You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac. Continue reading →
It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time. Continue reading →
Tet falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year. And for the Vietnamese, this is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and people return home to their families. Like most holidays, it’s a time of year full of symbolism rooted in age-old traditions. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.
VIETNAMESE TET COMES EARLY
Ask the Vietnamese and they will tell you that Tet (also known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it marks the arrival of spring. This usually occurs somewhere in late January or early February.
Spring in February you say? Well, as we discovered after a month here in January, there is little variation between the seasons. Since Vietnam is located near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates year-round. So typically, people mark the seasons not by temperature, but by amount of rainfall and what’s blooming.
Vietnamese Tet flowers outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh
This year, Tet takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees appear in business doorways, peach blossoms adorn store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit decorate many a living room and hotel lobby.
And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.
Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry
YELLOW APRICOT BLOSSOMS (HOA MAI)
It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a jar of these brilliant yellow flowers. Commonly known as yellow mai flower, the apricot blossom is considered the quintessential symbol of spring.
In southern Vietnam, apricots are one of the first trees to flower during Tet. As a result, they are seen as the embodiment of the holiday spirit. In Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find many artificial renditions as well.
But that’s only half the story. Each aspect of the apricot blossom also carries meaning. The individual petals, for instance, stand for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And the color yellow represents happiness, prosperity and good luck.
Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam
PEACH BLOSSOMS (HOA DAO)
By contrast, in northern Vietnam it’s the peach blossom that takes center stage. In Hanoi, these rosy-pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely-colored ones are the most favored.
Peach trees flower early in northern Vietnam. For this reason, the Vietnamese consider peach blossoms to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that the flowers keep the family peaceful and healthy.
Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh
Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon
KUMQUAT TREE (CÂY QUAT)
It may not be a flower, but the kumquat tree nonetheless plays a key role in Vietnamese Tet traditions as well. During the Lunar New Year, it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruits symbolize fruitfulness. Kumquats also bring good health and good luck to family businesses.
Pruned kumquat trees
For the best luck, the Vietnamese believe a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. In accordance with Tet tradition, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday.
Most businesses, in fact, place the shrubs at their entrance where they are in clear view of the street.
Kumquat tree fruits
As with the Tet flowers, all parts of the kumquat tree are significant. In this instance, they represent many generations. As a rule, the fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.
BONSAI AND OTHER KEY VIETNAMESE TET FLOWERS
Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in Vietnamese Tet traditions, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.
Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh
During the holiday, pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers embellish homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.
The Vietnamese typically purchase these special plants from mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s Ho Thi Ky. (Click on the link to read about our morning visit to this incredible market.) They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.
“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature… worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1783
When the sign points left to Maine and right to Georgia, you know you are smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. The two states, on either extremity of the eastern seaboard of the United States, are 1,165 and 1,013 miles away, respectively. This is the famous crossroads in tiny Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. Not only is it the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles, but it is also a national park of incomparable beauty. Continue reading →
With only one vowel, it can prove hard to pronounce, but beautiful Vrtba Garden easily speaks to all languages. The little architectural gem, reached through a discreet gate in Karmelitská Street, is one of the most important Baroque gardens in Prague. In addition to its exuberant design, the terraced garden has a viewing platform that provides an exceptional vista on the city. And as I discovered recently, it’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to style a small garden. Continue reading →
Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there were signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There was one place, however, that remained unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading →
“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist
There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time. They’re living proof of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading →
It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a tropical forest. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a stretch of New York City’s West 28th Street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the busy sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle. Continue reading →