Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time, in a clear demonstration of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices.

I’ve always been fascinated by this area of study that attempts to understand how these pioneering plants came to be. Back in 1643, the Roman botanist Domenico Panaroli (1587-1657) was interested, too, when he began compiling the world’s first inventory of plants growing in the ruins of Rome’s Colosseum. Of the many species he observed, he discovered that most originated not in Italy, but in North Africa.

Inside view of Rome’s Colossium

In his book titled Flora of the ColosseumPlantarum Amphytheatralium Catalogus, Panaroli identified 337 ruderal plants growing in and around the different climatic zones of the 6-acre colosseum. The lush vegetation, which was thriving without apparent need for cultivation, exhibited a dynamic intermix of native and nonnative species. The surprising findings led Panaroli to hypothesize that the foreign plants had traveled in with birds, or by wind or possibly on the coats of animals brought to fight in the ancient arena.

Daniel in the lion’s den

Two hundred years later, an English doctor named Richard Deakin recorded a total of 420 species growing simultaneously in the ruins. The plants, which he documented in his 1855 book Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, included figs and vines, wild roses, orchids and dianthus, many of which had naturalized in the microclimates of the Roman forum. He wrote:

The object of the present little volume is to call the attention of the lover of the works of creation to those floral productions which flourish, in triumph, upon the ruins of a single building. [ ] Though without speech, they tell of that regenerating power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness.

Wild rose, Rosa canina

Today the list of species from the Colosseum has grown to 684. Of these, over two hundred of the species first identified by Panaroli still remain.


In our lifetime, or at least mine, one of the largest ecological disasters occurred in 1986 in Ukraine when an explosion and fire in the Chernobyl nuclear plant released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The catastrophic nuclear disaster contaminated an area of approximately 1000 square miles in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is now referred to as the Exclusion Zone.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

In the first decade following the accident, though, scientists began noting an important development in the composition of the area’s microscopic organisms. As a result of their exposure to high levels of radioactive contamination, the bacteria had started mutating more rapidly. And they were beginning to create new radiation-proof forms of life.

The worst-affected woodland, composed primarily of Scots pines, is today known as the Red Forest. (The name comes from the ginger-brown color the trees assumed after absorbing the intense doses of radiation.) Although the majority of the pines were bulldozed and then buried in trenches, today scientists are observing what they call an unnatural selection. New types of plants have started growing in the forest and their biodiversity is increasing.

Plants growing in an abandoned amusement park near Chernobyl

In fact, in the last ten years, the M.G. Kholodny Botanical Institute of NAS of Ukraine has recorded intensive processes of reforestation as well as the presence of more than 40 different trees that have begun appearing in the Red Forest. These include some entirely new species.

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, is now growing in the Chernobyl area.

Left undisturbed by humans, aggressive ecologies of native species, including several new kinds of natural lichen and grasses, have developed. As they commingle with other nonnative groups, the Chernobyl plants are combining to form species that have never before been envisioned. Some of the plants and animals have even evolved a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants to help them resist the effects of pervasive radiation: attributes that may one day help humans develop some of their own.

Oliver Kellhammer  is an artist, educator, activist and writer. Through his botanical interventions and public art projects, he seeks to demonstrate nature’s surprising ability to recover from ecological damage. His evolving body of work has taken such forms as small-scale urban eco-forestry, inner city community agriculture and the restoration of eroded railway ravines.

Concrete Island by Oliver Kellhammer

In 2006, Kellhammer created a botanical garden of ruderal plants for the World Urban Forum, which was held in a former heavy equipment plant in Vancouver, British Columbia. For his exhibition, Kelhammer chose a disused corner of the site, a concrete rectangle, where a variety of weeds and other plants appeared to be flourishing. Rubble, garbage and other debris had provided the perfect conditions for ruderal plants such as scotch broom, cottonwood and Himalayan blackberry as well as several species of mosses and grasses to grow.

Kellhammer noted that the plants comprised both native and nonnative species; a reflection of sorts of the city’s Asian, European and native British Columbian inhabitants. To call attention to the plants, he installed botanical labels on the various species with the option to push on a button to connect visitors’ cell phones to recorded information. The Concrete Garden provided interesting insights into the workings of ruderal plants as well as nature’s incredible resiliency.

Yes, Mother Nature is full of surprises. One has only to look to the Colosseum, Chernobyl and innumerable abandoned areas around the world to see the processes of her regeneration, proving that architecture, like all of us, is inevitably ephemeral.

New York City’s Flower District: Green Oasis In A Concrete Jungle


New York City’s historic flower district

It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a jungle. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a certain stretch of New York City’s West 28th street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the city’s teeming sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle.

Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district covers just a little over a block between 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. But what it may lack for in size, it more than makes up for in appearance. The garden oasis is home to about two dozen vendors specializing in everything from fresh-cut flowers and indoor tropical plants to exotic orchids, unusual foliage, spring flowering branches and floral supplies.


A walk through the district immediately immerses you in the smell of fresh greenery and floral fragrances emanating from the hundreds of plants lining the sidewalk. During our visit, we navigated around jumbles of colorful bedding plants, metal buckets overflowing with fresh flowers and giant shrubs standing guard at the curbside. As delivery men raced past us pushing carts loaded with foliage, we peered into humid shops selling towering palms, tropical houseplants and rows of exotic orchids, stacked floor to ceiling.


A centuries old tradition

Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition going all the way back to the 19th century. Many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s original floral trade began on a ferry dock on East 34th street where it eventually became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. Wholesalers would gather at the dock to sell flowers that were brought in by ferry from growers on Long Island. The mostly German, Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants sold their fresh merchandise from tiny shops and wooden pushcarts to retailers throughout the city.


As demand rose for cut flowers, many of the wholesalers relocated to West 28th street to gain access to more affluent buyers and to be closer to Ladies’ Mile, home to many of the day’s most fashionable department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Lord and Taylor. New York City’s flower district was born.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.46.05 AMNew York City Flower Market circa 1904

By the mid 20th century, the market was flourishing with around 60 vendors. According to a 2004 New York Times article, by 1977  more flowers were being bought and sold in New York than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Amsterdam.

The floral rush hour

On the morning of our visit, deliverymen were rapidly unloading bundles of cut flowers and tropical houseplants from trucks and rolling plant racks into position in front of the various wholesale establishments. While we sidestepped around colorful flats of plants, a steady stream of white vans, emblazoned with the logos of area nurseries, pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already congested street.


Although we had arrived at 9:30 am, the real action is said to begin around 5 am. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start appearing to select from the first deliveries of the day. Many have developed special relationships with particular wholesale establishments over the years who regularly supply them with rare and unusual specimens.

sidewalk display 1

A peek into International Garden Inc. is a journey back to the early 20th century. Its white tiled walls with black banding, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted staghorn ferns add to the old-time charm, providing a glimpse into what the New York City flower district might have looked like in its heyday. We observed a number of professionals standing lost in thought before tables stocked high with exotic foliage while elsewhere designers provided creative direction to staff as they rapidly assembled arrangements.


As we navigated the market, towering palms, clipped yews and upright box temporarily muffled out the noise of the city. In front of one store we stopped to admire the wide selection of spring-flowering branches including cherry, forsythia and pussy willows, wrapped tightly in bundles. Stacked upright and leaning closely together, they were almost as tall as we were.


While the 5 am crowd is strictly composed of professional designers and florists, by mid morning when the market opens to the general public, the sidewalks are teeming with everyday people. The atmosphere is bustling and sociable, with lots of interaction between buyers and sellers. This is partly due to the fact that none of the plants are priced, which makes it necessary to approach owners to bargain.


Caribbean Cuts, located at 120 West 28th, specializes in unusual tropical flowers and foliage from Puerto Rico. Their impressive merchandise includes gigantic elephant ears, eucalyptus and palm fronds as well as exotic florals. The 12-year-old business own farms in the Caribbean where they grow their own products for sale.


Exotic palms for sale at NYC’s Caribbean Cuts

My daughter nicknamed this alley “Plants waiting to get into the club,” which seemed somehow appropriate for the city.


Sadly today, the number of vendors in New York’s flower district has dwindled to only around two dozen shops, battered by pressure to turn valuable real estate into more profitable ventures. There has been talk about moving the market, but so far no new location has been identified. Meanwhile the vendors continue to do a lively trade, supplying fresh florals to the top designers and hotels in the city.

shelves of plants

The New York City Flower District is open Monday through Saturday. Get there early to get in on the action. Most vendors close up shop around noon.


Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens

Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It was perched on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered its flowers smelled exactly like chocolate.

Our guide explained that the plant was called ‘Sharry Baby,’ commonly known as Chocolate Oncidium; a member of a large family of orchids admired for their beautiful flower shape and dozens of blooms. This was news to me, because like many people, I was mainly acquainted with the common orchid Phalaenopsis, most notable for its large, flat-shaped blooms and attractive, low-maintenance qualities.

Chocolate oncidium, commonly known as Sharry Baby

Thus began my foray into the exotic world of these diverse and beautiful plants.

Branching out, I began looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge. So it happened that while in Mexico, I found myself touring an off-beat orchid garden called Lo de Perla located high on a mountainside in a tropical jungle. There, in the deep humid shade of giant ferns, tall palms and monster-like climbing vines, thousands of orchids known as epiphytes were growing wild on trees.

I learned that most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of other plants, such as trees. For this reason, they are often referred to as ‘air plants.’ At Lo de Perla, there seemed to be an infinite number of varieties. The garden also had a small greenhouse in a clearing filled with hundreds of rare and unusual species.

One of the many beautiful orchids at Lo de Perla

Then last year, I heard about a spectacular orchid show being held at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Located in the museum’s main lobby, it was curated by the Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden and featured hundreds of orchids in a customized gallery created by the Hirshhorn’s own designers. The curved structure was constructed of random-shaped cubby holes, each featuring a single orchid species. My daughter and I were duly impressed.

2017 Hirshhorn Orchid Exhibit

But this year, I received my best education to date at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.  Each year, from January through March, it hosts an orchid extravaganza. This was my first time visiting the show and as expected, the conservatory was brimming with jaw-dropping installations.

Orchid arch in East Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

There were huge spheres of Phalaenopsis orchids hanging throughout the conservatory.

And some unusual varieties like this Laelia undulata, that from afar looked more like an allium than an orchid. But close up, you could clearly see all of the little orchid flowers.

Laelia undulata

Close-up of Laelia undulata

Ample signage dispersed throughout the garden, confirmed that the orchid family, or Orchidaceae, is exceptionally diverse in terms of size, color, floral structure, fragrance and origin. One of the largest families of flowering plants, it is considered the most evolutionary advanced plant family due to its highly specialized floral structure.

An exhibition of Phalaenopsis hybrids from Taiwan rarely seen in the United States was on display in a hallway adjoining the conservatory. It demonstrated a specialized technique perfected by experts in Taiwan for growing these orchids. The plants are notable for the length of time they hold their flowers and for the number of flower-pairs blooming in perfect unison on each stalk, a quality that was instantly discernible.

Phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

Close-up of white phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

The real education began, however, when winding our way through the labyrinth of greenhouses that adjoin the main conservatory, we spotted an exhibit focused mainly on instruction. In a long hallway adjacent to the bonsai exhibit, we discovered hundreds of colorful specimens from Longwood’s own orchid collection. Started in 1922, the collection contains over 2,000 types of showy and unusual varieties.

Attached to the wall behind the orchids were signs describing the main characteristics of the Cattleya, Miltoniopsis, Vanda, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Masdevallia,  Paphiopedium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis varieties.

Here are some stand-outs and a little about each:

Cattleya orchids are exceptionally showy and often fragrant. Also known as corsage orchids, they were the most popular variety in the early 20th century.

Cattleya orchid

Miltoniopsis orchids, commonly known as pansy orchids, are native to Central and South America. They are most notable for their large flowers and long stems that can carry up to seven or more blooms at a time.

Miltoniopsis orchid

Vanda orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia. They are known to be some of the bluest flowers in the orchid world. Almost always vibrantly colored, they can range in hue from dark purple to red, pink, yellow and white.

Vanda orchid

Unlike many other orchid varieties, cymbidium orchids, which are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, need cool temperatures and bright light to flower. Most carry many flowers on a single stem. They are often used in cut flower arrangements.

Cymbidium orchid

Dendrobium orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Oceana. They are unusual in that they grow on rocks in addition to trees. A large genus with over 1,000 species, they are sometimes referred to as ‘rock orchids.’

Dendrobium orchid

Masdevallia orchids can bloom year round in the right conditions. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, they are sometimes referred to as ‘little flag orchids.’

Masdevallia orchid

Paphiopedium orchids, also known as slipper orchids, have a large pouch that resembles a shoe. Native to China and tropical Asia, they usually carry just one flower per stem.

Paphiopedium orchid

Oncidium orchids (of which the aforementioned chocolate-scented Sharry Baby is one) are a large genus of over around 300 species. (They also have hundreds of close relatives.) Commonly known as dancing ladies, they are native to South America.

Oncidium orchid

The most common orchid variety, Phalaenopsis orchids are the easiest to grow. Also known as moth orchids, they have large, flat blooms and thick green upright leaves. Native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, they grow mainly as epiphyties.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Thinking of heading to the store? Many orchids are easier to care for than you might think. Just remember, since most of them are used to growing in air, they don’t like lots of water or heavy soil around their roots. Water once a week in the morning, allowing the plant to completely dry out between waterings. Never leave your orchid standing in water, which will quickly rot the roots.

USPS Puts Its Stamp On America’s Most Beautiful Blooms

Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series

You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season.

Located in Gallery 6 on the lower level of the Museum, Beautiful Blooms: Flowering Plants on Stamps marks the first collaborative effort between the National Postal Museum and Smithsonian Gardens. Designed to commemorate the issuance of U.S. stamps featuring American botanicals, it displays 33 original pieces of conceptual art alongside the floral stamps they helped to develop.

The exhibit is colorful and uplifting and not only for the sheer beauty of the illustrations. Touring the artworks, I was struck by the decades of effort that have gone in to creating the stamps, for the sole purpose of raising awareness for our nation’s natural beauty.

Multi-color printing helped pave the way

Although the first U.S. stamps to depict flowers (as a frame) date back to 1920, flowers themselves appeared rarely in designs until the late 1950’s. This is when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing installed a series of new printing presses that enabled multicolor stamp printing.

Following the adoption of this revolutionary printing process, the U.S. and Japan in 1960 issued a joint stamp commemorating the centennial of the United States – Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The 4-cent stamp featured pink cherry blossoms with the Washington Monument silhouetted in blue in the background.

Flowers became a central motif in 1966 with the launch of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America. Under her initiative, the Johnson administration, through the U.S. Post Office Department, issued a series of floral stamps to raise awareness (and funds) for the beautification of public spaces.

To develop the stamp design, several artists submitted color concept drawings for staff to review. Lady Bird, herself, played a key role in selecting the final images.

Concept art for 1966 stamp publicizing Beautify America campaign

In 1969, following the success of the first Beautify America stamp, a series of 4 stamps was issued to draw attention to public spaces at all government levels, from the federal to the state and local. Expanding on the theme, the winning images drew on a wider variety of species, including such iconic American plants as daffodils, tulips and cherry trees.

Approved art for 1969 stamp series

As a result of Lady Bird’s efforts (and sales of the stamps), the United States added thousands of flowering trees and plants to public roadways and parks during this period.

Four Seasons of Garden Flowers

In 1992, the USPS issued a sheet of 50, 29-cent stamps, featuring wildflowers from each of the fifty United States. In dedicating the Wildflower stamps, then- assistant postmaster general Gordon Morison said:

“Starting today, millions of wildflower stamps will begin blooming in the upper right corner of cards and letters. As these stamps blanket the postal landscape, they will carry two messages. One is the personal message written on the card or letter inside the envelope. The other is the message of the stamps themselves – that our nation’s wildflowers add natural grace and beauty to our lives.”

The stamps turned out to be so popular that the service subsequently created the Garden Flowers series of stamps, one for each season, featuring flowers typically found in the American garden. The series ran from 1993 to 1996.

Conceptual art for the 1993-1996 Garden Flowers stamp series

Final stamps

Pollination stamp

Apparently the USPS is no stranger to the link between flowering plants and their pollinators. In 2007, artists submitted designs for a stamp representing the symbiotic relationship between the two. The beautiful image (below) was not chosen, but represents one of the conceptual drawings for the Pollination stamp.

Concept image for Pollinator stamp series

The final stamps, a stunning digital compilation of images, featured horticultural illustrations seen from two different perspectives; one with pollinators in the center and the other with flowers as the central motif.

2007 Pollinator stamp series

Birds in the Garden Series

The creators of the 1982 Birds in the Garden series were Arthur and Alan Singer, the first-known father and son team to develop art for a U.S. stamp series. Their conceptual designs drew attention to the integral role birds play in the garden in controlling pests, aiding in pollination and adding color and beauty to the landscape. Arthur created the bird designs and Alan created the flowers.

A stamp in the 1982 Birds in the Garden U.S. stamp series

At the time of their issue, the Birds in the Garden stamps were the best-selling stamps in U.S. postal history.

The launch of the Rose Series

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan designated the rose, one of the most common images found on stamps worldwide, as the official flower and floral emblem of the United States. In 1988, Illustrator Richard Sheaff developed this concept art (one of many) for the 25-cent Love stamp. He based his drawing on a series of photographs of roses.

Concept art for 1988 25-cent Love stamp

By the 1990s, the rose stamp was being issued in numerous formats, including books, panes and coils. Artist Gyo Fujikawa created the 3rd, 4th and 5th designs.

The Rose stamp continues to be one of the most popular images sold.

Flowering Trees Series

These beautiful pieces of concept art immediately call to mind the images of Audubon. The stamp series featured flowering trees native to different geographic regions of North America portrayed in an old-fashioned botanical print style.

Approved art for Pacific Dogwood stamp

Final 32-cent stamp

The Botanical Congress

I wasn’t aware that there was a Congress devoted solely to botanicals, but the International Botanical Congress (IBC) meets every six years to discuss plant sciences research and nomenclature issues. It is tradition for the country hosting the event to issue a stamp in its honor.

These developmental artworks commemorate the 11th IBC held in 1969 in Seattle Washington. It was the first time Latin names had been used on botanical stamps.

1969 Botanical Congress commemorative stamp

For more information on this lovely exhibit, click here for The National Postal Museum’s website. On view now through July 14, 2019. The Museum is located directly across from Union Station.


Finding Your Center on the Labyrinth Path

Children walking a labyrinth

Sometimes life can seem like a maze full of twists and turns and lots of dead ends. It’s not always clear how to approach the center. But for those willing to walk its cousin, the labyrinth, there can be true transformation. Some say the process ultimately leads to insights into the circuitous path of life itself.

A labyrinth is not a maze

The words labyrinth and maze are often used interchangeably, but in practice they are not the same. While both are composed of meandering paths leading towards a center, there is one key difference: where the maze has many paths, the labyrinth has only one.

The Maze

Many of us have harrowing tales to tell of our first experience navigating a maze. That’s because a maze is purposely designed to confuse us. My first time involved a gigantic hedge maze located at Longleat in Wiltshire, England. With the central observation tower clearly in view, I managed nonetheless to get hopelessly lost and had to use the ‘cheater’ arrows to work my way out.

Hedge maze

Mazes are multicursal, meaning they are made up of multiple paths and directions. Many also have more than one entrance and exit. The Longleat maze, with nearly 2 miles of paths to choose from, is the largest in Britain. Constructed of 16,000 clipped English yews, it can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to complete.

Solving mazes like Longleat takes patience, focus and the ability to remember each twist, turn and blind alley encountered along the way. In my case, there’s always next year.

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is more my speed. It is unicursal, meaning it consists of only a single path and direction. There is one entrance and exit which are usually the same. Designed for ease of navigation, labyrinths are often flat or built low to the ground with no high hedges or walls to obscure the view.

Stone labyrinth in a forest

For thousands of years, many cultures and religious traditions have used labyrinths as transformational tools for meditation, prayer and healing. Walking the labyrinth requires patience. Even though the path ultimately leads to the center, it winds around the circle in a spiral shape. Sometimes it appears to lead forward, only to double back on itself as it slowly draws near the center.

Old stone labyrinth

Because it requires focus, most people walk the labyrinth in silence. Some pray or meditate. Others simply observe each step and breath along the way. Many believe that walking the labyrinth is symbolic of life’s journey. Just as in life, the labyrinth has its twists and turns. Sometimes it leads forward and sometimes back. The important thing is to keep on walking.

How to make a garden labyrinth

A labyrinth can be a stunning addition to the garden. It can be composed of almost any material you can think of: stone, river rocks, brick, pavers, gravel or mulch. If you’re up for the maintenance, you can even use bedding plants to define the contours.

Labyrinth with bedding plants/Boulogne, France

The important thing is to level the land and have a good plan. Many companies sell ready-made garden templates made out of weed-blocking fabric so all you have to do is lay them out on the ground and line the contours with the materials you wish.

For a peek at some great designs and ideas for materials, click here for the Labyrinth Company.

Where to find labyrinths

Not up to building one? These days, labyrinths are becoming more and more popular in religious spaces, schools, hospitals and even prisons where they are being used for meditation, prayer and healing. Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France is home to two famous ones. There is one in the garden behind the church.

And there is one built right into the church floor.

In my area in Maryland, there are a couple located on the grounds of churches, which are open to all. One of my favorites, though, is in Delaware at Winterthur Museum and Gardens. It was quite literally ground-breaking when it was built. Now it is commonly overflowing with enthusiastic little walkers.

Photo courtesy Winterthur Museum

The three R’s to walking the labyrinth

Although there is no right way to walk the labyrinth, some general guidelines do exist. One simple way to walk is by concentrating on the ‘Three R’s”

Releasing: letting of all cares, concerns and expectations upon entering into the circle

Receiving: being open to accepting those inspirations that are offered along the way

Returning: exiting the circle with gratitude for the healing forces that exist in the world.

Happy walking.

Bamboo Gets A Makeover Thanks To A California Garden

The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind whose roots advance a foot a day and need to be dug out with a crane. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with a spectacular variety featuring aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica ‘Cheryl Lynn’

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful shrubs wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular lush-petaled blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli Gardens in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

Longwood Gardens’ 10 Best Christmas Trees of 2017

Orchid Tree/A Longwood Christmas

The Orchid Tree at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the orchid tree above, but this time of year Longwood Gardens is teeming with ideas, especially when it comes to Christmas trees.  Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (an easy two-hour drive from Washington, DC), Longwood is resplendent this December as it pays homage to France. And the eye-popping horticultural displays are nothing short of ooh-la-la. Continue reading

12 Great Holiday Design Ideas From Longwood Gardens

This week I’ll be writing about Longwood Gardens and my annual visit to its spectacular holiday display, A Longwood Christmas. I was thrilled to discover that this year’s show is dedicated to France. Entitled ‘C’est Magnifique!’, it was inspired by founder Pierre S. du Pont and his vision for the property, which was named after his great-great-grandfather, a French economist and writer who immigrated to America at the end of the French Revolution. Continue reading

Searching For Life At Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

You cross a bridge over a burbling stream, clamber up a copper-toned hill and suddenly there it is: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Standing on a wooden walkway, I inhale the warm, earth-scented vapors that glide across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there is life and things are growing.


First described in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the United States. Veiled in steam, it bubbles like a bathtub, offering a glimpse now and then into the churning caldron. The deep blue pool is impressive, but more surprising still are the tentacles of golden yellow, burnt orange and metallic green that fan outwards from the roiling waters, carving kaleidoscopic paths across the scorched soil.

Grand Prismatic Spring from new overlook trail

Upon seeing the spring for the first time, Ferdinand Hayden (the leader of the Expedition) wrote:

Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of color of these remarkable prismatic springs.

It’s enough to make your head spin.


Yellowstone’s hot springs

There are different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. Grand Prismatic Spring is one. Old Faithful is another. Both result from groundwater that has been heated by molten magma and risen to the surface. In the case of Old Faithful, however, the hot water encounters blockages on its way up. This produces the famous geyser’s explosive eruption of steam.

Old Faithful

By contrast, the Grand Prismatic Spring is produced by hot water that rises to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls to the earth only to rise again.

Looking into the turquoise depths of the spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Pouring almost 500 gallons of scalding water per minute into nearby Firehole River, Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and most brilliant colored of Yellowstone’s many hot springs. The high temperature of the spring (estimated at around 160 degrees F) is responsible for the steam that hovers 24/7 above the crater.

Due to this cycle of heating, cooling and re-heating, the spring has developed rings of varying temperatures. The hottest water, which is located in the center, is too extreme for living things. However, as the water spreads outwards, it gradually cools, allowing for conditions more amenable to life to develop.

Bands of color at Grand Prismatic Spring

Happily, the viewing boardwalk provides safe passage for we humans atop the smoldering landscape. Embroidered with signs warning against the dangers of erring from the prescribed path, it features stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Even standing too close to the spring can cause intense burns.

The viewing boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring

So how can life exist in such harsh conditions? The answer lies in the prismatic colors. Each of these stunning hues harbors billions of colorful microorganisms that live in the spring’s runoff channels. These ‘extremophiles’ (so named for their ability to live in conditions that were once thought too hot to host life) are not only surviving, but thriving, happily assembled in thick, microbial mats.

Forests in miniature

Microbial mats may not sound all that interesting until you consider that each of these burgeoning communities is in fact a miniature ecosystem functioning much like a forest. There’s a ‘canopy’ of microbes performing photosynthesis. And, there’s an ‘understory’ of organisms playing the crucial role of decomposition and recycling of nutrients back to the canopy.

The rainbow of colors that the mats produce depends on the temperature of the water. In the summer, the mats tend to be brown, orange or red and in the winter they tend to be dark green.

Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring

Cynobacteria, marine bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis, are one common organism found growing by the Grand Prismatic Spring. In the world’s oceans, cynobacteria occupy an important position at the bottom of the food web. At Yellowstone, however, they have had to make some ecological adjustments. These are evidenced in the distinctive yellow/orange color of the spring’s outer ring.

Specifically, a certain strain of cynobacteria called synechococcus has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. So synechococcus manipulate their photosynthetic pigments to reflect only certain wavelengths of visible lights. They do this by employing carotenoids as shields, which results in their summertime yellow/orange color.

Close-up of some of the microbial communities

And so it goes. As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Synechococcus is now joined by chloroflexi bacger, whose combined colors read as orange. Finally, as the temperature cools, the communities of bacteria at the furthest points produce the darkest color, a molten shade of coppery-brown.

View of spring from bridge

Hard to believe these mini orange and brown ‘forests’ are existing right under our very noses. Life is pretty amazing.