You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac. Continue reading →
It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time. Continue reading →
Given that Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year fall on the same day, you could say it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and family members return home for the holiday. One of the most important aspects of the festivities are the many decorative symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.
VIETNAMESE TET COMES EARLY
Ask the Vietnamese and they will tell you that Tet (also known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it celebrates the arrival of spring. This usually occurs somewhere in late January or early February.
Spring in February you say? Well as we discovered after a month here in January, there is very little variation between the seasons. That’s because Vietnam has a tropical ‘monsoon’ climate. Being near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates year-round. So generally, people mark the seasons by amount of rainfall and what’s blooming.
Vietnamese Tet flowers outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh
This year, Tet takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees appear in business doorways, peach blossoms pop up in store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit arrive in living rooms and hotel lobbies.
And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.
Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry
YELLOW APRICOT BLOSSOMS (HOA MAI)
It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a bouquet of these brilliant yellow flowers. Commonly known as yellow mai (spring) flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.
Apricot shrubs bloom naturally in the south during Tet, where they are also viewed as the spirit of the holiday. The timing of their blossoms, coupled with the fact that they can endure year-long heat and humidity, make them very special flowers indeed. There are many artificial renditions as well.
Moreover, each of the flower petals stands for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. Even the color yellow is significant. According to Vietnamese Tet traditions, it represents happiness, prosperity and good luck.
Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam
PEACH BLOSSOMS (HOA DAO)
By contrast, in northern Vietnam it’s the peach blossom that takes center stage. In Hanoi, these rosy-pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely-colored ones are the most favored.
Peach trees blossom early in the north. Given that northern Vietnam is colder than the south, the Vietnamese consider the flowers to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that peach flowers keep the family peaceful and healthy.
Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh
Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon
KUMQUAT TREE (CÂY QUAT)
In addition to these key New Years flowers, the kumquat tree plays an important role in Vietnamese Tet traditions. During the Lunar New Year it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruits symbolize fruitfulness. Kumquats also bring good health and good luck to family businesses.
Pruned kumquat trees
For the best luck, a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. In accordance with Vietnamese Tet traditions, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday.
Most businesses place the shrubs at their entrance where they are in clear view of the street.
Kumquat tree fruits
The various parts of the kumquat tree also represent many generations. As a rule, the fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.
BONSAI AND OTHER KEY VIETNAMESE TET FLOWERS
Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in Vietnamese Tet traditions, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.
Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh
During the holiday, pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers embellish homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.
The Vietnamese typically purchase these special plants from mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s Ho Thi Ky. They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.
In Annapolis, Maryland there’s an impressive brick mansion that towers over the city’s historic district. Built in the 1760s, the home once belonged to William Paca, a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence and third Governor of Maryland. In the 1960s, the property underwent a painstaking restoration. And today, the William Paca House and Garden is a faithful representation of what a Colonial-era residence used to be, offering visitors a quiet respite in the heart of this capital city.
RESTORATION OF THE GARDEN
Aided by two seemingly unrelated events, the restoration of the William Paca garden took an unusual course. Separated by almost two centuries, the events ended up providing important details about the original garden. The happy coincidence enabled historians and horticulturalists to recreate the original 18th-century landscape, complete with buildings and plants, with near-perfect precision.
The first event took place in 1772 when Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) painted a full-length portrait of William Paca in front of his garden. The painting documented key architectural features of the landscape. These included a red brick wall, central pathway, two-story white summerhouse and a Chippendale-style bridge.
Portrait of William Paca by Charles Willson Peale
The second event took place over a century later during the early 1900s when the house functioned as a hotel for the U.S. Naval Academy. To make room for new dormitories, the Academy added fill dirt to a portion of the property. By happy accident, the soil acted as a cushion, preserving all of the brick foundations of Paca’s original garden and outbuildings.
According to Joseph Sherren, an intern with the curatorial department,
“It was one of those happy accidents that come about once in a lifetime.”
Main view into the William Paca Garden
Using the details in the Peale portrait along with what was revealed in the excavated foundations, researchers and historians gradually reconstructed the bones of the original garden. They then consulted Colonial-era garden manuals and plant lists to determine what plants might have grown in the various spaces.
Today the garden is composed of a series of terraces enclosed by shrubbery and brick walls, a style characteristic of colonial gardens in the Chesapeake region. The third terrace slopes down toward a pond and the Wilderness Garden. And the property’s focal point, the two-story white summerhouse, presides on a small hill at the end of the garden, just like it does in Peale’s painting.
TOURING THE WILLIAM PACA HOUSE GARDEN
The tour begins on the uppermost terrace, which was designed to serve as a platform for entertaining and for viewing the garden. It is the first glimpse a visitor has of the garden.
The next two levels are laid out in parterres. The Rose Parterre (on the left) features many heirloom roses including alba roses, which were being grown as far back as the Middle Ages. There is also a broad assortment of companion annuals and perennials. During my afternoon visit, the flesh pink rose ‘Maiden’s Blush’, purple allium, verbena bonariensis, perennial foxglove and tropical-looking yellow canna lilies were all blooming.
Close-up of purple verbena bonariensis
The FlowerParterre, which lies directly opposite from the Rose Parterre, was designed to provide three seasons of colorful flowers. At the time of my visit, pink and apricot daylilies, soft pink echinacea and purple liatris were all in bloom. Spiky blue veronica, golden lantana and lavender-pink Stokes’ asters rounded out the mix.
The Kitchen Garden features a colonial-style shed and trellises and latticework crafted from branches and string. I observed lush crops of salad greens, snap peas and squash growing in raised beds, a tiny shelf stacked with herbs planted in terra cotta pots and many heirloom varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries and figs trained as espaliers. (Products made from the fruits, herbs and vegetables grown in the garden are sold in the gift shop.)
On the second terrace, the Holly and Boxwood Parterres provide year-round interest with their carefully maintained geometric designs.
The Summerhouse is the focal point of the garden. It lies in the wilderness area, which consists of a series of meandering paths through beds of mixed plantings. Reminiscent of the ‘picturesque’ style of gardening that was popular in Colonial America during Paca’s time, the miniature, thumb-shaped building is reached by crossing a Chinese-style latticework bridge that spans a fish-shaped pond.
The upper floor of the two-story building served as a viewing point for the garden during the summer while providing the Paca family with cool garden breezes from the Chesapeake Bay.
Tail-end (literally) of the fish-shaped pond
THE ART OF DRAINAGE
Paca was an innovator when it came to designing ways to channel the natural runoff across his property. He built a system of drains that diverted water into pleasing garden elements. At the lowest level of his garden, he constructed a brick canal to direct water into a spring house. It is a key architectural element in the lower terrace of the garden.
Today, the natural spring, which is still active in the spring house, feeds the pond. In Paca’s day, the water was also repurposed for household use.
One of Paca’s brick canals used to drain water from the garden
The State of Maryland and Historic Annapolis bought the Paca mansion in 1965 to save it from demolition. They spent the following decade restoring the house and garden. In 1971, the site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark. For more on the house and gardens, click here for the website.