Archive for the ‘Hugh’s Greatest Gardens’ Category

Methuselah’s oak – Home Park, Hampton Court

January 23, 2012

This in from Andy! Great stuff!

Hi Hugh,

Was walking the dog today and passed the old Medieval Oak said to be 750 years old ( ) that sits in Home Park, Hampton Court, so I thought that might be a useful little snippet that the Japanese might like, so I photographed the tree and signboard, here are some low res attached.

I was struck by how this tree looks like the living trees in the Lord of the Rings, it almost looks like it has a face from this angle and is about to come to life!



Great Gardens of the World: Kandy’s Peradeniya

May 23, 2011

If you visit the Sri Lanka hill capital of Kandy and fall in love, be content. You are in illustrious company.

Mahatma Gandhi extolled the natural scenery as “probably unsurpassed on the face of the earth.”

Said French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, “It is so beautiful one should go there after the struggle is over and just glide away.” And Humphrey Davy, an army surgeon, really threw down the nature travel writing gauntlet back in 1819, when he wrote, “No description . . . could do justice to the scenery.”

Hugh Paxton’s Blog likes a challenge. I’ll try.

Kandy, the city itself, is raucous, bustling. The streets are clogged with motor scooters, monks, the occasional elephant and no shortage of people anxious to introduce you to gem merchants. In this respect, it is a typical Sri Lankan city. It is its history and location that lift Kandy from the entertaining to the delightful.

Kandy lies 500 meters above sea level. The upland climate is cool and refreshing. The hills around Kandy are lush, green, relaxing to the eye and hold the ancient city in a bowl, through which glides the Mahaweli River. The Mahaweli’s source is in the mist-shrouded highlands of Horton Plains. After winding nearly two-thirds the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, it empties near Trincomalee on the eastern coast. It is a lovely, legend-haunted river, the longest in Sri Lanka and the lifeblood of the lowland dry zones. The Kandy stretch is noteworthy for the vast flocks of fruit bats that squabble and fuss in the branches of the taller riverine trees.

The star Kandyan attraction for most visitors is the Temple of the Tooth, a shadowy, echoing, rather queer place wreathed in incense and piled high with lotus-flower offerings. Here rests Sri Lanka’s most precious relic: one of the teeth of the Buddha, rescued from his funeral pyre in 543 B.C. and smuggled into Ceylon 800 years later wrapped in the hair of a princess. It’s been all over the place, this tooth has. It was taken back to India by invaders. Then recaptured by an army led by one of those Sri Lankan kings whose name you can only pronounce if you’re Sri Lankan. It has been housed in the ruined cities of Ceylon’s northern jungles and the Portuguese even claim to have taken it to Goa for ritual destruction. A claim no true-blooded Sinhalese pays much attention to.

During the New Moon festival, a replica of the tooth’s casket processes through Kandy, accompanied by massed ranks of ritually decorated elephants and thousands of Kandyan drummers. It happens in July/August, but think about booking your hotel room now. It is one of Asia’s most dramatic spectacles, particularly when the elephants break loose and stampede through the packed crowds.

Kandy has more to recommend it — palaces, museums and legions of craftsmen turning out batiks, silverware, “antiques” and brass thingamajigs. The traditional Kandyan dances that take place nightly by the central lake are gorgeous, with opulent color and thrilling motion. But for us, Kandy’s most compelling lure is the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, probably the best botanical gardens in all Asia.

“Four days in Peradeniya gave me more knowledge of the life and nature of plants than as many months of serious study back home,” wrote Ernst Haeckl in his “Indischen Reisebriefen.” That was in 1882. Four hours in 1999 were enough to thrust my botanical learning curve into dangerous heights of ambition.

The 67-hectare site sits in a loop of the Mahaweli River with sediment-rich water on three sides. It was formerly a royal court of the Kandyan Kingdom. Then a royal pleasure garden. Finally, under the British, it became the botanical gardens one can visit today.

Sri Lanka’s flora has always been one of the country’s finest assets. Some 24 percent of Sri Lanka’s 3,900 plant species are endemic. Noteworthy among the latter being the cinnamon tree which drew spice caravans from as far away as Egypt (where it was used to embalm pharaohs) and Rome (where to impress his wife, the Emperor Nero one night burned more cinnamon than Rome imported in a year). Even today, with the exception of Java and the Seychelles, which export a little, Sri Lanka is the world’s only source of true cinnamon.

The primary motives of the British in establishing the botanical gardens were mercantile. Rubber trees smuggled out of Brazil were grown here to break the Brazilian monopoly. The gardens were the site of the world’s first rubber exhibition. Cinnamon, camphor, cloves, coffee and cinchona, the tree whose bark yields the antimalarial remedy quinine, were likewise propagated for distribution to planters. From humble beginnings in 1821, the gardens, by 1867, were distributing over 1 million plants annually.

But there was more to the endeavor than just hard cash. George Gardner, superintendent, tried to acquire and propagate every single endemic species in Ceylon. He died, presumably of exhaustion, at the age of 37.

The gardens now move at a much less frenetic pace, but have matured and diversified. Four thousand species and cultivars can be seen, including the Baobab (a.k.a. “The Dead Rat tree” due to its hairy, dangling fruit) which was first planted in Ceylon as camel fodder by Arab spice traders 2,000 years ago. Biggest and boldest is the Java fig on the Great Lawn. Its branches cover a surface area of close to 2,000 sq. meters. More than 1,000 people can take shelter here when it rains. Or so “they” say. And if you’ve ever seen how many Sri Lankans can fit into a Temple of the Tooth, you’d believe “them.”

The plants look great. But, as the knowledgeable guides explain, they also do the most intriguing things. Here you will find trees that yield aromatic gums, fast-growing bamboo species that have been used in times past by certain imperial armies to slowly impale prisoners, plants that can stun fish and orchids that distribute up to 4 million seeds in capsules no larger than a speck of dust.

Insect and bird life is prolific. Gardeners take great delight in exhibiting large scorpions they have encountered while pruning. Huge colonies of fruit bats dangle their days away in the Bat Forest.

Fountains of Life by Mario Perera and Marie Jain is a “must read” guidebook crammed with botany, legends and anecdotes.

The Ceylon Tourist Board publishes a free booklet listing accommodations, festivals etc. Call (03) 3289-0771 or fax (03) 3289-0772, for more information. Strongly recommended is the colonial-style Tree of Life hotel which sits in beautiful gardens full of ornamental and medicinal plants high in the hills above Kandy. Aromatherapy, herbal baths and ayurvedic massages are on offer. The views inspire comments of the second paragraph type. Botanical, adventure, mountain bike and natural history tours are offered by Lanka Sportsreizen. For more information, fax (0094) 1-826125 or e-mail:

Singapore: Mad Rubber Ridley’s Gardens

July 17, 2010

START:  Singapore – the Garden Isle

“The Gardens.” That is how the locals refer to them. Just “The Gardens.”

“As if”, to quote Bonnie Tinsley author of Visions of Delight, ” there were no other”.

There are none, in truth, quite like Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, though Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya gardens come close.  

Covering 47 hectares in the Tanglin district, their first Director was Henry Nathaniel Ridley, a moustachioed, hyper-energetic Briton with piercing eyes and a keen interest in everything from theosophy to rhinoceros beetles. Ridley added 50,000 specimens to the Gardens. He also had a thing about rubber. He would carry seeds with him to social events and press them on fellow guests. “Mad Ridley,” they called him derisively, or “Rubber Ridley.”

Which just goes to show how little they knew. When Malaya’s coffee crop collapsed as a result of disease and Brazilian competition, Ridley’s rubber seeds (collected from just 22 plants) were suddenly in such demand that requests for up to a million seeds a day poured into the Gardens.

The 1900 “Rubber Rush” basically changed the face of the ASEAN region. It also brought economic success to the Gardens. In 1955, with justifiable pride, Ridley (irrepressibly celebrating his 100th birthday) wrote, “It is a great delight for me to have lived to see Malaya so prosperous and the Gardens the Best Tropical Gardens in the World.”

Mind you, it’s been touch and go.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese the Gardens were pitted with shell craters, trenches and littered with war materiel. Three of the lawns had been ignominiously converted to demonstration plots for growing vegetables. Gun-fire had mercifully spared the priceless Herbarium.

Whatever else went on during the Imperial army’s turbulent occupation however, the Japanese did right by the Gardens. Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University immediately assumed control and evicted the military. Perhaps with the direct mandate of the Emperor, Tanakadate retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs.   

The Gardens sailed out of the turbulent seas of war in a lot better shape than most of Singapore. Then just got better and better.

Visitors today will find an expanse of glowing green ranging from lush patches of the original tropical rain forest that once swathed all of Singapore to undulating billiard table-smooth lawns decorated with somnolent Singaporeans. 

“It’s too green,” is a perhaps surprising complaint on the part of some visitors. There is some truth to it though.

Flowers bloom most extravagantly in areas that experience seasonal change. Pollination in such zones can only occur at limited times so plants are compelled by competitive peer pressure to show off.

Singapore, lying just 137 kilometers north of the equator falls short in the “four seasons” department and its endemic plants are more reticent than their temperate, sub-tropical or even sub-arctic counterparts. 

The rarity of colour in much of the Gardens, however, makes its occurrence more aesthetically pleasing.  It startles then welcomes one’s gaze.

Those who insist on bright pinks, mottled purples and tumescent reds are advised to visit the Gardens’ orchid collection which houses 60,000 plants, 700 species (including the two ton tiger orchid) and 1,200 hybrids.

Orchids have been described (by me, actually) as herbal pornography.  Many mimic intimate feminine body parts with an enthusiasm that borders on the unnecessarily suggestive.  Perhaps that is why growing them is so popular. Orchid poaching is a major problem in national parks world-wide and why, in its infancy, the orchid collection was be-devilled by thefts. 

If it’s size that counts, the Gardens boast specimens of the coco-de-mer, an endemic Seychelles palm whose seeds resemble two coconuts suffering from Siamese Twins syndrome. Once believed to grow out of the navel of the Indian Ocean they were valued by Italian politicians as a proof against poison. As late as the eighteenth century a single seed could fetch $4,000. This is the largest (1.5 meters long) heaviest  (18 kg) seed on earth.

Sun-bathers bound for the Seychelles beaches take note. Pack helmets.

If you want to say it with flowers – in this case with the flowers of the Corypha umbraculifera , otherwise known as the Talipot palm- then you’ll need a pick up truck to help you deliver the message. This palm produces the largest florescence in the plant kingdom with as many as 60,000,000 flowers per tree hanging in great drooping plumes.

Listing all the other Gardens’ features, blow by blow, is boring. It’s a ‘see it’ place, not a ‘describe it’ place. Buy a guidebook when you get there and it will explain what’s what and where.  Admission’s free. Serious botanists won’t need this column to tell them that the Gardens house a Herbarium stocked with more than half a million preserved specimens available for academic research. Or that the library has 20,000 books. Amateur gardeners can enrol on any of the many inexpensive short courses offered by the Gardens’ School of Ornamental Horticulture.  

While on the garden trail in Singapore don’t ignore the Chinese Gardens. These are tucked away beside the Singapore River estuary. Most people do ignore them which results in a serene, other-worldly calm. Monitor lizards pad heavily past pagodas or swirl through Lilly pools beneath red arched bridges. 300 bird species have been recorded in Singapore and the Chinese gardens ripple with bird song.

Attached to the Chinese Gardens are the Japanese Gardens. These latter are basically indistinguishable from the former. If it’s Japanese gardens you want, stay in Japan.

A more sombre experience is afforded by a visit to Fort Canning Park. The trees rise tall, throwing gloomy pools of mosquito-haunted shadow. It was in the underground bunker here that the Allied forces made the decision to surrender in 1942. The bunker is now an eerie museum called The Battle Box that uses holograms to recreate the events that led to Singapore’s fall and the subsequent horrors of the Burma Railway. Place gave me the creeps.  

A cheerful antidote to Fort Canning lies beneath the hill in the Singapore History Museum’s Goh Seng Choo gallery which is currently running a gorgeous exhibition of botanical art commissioned from local Chinese artists by Major General William Farquhar, Commandant of Singapore from 1819-1823. The Farquhar collection is unique in that the drawings and paintings mix high standards of scientific accuracy with the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art.

The result here, as in all Singapore’s gardens is East meeting West and both gaining immeasurably from the interaction.

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