26 October 2012

The Jousting Field

You wouldn't find too many knights on horseback there now, but the area we stayed in in Lisbon was most likely once a Jousting Field (Campodile): this according to our gracious, knowledgeable and generous hostess. Now it's a neighbourhood in a busy city split in two by the long mouth of the Tejo (Tagus) river. Ironically, for a city divided by water, Lisbon's citizens have had to struggle in the past to get enough potable fresh water and so--starting in the mid-1700s and over about 100 years--they built the amazing Aqueduto das Águas Livres. One of the loveliest features of the aqueduct that we saw is the series of arches spanning a valley in the city very close to Campodile: the views from the apartment included their graceful lines and the wooded hillside beyond.

Cockles and conches,
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon
Now I know that a visit to any capital city with an imperial/colonial past includes so much to see in terms of architecture, monuments and (in Lisbon's case) churches but this is not a buildings/city/history blog so I won't go into them too much here except to say that we reckoned there was enough gold in the Igreja de São Roque to solve Portugal's debt problem on the spot and to note that minimalism did not feature too much in the Portuguese Baroque period ...

It's easy enough to find out lots about the famous buildings in Lisbon, including the World Heritage Site of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, but I'll just focus here on detail with a view on the natural world. I loved the seashells near one of the entrances to St Jerome's Monastery - apparently sailors stopped here to pray before they set off to discover new lands to 'conquer' and pillage, and the decorative elements include maritime themes and objects, all wrought in a lovely local limestone that would be very easy to work - I wondered if this influenced the style at all? It wouldn't be too easy for any stonemason, no matter how skilled, to try to do that sort of work on granite or basalt, for example. I suppose that's a question for someone else to answer.

Within the city itself are many beautiful tiled buildings, many of the patterns being quite abstract, but I liked these irises, and I also found a street of flowers (the real ones long gone alas): Rua das Flores.

Irises: tiles above a lintel in a Campodile street

But for me, one of the ways that I know I'm in a new and foreign place is the vegetation - I remember being amazed at the beautiful maples incongruously and gracefully accompanying large fuel tanks near one of the runways in Narita Airport in Japan, for example. In Lisbon and Cascais it was the jacarandas and palms and also the amazing Ficus trees in the square in Principe Real, where we sat and had lunch after a visit to the Jardim Botânico
Jacaranda tree in Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon
Palms on a warm October evening in Cascais
The Botanic Gardens, almost more of an arboretum than a garden, are a haven in a busy city and the abundance of cycads and palms gave them a very exotic air. The Gardens were made in the 19th century and still feature a garden called The Class (Classroom would probably be a better translation), arranged into beds to illustrate typical species and help students learn plant identification and provenance; I spotted a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) from Ireland. The Classroom garden is not used that way so much now but was interesting to see; it reminded me a bit of the 'Dead Animal Museum' in Dublin (a museum of a museum). Nineteenth century naturalists and scientists were serious about their learning and it must have been a very exciting time when so many species were coming back into Europe from Asia and the Americas. It made sense to grow them for demonstration to students who might never see them in their native habitats. Today, the same might happen due to destruction of those habitats and many botanical gardens are involved in some sort of work on preservation of endangered species (for example, the Wollemi pine in Glasnevin). The 'Classroom'  and the wider Gardens gave me a chance to see Poinsettias (soon to be in the shops and garden centres here in some numbers) and Hibiscus in something other than pots indoors.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, in the Botanical Gardens, Lisbon

Poinsettia, Eurphorbia pulcherrimum, in the Botanical Gardens, Lisbon
The garden is part of the University of Lisbon and another (unexpected) delight was the mineralogy exhibition. Well alright ... it's not to everyone's taste, but we were thrilled: well-curated mineral exhibits can be beautiful as well as informative and I challenge anyone not to be amazed at a two-metre high vug split open top to bottom to display its interior almost completely filled with amethyst crystals. Gorgeous.  It was from Brazil of course; like one of the grooms at the wedding for which we travelled to Portugal in the first place! The other groom was Irish, so I'll have to give Ireland a mention too. When we got home to grey northern skies over our own garden in Ireland, more jewel-like delights awaited in the garnet and ruby leaves of the Japanese maples in full autumn flow. Isn't it odd that almost overnight, almost all the leaves fall - spreading a halo of colour that lights up the late Autumn dullness that was such a contrast to the brightness of Portugal.

Acer palmatum chinostachys - garnet
Acer palmatum atropurpureum - ruby
Thanks to CF for being a wonderful hostess and to SM and AMK for such a lovely day and weekend.

Have a good week all.

18 October 2012


We're heading off on our travels again this weekend: Portugal for a wedding of two dear friends (looking forward to it guys.)

But Canada still lingers in my mind, so here are a few pics from the Montréal Botanical Gardens  again. One is of a 270-year-old Bonsai juniper. Incredible to think that it was back in the mid-1700s when someone planted the seed of this tree and started tending it:

Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii, 270 years old
Donor to the Montréal Botanical Gardens:
Kenichi Oguchi, Nippon Bonsai Society, Japan
The Japanese Garden in the Montréal gardens was the first place that I've seen a lotus plant in person (so to speak). Amazing:

Lotus drops
More Lotus
Appropriately enough, the Chinese Gardens had beautiful stands of Miscanthus sinensis, in flower at this time of the year:

Miscanthus sinensis
And that's where I'll leave it for now.
Normal service will resume next week.
Well sort of...
With any luck there'll be some Portuguese flora to admire.

Have a good week all.

13 October 2012

Home. Thoughts from Abroad

I'll have to start reading Thoreau. There was a man who knew a thing or two about the beauty of Autumn in the eastern regions of North America. I note that at the time he wrote 'Autumnal Tints' he regretted that "October has hardly tinged our poetry". I can only assume that it has since.

Here's a view of an Irish poet:
Mid-October, Massachusetts. We drive
through the livid innards of a beast, dragon
or salamander, whose home is fire. The hills
a witch's quilt of goldrust, flushed cinnamon,
wine fever, hectic lemon. ...
from Incident, by Eamon Grennan
We drove, walked and cycled through such places in the Laurentians. A sunny day grew brighter as we cycled through glowing woods, by sparkling lakes and alongside busy rivers. A dull day kindled bright in forests that made their own light, in places reflected in the still looking-glass of quiet lakes.

Autumn flares in the Laurentians

Up close and personal with maple and conifer

Zingy carotenoids

More fall delights
I'll stop lest the prose turns purple and give you a bit of science instead - the chemistry is especially for the son who is enjoying such things in his studies in Montréal. Those delightful yellows and oranges that start to flare in the autumn are a result of less chlorophyll production as the season progresses. As the green chlorophyll pigment decreases, the xanthophylls (yellow) and carotenoids (oranges, browns, yellows) start to shine through. Interestingly though, the reds and purples that appear are newly produced at this time of the year: as the phosphate levels in the leaf decrease, sugars within the leaf break down to form anthocyanins, which provide us with the vivid red and burgundy in maple leaves amongst others. Apparently, brighter light during the Autumn/Fall leads to increased production of the anthocyanins and so a more spectacular display of colour.

Shadows of their former selves, but still lovely: leaves from Lac des Femmes 
Those of you who are still here and who wish to find out more can pop over to wiki.

Giant Sequoia Bonsai
Sequoiadendron giganteum, 35 years old,
created at the Montréal Botanical Gardens
Visiting a city, and Montréal is a great city to visit, provides little in the way of encounters with growing and moving things, although a warm welcome on the night we arrived included a glass of wine in a charming courtyard garden, filled with hostas and ferns and washed in the delicate sounds of a small mosaiced fountain. A trip to the Montréal Botanical Gardens provided delights on a slightly larger scale, including the Japanese and Chinese gardens. In the former was a collection of Bonsai which were remarkable. The one that made me chuckle though was the Bonsai Giant Sequoia - who would dream of such a thing? And yet there it is, 35 years on, doing its thing.

Trident Maple forest, Acer buergerianum,
50 years old
gift of the Japanese Government to the
Montréal  Botanical Gardens

Many thanks to our gracious and generous hosts, guides, fellow guests and welcoming and farewell committees. You know who you are!

To finish the Montréal section, two photos: one is a view of the city from 'the mountain' taken by BvG with my lowly camera. The other gives a hint of why a young Irish man might settle so comfortably into Montréal, Québec, where rules and signs are not to be taken seriously ...

Fall in Montréal, a view from the mountain

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Travelling is wonderful. Coming home is too. We returned to an archetype of an Irish day: low glowering skies and rain; but it was good to be back. In the garden, my own two Japanese maples provide welcome reminders of their North American cousins, and the Molinia and Miscanthus grasses weave the low autumn light into complex and beautiful moving tapestries. Many thanks to a busy son who managed to successfully hold the fort at home.

Leaf fall in Dublin, Acer palmatum chinostachys
Have a good week all.

06 October 2012


Tremulous aspens, glowing birch, fiery maples; an astonishing bright tapestry of gold and yellow, scarlet and tangerine: fall in the Laurentians. Leaving behind for a couple of days the delights of Montréal, a son busy with mid-terms, and warm and welcoming family, we headed north to cycle along Le P'tit Train du Nord and to hike through maple forest near Lac Monroe in the Parc National de Mont-Tremblant. There'll be pics next week, but for now it's simply words, which fall short. Suffice to say--we'll be back.
Have a good week all.