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 →
One of many beautiful poinsettias at the US Botanic Garden
I’ve been to the US Botanic Garden (USBG) many times and have always enjoyed the beautiful displays that change with the seasons. But in December, I bypass the holiday dazzle of the evergreen-draped lobby, work my way through the steamy medicinal plant and orchid gardens and head straight to the restrooms. There, behind the glass atrium in a quiet passage all its own is the USBG’s best-kept secret: a one-of-a-kind poinsettia display. Continue reading →
Growing up in Delaware, I had never seen anything like it. We crossed a bridge over a burbling stream, clambered up a copper-toned hill and there it was: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Alone on a wooden walkway, I inhaled the warm, earth-scented vapors that glided across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there was life and things were growing.
KALEIDOSCOPE EYES – PANIC! AT YELLOWSTONE
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 its 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. Seemingly not of this earth, they carve 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.
ABOUT YELLOWSTONE’S HOT SPRINGS
Of the many different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful is one and Grand Prismatic Spring 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.
The Grand Prismatic Spring, however, encounters no blockages, instead rising to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls back, only to rise again. As a result, the vapors stay close to the earth, roiling slowly around the molten rock.
A glimpse into the turquoise depths of the spring
GRAND PRISMATIC SPRING IS YELLOWSTONE’S LARGEST
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 humans atop the smoldering landscape. And there is good cause for concern. Along the way, signs warn against the dangers of straying, citing stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Indeed, 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.
MINIATURE MICROBIAL FORESTS
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 towards brown, orange or red and in the winter they gravitate towards dark green.
Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR THE YELLOW/ORANGE COLOR
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.
Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. But, a certain strain of cynobacteria has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. During the hottest months, rather than staying green, they employ carotenoids as shields. This results in their summertime yellow/orange color.
Close-up of some of the microbial communities
As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Cynobacteria are joined by other strains 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 noses. Life is pretty amazing.
Anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon North Rim can tell you that hiking can be hard on the lungs given the altitude of just under 8,300 feet. And that’s just for starters. Beautiful Point Imperial, the highest of the North Rim overlooks, tops out at almost 9,000. My daughter recently observed (while gingerly approaching the edge) that she felt like she was slogging through a pool of molasses. That prompted me to wonder; how do high altitude plants grow under such harsh conditions? I set out to find the answer.
HOW THEY DO IT
It turns out that high altitude plants are not like their lowland cousins. In fact, in order to survive, they have made some structural adjustments. These include irreversible, highly evolved physical responses to high-altitude environments. And these adaptations often benefit the surrounding plant and animal communities as well.
The creamy flowers of cliffrose, blooming at 8,800 feet
TAKING A BREATHER
As chests heaving, we made our way to Point Imperial, I paused to reflect on the many plants that bordered the trail. How were these species thriving? For starters, air pressure is much thinner at higher elevations. In humans, this makes it hard for veins to pump oxygen throughout the body.
At upper elevations, reduced pressure makes it harder for plants to pump water from soil to stem, too. But unlike humans, high altitude plants have come up with a solution. Rather than struggle to draw water and nutrients through normal-sized vascular systems, they have evolved smaller sized pathways. These ‘custom’ vascular pathways allow them to channel fluids more quickly through a tighter area.
Firecracker penstemon, a desert native, growing at 8,800 feet
HIGH ALTITUDE PLANTS LIKE THEIR SPACE
Partly due to these reduced hydraulic systems, trees and plants at high elevations tend to be smaller (to conserve energy) and to grow more slowly. They also are more likely to be spaced further apart. Western juniper, for instance, prefers to make its home on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species. And in exposed areas, it often assumes a stunted form, growing low to the ground.
Indeed, Western juniper is sometimes described as looking like ‘polka-dots on the hillside’ for this very reason.
I’m particularly impressed by the resilience of the Utah juniper, which can survive even the harshest of conditions. It can grow a 40 foot-long tap root that extends straight down through rocks and crevices while its lateral roots can extend 100 feet away. This strategy ensures that parts of the tree survive even if the tree itself is knocked down.
In extreme cases, Utah juniper can even concentrate nutrients in just a few branches, keeping the main tree alive while the rest of the body shuts down.
Crooked remains of a Utah juniper – is it just conserving energy?
There’s no mistaking this shaggy, twisted shrub that grows high on dry rocky slopes in the Western United States. A member of the rose family, cliffrose has fragrant, creamy blooms that appear from spring to fall and provide important forage food for deer, cattle and sheep, especially during the winter. Moreover, its highly absorbent bark and evergreen leaves enable the plant to retain moisture.
Finally, who can resist the allure of gray and silver foliage? These plants employ an altogether different coping strategy. Gray and silver-leaved plants have tiny white hairs covering the leaf surface. The hairs reflect solar radiation, cooling the plant tissues and trapping moisture, which slows evaporation. This is especially important given the low moisture levels of the higher elevations.
Silver-leaved Winterfat, a species of flowering plant in the amaranth family
Gray-green Big Sagebrush growing on Point Imperial
One has only to look at the sun reflecting off their brilliant leaves to see these plants’ strategy at work.
These are just a few of the many fascinating high altitude plants that populate the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon. For more information on plant and tree life, as well as great hikes to see them, click here for the National Park Service’s Official Site. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a spectacular property run by the Park Service, located on the lip of the North Rim.
Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park
I remember being in college the first time I heard about 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 foliage that were somehow suspended hundreds of feet in the 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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-class garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best ones I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to wow. And impress me it did, with its grand spaces showcasing plants from all over the world. Continue reading →
When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →
High on a hilltop in Orange, Virginia, there’s an historic property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent estate is seldom open to the public. So recently when my club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading →
Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles
What if you could walk down the street and, next to 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 famous French garden.
About Antoine Jacobsohn
So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from New Jersey. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles. And in 2008 he became director of the palace’s vegetable and fruit gardens commonly known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)
The Potager is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. As Jacobsohn puts it, the garden is surrounded by an “urban desert”. He finds this worrisome for the future. As city dwellers have increasingly less access to food, he believes we should rethink how we shape our gardens. And that means incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.
“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.
In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are experimenting, all while respecting the techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.
About the King’s Kitchen Garden
The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project.
Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie
Quintinie’s first task was to take a swamp and turn it into a working garden. To accomplish this, he drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he enriched with manure from the King’s stables. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Versailles’ architect, designed the layout for the garden. The original plan called for 29 terraced garden squares grouped around a central fountain.
Original plan for le Potager du Roi
La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.
In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees. Today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.
The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.
Today’s garden is rooted in discovery
‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)
From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.
Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?
To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.
The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden
Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.
“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”
Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française
Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.
Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française
Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.
For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.
“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”
Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.