hillside of cherry trees (no longer blooming) followed by Crabapple Hill.

A pebble and flagstone path bordered by peonies and other spring perennials led us deeper into the lower gardens.

The Pebble Garden features elaborate stonework laid in the shape of a wheat shaft. It is surrounded by trellises of wisteria and low flowerbeds. Pairs of stone columns lend a sense of enclosure to the dramatic space.

The Pebble Garden

Here is another view of the top of the Pebble Garden from the house terrace. (The students get to use the pool after-hours.)

Everywhere on the property are small niches complemented with interesting architectural elements. We passed by this one on the way to the Rose Garden. The Urn Terrace functions as the transition from the Boxwood Walk to the Rose Garden.

The Urn Terrace

The Rose Garden follows classical lines. Groups of same-species roses are laid out in geometrical grids accented by large and small orbs of loosely-clipped boxwood.

The garden is complemented by an antique stone bench.

Antique stone bench in the Rose Garden

Descending further down the slope, we arrived at the Fountain Terrace, a traditional flower garden.

The Fountain Terrace flower garden 

Close-up of the bright-colored flower borders on the Fountain Terrace

Close by the Fountain Terrace, is the English-style Herbaceous Border, which stretches back up the hill, provides an expansive view of all its riotous spring flowers.

Herbaceous Border

Lovers’ Lane Pool offers a quiet respite from all the color. The medium-sized garden features a shallow pool at the base of a small brick amphitheater bordered by bamboo.

Lovers Lane Pool

This small garden was designed by one of the interns at Dumbarton Oaks.

Small garden

The Plum Walk, with its identical rows of purple-toned trees, guides visitors further down the slope to the vegetable and cutting gardens.

Prunus Walk

A view of one of the vegetable gardens through the plum tree canopy

Lower vegetable and cutting garden

Old espaliered fruit trees underplanted with spring perennials border the gardens.

Aside from the Arbor Terrace with its magnificent wisteria, the Ellipse is a standout with its double row of formally-clipped hornbeams at the center of which is a simple fountain surrounded by a moat. The fountain is original to Farrand’s design, although the hornbeams are not. They replaced a boxwood-lined enclosure planted in the 1920s.

Hornbeam Ellipse

Located at the base of the gardens, the mostly-green space is peaceful and serene with its geometric shapes and quiet reflecting pool. Dumbarton Oaks is famous for this aerial hedge of pleached hornbeams, which provide a sense of enclosure while offering tantalizing glimpses of other gardens beyond. A great way to finish off a tour of these lovely gardens.

For more about Dumbarton Oaks, its history and hours of operation, click here for the official website.

 

Mount Sharon: Finding Gold In The Hills Of Orange, Virginia

Mount Sharon Rose Garden/Photo: Here By Design

The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon

High on a hilltop in beautiful Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it sits on the second highest point in the county. The magnificent property, which includes a brick house in the Georgian Revival style, is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this historic French garden. Continue reading

Bridging the Gap: DC To Build First Elevated Park On 11th Street Bridge

Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing

There’s a new movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been neglected or forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a 1.5 mile landscaped park on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is perhaps the most well known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation on the theme: the 11th Street Bridge Park, the city’s first elevated park that will soon be floating above the Anacostia River. Continue reading

All’s Fair At Macy’s 44th Annual Spring Flower Show

Revolving carousel at Macy’s Spring Flower Show

New York City’s Macy’s Day Parade is an American fall tradition with its festive floats, high school marching bands and trademark balloons. But until this weekend, I had never heard of another spectacular show sponsored each spring by the 100-year-old department store. That is, the Macy’s Flower Show; a show so big that it transforms an entire floor of the giant Herald Square building into a veritable garden extravaganza. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.