Deck the Halls with Orchids and Succulents

At this year’s Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show, you won’t find a single bough of holly.  At least I didn’t.  Instead, you’ll see plants from tropical and desert regions, as well as from our Canadian forests, all arranged in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.

Boxwood wreaths, dusty millers, white flowered kalanchoes and rosemary ‘trees’ create an unusual but  unmistakably Christmas scene.

I had skipped the Grand Opening festivities (Saturday December 3) – wagon rides, cider, cookies, carollers and even a visit from Santa.  From past experience I knew that the sight of tripods blocking the narrow paths (not allowed! unless you have a permit, which for obvious reasons you won’t be given on a busy weekend) and proud parents plopping their precious progeny on the poinsettia borders for those perfect Christmas photos, would get me all Grinchy.  No, no, no.  Better to go mid-week, preferably late in the morning when any visitors would be heading off to lunch.  And it had to be sunny. The displays would, undoubtedly, be as beautiful as always, but dappled sunlight and a clear blue sky in the background really bring them to life for me.  As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long. The first Wednesday after the opening started off bright and sunny.  The clouds, harbingers of the first snow storm to hit the city, would come later.

The five greenhouses open to the public – there is a sixth that is reserved for children’s programs and special events – are laid out in a horseshoe pattern.  I started in the Tropical Greenhouse at the south end of the horse shoe.  I was hoping the gardener in charge of this area had created another of her beautiful Amaryllis chandeliers.

The turtles, as usual, had clambered out of their pond and piled on top of each other.  Why do they do this?

In the Bromeliad patch beyond the turtles’ pond, one of many ‘Christmas’ trees.

As I continued along the paths I kept looking up, hoping to see a chandelier.  Finally, at the main entrance to the greenhouse, there it was.

This year the gardener had added a second tier to her Amaryllis ‘chandelier’.

As I stood there trying to figure out how to take a photo, several visitors walked by, oblivious to the extravaganza dangling above them.  Since the all too modest gardener had not put up a big sign – LOOK AT ME!  – I did everything but block the hapless visitors from proceeding until they had given her chandelier a good look. Very unCanadian, I know.

In fairness to the visitors who hadn’t noticed the chandelier, in addition to the (welcome) blast of heat, there is a lot going on at the entrance to the Tropical Greenhouse.

What makes this creation especially brilliant is that it demonstrates what I suspect is a largely unknown feature of the Amaryllis. Everything it needs is in the bulb, which means that it doesn’t actually need to be planted in soil, and can bloom anywhere. Even hung upside down from a wire ring.

Orchids are the tropical gardener’s special passion, so not surprisingly, there are lots of them here all year round, suspended safely out of reach – yes, apparently not all plant lovers are content to simply admire the exotic beauties, which is why the rarest and most expensive orchids are in their own little greenhouse that only the gardener can access.

Orchids hanging in the middle of the ‘island’ in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Additionally, every year for the Christmas show, the gardener comes up with a new and stunning way to show off her orchids.

She had patiently coaxed the unruly roots of miniature white orchids into large silver balls.

Red Amaryllis, reflected in the silver balls, are a perfect match the feathers.

Just be careful of your angle or you could end up with a surprise selfie.

As you walk through the doors to the next greenhouse the temperature drops.  We’re now in the Temperate Greenhouse, where plants like cyclamen and azaleas and camellias thrive.  Unlike the tropicals next door, these plants like to ‘rest’ after blooming, so they need a cool period. But never below freezing point.  None of the plants in here could survive a Canadian winter outdoors.  We’ll need a lot more global warming before that happens.

Leda and the swan always get special treatment.  One year their pond was decorated as a skating rink.  Huge, sparkling snowflakes were suspended from the ceiling and a pair of skates dangled around Leda’s neck.  This year she’s on a northern Canadian lake, decorated with snowshoes and a birch bark canoe laden with gifts.

But what was the woodsy thing looking out at her from under the Norfolk Island Pine?

It was covered in lichen and mosses and bark.

The lighting was a real challenge. I hope you can see the moose.

Tucked away at the opposite end of the greenhouse, the little Christmas train chugged around an elevated track as it had the year before,  safely beyond the reach of excited little hands.

What do the twin red towers represent?

On the north side of the horseshoe are two more greenhouses. The first is home to more tropicals.

Decorating the windows at the entrance to this Tropical Greenhouse is a whimsical display that,  like the Amaryllis chandelier, demonstrates an important bit of botany.

The plants that have been nudged into the crevices of the giant pine cones are epiphytes, aka ‘Air Plants’. As the name suggests, they get everything they need from the air.

Every year between 2,500 and 3,000 Poinsettias are brought in to carpet the flower beds.

Reindeer graze, hopefully not on the toxic Poinsettias.

Amidst the Cycads, topiary trees studded with Air Plants like those we saw at the entrance and tiny star-shaped bromeliads – Cryptanthus aka Earth Star Bromeliad.

Leaving the tropics we enter the last greenhouse on the north side of the horseshoe.  A hot blast of dry air announces the Arid Greenhouse, which is packed with plants of such fantastical and diverse appearance, you would think they had nothing in common.  But look a little closer and you will see how they have all been shaped by the same evolutionary trajectory – attracting and preserving water.

Seemingly endless variations on the theme of catching and preserving water.

Hanging on the opposite wall is the desert gardener’s latest creation.  Typically hundreds of pins would be used to hold the plants in place, but the pins can damage the fragile roots, so this year, hoping to prolong the life of his tableau, the gardener decided to use a new, pin-free strategy.

A ‘succulent’ Christmas package. Let’s hope the gardener’s new strategy works!

Even the jade trees have been gussied up with colourful Kalanchoe and other succulents.

Leaning against a spikey Kapok Tree, last year’s tableau is still looking fabulous!

The red and white Kalanchoe creative a wonderfully festive scene. I just hope the gardener was wearing a sturdy pair of gloves when he set them out amongst the thorny, spikey cacti.

On the opposite side of the path, amidst the festivities there is also an example of Nature’s many odd families.  The red and white-flowered Kalanchoes in the foreground belong to the same botanical family as the bizarre, fan-shaped plant in the centre background.

Even when you know the facts, it’s hard to see the family connection.  Not unlike some human families.

As wonderful as the displays in these four greenhouses are, the one I most look forward to is in the Dome, the greenhouse at the top of the horseshoe. In years gone by the central area had been transformed into fantastical settings, from a Victorian fireplace with an intricate ‘succulent’ carpet to the stage for a jazz trio.

This year’s Christmas tableau has strong hints of the classic Renaissance garden.

The lights I spent so much time winding around the tree frames on my balcony look nothing like the perfect spirals of Kalanchoe the gardener has wound around this tree.

How do you maintain the pattern? Do you go with one colour at a time? And how do you make sure you don’t run out of plants before you get to the top?

On the other side of the path, an enormous apparition stretched along the length of the border.

Can you guess what this is?

The tail feathers of … a peacock!  Two gardeners had been brought in from another conservatory to assemble the bird.  It took them two weeks.  How fascinating it would have been to watch them.

The details are ingenious, from the pine cone scales tipped with blue and silver on the bird’s neck, to the crest of blue and silver thistles.

The designer has even managed to capture the peacock’s proud stare.

What wonderful things we are capable of creating!

Wishing you Happy Holidays and the inspiration and courage in the New Year to add your own wonderful and much-needed creations to our world’s fragile cache of goodwill.







The Tree of 100 Horses

The fig tree in Palermo’s Botanical Garden (‘Giving Palermo Another Go’, Nov 30, 2017) got me thinking about another big tree I’d seen in Sicily.  I was staying in an agriturismo that from a Benedictine monastery in the 16th century had been transformed into a vineyard in the mid 19th century and was now a destination restaurant with rooms for overnight guests.

Entrance to the 16th century Agriturismo Case Perrotta.

My room had once been part of the Palmento where the grapes were crushed.

Even more than the interesting architecture and warm hospitality, I was attracted by the location.  It was on the east slopes of Mt. Etna.

Beyond the rose garden and cherry trees, a white cloud seems to rise from one of the mountains in the distance. But it is not a cloud or a mountain. It’s Etna puffing away.

I had arrived mid-afternoon, too late to visit Etna – you have to go first thing in the morning before clouds – real clouds – roll in and block the views – so after a bit of lounging in the rose garden with a glass of the local white – a great antidote to the white knuckle drive up to the village – I decided to go have a look at a Castagno (kass-tan-yoh).  The largest Chestnut Tree in the world – around 50 meters in circumference – and one of the oldest – between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.  Another point of attraction was that it was half a kilometre down the road from the agriturismo.  No tree, no matter how large or old, would have got me behind the wheel again that day.

I was even more glad to be on foot when I saw that the road was narrow and full of curves, and maybe even more hazardous, covered in sabbia vulcanica – slippery, volcanic sand.

Along what passed for the shoulder of the road, wild flowers had somehow taken root.

And in the crevices of the rough, stone wall.

It was the perfect pre-dinner walk.  Besides, if I’d been driving by all the fabulous views with no place to pull over, I would have had my own little eruzione for sure.

The tree’s size and age are even more astonishing when you see how close it is to Etna, all of which led UNESCO to include it in a worldwide project called ‘Heritage for a Culture of Peace’.  Unlike traditional UNESCO World Heritage Sites which are selected for their artistic and or historical value, the goal in this project was to celebrate monuments or sites which ‘represent or promote the universal value of harmony and understanding in the cultural turmoil of the collective’.   A goal that must sorely test the most optimistic spirits of those involved in the project.

The sight of vineyards on the slopes of Europe’s most active volcano takes a bit of getting used to.

The tree is a short distance down a little lane off the ‘main’ road.  As I approached I was surprised to see that it’s surrounded by a fence.  A rather insubstantial fence it seemed to me, given the tree’s proximity to Etna.

One of Nature’s grand, old beauties. The 100-Horse Chestnut Tree.

But as is the case with many of the world’s  treasures – natural or man-made – the greatest danger to the tree does not lurk in Nature.  On the locked gate was a decidedly unpeaceful notice.


Having survived relatively unscathed for thousands of years, in 1923 the main trunk was severely damaged by a fire, which it is strongly suspected, was set by locals from the nearby village of Giarre who were upset that Sant’Alfio had succeeded in obtaining administrative autonomy, which, in the arcane ways of such things, meant that Giarra lost a sizeable chunk of land.

I walked around, peering through the gaps in the fence, which really did not strike me as any kind of protection against lava or upset locals.  It is probably the most understated treatment of a UNESCO site I’ve ever visited.   A rough collection of supports had weathered over the years, almost blending into the tree and the standard, honorary ‘plaque’ was a simple, hand-written affair.

“Village of Sant’Alfio/Thousand year old Chestnut Tree of the 100 Horses/Monument ‘Messenger of Peace’/ Recognized by UNESCO, May 18, 2008”

As I continued around the fence I came to a sign more in keeping with the honour that had been bestowed on the tree.

Monument as Messenger of a culture of peace.

When presented with the opportunity to wax lyrically, Italians typically do not hold back. And stylistic tics like redundancy and run-on sentences, which in my school days got you lots of nasty red ‘x’s’, seem to be positively encouraged.  To give you an idea, here is a stylistically terrible, but very close translation:

Yearned-for destination through all times, and refuge for men and women of all circumstances, united by the common desire to find themselves again through peaceful contact with a Nature still uncontaminated and therefore potentially the inspiration for superhuman and eternal messages that via the tree lead to the rediscovery of the absolute that is in each of us.  Close to this tree we feel in harmony with nature, in peace with our fellow beings and with the entire Universe.  Our passions and torments quieten, our spirits find their equilibrium and our bodies their well-being. Admired by 17th and 18th century visitors for its wild aspect, the site has been and continues to be a symbol of evoked fertility. 

The Chestnut Tree is in fact testimony of the generative power of a Nature that is both life-giving and at the same time fertile and fruitful, is universally renowned as a symbol of the power of life that is born and continually regenerates itself.  To its trunk it beckons couples in love from around the world and thereby, perennial and infinite, becomes a dialogue between mankind and nature in a union without end that involves together the richness and fertility of the tree and soil and man’s industry.”  Whew!

And what, you might be wondering, in all this talk about peace and fertility, is with the hundred horses?

Above ground the trunk has split into three branches that appear separate but are joined underground.

The last few lines on the plaque talk about the rituals and legends that have grown up around the tree.  Especially fascinating is the myth about a stormy night when a queen named Giovanna who had taken refuge under the great tree ‘sia stata amata dai Cento cavalieri del suo seguito.’   Was loved by the Hundred horsemen in her retinue.

I first heard the story on the way to the train station in Cefalù.  I had been chatting with the owner of the B&B about gardens in Palermo I should visit.  Telling me about the Banyan tree in Palermo’s Botanical Garden had reminded him of another big tree I needed to see.  He had just started to tell me the legend when I glanced at my watch.  The 3 pm train to Palermo would be leaving in ten minutes. I jumped up and rushed around gathering my stuff.  “Ma signora, non c’è la fa!”  he protested. There was no way I would make it.  Seeing I was determined to try anyway, he announced,  “Allora, ce La porto in macchina.” He would drive me.  It had started to rain.  I accepted.  And as he drove through the rain which was now pelting, he told me the story.  Or rather, he told me one version of the story.

Once upon a time a Queen, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and one hundred horsemen, was out hunting in Sicily when they were caught in a sudden downpour.  They rushed to the refuge of a large tree close by.  The storm continued into the evening and when it became clear they would have to spend the night under the shelter of the tree, the queen demanded that the local Abbess provide food for her retinue and ‘paglia per 100 cavalli’.  At this point my B&B host/driver hesitated and, eyes still uncharacteristically on the road, gave me a quick, sideways glance.  Then, apparently having decided that even though I was una straniera (a foreigner) and a guest at his B&B, I could be trusted with the ‘real’ story.  ‘Paglia, he continued, ha un doppio senso in siciliano.’  It turns out that paglia, which in italiano, the language we were speaking, means straw, has a double meaning in Sicilian.  A woman who asks for paglia is a woman of grande potere.  Great power.  He didn’t have to go into details.  Besides, we had arrived at the station.  It was still pouring, but I made the train to Palermo.

With a few minor variations – in some versions, the queen’s potere extended to only 30 cavallieri – this was  the essence of the story.  What remained in question was the identity of the queen.  Giovanna d’Aragona? Empress Isabella of England, third wife of Federico II?  Or maybe another Giovanna, Giovanni I d’Angiò, Queen of Naples who despite a reputation for a certain ‘potere’ was later revealed to have never touched Sicilian soil. But let’s not let minor details spoil a good legend.

In May there were of course no chestnuts, but the lush foliage and flower buds were unmistakeable signs of the tree’s enduring health.

When I got back to the agriturismo and was chatting with the young woman who had given me directions to the tree, she said I should try to go back the following evening. There was going to be a wedding.

Sure enough, when I went started out the next evening there was a line of cars along the road and the gate that had been tightly locked the day before was wide open.

Below the ‘plaque’, leaning against a flower-filled basket was a chalkboard on which was written Matrimonio Sala. Wedding Room.

What a lovely bouquet! Just right for the setting.

The ‘Wedding Room’ was in the heart of the tree.

I had arrived just in time.  The ceremony was almost over.

To my surprise there was a flurry of signing of the all important documents ….

… and then the young couple exchanged rings.

The ceremony over, the couple and family and guests started the customary round of kisses and hugs. On my way back to the lane I encountered a bizarre sight.

After all the weddings I’d come across in my travels around Italy this was a first. In my ignorance it struck me as a bit creepy…

… but the newlyweds and their guests were delighted.  The strange fellow on stilts bore champagne.  ‘Auguri!


Postscript from Palermo

Following my last post (‘Giving Palermo Another Go’, Nov.30, 2017) I received a comment that put me in a bit of a quandary.  In addition to the lovely feedback – grazie, Jane – the reader also asked me for the contact info for the B&B I had stayed in.

In the historic centre of Palermo, the B&B was a hidden oasis.

I have no qualms about providing such info about the private gardens I visit, although whenever I’ve had any kind of personal contact with the owner/creator I always send a heads-up after publishing – as a way of thanking them again for their hospitality, as well as to check that I’ve got all the facts straight.  And I do occasionally include the names of places I’ve stayed in and enjoyed if the owner makes it clear publicity is welcome as I recently did for the B&B Montalbano in Punta Secca and l’Orto sul Tetto in Ragusa. But there was something about the B&B in Palermo.  It was such a special, intimate setting and I couldn’t remember if I had told the owner about my blog.  Maybe when he was showing me his terraced garden, but I didn’t think so.  The unease I felt certainly wasn’t because of any worry they’d be all booked when I tried to reserve a room for my trip next May.  I’d already taken care of that back in October.  So in what I have been told is a big breach of on-line etiquette, rather than replying to the comment right away, I emailed the owner asking if he would be OK with my giving out his contact info.

Off the breakfast room, the entrance to the hidden garden.

Friends I brought this up with reacted with incredulity. The B&B was already out there on the web  – that’s how I’d found it!  What planet was I on?  (They didn’t have to say that last part. It was written all over their faces.)  Even so, as the days went by and there was no reply I couldn’t help thinking the worst and when  the email popped up in my inbox this morning I hesitated before opening it.  Of course, as Mark Twain – and probably you – already knew, ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’

First of all Giovanni want to congratularsi con me – an expression that still throws me off. Rather than congratulating someone for something, in Italian you congratulate yourself with that person. In any event, after congratulating me on my ‘report’ about my travels in Sicily and of his terraced garden, he assured they had nothing against my providing the contact info, and in fact would be most appreciative if I did.  So after what in this age of Instagram and Facebook and whatever else is out there, must seem like a lot of ‘ado’ about nothing, here is the contact info: B&B Le Terrazze • via Pietro Novelli n.14;

As for his garden, Giovanni confessed that he has no idea how many pots there are.  In fact a friend, charged with watering them during an absence – now that’s a friend! – declared that the plants he had watered weren’t just plants, but matrioske di piante!  Russian nesting dolls of plants.

That brave friend must have heaved a sigh of relief when he got to the succulent corner.

And, he added, I was right about there being a story behind the ‘Moor’s Head’ cache-pots. He warned me it was a rather truculenta story, as I would see in the attached file.  I wasn’t sure about truculenta.  I had a feeling it might be one of those border-line ‘faux amis‘, not one of the obvious ones like la libreria which is where you buy books as opposed to la biblioteca, where you borrow them, but something more insidious.  My hunch was right. Truculenta is far darker than our ‘truculent’.

Upscale Teste di Moro in Taormina.

The tile of the legend is a major spoiler alert – ‘Mai Tradire una Siciliana‘.  Never Betray a Sicilian Woman’.

‘Around the year 1100 during the period of Moorish domination of Sicily in the section of Palermo known as Kalsa there lived a beautiful young maiden whose rose-coloured skin was like the flowers of the peach tree in full bloom and whose beautiful eyes were like reflections of the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Palermo.  The young girl rarely left home and passed the days taking care of the plants on her balcony.  One day a young Moro (this being the days prior to PC, all dark-skinned people were called ‘Moors’) was passing through the area.  The moment he laid eyes on her he fell madly in love and had to have her at all costs.  He rushed into the house of the young maiden (who, unfortunately doesn’t seem to have had any of the servants or fiercely protective father that typically guard over such damsels) and upon finding her, declared his undying love.  Overwhelmed by such ardour, and in what seems pretty fast even by today’s standards, the young girl returned his love.  But her happiness was short-lived (we knew that was coming!) for she came to know that her lover would soon leave her to return to the East where waiting for him were his wife and two children.

More Moor Heads including one you could use as a base for a table. For my Sicily souvenir I chose another Sicilian favourite, a Pigna, the much more benign pine-cone.

This is where things get truculenta.  The young maiden waited for night and as soon as the Moro fell asleep, she killed him.  And then, shades of Judith and Holofernes, she cut off his head.   But instead of putting the head in a bag or on a silver tray, she made it into a pot in which she planted some basil and then she put the pot/head in a prominent place on her balcony.   And in this way the betrayed young maiden ensured her lover would never leave her.

A ceramics shop in the mountain-top village of Erice in the north-west corner of Sicily.

As time went by the basil flourished and all the people in the neighbourhood became envious. But rather than asking the usual gardener’s question – what did you put in the soil? – they went to the local potter and ordered him to make pots in the shape of the Moor’s head.  And that is how the Testa del Moro became a popular decoration on balconies throughout Sicily to this day.

Instead of basil, Giovanni has planted succulents in his decidedly upscale Teste di Moro.