Christmas Under Glass

‘Twas in the mid 19th century when a wise and generous man – an unmarried man with no children or relatives to share his wealth with – decided to give five acres of his property to the Toronto Horticultural Society.  His only condition was that the land be used for the benefit and enjoyment of all the citizens for ever after.


Allan Gardens.  An oasis of tranquillity and tropical beauty in the heart of downtown Toronto, surrounded by towering condo and office buildings – and cranes for more.

The wishes of George Allan have been honoured to this day.  All are welcome to visit – free of charge – every day of the year.


On the other side of the fogged up windows, a lush, tropical oasis.

The gardeners spend months preparing four fabulous, seasonal displays.  It’s hard to pick a favourite. Maybe spring.  After months of dull, gray skies and slush and bare, lifeless-looking trees and bushes, the bright, sunny colours of the spring ephemerals are a sight for sore eyes and a balm for a sun-and-blue-sky starved soul.  OK, maybe a touch of melodrama there, but for those of us ‘real’ Canadians who do not migrate, it’s not far off the mark.   The summer display is nice too – although it can get hot, really hot, inside – and the spectacular Chrysanthemums in the fall display will make you rethink the ‘Mum’. But if you can only make it once, the Christmas show is the one to see.


Snow-covered cabbages and faded mums by the back entrance.

The greenhouses are in the shape of a horseshoe so there is no ‘right’ way to organize your visit, but I like to start at the top of the horseshoe, in the Palm Room.


Thousands of Poinsettias – 3,200 to be exact – form a living tapestry.

Each year the Palm Room is the setting for a different theme – ‘A Victorian Christmas’,  ‘Celebrate Winter’, and for 2016, ‘The March of the Penguins’.


At the piano the leader of the band is about to begin the March of the Penguins.


For now the squirrel who likes to perch on the pianist’s nose is up to mischief somewhere else.


Facing the pianist, the rest of the band. There is a lot going on here, but if you start with the saxophonist on the right, you’ll soon make out the other players.

From the Palm Room I headed north to one of two tropical greenhouses and the Desert Room, which I was especially keen to reach before the crowds arrived.  There was a gorgeous, ripe Dragon Fruit I wanted to get a photo of.


As you walk down the ramp you are engulfed in the hot, humid air of the tropics.


Opposite the Papyrus Pond the ‘Blushing Bride’ Hibiscus adds to the show with a rare bloom that, for once, faces visitors, rather than as usual, the windows behind.


A reindeer grazes in the Poinsettia patch. Being magical he is of course immune to the plant’s highly poisonous sap.


At the far end of the greenhouse, an Earth Goddess keeps watch over the Cycad, a marvellous tree that having survived from the Jurassic Era is now endangered. Because of poaching.


A Canada Goose keeps her company.


Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Desert Greenhouse. It’s hard to believe the colourful, small plants in the foreground are botanical cousins of the contorted behemoths behind them.


A succulent wreath from a couple of Christmases before is still in fine shape.


Hanging baskets of Christmas cactus provide big splashes of colour.


Even the Jade plant has got into the spirit of things with its star-shaped flowers.

But what had happened to the Dragon Fruit?  Just a few days earlier when I was here to give a tour – and so did not have my camera with me – there were five of them.  Now there were only two and they weren’t the easiest to photograph.


The gardener had painstakingly hand-pollinated twenty-one blooms of the Dragon Fruit, aka Night Blooming Cereus, five of which had set fruit. But now there were only two.

On my way back to the Palm Room I saw one of the gardeners and asked her about the missing Dragon Fruit (Fruits?).  She got a worried look.  If it was a squirrel I would have seen traces of the fruit on the ground.  More likely it was a visitor who often takes things.  How do you know? I asked.  He shows them to us, she sighed.  In any event she said she’d go ask the gardener who took care of that greenhouse.  Maybe he knew something.


As I passed through the Palm Room a ray of sunshine momentarily lit up the Poinsettias. Notice how these ones have flowers all along their stems.

On the south side of the Palm Room is the Temperate Greenhouse.  The temperature drops noticeably as you enter.  The plants in here like to take a break from the non-stop blooming of the tropicals.  Hence the cooler temperature. But nothing below freezing point!  It will take a lot more global warming before any of them will survive a Canadian winter outdoors.


A window box of Amaryllis, Cyclamen and Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Temperate Greenhouse. How do they get them all to bloom at just the right time?

From one year to the next it’s fun to see where the props will reappear.  One year the  train chugged around a Christmas tree made of succulents in the Palm Room.  But it was just too much of a temptation for little visitors and was frequently derailed.  (The Poinsettias around the track were a little worse for wear too.)  The next year it circled around a white tree on the ‘island’ in the Temperate Greenhouse.  But that too proved irresistible.  This year the gardeners weren’t fooling around. I laughed when I saw it chugging around around an elaborate trestle.  At the back of the pond.


This year the train is well beyond the reach of little hands, although setting up the trestle in the pond was apparently a challenge.

On the other side of the path is evidence of another of the challenges the gardeners face. Frustrated with the squirrels taking off with the fruit of one of her recent purchases, a Tomarillo aka Tomato Tree from Ecuador, the gardener started to cover the newly set fruit in glass. So far so good.


These Tomarillos are already a good size. When fully ripe they will be a dark red. Fingers crossed.

From here you have a choice of paths around the island that leads to the pond at the south end of the greenhouse.


White azaleas form a carpet of ‘snow’ for Santa and his sled. From here you can just see a bit of his red coat beyond the beribboned Kashmir Cypress.


Pardon me if I appear small-minded, but doesn’t that look more like a plough horse than a reindeer? In any event, a lush blanket of white cyclamen and azaleas keeps Santa and his presents safely beyond the reach of little hands.


A prickly project.

I was fiddling with my camera settings at the edge of the pond when the gardener in charge of the Desert Room came up to me.  He was carrying one of those large buckets gardeners use to gather clippings and other detritus.  ‘It was me, he said,  I took the Dragonfruit’.  I waited for him to explain.  ‘My colleague and I ate it.’


A troupe of Koi – including a very large white one – swim around Leda and her pond.

Squirrels and a mentally fragile visitor are one thing.  But the gardeners taking off with the Dragon fruit – and EATING them!  That was – unexpected.  I stared at him.  ‘We were worried.  They were ripe, the squirrels would have got them – or they would have rotted and fallen and made a mess.  And we were curious to know what they tasted like.’  What did they taste like? I asked in as even a tone as I could muster.  (The other gardener had said something about a cross between a kiwi and a strawberry.)  ‘Like a really sweet watermelon’, he replied.  He showed me what was in his bucket.  There on the bottom were the remains of the missing fruit.


The inside skin of the Dragon fruit is the same gorgeous pink as the outside, but the edible part – now missing – is a creamy white which gives rise to another name it goes by – the Ice Cream Fruit.

I thanked him for showing me the fruits – or rather the remains of his fruity crime – and walked through the doors into the last greenhouse.   And was immediately engulfed, for a second time, in the warm, humid air of the tropics.  Bliss!


A tropical Christmas tree decorated with brightly wrapped presents out of which Amaryllis, like so many Jack-in-a Boxes, have sprung.


All these Amaryllis are double-stemmed. Some even look as if they might send up a third stem. As they say, splurge for bigger bulbs. You won’t be sorry.


Beyond the Amaryllis Jack-in-a-Boxes, the bright orange of the Firecracker Vine and the water wheel.


On the rocks by the water wheel and along the front of the shed turtles look for a bit of sun.  The gardener, who feeds the turtles as well as looks after the plants, tells me there are now 23 of them – mostly Painted Turtles and a few Painted Ear Sliders.


On the shed door the skates that had dangled from Leda’s neck in the past. I was wondering where they had got to this year.


This Cattleya and the stuff on the ground outside the greenhouses are probably neighbours on the colour spectrum. A strange congruence.

Each year there is some kind of ‘chandelier’ in this greenhouse.  They are always spectacular.  But when I first saw what the gardener was making this year, I had my doubts.  She had wired Amaryllis bulbs – bare Amaryllis bulbs – to a large metal ring so they were hanging upside down.  It reminded me of those gut-wrenching photos of chickens hung on conveyor belts.  Hmmm.   But when I came back a week later to do another tour, there was no sign of the metal ring. No hint at what was supporting the whole thing.  And as the gardener had known, the Amaryllis – the upside-down, bare bulbs – had not only flowered but were starting to curve graciously upwards.  She had done her magic again.


The Amaryllis bulb is a self-contained miracle. It will flower even if you don’t plant it in soil. Even if you don’t water it. Even if you hang it upside down!

On the back wall, close to the exit a wreath decorated in the bright, light colours of the tropics was surrounded by giant, candy-striped Amaryllis.


The best of both worlds. The bright colours of the tropics and the candy cane stripes of our winter Amaryllis.

I went out the exit and returned to reality.  But the colours and the feel of the garden stayed with me.   Here’s hoping you can visit some day.  In the meantime – Best Wishes for a lovely Holiday Season and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!




Ritorno a Capri

After Ischia we were going on to its much more famous and glitzier neighbour, Capri.  Wonderful!  So why weren’t we bursting with excitement as we gathered up our things the morning of our departure? After a great deal of not very organized thought and a lot of useless rummaging through my books for one that I vaguely recall sheds some light on this, the only thing I can come up with is that there is something wrong with the currently popular maxim that the only source of true happiness is to live in the moment.  Do these people not go to the dentist? Or shovel snow on a bitterly cold night? What about laundry and dirty dishes?  The thing is, we had grown very fond of our castle home and in the moment did not want to leave.  (This is the type of ‘champagne problems’ you’re up against when you travel.)  In any event our spirits lifted when we saw the taxi the hotel had arranged to take us to the ferry.


La Bambola.  Which means doll and also, beautiful and shapely, young girl or woman.

The driver – and obviously proud owner – needed little encouragement to tell us all about La Bambola, who at 45 years old, was the last of its kind on the island. They had stopped making them 30 years ago.  ‘Come la mantiene?‘  How do you keep her in working condition? I asked, taking care to use the female pronoun as he did.  ‘Con grande cura‘, he replied.  And regular visits ‘dal meccanico‘ (to the mechanic’s).  I know nothing about what goes on under the hood so cannot comment on the inner workings of the Bambola, but it was clear that like all Grandes Dames a great deal of attention had been lavished on the face she showed the world.  The interior was in perfect condition.  Ah, he said, it was also important to keep up appearances.  After all, when she wasn’t taking visitors to the harbour, she was engaged for weddings and other momentous occasions.

He also told us about driving mules and donkeys laden with wine-filled barrels or wood in the winter when the mountains roads were impassible.  He was the only one on the island who still did this kind of work, which he went on to explain, not as if it were a hardship, but a simple statement of fact, required una grande passione.  There is a lot of talk these days about how we need – as in NEED – to pursue our passion.  As if it were a moral duty.  But here was someone who had fallen into more than pursued his passion.  He had grown up driving mule carts.  It was what his family had done for generations.  And during the short Ischia tourist season he occasionally drove another kind of cart, which although motorized and much more comfortable than a mule-driven cart would have been, struck us as just as fanciful.


Thank goodness my daughter had the presence of mind to take these photos.  I was so taken aback with the whole thing I didn’t even think of getting out my camera.

When we got to the harbour he pulled out an envelope full of old photos.  There he was! A Greek hero astride a noble steed in a procession.  And there again, atop an elegant carriage all dressed up in the livery of an 18th century carriage driver.  He had been in two movies so far.  I was dying to ask if I could take photos of his photos.  But something held me back.  Instead I asked him how he got the roles.  ‘Per lei‘, he said, gently patting the steering wheel.  Because of her.

My daughter told me later she felt as if she were in a movie.   It wasn’t just the whimsical Bambola.  There was something about the driver.  In spite of the many hardships he undoubtedly encountered, and from what I could tell, without any of the standard trappings of wealth, (it was a 15 euro ride), power or fame (ok, there was a bit of that, but I certainly had ever seen, let alone heard of the movies he appeared in) he had an aura about him of a truly happy person.


On the ferry to Capri we passed by the disarmingly peaceful looking peaks of Vesuvius.


Approaching Capri’s Marina Grande. Do the locals ever tire of this view?

Things were as chaotic as always along the narrow quay and the tour groups disgorged from the ferry quickly created a bottleneck at the entrance to the funivia, the little train that would take us up the mountainside to Capri village where our hotel was.  (The other village on the island is called Anacapri.  It is all very confusing.  I wrote about it in Una Passeggiata a Capri, Feb. 16, 2014).  In any event, in no time at all we were climbing the stairs at the funivia exit in Capri – the village – and within a half hour of landing on Capri – the island – we were on the path to Villa Jovis.


With all the Bougainvillea and other lush blooms along the path it felt like a mid-summer day.


But in the minuscule vineyards along the path the grapes were ripe and the leaves had  started to turn.


Ripe grapes and fall-coloured leaves seemed out of sync with the lush summer blooms.

And then we came to a bizarre, but unmistakable sign of fall.


No idea what is going on here.

By the time we came to the patch of Amaryllis, which as I’d seen on previous trips to the region, is a fall bloomer in this part of the world, there could be no doubt.  Close by we passed a woman with an armload of the pink beauties.  ‘Belladonna‘, she said, when she saw us admiring them.  I was puzzled.  The only ‘Belladonna’ I knew was ‘Deadly Nightshade’, a rather plain, shrubby plant with a dull mauve flower, whose only remarkable feature is that all parts are highly toxic.   Something the ancient Romans obviously knew all about, if we believe the rumours about how the wives of at least two emperors (Augustus and Claudius) used it to get rid of unwanted family members.

As usual a bit of meandering around the Internet solved the puzzle.  In the largely unfathomable hierarchy that botanists have organized the plant world, what we had here was Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis being the genus and belladonna (beautiful woman) the species. However, as I read on, I discovered a weirdly pleasant twist.  I had correctly  identified the plant but how I got there was all wrong.  Apart from the fact that they were growing more or less wild and blooming in the fall, the plants in the garden on Capri  looked exactly like the Amaryllis that start appearing in stores back home, often as boxed bulbs that we pot up in November in hopes they will bloom in time for Christmas. Same stem, same flower shape. But, as it turns out the indoor, winter blooming plants are not, botanically speaking, Amaryllis.  They are  a cultivar of the genus Hippeastrum.  So why do we all call them Amaryllis? It turns out that for a long time the botanists themselves weren’t sure and while they spent years arguing over what exactly it was, the rest of us continued along our merry, botanically incorrect way and called it Amaryllis.


The confusingly, but aptly named Amaryllis belladonna. 

It was a long, steep climb up to Villa Jovis, one of twelve sumptuous villas Tiberius built for his personal enjoyment on the island.


View from Villa Jovis. On the left side of the land mass is Sorrento, on the right is the Amalfi Coast where we would be going in a day or two. Hopefully minus the dark clouds.


From the edge of the cliff on which the villa was built, Tiberius may – or may not – have thrown those who no longer pleased him.

Going down was easier.  Marginally.  Who knew the muscles we use for going up aren’t the same ones we use going down?  Mercifully by now it was l’ora di pranzo. On my last trip to Villa Jovis I had eaten at a lovely, simple trattoria.  You could eat inside or along the path on a narrow terrace opposite the main building.  There was no question where we were going to eat. The food was delicious and the procession of people along the path endlessly fascinating. Locals on their way home for the midday meal – school children, the younger ones still accompanied by their parents, signore with their shopping bags full; big, muscled delivery men squished into the impossibly small vans that are the only means of transporting goods in many parts of the island – and tourists on their way up to Villa Jovis.  I for one was glad it was all downhill for us from here on.


One of the many delights of travelling with a companion. Sharing. Antipasto misto and…


una pizza prosciutto e arugula. Deliziosa!

Next – You call this a path?!









Season’s Greetings

The last few winters in Toronto weren’t the worst in recorded history but they sure felt like it.  A violent ice storm hit the city just a few days before Christmas of 2013.  Hundreds of the big old trees that make it such a green city toppled under the weight of the ice, crashing onto houses, hydro lines and cars.   Thousands were left without hydro for days – some for almost two weeks.  As freezers and fridges warmed up, food bought for Christmas feasts went bad.  Decades old house plants died, as did hundreds of geckos and goldfish and all manner of tropical pets.


When back-lit by the sun, the ice-coated trees were a beautiful sight. Much easier to appreciate if you weren’t among the thousands without hydro.


A lacy pattern in a cedar branch.


In some places the driving rain froze on an angle.

Februrary 2015 was the coldest month in 140 years.  With the wind chill, the temperature often dropped to -40 C.  The city’s Public Health Department issued 23 extreme weather alerts, up from 12 the previous year.  So when it was time for the folks in charge of Allan Gardens to choose the theme for this year’s Christmas display, ‘Celebrate Winter’ seemed like a good idea.  It sure beat moaning and groaning – or ignoring it, my preferred strategy.

As usual, the display is as beautiful as it is original.  There’s just one ‘problem’.  This year it looks like we’re headed for one of the warmest winters in history.  Outdoor skating rinks are closing and golf courses re-opening.  Today, Christmas Eve, the forecast high was 17 C, which by the way is a LOT warmer than the temperatures I experienced on Lake Como back in September.  Obviously there is not a snow flake in sight.


Christmas Eve day. If it weren’t for the red bows and wreaths around the entrances, it could easily be taken for a lovely spring day. Which is what it felt like.

Each of the five greenhouses illustrates ways to celebrate the rigours of a (typical) Canadian winter.  Since it’s all under glass this leads to some rather curious juxtapositions, but once you get over the absurdity of it all, it’s delightful.


In the central ‘Palm House’ – Go skating.


Another skater, surrounded by very beautiful – and very tropical – Poinsettias and clothed, at least on top, in succulents that would succumb at the first frost.


Opposite the skaters, a male figure that somehow brought to mind the king of some tropical island, rides a toboggan amidst the Poinsettias and banana trees.

The temperature drops noticeably when you go through the doors into the Temperate greenhouse.  Unlike the tropicals, all the plants in here need a rest period, but do not tolerate temperatures below freezing point – ie. a ‘normal’ Canadian winter.


When you’ve done enough skating and tobogganing, you can go watch the birds.


Below the Kashmir Cypress, a Canada goose all dressed up.


There’s a lot going on here but if you look closely you’ll see a couple of birds perching on the slender branches of the ‘Fingered Lemon’.


Cardinals have taken over the Ponderosa lemon tree. It is said that one lemon from a tree in their native habitat, Maryland, can produce enough juice for three lemon meringue pies.


This lovely creature in a palm tree nearby may not be biologically correct. I for one, do not care.


Further along, more cardinals perch on grapevine trees growing in a cabbage patch.


At the end of the island, the branches of an enormous Norfolk Pine shelter birds and nests.


At the south end of the greenhouse a Canada Goose looks like it’s about to dive bomb an unsuspecting Leda.


Leda and the (notorious) swan.

There are two tropical greenhouses.  The one to the north of the Dome is more peaceful but there is still lots going on here.


An elegantly understated portrayal of Christmas is provided by this Hibiscus flower.


Purple balls decorate a slender Mahogany tree. No dining tables, but wonderful flutes are made with the wood of this tree.

During one of the Victorian Teas sponsored by the Toronto Botanical Gardens, Curtis Evoy, Head of Allan Gardens, explained that they had planned to ‘build’ the snowman with Dusty Millers. But there had been a crop failure, so they used succulents instead.


Another classic Canadian winter activity. Build a snowman.

From the tropics we go through the next set of doors into the Arid Greenhouse.


It may be arid, but there’s lots of colour here too.



A framed succulent ‘painting’.


A Christmas Cactus blooms on cue.


And if one of your fragile Christmas balls breaks, not to worry. Just plant a succulent in it.

The last of the greenhouses is one of the favourites.  Whenever I’m doing a tour and the group arrives at the back door – the one that gives directly onto this greenhouse – I know I’m in trouble.  And it’s not just the turtles.


The strange cob-webby things the green and red balls are hanging from are Epiphytes, plants that get all their nutritional needs from the air.


Behind the decorated cob webs, the roof of a little hut is covered with a riot of Poinsettias. In the background the ‘Dome’ of the central greenhouse.


An Amaryllis candelabra.


And what, you may ask is this?

It’s an Amaryllis. To make a point, the gardeners have hung it by its roots to show that all the nourishment for the flower is contained in the bulb. So don’t ruin things by overwatering!


As if to show how healthy it is, in the week between my taking this photo and the preceding one, it sprouted a second flower stem.


An upside down Amaryllis candelabra.

And finally, on the other side of the hut, the water wheel and a glimpse of what sometimes seems to be the star attraction – the turtles.


Wishing you all, no matter what your faith – or climatic zone – a wonderful holiday season.