Sunday, February 18, 2018

Singapore's Garden Extravaganza - with a focus on cloud forests

The last time I was in Singapore which must have been getting on for ten years ago, Gardens by the Bay was under construction. The roads near the Marina were lined by trees in enormous containers, making you feel as if you had just driven into a garden centre or nursery that catered to giants. All were destined for one of the world's largest and most ambitious horticulture projects.

So, the first thing on re-visiting, was to get down there and see how the project was doing. The first impressions were very much that this was opulent public horticulture, walking a path between well-funded amenity horticulture and something more educational, but without any pretence at it being a botanical garden. Spectacular constructions, such as the signature 'super trees' and huge scale plantings make a powerful impact, but don't help define quite what the garden is for, other than impressing the visitor. Public gardens have often had this role. In trying to make sense of this extremely large, very well-funded and ambitious project it helps to think back to the Victorian era.
One of the Supertrees
In that golden age of gardening, public parks were about municipal pride, and declaring the status of the city or community that funded them. Not much chance of that happening in today's Britain, the most centrally-controlled country in Europe, where local government is so squeezed by the politics of austerity that basic services are beginning to break down. Singapore, like other successful Asian economies, are in a similar situation to where we were in the Victorian era. With its reputation as a garden city (an inheritance from the British Empire) and the world's leading centre for urban greening, the use of gardens as a national icon seems natural.
These are dogs, since you ask. It is the Chinese Year of the Dog this year.
The scale and level of control is all a bit overwhelming. The control is again, very Victorian, and likewise dependent on cheap labour (mostly south Indian Tamils). It is also very Chinese. Singapore is the ultimate state run on Confucian lines. “We think of the government as being like our parents” says a Chinese friend (and no particular fan of her government in Beijing and in fact having deep personal reasons for thinking quite the opposite). 'Planning' and maintaining control have been key to the city-state's (amazing) success as an economy. Nice tidy public gardening on a mega scale is all part and parcel of a paternalistic state which wants its citizens to enjoy their spare time in suitably safe and unthreatening ways. Its not somewhere where many western liberals would like to live, but it's the only place I have been where multi-lingual poster campaigns invite people to grass up their employers if they face unsafe working practices.
See those little figures down in the bottom right? They give you some idea of the scale.
Possibly inspired by, or aiming to go beyond, Cornwall's Eden Project, there are two vast 'greenhouses', kept cool rather than warm, using a clever heat-exchange system powered by decaying compost. We went into the Mediterranean one first. Here there are some good displays based on the various Mediterranean climate zones around the world, and good interpretation. Trouble is, someone's been unable to stop themselves having a go at some of the shrubs with their hedgetrimmer. There's a terribly kitschy faux-Chinese garden, planted with loads of forced-looking dahlias.

And then, the other 'biome'. Something completely different. Dedicated to cloud forests, this is the most sustained, visionary, high-investment naturalistic planting extravaganza ever. One of those things that gives one real hope. I'm assuming most readers will know what a cloud forest is, but for those who don't it is a mountain region that gets very high precipitation, much of it from being in the clouds. Cloud forests are biodiversity hotspots, often with very high rates of evolution, as every mountain side and valley will have slightly different conditions and the physical fragmentation of the territory allows for isolation and evolution. Think orchids, bromeliads, vireya rhododendrons, tropical begonias. The Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest biome sends its visitors up in a lift to descend on a vertiginous series of aerial walkways around an artificial mountain covered in plants growing practically vertically.Vertical planting has had a bit of a chequered career in the temperate zone, but here, in a cloud forest zone (real or artificial) a lot of species grow like this naturally.

The standard of everything is just so high, the interpretation spot-on, with firm and imaginatively-driven messages on conservation and climate change. Given that we are entering the Chinese century, it is really encouraging to see such conservation leadership coming from within the Chinese language community.

Lycopodium and Huperzia species, club mosses - fern relatives. Having such botanical curiosities shows just how serious they are here about their plant diversity.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

House Plants are back!

After many years of being seriously uncool, house plants seem to be back in fashion. My son, more in tune with the zeitgeist than I (after all he lives in Clapton in east London – Clapton-the-new-Brooklyn (but hasten to add is NOT a bearded hipster) has started to pack his windowsills. A few trendy looking books have started to appear as well, usually in furnishings and accessories outlets that don't generally sell books, which is always a sign that something is 'on trend'. 

I have long been puzzled by the lack of interest in house plants, particularly amongst dedicated gardeners. So many really good plantspeople seem to suspend all interest once they step inside the house. I am always slightly surprised that a lot of good gardeners and plantspeople don't grow their own veg, but then not everyone is a foodie and growing things to eat is very time-consuming and requires a lot of organisation, so I more or less understand that; to turn from weeding the Arisaemas to nipping down to the local supermarket to busy some packeted veg. is understandable. But not to grow anything inside? I am genuinely puzzled.

For myself, and I think for quite a few gardeners who started in their teenage years, the first plants we grew were indoor ones. Tropical stuff, cacti, orchids, insectivorous things, kinda adolescent slightly nerdy things. Most of us then soon moved outside, but the love of plants on windowsills or atop cupboards has never left some of us. 

Those who started as 'outside gardeners' don't often seem to be able to make the transition to keeping plants inside. One reason might be the sheer artificiality of keeping plants growing in what is, after all, a very alien environment. The quality of growth that it is possible to get from plants growing in the ground is so much more difficult to achieve from indoor plants. House plants are incredibly dependent on their owners and keepers for their most basic needs. Many plants also respond to seasonal changes, primarily to temperature, and since we humans seem happy only if we are kept at around 21ºC that limits possibilities. Small failures build up, and if things go slightly wrong, we are then stuck with a below-par plant which given the shortage of spaces to grow plants in most houses, is always on view. We are then constantly confronted with evidence of our own failure as gardeners in other words (and the horti-social embarassment).

The hard fact is that there are not very many plants which grow well inside. Light levels are generally too low; dry air is also often a factor that affects plants badly. Succulents do well, but only if they have really good light – so unless you have extensive sunny windowsills there is not much habitat for them. The range of houseplants which was developed during the 1960s, the high point of house plant history, was a pretty limited one. Essentially it built on what I call the 'aspidistra concept', the very idea being one which has been one of the factors which has limited interest in them over the years anyway. It was the Victorians who really were the pioneers in growing house plants, despite the fact that their homes were infamously dark, with big extremes of temperature and polluted (coal smoke pollution inside and out was horrendous in the 19th and much of the 20th century, making today's worries over diesel exhaust seem almost like minor niggles). 

Aspidistras survived the grim growing conditions of the Victorian home, along with a limited range of other, it-has-to-be-faced, rather dull plants. They grow incredibly slowly, with very long-lived leaves. They are as near to static and plastic as plants can be. The aspidistra is a plant of deep shade, where resource inputs are low, so it grows immensely slowly. Ivy (Hedera helix) will survive similar conditions, and of course if conditions are right, can move pretty fast, but if poor can just survive, for years; not surprisingly it too was common in the Victorian home. Much of the 1960s house plants were visually more exciting but in many ways not much better, many being tropical forest floor plants – happy at 'our' temperatures, but able to survive for long periods without growing much: Philodendron, Monstera, Aglaeomena, Anthurium – all tropical Araceae. If they do start to grow their new growth is often weak and unattractive. They are not really living plants, in the sense of something which grows and develops.

I did do a house plant book once – a long time ago. Unfortunately all packed up, which given my current peripatetic status is going to be the story of my life for some time from now on. So I can't share pictures, but will try to do so in a future blog. In researching the book, we did find a few people who had examples of the kind of plants I have been just discussing, but which had been cared for well and had actually grown pretty spectacularly. There was a Rhoicissus which had colonised the hallway of a substantial north London house (actually part of the family) and an enormous Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) in a Liverpool sitting room (ditto, belonging to the late Tony Bradshaw, the botanist and ecologist). 

The static nature of much of the conventional house plants flora must be one of the main reasons as to why few 'real gardeners' can be bothered with them. Plants which grow more vigorously, in particular those which flower, generally need more light than we can give them, or many of them. An exception might be orchids, which are relatively common as house plants now, all but unknown as such forty years ago. And of course, gesneriads: Streptocarpus, African violets, Achimenes. Small, relatively quite fast growing, not needing too much light (good indirect is best) and often usefully dormant for part of the year, gesneriads are an amazingly diverse and fascinating family. Their slightly hairy foliage and compact size give them a sort of cuddly, teddy bear quality too. When I'm in my dotage, I shall surround myself with them in the old folks home.

Our houses are actually very badly designed for plants – another problem facing the 'home' gardener. There were some attempts in the 1950s and 1960s in Sweden, a period and a place for particularly bold re-thinking of the domestic environment to create houses with small integrated growing spaces. The only one I have ever actually seen was, I think, at Beth Chatto's, a modernist 1960s design. I have often had the fantasy of designing a house around growing spaces for plants: light in just the right places at just the right amount, small planting beds strategically placed. There is a disadvantage perhaps to having too much vegetation around: the dead leaves, flowers, occasional insect pests, all add to a confusion of housework and gardening. I suspect it was this dislike of 'mess' which so restricted the use of plants in the conservatories of the 1980s conservatory boom. Victorians loved conservatories but had lots of cheap labour in the form of servants to attend to the cleaning, picking up and primping. 

So, its good to see house plants as 'back' but I can't help feel that we could do so much more.

Thanks to my son, Kieran Bradshaw. for the pictures.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Portugal's firestorm disaster - eucalyptus to blame

This is the old manor house which Jo's daughter and family were thinking of buying, but the estate agent hadn't updated the pictures.

There was a day last year, October the 15th, when the sky over southern Britain turned an apocalyptic orange – we knew that the remnants of a hurricane, Ophelia, was about to hit us, but it was not until later on that we learnt that the extraordinary light conditions were the result of soot from fires in Spain and Portugal. Forest fires on a massive, and so far unprecedented scale for Europe. Having just spent a couple of weeks in the affected area, and concerned that there has been very little publicity about what happened outside the region, I want to say something about the issue here.

There had already been severe fires in Portugal in June, and a blog posting of mine then had discussed them in terms of them being largely the result of extensive eucalyptus planting. The conditions in October were exceptional: Ophelia was the most easterly tracking hurricane ever, big storms rarely go that far south, and the region was tinder-dry after many months without rain. All of these are indicators of a possible outcome of climate change.

Words cannot even begin to describe the scale of devastation, which has had nothing like the international press coverage it deserves. It looks as if someone has taken a flame-gun to the countryside. It is possible to drive for several hours across central Portugal and nearly every area of forest or trees in villages or in farmland have been burnt. Many houses too, especially the rather splendid big old abandoned houses which this country of large-scale rural depopulation is littered with. Some factories and warehouses too. Parts of the country are like a war zone. The Avo valley, a steep river valley, once very picturesque despite the ever-present eucalyptus is now a blackened ruin of a landscape. All in all, a terrifying presage of what might become much more common with climate change.

Eucalyptus acted as a vector for the fires spreading them into areas of pine (also relatively inflammable) and other areas of woodland. There is very little deciduous woodland left in central or northern Portugal, and oddly a lot of oaks loo relatively damaged. Deciduous trees like oaks and chestnuts are not so inflammable. Indeed where there is deciduous woodland, it seems as if the fire has not penetrated.

Fire is an important part of ecologies in many regions and the idea that it is always bad and damaging is now rejected. Understanding it is vitally important as to how we manage landscapes and indeed plant gardens.

There are many 'fire-resistant' trees. Eucalyptus however the opposite, as they appear to deliberately court fire. This is what makes them so dangerous. I'll try to explain.

Think of Pinus pinea, the umbrella-shaped Stone Pine of the Mediterranean – its shape is obviously designed to keep the foliage canopy up and away from ground fires. Cork oaks are similar, and of course have the amazing fire-resistant bark which has long been one of Portugal's main exports. Pinus palustris, the Longleaf Pine of the American South does not have this shape but gets its foliage up from the ground very quickly. This latter and its relationship with fire is now recognised as having been fundamental to a vast swathe of land from North Carolina around to the border with Texas (most was felled in the late 19th century to make way for slave-grown cotton). Longleaf dominated its territory, but by leaving a big gap between the ground and the canopy allowed ground fires to sweep across vast areas doing little damage to the trees. The regularity of the fires ensured that there was no build up of fuel – many of these fires were probably like prairie fires, very superficial. They would however have damaged many tree seedlings but left the better-adapted Longleaf seedlings. However it enabled a very diverse grass and wildflower flora to flourish.

I first heard about Longleaf when I went to a lecture by Janis Ray at the university of Athens, Georgia many years ago. I thoroughly recommend her bio –'Ecology of a Cracker Childhood' 
and indeed anything else about this remarkable tree that you can find.

Key to the survival of all these species is to have small and frequent ground fires. This makes canopy fires rare, and it these that do the really lethal damage to mature trees. Pines do not survive, and generally only do so through their seedlings taking off after a disastrous fire.

Eucalyptus however seems to deliberately encourage canopy fire. Their bark peels off and falls off in great strips, leaving a pile of what amounts to kindling at the base of the tree, with some loose strips leading thoughtfully up into the canopy of oil-soaked leaves. They are a recipe for the smallest ground fire leading to an almost explosive canopy fire. After which they recover, remarkably quickly. Sprouts can be seen surprisingly far up blackened trees only months after burning. In other words the trees' burning seems an evolutionary adaptation, that knocks back other tree species and gives the eucalyptus a competitive advantage. Just the same as with grasses, which burn easily, but survive and flourish amongst more seriously damaged woody plant seedlings. 

To add insult to injury, young eucalyptus seem almost unaffected by the fire - presumably the canopy fires sweep over the top of them. I wonder too if the silver foliage they have is somehow fire-proof. 

I wrote about the origins of the Portuguese eucalyptus problem in this posting. Only to add that I have since found out that Portugal was massively deforested in the 19th and early 20th century by a combination of overpopulation and traditional agriculture linked to a failure to industrialise. Zillions of sheep and goats roaming the hills eating tree seedlings apparently. That linking of population issues with unadaptive agriculture and failure to develop sounds like today's Haiti or Rwanda. That's another story.

Find out more about the battle against Eucalyptus in Portugal here.